Are traditional gender roles sabotaging your health?
We know women have become very familiar with–and skilled at–adopting traditionally male roles. But often, men feel obligated to remain within traditional roles assigned them by societal norms. Adhering to these gender norms can take a toll on their health, both mentally and physically. One recent study noted specific feminine and masculine gender norms were related to alcohol and tobacco use and prevalence of chronic diseases. A 2019 study found when the male in a partnership with a female breadwinner espoused traditional gender views, the man experienced more wear and tear on his body due to stress. A 2019 review of theoretical literature in the International Journal of Men’s Social and Community Health noted the norms of “self-reliance, power over women, and playboy” were strongly and consistently associated with poorer mental health and psychological health seeking. Yet, this isn’t the end of the story in today’s world. Many men are finding themselves fulfilled and in better health by stepping outside the boundaries of their gender norms.
Deciding to become a stay-at-home dad (SAHD) was the logical choice for Calgary-based father of two Matt Beauchamp. At the time of Beauchamp’s first child’s birth, his wife was the higher earner, and they didn’t want to put their daughter in daycare. Beauchamp’s mental health was also part of the consideration. “Being a SAHD was a huge positive boost for my mental health. After the tragic loss of my own father, I struggled with the societal need to be dedicated to your career,” says Beauchamp. “I wanted nothing more than to have a family and to spend time with them. Being a SAHD allowed me to do that, which has given me a great sense of purpose and happiness.” Since his second child was born in July, he and his wife share parenting responsibilities and he started back to work part-time. He often goes on outings with the children, although he notes that, unfortunately, some activities are still billed as mom and tot activities, so he doesn’t always sign up. He says that although the work of a SAHD is not always easy, he loves spending time with his kids.
“The greatest role you can have in the life of your child (as well as in your own life) is to love them and show them what the pursuit of a joyful life looks like,” says Beauchamp.
Casey Palmer works a government job by day and moonlights as a blogger/podcaster. When he first started his blog, his content reflected a “man about town” vibe, where he wrote about restaurants and events. In late 2013, that changed: Palmer and his wife had their first child. At first, it “threw him for a loop” as he oriented himself to his new life. Now, he brands himself a “Canadian Dad,” and his content often reflects that moniker. Palmer also doesn’t shy away from talking about self-care—whether physically or mentally—on his blog. He admits he wasn’t always conscious of his mental health: it was only when he experienced a breakdown at 16 years old (from being overloaded with school, sports, and work) that he learned the importance of minding his mental health.
“When the signs start to show that you’re having cracks in the veneer and things aren’t working as well as they should be, you need to get the support necessary to tackle it and take care of things as soon as you can,” says Palmer.
When it comes to parenting, Palmer suggests that men not only find their people, who can understand the frame of reference for what they’re currently going through, but also use the “survival technique” of staying the course for the first two years. “What I find is that a lot of guys jump ship when it gets too hard with a baby around, but you don’t get to bond,” says Palmer. “I feel like dads don’t give it a chance and the moms get stuck with kids when, really, if you’re just willing to be patient for a couple years, you can make it work. It’s just this sad state of affairs when we see relationships as disposable—and we can do better at that.”
Prince Rupert, BC-based Allan Robinson had been working as a labourer for three years after high school when nursing caught his eye, partially because his girlfriend’s roommate was in nursing school, and he was feeling stagnant in his own career. He also notes that nursing was an attractive occupation to him as it’s rife with opportunities to travel, whether that’s to be on Mercy Ships or to help with specific international crises. “You can go anywhere in the world,” says Robinson. Once he started working in the field, he found there was a learning curve to being part of a female-dominated profession. Sometimes, patients would be uncomfortable with him performing certain duties, or having him present during a delivery, for example—specifically because he is a male nurse—where he feels there would be more acceptance of him if he were a doctor. Despite these challenges, he finds his occupation rewarding.
“[As] you’re able to do things which either help or advocate for [patients], which can actually be quite powerful,” says Robinson.
Dr. John Oliffe, founder and lead investigator of the University of British Columbia’s Men’s Health Research program, believes it’s important for men not to feel hamstrung by what society says they have been doing as a man. He also believes playing to one’s masculine values of protecting and providing for others—instead of discarding the ideals of masculinity altogether—may be the key to improving men’s health.
“We’re starting to think about what normative aspects of masculinity might actually help men [pursue] health,” says Oliffe.
One 2014 study of more than 3,000 British boys and girls, using data from the British Household
Panel Survey (1994–2008) found that, if a child has a sex-typed career preference, both boys and girls are significantly more likely to end up in sex-segregated occupations as adults.
It also found that boys raised in homes where chores were assigned according to traditional gender norms gravitated toward traditionally masculine careers. The study further noted that boys with a higher self esteem were more interested in careers that were not associated with their gender.
The study comments: “This suggests that boys with high self-esteem are better equipped to contradict the existing social norms regarding sex-typical behaviour.”
Carimé Lane is a London, Ontario-based freelance writer and law school student.
This article was originally published in the June 2020 issue of alive Canada magazine, under the title "Breaking the Man Mould."