Fathers need to care for themselves as well as their kids – but often don’t

If you had to choose, which would you rather have: a healthy father or a good father?

Studies suggest men often choose being a good father over being healthy.

Becoming a father is a major milestone in the life of a man, often shifting the way he thinks from being “me focused” to “we focused.” But fatherhood can also shift how men perceive their health. Our research has found that fathers can view health not in terms of going to the doctor or eating vegetables but how they hold a job, provide for their family, protect and teach their children, and belong to a community or social network.

As founder and director of the Center for Research on Men’s Health at Vanderbilt University and as a postdoctoral fellow from Meharry Medical College, we study why men live shorter lives than women, male attitudes about fatherhood, how to help men engage in healthier behavior – as well as what can be done to reduce men’s risk of Type 2 diabetes and heart disease.

Work, sex and health

Working with men to try to get them to be more physically active, eat healthier and maintain a healthy weight, we found that for many, their own physical and mental health is not high on their list of priorities. Men, we found, treat their bodies as tools to do a job. Health is not always important or something they pay much attention to until poor health gets in the way of their ability to go to work, have sex or do something else important to them. These roles and responsibilities are often the ways they define themselves as men and how others in their lives define their worth.

Prince Harry with his wife, the Duchess of Sussex, and their newborn baby Archie in May of 2019. Pool/Reuters
While many aspects of gender roles have changed, we have found that many men still recognize they are often defined as good or successful if they have paid employment that is enough to take care of their children and other responsibilities. Fathers generally aspire to be able to look after their children, spouse, partner or other loved ones. That may mean less sleep, longer hours at work and less free time for hobbies and exercise.

Wanting to be a great dad can motivate men to push themselves to work longer and harder than they may have thought possible, but these choices can come at a cost, particularly if they also are not making time to take care of themselves.

We have seen evidence of despair, such as depressive symptoms, having thoughts of suicide, heavy drinking and marijuana use, among adults in their 20s and 30s. These behaviors tend to be higher in men during the time when they tend to become fathers for the first time. Consistent with this pattern, unintentional injuries and suicide are leading causes of death for men across racial and ethnic groups in their 20s and 30s. This is not the case for women.