Fatherhood and health: Personal and clinical perspectives

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Fatherhood and health: Personal and clinical perspectives

Fatherhood often changes men's health. Four Mayo Clinic specialists — all dads — share their insights.

There are days when you may wonder if fatherhood is a boost to or a burden on your physical and mental health. Some days — it may be a wash, but research says fatherhood is mostly good for you. Fathers may be more likely to enjoy better health and a longer life than men who don't have children. But certainly, every father's experience is different along with what advice they might share.

What can medical specialists tell you about the challenges and rewards of fatherhood? To help put fatherhood in perspective, four Mayo Clinic specialists discuss their experiences as fathers. And speaking as healers, they draw on years of clinical practice in a wide range of fields. Here are their insights.

Finding balance: Edward Creagan, M.D.

Photo of Edward Creagan, M.D.Edward Creagan, M.D

Dr. Creagan is board certified in internal medicine, medical oncology, hospice medicine and palliative care, with special interests in fitness, mind-body connection, aging and burnout. He has three grown sons and has been divorced and remarried.

How has fatherhood affected your health?

I was a senior in medical school when my first child was born. It was hard to concentrate on my studies when I was feeling sleep deprived, irritable and zoned out. Because I was and still am an avid runner, regular exercise helped me cope.

For 15 years, I coached my sons' soccer teams, which had a good effect on my health and theirs. Now that they're grown, they say that the most valuable lesson they learned from sports was how to lose and handle adversity.

What advice do you have for dads?

  • Seek treatment for pre-existing conditions. If you have borderline diabetes, high blood pressure or depression, the stresses of fatherhood could tip you into a downward spiral.
  • Establish a work-life balance. You and your partner can't have it all, so you have to jointly decide what you want. If you both have careers, one of you may have to sacrifice some career aspirations for the other.
  • Negotiate holidays and vacations. In this era of blended and mixed families, it can be difficult deciding where to go during holidays and vacations and who to invite to a child's first communion or graduation. Making everyone feel acknowledged requires a very delicate juggling act.
  • Accept your children for who they are. To some extent, kids are hard-wired at birth. So don't be despondent if they fail to live up to the ambitions you have for them. Fatherhood is about unconditional love and acceptance.

Leading by example: Jay Hoecker, M.D.

Photo of Jay Hoecker, M.D.Jay Hoecker, M.D.

Dr. Hoecker is board certified in pediatrics. He is married and has one daughter and one son.

How has fatherhood affected your health?

I was nearly 40 when my first child was born. Because I very much wanted to become a father, it put me into a state of euphoria. Everything about fatherhood was exciting and has been ever since.

To keep up with my kids, I began exercising more. I started riding a bike — something I hadn't done since childhood.

What advice do you have for dads?

  • Be a little bit selfish. For the sake of your children, you may have put your needs last. But you can't be an effective father if you have poor physical and mental health. Address your own needs first so that you're in a position to address your children's needs.
  • Stock up on good foods and books. You and your children are what you eat and read. If you eat a healthy, low-fat diet based on fruits, vegetables and whole grains, it's nourishing to the body. If you read good books together, it's nourishing to the mind.
  • Lead by example. Your children model your habits, good and bad. So if you eat well and stay active, drink minimally and responsibly, wear a seat belt, and don't smoke, your children will be healthier and safer, and so will you.

Showing character: Edward Laskowski, M.D.

Photo of Edward Laskowski, M.D.Edward Laskowski, M.D.

Dr. Laskowski is board certified in physical medicine and rehabilitation, specializing in sports medicine and fitness. He is married and has two daughters.

How has fatherhood affected your health?

I was in my early 30s when my first daughter was born. Fatherhood prompted me to eat healthier foods, cut down on caffeine and find creative ways to incorporate physical activity.

When the girls were little, my wife and I carried them in framed backpacks on hiking trips and pulled them in trailers on biking trips. It was a great way to bond and instill a love of physical activity. Today, we hike, bike, snow ski and do 5K runs together.

What advice do you have for dads?

  • Show character. Ninety percent of what kids learn is "caught" and only 10 percent is "taught." If you practice love, honesty, faith and morality in your everyday life — and show integrity as a dad — your example will work like a true and steady softball pitch, one your children will catch effortlessly and absorb completely. The life your children observe you living affects them more than any formal lesson ever could.
  • Establish a sports-life balance. If your kids are involved in so many sports that you're always a spectator or chauffeur, it can throw your family life and your fitness out of balance. Enjoy sports and other physical activity with your kids. To preserve family time, don't be afraid to limit the number of activities and sports your children are in. Sports and physical activity should be a part — but not the main focus — of your family's lifestyle.
  • Make your family a priority. If you're an active, involved dad, it deepens your relationships with your family, strengthens your family's identity and helps your children resist peer pressure. It's hard to do that if you and your children are always going your separate ways. I like the image of a family that is holding hands in a circle and facing inward, toward each other, instead of holding hands in a circle facing outward, away from each other.

Taking care of yourself: Donald Williams, Ph.D.

Photo of Donald Williams, Ph.D.Donald Williams, Ph.D.

Dr. Williams is board certified in clinical health psychology, specializing in behavioral and stress-related aspects of medical illness. He is divorced and has five children (four sons and one daughter).

How has fatherhood affected your health?

I was in my mid-30s when my first son was born. During that pregnancy, I gained 15 pounds because I was eating more and exercising less. I had previously exercised regularly and had been active in softball and flag football.

Although fatherhood (and age!) forced me to hang up my cleats, being a dad has been a great source of pride and joy and is good for my health. It prompted me to start a more organized exercise program in which I alternate aerobic workouts with strength training. This gives me the stamina I need to keep up with five very active kids and maintain a busy professional life.

What advice do you have for dads?

  • Don't backslide. With the extra stresses and responsibilities of fatherhood, it's easy to fall back on unhealthy coping mechanisms such as overeating, drinking too much and lazing around on the couch. It's critical — for your health as well as your children's — that you take the time to take care of yourself.
  • If you're going through a particularly busy or stressful time, take care of yourself and keep spending time with your children. During busy or stressful times, people are inclined to decrease their exercise, make poor food choices and spend less time with those who are important to them — including their children. It's during these times that you must make an extra effort to take care of yourself and manage your time according to your priorities. If you don't, you may continue to feel guilty, anxious, frustrated and even depressed, leaving you isolated from family and friends. If you're having difficulty taking care of yourself, managing your time and spending enough quality time with your children, a psychologist or therapist can help you cope with your stress and frustration and guide you in managing your decisions.

Fatherhood is a profound life experience that can affect your physical and mental health in both positive and negative ways. Regardless of your schedule or stress level, you are most likely to gain health benefits from fatherhood if you're an active, involved dad.

Last Updated: 06/09/2006
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