Elena's attempt to share her food has special meaning because it's a perfect metaphor for a realization I've had since becoming a dad. While trying to help her grow up a healthy and happy child, I've discovered that she's been helping me live better too. Or to put it more plainly, my daughter has done wonders for my physical and emotional health.
I'm not alone in appreciating these types of benefits of being a dad. "Fatherhood comes with a lot of great health perks, " says Marcus Goldman, M.D., author of The Joy of Fatherhood: The First Twelve Months (Prima Publishing, 2000). "Not only does it inspire men to take better care of themselves physically, but it also fills them with a sense of purpose that genuinely enhances their psychological well-being."
Research has consistently found that having an involved dad benefits kids. A study at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, in Baltimore, concluded that children who have active fathers learn better, have higher self esteem, and are less prone to depression than those who don't.
Now researchers are starting to look at how being an involved dad affects men, and many benefits--both physical and mental--are already clear.
A good friend of mine stopped smoking the day his wife discovered that she was pregnant. "And I stopped going out for beers with the guys after work so frequently," he told me. "I suddenly had this feeling, Whoa--what kid wants to have a smoker and a drinker for his dad? It was like I instantly grew up; I knew that I had to be a good role model for my child."
Over the years, studies have documented the fact that married men are less likely to cultivate dangerous habits such as smoking, drinking, or even motorcycle riding. According to Linda Waite, coauthor of The Case for Marriage: Why Married People Are Happier, Healthier and Better Off Financially (Broadway Books, 2001), it follows logically that being a father has a similar positive effect. "Having a wife and children creates structure in men's lives, " Waite says. "The simple fact that they have a family to come home to compels them to behave more responsibly."
Okay, so maybe you occasionally agree to lunch at McDonald's when you've got a toddler tugging on your leg, begging for a Happy Meal. But many dads say that, overall, having children has made them more concerned about eating healthfully.
"Before having kids, I would eat at Taco Bell at least four days a week, " says Dave Pasch, a 29-year-old father of two from Syracuse, New York. "But now that my wife and I have a family, we actually all sit down together and have healthy, home-cooked meals. We don't keep junk food in the house--and our kids are developing good habits as a result. Lexi, my 4-year-old daughter, actually loves to munch on broccoli. "
Kids have an uncanny way of getting even the most dedicated couch potato up and moving. Playfully hoisting a toddler over your head burns calories, and pushing a stroller around the park is a good workout. Beyond that, however, many fathers say they feel compelled to stay physically fit because having kids makes them acknowledge their own vulnerability. "Men realize they need to take care of themselves if they want to be around for their children, " says Kenneth Goldberg, M.D., author of The Men's Health Longevity Program (Rodale Press, 2001). "Mortality, " he adds, "is a great motivator for men."
It certainly motivated Evan Levy, 35, a father of three from Danville, California. After his mother-in-law died last year, leaving his kids with only one living grandparent, he made a commitment to a healthier lifestyle. "I want to do everything I can to be around for my children as long as possible, " he says. "So now I make exercise a priority instead of just fitting it in. I go to the gym three days a week; and virtually every afternoon when I get home from work, I put my 1-year-old in the stroller and go for a long walk."
Maybe it's a feeling of macho invulnerability-or perhaps we're just scared-but men have always been less likely than women to go to their doctors for annual exams and routine screenings. Yet many say that seeing their wives go to the doctor during pregnancy-and taking their children for well-baby-care visits-has inspired them to become more aware of their own health. One of my friends visited a dermatologist after reading about skin problems in a medical text that he'd consulted about his daughter's rash. "I realized I had a suspicious mole on my back, and I wanted to have it checked out," he confessed. I've certainly become more health-conscious myself. After taking Elena for her one-year checkup, I made an appointment to go for my own physical-something I hadn't done in years. I'm glad I did; my doctor discovered that my cholesterol level was higher than it should be. (Yes, I know; I need to eat right and exercise to get it under control! My wife has told me so a million times.)
Children certainly create stress in some ways, but they also do wonders to relieve it. "When I come home from work, my 3-year-old daughter and I have a standing date to watch Clifford the Big Red Dog together," says Ken Ferber, of Thousand Oaks, California. "I can literally feel my heart rate go down, the headache dissipate, and life begin anew."
Ferber is on to something: A long-term study by the National Institute of Mental Health, in Bethesda, Maryland, found that men with healthy family relationships are less prone to stress-related health problems. "Dads who have good relationships with their children are less likely to suffer from chest pain, insomnia, fatigue, indigestion, and dizziness," says Rosalind C. Barnett, Ph.D., lead author of the study.
Today's dads are redefining fatherhood: A survey by the New York City-based Families and Work Institute found that men are spending more time with their children than on their own interests and pursuits. Another study found that dads between the ages of 20 and 39 are more likely than older dads to prioritize family over career.
One of the by-products of being an active dad is a boost to the man's sense of pride and self-worth. "To be an integral part of your child's life, you may have to give up a few things that once seemed important," Dr. Goldman says. "But once a man makes that commitment to his family, there are enormous rewards: You see the positive effect you have on your kids, and that, in turn, affects how you feel about yourself and your success as a parent--and as a person."
That's why fatherhood provides a good buffer against mental illness in men. The more positive a man's relationships with his wife and children, the less likely he is to suffer from depression, anxiety, or other mental-health problems, according to Dr. Barnett. In fact, the research shows that the more involved a man is with his kids, the more likely he is to have a good relationship with his spouse as well.
Though dads may initially moan about the loss of freedom that parenthood brings, most ultimately find that being a father gives them a richer and fuller life. "Raising kids forces men to look beyond themselves, which is very good for their mental well-being," Waite says. What's more, having hopes and dreams for their children tends to make men more hopeful--and that's good. Over the years, studies have consistently found that optimists suffer less depression, fight disease more effectively, and even live longer than pessimists do.
Having a child certainly has given me a much more positive outlook on life. I've found that fatherhood is a potent mood booster; a mere glance at my daughter can fill me with unparalleled joy. When she gets excited about something I've long since taken for granted--like a yellow balloon!--her enthusiasm is contagious. At the same time, when she's upset I feel that I have no choice but to be my best self--a happy clown, a sweet comforter--to try to put her in a better mood.
To sum it up: I feel much happier to be alive. Before becoming a father, I had no idea that being a nurturer could make a man feel so terrific.