You might remember Gabe Mercado as the funny guy who starred in Yakult’s iconic “Okey ka ba tiyan?” commercials. In the early 2000s he was extremely active in the local television, movie, and music scene as an actor, comedian, host, and vocalist.
But for the past 12 years, his most important role has been that of a devoted single father to his son, Beeto. Back in 2004, he and his wife took Beeto in as a foster child, fell in love with him, and decided to adopt him. When they separated two years later, they agreed that Mercado would get full custody.
While the prospect of single parenthood was certainly daunting, Mercado threw himself wholeheartedly into his new role. He gradually quit his career in television, and became a corporate training consultant to make sure he would have enough time for Beeto.
“If you have a thriving career as an actor you have zero time,” he explains. As a telenovela actor, he often did three 24-hour taping days in a week. The rest of the time he spent catching up on sleep. And so ten years ago, he quit acting in soap operas. 5 years later, he stopped working in television altogether. In some ways, leaving showbiz was a relief.
“I would do sit coms, I would host talk shows. But the mindset was still ‘I need to have a show, I need to have a television career’ and that can be all-consuming,” he recalls. “It would lead me sometimes into thinking ‘Wow, I’m better than this guy. Why does this guy have one more show than me?’ when I already had two. I would get greedy. I was always comparing myself and I suppose that’s the nature of television and being in front of the camera. You want to be seen as the best, the guy with the most shows.”
“When I quit all my television projects about five years ago, I was just so relieved that it was no longer the measure of my self-esteem. I didn’t feel inggit anymore,” Mercado adds.
Leaving his television career also allowed him to pursue something he had long been interested in: corporate consulting using improvisational theater. Mercado teaches his clients to think on their feet, collaborate with others, and contribute to a less toxic work environment. As a consultant, he can choose his projects and have more control over his time.
This is essential since, as a single parent, Mercado can’t pass the buck to anyone when it comes to parent-teacher conferences, school activities, and taking care of Beeto when he gets sick.
“Sometimes, some questions, some concerns can only bubble up in the stillness of constant presence.”
Another challenge of being a solo parent is that Mercado has to be both father and mother, nurturer and disciplinarian. While some parents like to play roles, he doesn’t have that luxury. He’s made a point of becoming comfortable with his “feminine,” nurturing side, and being someone Beeto feels he can confide in and run to for comfort.
“I think honestly I do that well. But he’s been rating me low on the discipline and being more of a nagger and in his face. He actually told me that over the summer—I’m okay as a dad but pretty bad as a disciplinarian mom. He says the opportunity has passed because he’s no longer scared of me,” Mercado says with a laugh.
When asked what he loves most about being a father, Mercado says that it keeps him humble. While he enjoys a very successful career as artistic director and founder of Silly People’s Improv Theater (SPIT) and academic director of Third World Improv School, there’s nothing like interacting with Beeto to bring him back to earth. “Parenting a teen keeps you humble because there are so many ways you can get it wrong. Not just objectively, but also in his eyes,” he explains.
After all, teenagers are known to be moody—little things like your tone or facial expression can easily piss them off and cause them to tune you out. “I’m like ‘Wow, I may think I’m the shit everywhere else but at home, being the parent of a teen is like being under a microscope and they react and it can change the mood and all of that,” Mercado says.
While Mercado occasionally finds this confusing and frustrating, he also takes it as a challenge to be a better dad. “By no means do I think I’m a perfect dad. I struggle even to be a good or acceptable dad,” he says. “Sometimes I ask him, ‘Please rate me as a dad,’ and he’ll just say, ‘Oh, you’re okay.’”
Mercado finds parenting a teen poses different demands. “It actually demands more time but just of presence,” he observes. “As a teen, he doesn’t always want to talk to me or do things with me. He just made the request to just be there in the same room. Just be near.” Sometimes Beeto even tells him, “Can you go out? Go have fun, go on a date.
As a solo parent, Mercado has a unique bond with his son. And now that Beeto’s a teen, this has led to him being comfortable asking tough questions like “Dad, have you ever used a condom? How many times have you had sex?”
Mercado suspects that two-parent families don’t always have to deal with such awkward questions. Sometimes Beeto even purposefully asks him questions to make him feel uncomfortable. “He’s pilyo in that way, but there is a natural curiosity behind it,” Mercado says.
He tries to answer Beeto as truthfully as he can, with guidance. “In a way, I consider that a measure of success of how I want to be as a parent. I want to be the kind of parent that he can ask uncomfortable questions with. If ever he gets in trouble, he knows he can run to me. I can tell him about the concept of safe sex, and it’s not uncomfortable conversation.”
When asked what advice he can give to dads who would like to become closer to their children, Mercado says, “Don’t fool yourself with the concept of quality time. Quantity time trumps quality time all day, every day. You can’t have it all. You can’t have a wonderful, no-holds-barred career plus a hobby with cars and regular gold and all of that, and still want quality time.”
He observes that sometimes, all your child wants is your presence, even if you aren’t doing anything together. His problem with the concept of “quality time” is that it can lead to parents trying to have forced conversations or maximize the little time they have with their kids with too many activities.
"Don’t fool yourself with the concept of quality time. Quantity time trumps quality time all day, every day."
“Outwardly, it might look good but there’s no substitute for being there and being available when your child has an uncomfortable question na doon lang niya masasabi or doon lang niya naisip,” Mercado explains. “Sometimes, some questions, some concerns can only bubble up in the stillness of constant presence.”
Ultimately, going for quantity time with your child may require you to sacrifice your golf games, but the bond you’ll develop will be well worth it.
Mercado considers being a dad as the single thing he’s proudest of. “Iba rin kasi when you’re given the sole responsibility of forming what will hopefully be a positive contributing member of society. One with minimal personal issues. I suppose it is every parent’s dream na contributing member of society ’yung anak niya. And to be given that sole responsibility is something I want to be worthy of.”
“While I feel good and proud of the work I do, it doesn’t compare to the pride and happiness I feel when my son has had a good insight or a good breakthrough in conquering personal challenges,” he continues. “Now that I’m older, I’m realizing it’s the things you do in your personal sphere that often have the most impact.”