Among the issues worth highlighting this Heart Awareness Month is the increased risk of heart disease among particularly stay-at-home-dads (SAHDs), which is becoming a growing phenomenon globally and in South Africa.
Heart disease already claims the lives of 25 961 SA men annually, and while some dream of leaving their stressful jobs for the supposedly ‘simpler’ life of a stay-at-home-dad, researchers warn that making the switch could have dangerous implications for a man’s heart.
Nicole Jennings, spokesperson for Pharma Dynamics – a firm specialising in cardiovascular health – refers to research that was conducted for the US National Institutes for Health to identify the impact of one’s occupation on health.
“The study involved 3 600 men and women over a ten-year period and found that men who were house-husbands for most of their adult life were 82% more likely to die from a heart attack than men who worked outside the home.”
These findings were further corroborated by another US study that was done by Rutgers University among 1 095 married couples over a 30-year period, which confirmed that men whose wives were the primary breadwinners were more likely to suffer from conditions such as stomach ulcers and heart disease, among others.
Jennings points out that the sociologists involved in the study associated the increased risk of these conditions not to the actual stress and demands of a stay-at-home-dad, since many of the challenges that these dads face are universal to parenting, but rather to the social and identity struggles these men experience as a result of no longer being the primary breadwinners.
“SAHDs may look to smoking, drinking and eating unhealthily to help them deal with their dented masculinity, which over time increases their risk of heart disease, diabetes and other lifestyle diseases.
“Despite more women entering the workplace and Hollywood promoting the role of the new man in the family structure, many still see themselves as the main providers and feel emasculated when toppled by their wives or female partners that are earning more than them. When their role as primary breadwinner is taken away, their confidence and psyche take a knock, which could lead to unhealthy dependencies and physical illness. Stigmatisation by peers, family members and even spouses or children can also take a toll on a man’s sense of self and masculinity. These stressors all have negative implications for men’s hearts.
“Whether there are men who choose to be the stay-at-home parent or not, the reality is that more SA men are being confronted with this reality as tens of thousands of jobs are cut annually due to our struggling economy,” she says.
Since 2008, South Africa has faced a wave of retrenchments with an estimated 83 000 jobs lost in the past year alone.
Currently, in America, there is a record number of female breadwinners with four in ten households having a mother who is either the sole or primary earner for the family. That’s four times as many women breadwinners than in the 60s. In South Africa, there is very little data available in terms of SAHDs, but experts acknowledge that it’s a growing trend.
In a country such as ours, where most men were raised to be the main breadwinners, the shift toward stay-at-home-dads hasn’t quite been accepted by the norm and, as a result, men are likely to be confronted by sexist remarks and isolation.
To help men cope with the pressures of being a SAHD, Pharma Dynamics’ team of health experts suggest the following tips to help keep men’s tickers in good shape:
- Have a heart-to-heart with your partner: be honest with your wife or partner about how much her support means to you and that your role as primary caregiver shouldn’t be viewed as a demotion. Even though roles are reversed, you remain equal partners in the relationship and that mutual respect should be shown when you’re alone together, in front of your children and others.
- Manage stress: as a stay-at-home-dad, you may not realise how stressed out you are until it affects your health. Regular exercise, even if it’s just going for a daily walk or run with your baby or toddler in a pram or jogging stroller, will not only help you to relax and better cope with the stresses you face as the primary caregiver, but will also improve blood flow, while strengthening the muscle of the heart. It’ll also increase feel-good hormones (endorphins) to get you thinking positively.
- Check your blood pressure: High blood pressure often has no symptoms, so regularly checking your blood pressure is the only way to know if you’re at risk of heart disease. Have it tested at least once or twice a year to know your blood pressure status. However, if you have been diagnosed with high blood pressure or hypertension, it should be monitored more closely.
- Connect with other SAHDs: Stay-at-home-dads often feel isolated and find it difficult to talk to other (working) men about the challenges they face. It’s important to connect with other dads in a similar situation as you, which you can do by joining an online parenting forum or dad’s group.
- Go out: Don’t confine yourself to the four corners of your home. Plan an outing every day – even if it’s to the library, gym or taking the dog for a walk, while the kids are at playgroup or school. It’ll do your heart wonders.
- Be a proud dad: Don’t worry about what other people think of you. Be proud of your decision to stay at home. For some it may only be temporary, till you find a job, but for the moment, make the most of the time you have with your family and keep your head held high.
- Practice healthy habits: The everyday stresses of being a stay-at-home-dad might lead to unhealthy dependencies, such as smoking, drinking or unhealthy eating. Even though it may be easier to get take-outs for supper, rather opt for healthier options. To make things easier, sign up for Ginger – the Cooking from the Heart chatbot – that will help you plan heart-healthy meals that the entire family will enjoy. To register, go to the Cooking from the Heart Facebook page or download any of the 100, easy-to-make meal options from www.cookingfromtheheart.co.za, which all carry the Heart and Stroke Foundation of SA’s approval.