Do Fathers Have an Invisible Load Too?

by John Hoffman

Last month, in honour of Mother’s day, I focused on the invisible workload of moms and why dads should be mindful of it.
However, there is also an invisible load that men and fathers carry. And it has to do with mental health and stress. That’s the argument made by author Josh Levs, in a response to Lisa Wade’s piece about women’s invisible workload, which I referred to in my blog last month. Levs, a leading American expert on working dads, and the author of a book called All In, says men’s invisible load has to do with mental health and stress. It’s not that men have more mental health problems than women. But men are less open than women about mental health issues. Men are more likely to keep anxieties, stresses and depression problems to themselves and they are less likely than women to seek out support for those problems.

As part of his research for All In, Levs did over 150 hours of interviews with men. One question he asked them was how stretched out in terms of time and responsibilities men feel on a scale of one to ten. Almost all of them said ten. How often do you hear mean talking about their problems with work-family balance? I never do. Is that necessarily a problem? Hard to say, although Levs quotes one study that showed that men are 50 percent more likely than women to end up with depression in the long term aftermath of a highly stressful life event like the death of a spouse. That suggests that some men, at least, do not manage stress as well as women.

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Social Engagement: our most important strategy for dealing with and recovering from stress.

I can think of one stress management strategy that women sure seem to be better at than men. And it’s directly related to the idea of talking about your problems and seeking support. Stephen Porges, one of the world’s leading experts on the physiology of the human stress response system, says that social engagement — connecting with other people and reaching out for support — is, in an evolutionary sense, our most important strategy for dealing with and recovering from stress. We’re actually wired for social engagement. Our brains and bodies expect it when we are stressed. Our hormones nudge us to seek it out. Porges calls it social engagement. I call it being around people you’re comfortable with, listening to each other, sympathizing about each other’s problems, keeping each other’s spirits up, helping people get through the tough moments and then back on track again.

My observation is that social engagement, particularly talking about problems and reaching out for support, comes more naturally and easily to women than men. And, even in today’s world, when fewer moms are at home all day, mothers still tend to have more informal support networks than dads.

But there’s another kind of social engagement that is really important to the well-being of both mothers and fathers. And, when you live with a partner, it’s there in front of your eyes. That’s social engagement with a partner who cares about you. So my point is, if you’re in a couple, your partner is probably the person who has the most potential for helping you manage and recover from stress. (Is that why married men tend to be healthier and live longer?) And you, of course, can do the same for her (or him).

I want to highlight the importance of recovering from stress. If we can’t recover from stress, stressed out feelings are more likely to become chronic, and our stress system works overtime. That’s when stress starts to interfere with day-to-day functioning and contributes to mental and physical health problems.

But if you can recover from stress, you get your mental and emotional energy back. That not only prevents downstream stress problems, it also gives you more positive energy to help you to be a better, happier person, parent and partner.

So my Father’s Day wish for every dad is a good (or better) spousal relationship, one where both partners pay attention to each other’s invisible load and try to alleviate it a little bit. That’s what partners are for.

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