“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.

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This is an article adapted from the book Mother Nurture (2002) by Rick Hanson, Ph.D., Jan Hanson, M.S. and Ricki Pollycove, M.D.