© Rick Hanson, Ph.D. 1994
Family Running On Empty
Dear Dr. Hanson,
My wife and I have two kids, two cars, two jobs, and one mortgage. We come home and sit at dinner and the kids look at us like something is supposed to happen. My wife and I ask them questions about their day, and they answer (sort of) and its OK but we all know something is missing. Were just too tired and so we try to give them some energy but we dont have much to spare. We do the right things but its like we are walking through steps. I think about my idea of family -- hard to put into words -- and its not happening and its our fault. In the back of my mind when I am with the kids is usually my list of what else I need to do. My wife and I squabble over little things: how much time I spent golfing Saturday so she had to watch the kids, her long talks on the phone. I go off, my wife goes off, we probably drink too much, and the days go by.
It sounds like you and your wife feel like you have run out of gas. If thats the case, I dont think that it is your fault. Millions of other American families are also running on fumes. Start with the typical strains of working and raising children -- then add todays 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.
Whats the result?
Theres 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 afterschool 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 theyve got, fighting over the crumbs of who gets a break tonight. When family members are actually in the same room together, its 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 shortlived 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; its in our genes. Strong family units survived. Weak ones didnt. We suffer in fragmented families. Its a background ache, often unstated. Even denied. But it still hurts.
We do not live in a vacuum, and the lack of family food is the product of real objective forces whose effects have to be taken into account. Ignoring them would be like trying to solve the self-esteem issues within a black family in Alabama in 1954 (or all too often, California in 1993) without acknowledging outside factors like racism and generational poverty. While tackling those forces directly is beyond the scope of this column, there are things we can do within the family to overcome their effects.
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 everyones time 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.
The quality of your family life is also determined by your own sensations, emotions, attitudes, thoughts -- your personal experience. Have each member of the family answer this question: What is my real experience of family life?
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
I appreciated your honesty about probably drinking too much. 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.
Im 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. Experiment with fasting whatever-it-is. If you are wondering whether youve got a problem, a cautious view would be that if you cannot stop cold-turkey and abstain indefinitely, you are hooked.
If youve 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. Its 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. As I was driving home the other day and anticipating seeing our kids, the thought popped into my mind: I live to gratify! I had to laugh at myself, both at the rueful truth and at the psychologists phrasing. Intentionally feed the others in your family. Notice any holding back and find ways to talk about it. And beware erring on the other side: giving to the point of exhaustion. Family life is like a marathon, and you have to find a pace you can sustain.
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 its hard to let it in for yourself, let it in so that youve got more to give to your children.
Often we already have a story in our mind about family members: She doesnt 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 willful ignorance and discover newly what is real, soulful, and heartfelt in the other -- and yourself.
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. Im not suggesting knuckling under to abuse. Just look for opportunities to do love pushups and strengthen your loving heart.