How a Parent Gets Depleted

How a Parent Gets Depleted

“Before having kids, I had a lot of energy and felt very healthy. But now, with a 4-year-old and a baby, I’m run down and I get colds frequently. My doctor is sympathetic but says I’m fine. What do you think?”

We’ve heard statements like this one from nearly every parent – especially mothers and/or primary caregivers – we’ve ever met. Many of them think in the back of their minds that they must be doing something wrong.

But in fact, you feel the way you do for very concrete, physical reasons, and understanding those reasons gives you clarity, eliminates self-blame and guilt, and points you toward solutions.

Think about it: parenthood is profoundly fulfilling . . . but it is also the most physically demanding and stressful activity most people – whether women or men – will ever do, and it gets done day after day for twenty or more years. The job is harder the more kids you have, or if any of your children have special needs like a challenging temperament, disability, or health problem.

Some partners are great: skillful with the kids and committed to parenthood, they do their fair share around the house and are sympathetic and supportive. But let’s face it: many are not. The average primary caregiver works about twenty hours more per week, altogether, than does their partner, regardless of whether they’re drawing a paycheck. And if you’re rearing your children essentially alone, as do one in five parents, you’re getting little to no help from a partner at all.

Plus most parents are raising a family today in an environment that is vastly different from – and at odds with – the one in which human beings are adapted to and are meant to have kids. The frantic pace, lack of supportive community, scary culture, need to juggle work and home, toxic pollutants that even appear in breast milk, mediocre nutrition, etc., etc. all wear on a parent’s mind and body.

As a result of all these factors, research has shown that raising a family is associated with generally poorer health in parents, and for women especially as the number of  pregnancies increases. In particular, studies have found that motherhood raises a woman’s risk for:

  • fatigue
  • cardiovascular disease
  • nutritional deficits
  • hormonal problems
  • diabetes
  • kidney disease
  • gallbladder disease
  • some kinds of cancer
  • depression
  • a higher overall mortality rate

Even when a parent seems to have a purely mental concern – such as irritability, poor memory, or a blue mood – there is often, in fact, something awry with their body. It all adds up over time. You’re pouring out more and handling more stresses, but taking less in. It’s no wonder if you feel used up, emptied out – in a word, DEPLETED. Besides being a psychological experience, your body could be getting depleted as well, which means both that its vital nutrients are becoming drained and its key systems are getting dysregulated.

Parenthood is not a medical issue, but depletion is. Every year, it impacts millions of Americans and their family members, and it probably leads to billions of dollars in health care expenses and lost productivity.

So we don’t think you’re “fine.” Sure, you’re not ready for the hospital – but you shouldn’t have to be in the Emergency Room to get the care that will help you feel really good, rather than merely not-sick!

In other columns, you can learn about proven methods for getting the stress relief, nutrition, health care, teamwork, and intimacy you need. They will prevent depletion and build up your well-being, so that this wonderful time in your life is as good as it can possibly be.

And meanwhile, you can start feeling better about things just knowing that you are not alone, that objective factors have brought you to this point (not a personal failing!), and that there are plenty of good ways to improve your health and your mood.

This is an article adapted from the book Mother Nurture by Rick Hanson, Ph.D., Jan Hanson, M.S. and Ricki Pollycove, M.D.



Dr. Ramani Durvasula is a licensed clinical psychologist, author, and expert on the impact of toxic narcissism. She is a Professor of Psychology at California State University, Los Angeles, and also a Visiting Professor at the University of Johannesburg.

The focus of Dr. Ramani’s clinical, academic, and consultative work is the etiology and impact of narcissism and high-conflict, entitled, antagonistic personality styles on human relationships, mental health, and societal expectations. She has spoken on these issues to clinicians, educators, and researchers around the world.

She is the author of Should I Stay or Should I Go: Surviving a Relationship With a Narcissist, and Don't You Know Who I Am? How to Stay Sane in an Era of Narcissism, Entitlement, and Incivility. Her work has been featured at SxSW, TEDx, and on a wide range of media platforms including Red Table Talk, the Today Show, Oxygen, Investigation Discovery, and Bravo, and she is a featured expert on the digital media mental health platform MedCircle. Dr. Durvasula’s research on personality disorders has been funded by the National Institutes of Health and she is a Consulting Editor of the scientific journal Behavioral Medicine.

Dr. Stephen Porges is a Distinguished University Scientist at Indiana University, Professor of Psychiatry at the University of North Carolina, and Professor Emeritus at both the University of Illinois at Chicago and the University of Maryland. He is a former president of the Society for Psychophysiological Research and has been president of the Federation of Behavioral, Psychological, and Cognitive Sciences, which represents approximately twenty-thousand biobehavioral scientists. He’s led a number of other organizations and received a wide variety of professional awards.

In 1994 he proposed the Polyvagal Theory, a theory that links the evolution of the mammalian autonomic nervous system to social behavior and emphasizes the importance of physiological states in the expression of behavioral problems and psychiatric disorders. The theory is leading to innovative treatments based on insights into the mechanisms mediating symptoms observed in several behavioral, psychiatric, and physical disorders, and has had a major impact on the field of psychology.

Dr. Porges has published more than 300 peer-reviewed papers across a wide array of disciplines. He’s also the author of several books including The Polyvagal Theory: Neurophysiological foundations of Emotions, Attachment, Communication, and Self-regulation.

Dr. Bruce Perry is the Principal of the Neurosequential Network, Senior Fellow of The ChildTrauma Academy, and a Professor (Adjunct) in the Departments of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the Feinberg School of Medicine at Northwestern University in Chicago and the School of Allied Health at La Trobe University in Melbourne, Australia. From 1993 to 2001 he was the Thomas S. Trammell Research Professor of Psychiatry at Baylor College of Medicine and chief of psychiatry at Texas Children's Hospital.

He’s one of the world’s leading experts on the impact of trauma in childhood, and his work on the impact of abuse, neglect, and trauma on the developing brain has impacted clinical practice, programs, and policy across the world. His work has been instrumental in describing how traumatic events in childhood change the biology of the brain.

Dr. Perry's most recent book, What Happened to You? Conversations on Trauma, Resilience, and Healing, co-authored with Oprah Winfrey, was released earlier this year. Dr. Perry is also the author, with Maia Szalavitz, of The Boy Who Was Raised As A Dog, a bestselling book based on his work with maltreated children, and Born For Love: Why Empathy is Essential and Endangered. Additionally, he’s authored more than 300 journal articles and book chapters and has been the recipient of a variety of professional awards.

Dr. Allison Briscoe-Smith is a child clinical psychologist who specializes in trauma and issues of race. She earned her undergraduate degree from Harvard and then received her Ph.D. in clinical psychology from the University of California, Berkeley. She performed postdoctoral work at the University of California San Francisco/San Francisco General Hospital. She has combined her love of teaching and advocacy by serving as a professor and by directing mental health programs for children experiencing trauma, homelessness, or foster care.

Dr. Briscoe-Smith is also a senior fellow of Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center and is both a professor and the Director of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion at the Wright Institute. She provides consultation and training to nonprofits and schools on how to support trauma-informed practices and cultural accountability.

Sharon Salzberg is a world-renowned teacher and New York Times bestselling author. She is widely considered one of the most influential individuals in bringing mindfulness practices to the West, and co-founded the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts alongside Jack Kornfield and Joseph Goldstein. Sharon has been a student of Dipa Ma, Anagarika Munindra, and Sayadaw U Pandita alongside other masters.

Sharon has authored 10 books, and is the host of the fantastic Metta Hour podcast. She was a contributing editor of Oprah’s O Magazine, had her work featured in Time and on NPR, and contributed to panels alongside the Dalai Lama.

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