Our 815th Dad in the Limelight is Tony Bombacino, dad of two, husband and co-owner of Real Food Blends. I want to thank Tony Bombacino for being a part of this series. It has been great getting connected with him and now sharing Tony Bombacino with all of you.
1) Tell me about yourself, (as well as how you are in the limelight for my readers knowledge)
Only the good stuff, right? J My name is Tony Bombacino and I was born and raised on the south side of Chicago (Burbank and Clear Ridge, IL to be exact) and somehow ended up a Cubs fan (Thanks Dad!). I’m a husband (and business/life partner) to Julie, a Dad to Luca (my 8 year old daughter – aka, princess and partner in crime) who teaches me way more than I teach her, and AJ (my 6 year old crazy “little” boy), who is challenged with a number of special needs – he was born with a few different brain malformations, which has led him to need a feeding tube for 100% of his nutrition, to be non-verbal, not able to crawl/walk and have seizures. All that said, he is a healthy, happy boy who has taught himself (with the help and love of many therapists, nurses, family and friends) to scoot all over the place, communicate with us in many ways and is an inspiration to me (and our entire family) each and every day. I love to cook (and eat), I love fishing and the outdoors – and I enjoy golfing, writing and traveling – but I’m happiest when I’m throwing my kids around the pool or snuggling them and singing to them at the end of each day (yes, I’m 6’ 6”, 245 pounds, but as Julie says, I’m definitely a “softie”). I’m not sure I’m in the limelight, but my most important job is being a Dad – and in trying to be the best parents we can be, we ended up creating a company called Real Food Blends to help our son. AJ wasn’t doing so well on the traditional diet prescribed to people with feeding tubes (the formulas are often high in corn syrup, preservatives and synthetic ingredients and low on real food), so my wife started blending real food at home and we eventually decided to start a company that makes a line of 100% real food meals for people with feeding tubes (no corn syrup or preservatives – just real food blended to go through feeding tubes). Five years later, we’ve sold millions of meals and have connected with, and in some small way, helped tens of thousands of people nationwide. I feel lucky to be on this unexpected journey and life path with AJ and Real Food Blends – especially with Julie and Luca in my corner!
2) Tell me about your family
“My people” are Julie, Luca and AJ. I’ve been married to Julie for almost 11 years and together with her for almost 14 years. Luca is an amazing daughter, big sister and person. She truly is an old soul and I’m so lucky to be able to be her Dad. I’ve been taking her to bed each night since she was a baby, and I treasure our 15-20 minutes together talking, joking and sharing each and every night. She’s smart and pretty like mommy and silly and emotional like Daddy. AJ is my guy! That little dude has been through so much in his first 6.5 years of life, but every day he seems to smile bigger, laugh harder and surprises me with his love and understanding. His challenges, well, are certainly challenging sometimes, but he has changed me forever…for the better. He makes me want to work harder and to be a better dad and advocate. He reminds me to appreciate the smallest things in life each and every day. My wife Julie is also my friend and business partner at Real Food Blends. We’ve been through a lot together…sorry, make that A LOT. No perfect sitcom story here about how we never fight, always agree and finish each other’s sentences. Nope. Plenty of ups and downs, plenty of time when the weight of two kids, one of them with many special needs, running a business together and trying to be the best we can be with all the hats we each wear is just too much. BUT…every single time, we find our way back to each other and continue to choose each other. Julie is an amazing mom, wife and business partner – and she is still My Person — I’m so thankful to have her in my life.
Beyond this motley crew, I have an older brother, Scott. I could write pages about him, but that’s for another time. He was called back to heaven far too early at the age of 40 about 8 years ago (F*CK cancer). He was an amazing dad, husband, brother and friend. He was my idol, best friend, protector and mentor. I miss him more than words can explain, but carry his lessons in my mind and attitude/spirit in my heart every day – he guides me through it all. I have an older sister, Michelle who was like a mother (and partner in crime) to me growing up. Scott was the good kid – Michelle and I – let’s just say we liked to have a good time in life and not much for following the rules. We’ve shared many laughs and life experiences together and she always taught me the importance of hustling in business, being comfortable in your own skin and being yourself. I have a number of step-siblings, cousins, aunts and uncles, etc. I’m the son of Tony Sr and Geri (and stepmother, Faye). My Dad is one of the hardest working people I’ve ever met. He served our country in Vietnam and was always up early and home late – commuting for hours, working on ladders and painting for 30+ years. From a young age, he taught me the value of a dollar, the importance of hard work, keeping your word, looking people in the eye and treating people how you want to be treated – and to treat people the same way whether their title is CEO or junior street sweeper. These lessons continue to help/guide me every day – oh, he’s also pretty damn funny and doesn’t take himself too seriously – I like to think I have some of that in me too. He’s now happily married to my stepmother, Faye, who did so much for me in those first few years when my mom got into a car accident and I had to move in with she and my dad (more on my Mom in a minute). She made many sacrifices and taught me plenty back then – I was a lot to handle and a pretty emotional kid back then – she and my Dad always came to my sporting events and did all they could to provide for me – and although we aren’t close today, I’ll always appreciate her.
Lastly, there’s my Mom (Geraldine Antonsen Bombacino). My parents got divorced when I was five and I lived with my Mom (along with Scott and Michelle). My Mom was, how should I say this, Unique! She was about 5 3”, 100 pounds and I was bigger than that when I was 10. I was a lot to handle for a single Mom. Oh, did I mention we were extremely poor? What we lacked in finances, we made up for in love, laughs and craziness. We didn’t have a car and took more adventures walking to stores and restaurants and parks than anybody ever should. We poked fun at each other and laughed – all the time. I was a mama’s boy and could get my way with her 99.98% of the time. Her silly/free spirit is a big part of who I am today. Despite growing up in very tough circumstances, I learned the power of laughter and humor from her – and to simply keep moving forward no matter what happened. She was taken from me/us far too young as well, back in 1990 after complications from being in a severe car accident a couple of years prior. It’s hard to believe she has been gone for almost 27 years, but she’s still with me every day. Really lastly, I’m lucky to have some of the most amazing friends and mentors in the world – my friends are certainly an extension of my family and I couldn’t be who/where I am without them!
3) What has been the largest challenge you have had in being a father?
Man, this is a tough question, but a good one. I truly love being a Dad and really don’t look at it as “being hard”, but I think the toughest moment was when my now 8 year-old daughter started to realize her little brother was “different” – and at the same time, the first time she was aware of him having a seizure and an ambulance came to our house. The combination of wanting to protect my son and make him better all while trying to protect my daughter from pain and fear at such a young age – all while I was trying to process my own fear and sadness – and be “strong” for Julie are certainly some of the toughest fatherhood moments to date. At the same time, my family’s unique challenges have made all the other parenting moments along the way much easier to deal with – never a dull moment for the Bombacinos!
4) What advice would you give to other fathers?
I don’t really like to give advice to fathers or anyone, but only share stories about moments/situations I’ve been through and how I’ve handled things (for better or worse) and provide examples that may be helpful for them. In no certain order, here are some things that I’ve come to know and lean on when I’m facing my own fears/challenges/uncertainties as a father.
- Don’t walk this journey alone. Don’t be to tough or proud to ask for help. Talk to other dads – you aren’t the first person to face the situation you are facing and won’t be the last – reach out to others and ask for help. If you don’t have a relationship with your dad, a brother, uncle or cousin, etc. – then look online. We are all more connected than ever before and you are not alone.
- You are stronger (and weaker) than you think. You can handle a lot…we all can. No, it’s true. Whatever you are going through right now, you are going to get through it. Whatever is ahead, you can overcome it. I promise. BUT, that doesn’t mean you are a super hero, that you don’t have a breaking point and that you can take everything on your shoulders, never show any emotion and just keep going forward like nothing is wrong. Don’t confuse being “strong” with flat out neglecting yourself. The more you take care of your physical and mental health, the “stronger” you will be. Don’t forget about yourself and don’t make excuses to do so. We are all busy and it’s often easier “not to” take care of ourselves, but speaking from experience, it’s easier to be a great dad when you are happy and fulfilled from the inside out.
- You’ll never regret spending more time with your kids. I can’t believe how time flies…and like our parents told us, the older we get…the faster it goes. We all have to work, have family obligations and personal interests. We all get tired and need alone time. We all just want to lie on the couch sometimes and we all have to work late sometimes. That said your kids don’t care. They want and need you. They need your attention and time more than they need your money and lecturing. They need you to share your favorite stories about growing up and life more than they need you to buy them those new shoes. They need you to chase them in the yard and surprise them at their school as their secret class reader more than they need you to tell them how they should have said/done something – they just need you. Do whatever you can to grasp and be present for every moment you can with them. Take pictures and videos and document moments in writing – and tell them how much you love them and how much they mean to you every day…20 times a day. And mean it. You will never regret any of this.
- Let them find their own way and passions. I grew up watching and played sports all the time. I was a pretty good athlete and was passionate about basketball, baseball and volleyball – and would spend hours every day playing sports. Aside from a few years of true academic neglect, I was a decent student, but until college, I was way more interested in sports than my studies. I didn’t play an instrument, wasn’t into art or theatre and wasn’t reading a classic book per week. I did love music though…all kinds. When I became a father, first to a daughter, I found myself pushing sports on her. Soccer and baseball and basketball and so on. She didn’t have any interest and I struggled with it. When my son was born and it became clear he had some complex special needs and couldn’t walk or talk, let alone play sports, I think I struggled even more – not only did my daughter not want to play sports, but my son couldn’t. Fast-forward a few years later, the light bulb finally began to turn on. I started to realize being a dad wasn’t about me or my interests or passions; I mean, it’s okay to share those things and to show your kids the importance of being passionate about something and committed to something, but it’s not your job to choose those things for them. Turns out my daughter is an amazing student, she loves to write and loves drawing/painting, she loves home shows and design – and last summer we found out she loves running (and is pretty awesome at cross country) – and most recently, we’ve found something we both love – music! She just started taking drum lessons and I’m going to finally take some guitar lessons so we can play together. I’m so pumped to begin this journey with her. I’ve learned a lot with AJ too. I no longer focus on what he can’t do or what we “can’t” do together and instead I have bonded with him in a way that is hard to describe. He’s six years old now and has never spoken a word to me, but his smiles, hugs and laugh are like air to me – I could not survive without them. The time we spend wrestling around, tickling and being silly with each other is purer and more real than any sport ever could be. So, remember…let them find their own way and be open to connecting with your kids in ways you don’t totally understand or that aren’t in your comfort zone – you’ll be glad you did.
5) How have you come to balance parenthood and outside life?
It’s easy. My kids and my wife are my priorities, period. My health too – because without that I wouldn’t be much use to them. Don’t get me wrong, I have plenty of “outside” interests and a very full life. I have some great friends and find a way to spend time with my extended family and friends whenever I can. I also run a growing and meaningful company with my wife, but at the end of the day, there is never any debate over what/who is most important to me, so it’s become easier to balance this over the years. I’m very lucky that I have a more flexible work schedule these days and get to see my kids for dinner almost every night and I take both of my kids to bed every night I’m home and not traveling for work. My wife and I carve out time with the kids wherever we can…and it doesn’t always have to be hours and hours or something huge. Maybe 30 mins before school for a donut with our daughter, extra time playing with my son at night instead of being on our phones or talking about work, playing a game of scrabble or go-fish instead of staring at the TV – we’ve implemented a “no phones” rule from 6-8pm in our house – and if we break it, our daughter will call us out in a second, and I’m glad she does. As much as I suggest how “easy” it is, of course it isn’t easy. We all have different situations with work, family, friends, health issues and more – but whatever your scenario is, do the best you can – oh, and find yourself some good babysitters so you can have some fun with your significant other once in a while!
6) What have you learned from the fathers that you have interacted with?
Work hard. Be honest. Lead by doing. Do the right thing even when nobody else is watching. Give them your undivided attention. Keep your word. Keep calm. Give them unconditional love. Time over money. Laugh every day and make your kids laugh/smile every day. Love their mom like you want them to be loved by their significant other someday. Make sure your kids know you love them, that they are important to you and that they are never alone. Tell them over and over and over until they are tired of hearing it – and more importantly, SHOW them with your actions! Prepare them for tough times and the bad people they will no doubt encounter in their own lives without stealing the innocence of childhood away from them – you don’t have to teach them about every single thing and scenario before they are eight years old – there’s a time to talk about drugs and sex and saving for retirement and so on – but there’s only a short period where they get to be naïve and see only the good – let them have that for a while too. Teach them they are stronger than they know – and the difference between self-confidence and arrogance. The difference between kindness always and simply when it’s convenient. Teach them they are amazing, but no more amazing than anybody else (I love the line “there is nobody else better than me, and I am not better than anybody else – I stole that from a dad video I saw online a while back and now repeat that and other little affirmations with my daughter on the way to school every day). I’ve learned to value genuine friendship and kindness over those with influence and try to teach that to my kids every day. And for dads of daughters, teach them that “being pretty” is not the number 1 priority – it’s okay to want to look good and dress nice and so on, but that is not the priority or how you define yourself – it’s more about how you are as a person than what you look like…always. Oh…and to never give up. From my dad to my brother to Jimmy V and beyond – that’s the one thing I always lean on – I simply refuse to give up and hope I pass that on to my kids.
7) What else would you share regarding your experiences as a father thus far?
Fatherhood is truly amazing. There is nothing like helping bring another person into this world and watching them grow and learn and experience life. And – if you let yourself, I promise you will learn just as much from your kids as you will teach them. Maybe more.
8) What have been the most memorable experiences that you have had thus far as a parent?
Finding out Julie was pregnant (both times). Finding out the gender of the baby (both times). Going to the first ultrasound and getting 3D ultrasound pics, cutting the chord and watching both of my kids be born. Bringing Luca home from the hospital for the first time – she was our first, so it was different with her. First words and steps with Luca, first time AJ could sit up, scoot and give me a high five (years later – even more rewarding). From there it’s been a mix of “little” things that are truly the big things. Seeing my daughter choose to do the right thing when she doesn’t know I’m watching/listening, seeing how amazing she is with my son, experiencing a new milestone with AJ – might be as simple as him making eye contact for longer than he ever has or as big as taking more steps with less help. But my favorite and most memorable times every day are when I take them both to bed – I have a routine with each of them and although some nights I’m tired and it can be a 30 minute process with both of them combined, it’s times I’ll always remember and never regret. Oh, and we’ve been fortunate to go on some pretty cool family vacations – nothing to extravagant, but we do a lake town trip every summer and rent a pontoon boat. We swim, explore and play board games – I’ll never forget those moments!
If you have any questions for Tony Bombacino, please leave a comment here and I will make sure that he gets them so that he may be able to respond!