Men: The New Caregivers?

father with baby talking to doctor( — Today’s struggling economy is forcing families to reorganize resources and rethink roles. Many men who were once their family’s breadwinners are more and more becoming their family’s caregivers.

“They’re not providing money, but they’re providing the labor that wives have been doing for years,” said Kristen Myers, an associate professor of sociology at Northern Illinois University in DeKalb, Ill.

Domestic Shifts

Most men have grown up in a household, and certainly a culture, where females have been perceived as the primary family nurturers. Yet often by necessity, more men than ever are rolling up their sleeves and helping an ill loved one with day-to-day tasks.

Myers and doctoral student Ilana Demantas have been studying the recession’s impact on the so-called “breadwinning ideology.” And what the uncovered after interviews with 20 recently unemployed men whose domestic roles have been turned upside-down was an unprecedented shift in attitudes about gender.

“They take care of the kids, they go shopping, they clean, they take care of sick family members. These men have really embraced this new realm that they wouldn’t have chosen,” said Myers, who with Dementas presented the study findings today at the American Sociological Associations annual meeting in Las Vegas. “They hope it’s temporary and they can go back to work. But in meantime, they’re changing their perspective.”

Today, baby-boomer men in particular may find themselves sandwiched between elder care and child care, and as they juggle work, family, and the needs of an aging parent, their stress and frustration at their daunting and all-consuming new roles can often turn into anger, despair, exhaustion, and burnout…and feelings of not being a “real man.”

Less Of A Man?

Many of the men interviewed for the study have said that the loss in income translates to a loss in their masculinity.

“Not only have they lost their jobs, they’ve also lost an important aspect of what they think it means to be men,” said Myers, adding that many of the men interviewed felt defeated and depressed. “But they’re making the most of it and learning new things. It’s an opportunity to live richer, although poorer lives.”

In addition to bouts of depression, anger and sadness, male caregivers often neglect themselves, eating an inadequate diet, ignoring their need for exercise, getting too little sleep, and postponing visits to the doctor. But the consequences of these behaviors can be serious, and experts stress the importance of continuing to address personal needs while helping to take care of the family.

“Remember that ‘be a man’ means many different things. Yes, our culture has long supported the idea that men work and provide the monetary means for the family’s survival, but men have to realize that they’re not piggy banks. They’re vital and loved members of the family, and it’s always been important for them to be more involved in the growth and development of their family – money is important, but so is time. So is their love. So is just being there,” says Myers.

The Surprising Positive Side Of A Down Economy

In confronting the responsibilities before them, men are more likely than women to communicate with their spouse and delegate some of the caregiving responsibilities to others — either to other family members, or to outside help who they’ve hired to handle many of the home-care duties. This means that, unlike many women, men can sometimes better avoid feeling overwhelmed by their new domestic tasks, while learning to listen and develop stronger partnership skills with their wives.

“Some men feel that they don’t have to do it all on their own, and they’re better than women at saying, ‘I need some help with this — you do this part, and I’ll do that part,'” says Carole Cohen, MD, associate professor of psychiatry at the University of Toronto. “In the work world, they may have become accustomed to this kind of delegating, whereas women of the same generation may be less likely to feel that it’s OK to get help.”

In additional to developing better communication skills, a great number of dads are learning something else – how to be more attentive fathers. Many men are used to seeing their kids grow up from afar because they’re so busy working. For many generations, this is just the way it was. But one positive thing that the current economy has taught many men is how truly valuable it is to actually spend more time with their children, watching them grow, and being more hands on in educating them. Many agree that when the economy improves, dads are going stay a lot more in tune with their kids.

As a result, their children will learn the importance of this, as will their children, and so on — fathers developing more personal relationships with their children will become the new normal for the next generations.

Though more men are adjusting to caregiver roles, of course, they do still take advantage of “masculine” opportunities, such as playing sports with other stay-at-home dads.

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