Running on Empty

By: Rick Hanson, Ph.D. and Jan Hanson, L.Ac.

Millions of American families are running on fumes. Start with the typical strains of working and raising children -- then add today's pace, the need for two incomes outside of the home, lengthening work weeks, frequent inequities in workload (typically stacked against women), and the breakdown of traditional supports like extended families and a stable community -- and you have got modern family life.

What's the result?

There's a background feeling of strain and exhaustion, short supplies, not enough time/attention/energy/money/whatever to go around. Too many things to do, living out of cars, living by doing (not being), everything as a means to some end in a future which never comes.

Everything is fragmented so that there is little sense of coherence or center: parents work apart from each other, kids go off to various "reservations" set aside from the larger community of adults, and just creating an after school event takes half an hour of phone calls and driving.

Parents feel unfed by each other, so they have less to give and tend to hoard the little they've got, fighting over the crumbs of who gets a break tonight. When family members are actually in the same room together, it's often more like the "parallel play" of toddlers than true interaction, individuals lost in their own worlds. After years of this, you have young adults who are cynical, despairing, and fearful of committed relationships -- who hide in work and short lived romantic flings -- and the cycle continues.

The hungry family

I see a quiet hunger in so many families, a frustrated longing for real coming together. Humans hunger for family; it's in our genes. Strong family units survived. Weak ones didn't. We suffer in fragmented families. It's a background ache, often unstated. Even denied. But it still hurts.

What we can do:

Tell the truth Find ways to tell the truth about the facts and your experience. Begin where you are: what are the facts of family life, and what are you experiencing?

One of the most powerful catalysts of positive change I have ever seen is one of the simplest: track everyone's time carefully for a few days and then study the results. How much time daily do you actually spend one-to-one with your children? Your spouse? How much time is spent with the family as a whole, joined in some common pursuit? Try to gather these and other facts about your family.

Compare notes and discuss your individual experiences, your common experiences, and the facts of your time together. Find ways to tell the truth about the facts and your experience. (It helps to keep them separate!) The truth may make you uncomfortable, but at least you are starting on solid ground.

Develop real family values

Values, purposes, ideals, ethics -- these are necessary for any kind of community life, and especially for families. Parenting requires daily, grinding, overwhelming sacrifice -- no one can sustain it without guiding values and ethics.

Values also imply what is possible. Perception empowers motivation: if we are not aware of a possibility we will not try to attain it. What do you believe is a reasonable vision of the joy and love and support possible within your family? Given the possibilities, what are family members truly committed to? How committed are you all to a rich, passionate, explicit, felt love at the heart of your family? Committed enough to make real changes in the ways you spend time and money?

It can be very helpful to write four, one-sentence statements of your fundamental purposes as an individual, a mate, a parent, and a family. Share these purposes with your mate and the kids (if they are old enough). Evaluate your actions in light of these purposes -- and make the changes necessary to bring them in line.

Get rid of toxic consolations

We want the suffering of stress and emptiness and longing to go away, so we distract and console ourselves with alcohol, drugs, TV, food, over-work, over-exercise . . . and the list goes on. The problem is that these methods in excess are toxic, which causes us to suffer more, and so we do them more in a vicious cycle. And since they are not the real "food" we want, they never satisfy.

I'm going to devote an entire column in the future to drugs, alcohol, and other addictions in the family. Briefly and simplistically here: there is a big difference between something being a source of regeneration and refuge . . . and being a hideout, cosmetic fix, or an addiction. Because addictions are consuming and compelling, they can cloud our thinking so that it often helps to get an outside perspective. Honestly discuss possibly addictive patterns in yourself and in important others. If you are wondering whether you've got a problem, a cautious view would be that if you cannot stop cold-turkey and abstain indefinitely, you are hooked.

If you've got a problem, get some help immediately, such as a support group or counselor. We tend to justify or deny our addictions, so that it is very difficult to drop an addictive pattern all by ourselves; reach out. Every day that you wait is another day of toxicity, pain, and lost opportunity inflicted on yourself and the people you love.

Eliminating a behavior pattern can leave a kind of vacuum. Replace the consolation, distraction, or addiction with something else that is positive.

Invest in relationships

We know the wisdom of regularly investing modest amounts of money. Clocking real time with family members is also "in the bank" when you need it later -- like when adolescence hits!

Be available for intimacy, relationship, and family. Seriously, what kind of access do family members have to your time? Your attention? Your emotions? Your innermost being? How willing are you to open yourself to the influence of others? Of course, you can be too available. It's a gender stereotype with a grain of truth: mothers tend to be too available and fathers tend not to be available enough. What fits for you?

Giving and receiving is the essence of relationships. And when you are on the receiving end, bring a big spoon! Notice any tightening in your body or mind when recognition, support, love, etc. are coming your way. Let the positives fill you; fill the hole that most of us have in our heart, fill you like water soaking into a sponge. If it's hard to let it in for yourself, let it in so that you've got more to give to your children.

Often we already have a "story" in our mind about family members: "She doesn't need a lot of attention" or "Dad works too much." It can really help to allow a new story to unfold about ourself, that person, that relationship, our family. Try some "wilful ignorance" and discover newly what is real, soulful, and heartfelt in the other -- and yourself.

Structure intimacy

Develop little rituals of family love, as simple as a morning snuggle, mom and dad talking at the end of the day, a walk after dinner, Saturday soccer, or a grace at the start of a meal.

Do fun things as a whole family. One way is to play games together, perhaps teaming children with parents. Sometimes our family plays Scrabble, "boys against girls," with the kids (who cannot yet read) "helping."

Develop a strong love

Love, especially loving at will, is a capacity like any other and can be developed through practice and exercise. What kind of "love workout" are you getting these days?

Practice bringing a strong, penetrating force of love to each family member -- especially in the face of provocation: "Look, I really love you, but how you are acting is unacceptable." I'm not suggesting knuckling under to abuse. Just look for opportunities to do "love pushups" and strengthen your loving heart.

Rick Hanson, Ph.D., is a psychologist and the first author of Mother Nurture: A Mother's Guide to Health in Body, Mind, and Intimate Relationships (Penguin, 2002). He has written and lectured extensively on parental stress and depletion, ways to nurture mothers and fathers, and how a couple can be both strong teammates and intimate friends while raising a family. A summa cum laude graduate of UCLA, Dr. Hanson did management consulting before earning his Ph.D. in clinical psychology from the Wright Institute. He has been President of the Board of FamilyWorks, a non-profit agency serving families in Northern California, and he currently sits on the Executive Committee of the Board of Spirit Rock Meditation Center. He and his wife of over twenty years Jan Hanson, an acupuncturist and nutritionist are raising a daughter and son, ages twelve and fifteen. His personal interests include meditation, rock-climbing, and having fun with his kids. Visit Rick at

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