If you’re like the women in a Redbook/HealthyWomen/GCI Health survey, looking after your own health falls somewhere toward the bottom of your list, just under “Remind husband to schedule physical” and “Pick up tissues not the scratchy kind.” Use this guide to safeguard your well-being too.
Quick quiz: Who was the last person in your home to nag a family member to take his or her medicine? When your kid needed to see the dentist, who drove? When a bill had to be disputed, who picked up the phone?
If your answers are “me,” “me,” and “Need you ask?” you’re not alone: Research shows that women are overwhelmingly the ones in charge of their families’ health care. Given how complicated and costly it can be, we do a bang-up job: In the HealthiHer survey, conducted by Redbook in partnership with HealthyWomen and GCI Health, almost 83% of women said they were happy to be the ones calling the shots, and about 70% felt they handled their kids’ health “very well,” thank you very much.
So, time to declare victory and go home, right? Not quite. Because when the question is how we’re taking care of ourselves, the numbers aren’t nearly as rosy. Less than half of us are making time for our health, like for screenings that can head off trouble down the road. That’s worrisome: “If you lose the captain, you’re going to lose the ship,” says Beth Battaglino, CEO of HealthyWomen, the nation’s leading nonprofit health information source for women.
Women step up without much thought for the toll caregiving can take.
By one estimate, just the at-home care you give a child—from finding an eye doctor to helping with his speech therapy—will eat up 60 hours every year. “And when it comes to our kids or parents, most of us want to be there for the appointments themselves,” says pediatrician Kristin Ray, M.D., a researcher at the Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC. In fact, 80% of the women in the HealthiHer survey felt they couldn’t delegate their families’ health care; 40% of them said doing so would simply be too complicated. And while younger women were twice as likely to have someone they could ask for help, they were no more likely to do it.
This means, though, that we also shoulder what sociologists call the “worry work”: all the planning, anticipating—The kids are going to need checkups before school starts—and gnawing that’s more easily measured in wrinkles than in hours. The result, of course, is stress: Nearly 90% of the women in our survey described their stress levels as “moderate to high.” Almost 40% said they had been diagnosed with anxiety or depression.
The pressure can make it nearly impossible to carve out time for our own care.
“When it comes to actually getting a mammogram or a bone density screening, moms think, I can barely get my kids to the dentist, let alone do that!” Battaglino says. In fact, most survey takers said it was lack of minutes rather than money that kept them from getting their checkups. Younger women—who tend to have littler, needier kids—were 10% less likely to get basic screenings and 10% more likely to say they put their kids’ care before their own.
For women who work outside the home, it’s not just how much time appointments take—it’s also the hours doctors’ offices keep, says Jane E. Miller, Ph.D., a researcher at the Institute for Health, Health Care Policy, and Aging Research at Rutgers University-New Brunswick: “You might only be able to set up an appointment between 8:30 a.m. and 4:30 p.m.”
Still, women aren’t immune to the reality that our health matters too. “With serious conditions like heart disease and diabetes on the rise, it’s critical that women do what’s necessary to ensure we can be here for our families,” says Wendy Lund, CEO of GCI Health, a global healthcare communications company. While the women in the HealthiHer survey showed concern about things like reproductive health and Alzheimer’s, those who weren’t making time for regular screenings worried more about everything, from their stress levels to their eating habits to whether they’d get cancer. That may be proof that focusing on your own health will lower your stress, not add to it. “It isn’t selfish to put ourselves first,” Battaglino says. It’s an investment—in our health and in the health of our families.