Stay-At-Home Moms and Depression: 4 Things You Need To Know

Being a stay-at-home parent is hard, but does it cause depression? A recent discussion at Peanut Butter and Grace raised this important issue. It turns out that there is more to this question than meets the eye.

Survey Says…

A 2012 Gallup poll found that 28% of stay-at-home moms (SAHMs) had been diagnosed with depression compared to 17% of employed moms (defined as mothers who have both a full or part time job and children under 18).

Of course, this alone doesn’t necessarily mean SAHMs are more depressed than employed moms.  For instance, it could be that working moms are just as depressed as SAHMs; but, between work and household responsibilities, they just don’t have time to seek professional help.  In fact, a 2015 Pew Research poll found that the majority of working moms continue to be frustrated by the uneven division of labor at home.   As sociologist, Arlie Hochschild observed, working moms often feel that, at the end of the work day, they have to go home to work their “second shift” as a homemaker.   Many working moms are not only depressed, they also don’t have time to do anything about it.

Bridging the Gap:
The Ideal vs. Reality

Regardless, few people would argue that being a SAHM is easy.  And it’s clear that some SAHMs are happier in their role than others.  Similarly, because research shows that kids do better overall when raised by a contented and attentive SAHM than kids raised by either working moms or unhappy SAHM’s, there are certain women would feel they should be home with their kids, but who genuinely struggle to make it work for them.

Is it possible to know which moms will be more likely to find real joy in being an SAHM?  Or, for that matter, if a mom has chosen to stay home, but is struggling with it, are there things she can do to feel better about her choice besides going back to work outside the home?

Here are a few things research can teach us about the circumstances that allow certain women to enjoy being a SAHM, along with some suggestions for those who value the role of being a SAHM but currently find little joy in it. (*See note below)

1. They Are Securely Attached

Research consistently shows that SAHM’s who were raised in affectionate, affirming homes that were stable, emotionally supportive, and employed consistent, gentle discipline are much more likely to enjoy being SAHM’s than less securely-attached women.  The term “attachment” refers to the degree a child has a gut-level sense that she can count on her parents to provide the temporal and emotional support and guidance she needs to thrive.

By contrast, women raised in less emotionally-affirming families-of-origin tend to exhibit either anxious or avoidant attachment.

Anxiously-attached women tend to be extremely scrupulous about their parenting, constantly worrying that every little misstep will ruin their children.  Their constant fear of failure and hypersensitivity to perceived (or actual) criticism makes it hard to truly enjoy anything about being home with their kids.  These SAHMs tend to experience both an extremely high commitment to being a SAHM with very low satisfaction in their role.  Depression can be a symptom of laboring under the constant weight of feeling that they are always wrong, always, failing, and never good-enough no matter how hard they try.

Likewise, avoidantly-attached women raised in unaffectionate, unemotionally supportive families-of-origin tend to struggle to enjoy relationships in general.  Things like giving affection and being nurturing tends not to come naturally to them—and may even grate on them.  They tend to focus on the tasks of motherhood rather than cultivating rewarding relationships with their children. Although every mom gets tired of cleaning a room just to have to clean it again, avoidantly attached moms tend to primarily and almost solely view motherhood as a never-ending mountain of tasks that can never be completed. They may experience depression as a result of never being able to feel that they have accomplished anything.

WHAT TO DO: If you struggle in this area, the good news is that there is such a thing as “earned secure” attachment.  Anxiously attached women can learn to stop beating up on themselves, and avoidantly attached women can learn to enjoy being human beings rather than human doings. Books like Dr. Tim Clinton’s Attachments: Why You Love Feel and Act the Way You Do or Dr. Amir Levine’s Attached: The New Science of Adult Attachment are good places to start seeking healing. Professional counseling can also offer tremendous assistance in healing attachment wounds.

2. They Chose It

It is difficult to feel good about something that was forced on you.  Research shows that mothers who feel obliged to be SAHM’s primarily because of social pressure, or poor alternative child-care options, or other reasons, are more resentful of their role and more inclined to depression as a result.

 By contrast, mothers who choose to be SAHM’s primarily because they see, not just intellectual or practical value in the role, but also emotional value in nurturing a deep relational connection with their children, creating meaningful family experiences, and maintaining a cozy home are much more likely to experience real joy in their role.

WHAT TO DO:  In psychology, an external control fallacy is the mistaken belief that I am a helpless victim of my circumstances.  This unhealthy thinking pattern makes us passive-aggressively push back against our “fate,” causing us to “phone in” our effort which, in turn, leads to a sense that nothing matters, nothing is enjoyable, and I can do nothing to make my life more meaningful.  Anyone can fall into this trap, but avoidantly-attached moms are particular prone to this tendency.

There may well be compelling, practical reasons for being home with your children, but don’t ever let that stop you from bringing your creativity, your intelligence, and your whole self to the roles you choose to play—whatever they are!  Happy moms don’t always love every part of parenting, but they make sure to put their own stamp on what they do and the way they do it.  Even when they are struggling to find the energy to do it, they treat homemaking and child-rearing as worthwhile professions that they are committed to being accomplished at and taking joy in.    Research on burnout shows that when we feel uninspired by our work and roles, one key to recovery is making ourselves learn new ways to do what we feel are the “same old things.”  Each morning, ask yourself, “How will I create meaning, joy, and connection today?” Make these goals your priority, and resist the urge to simply coast through the day doing as little as possible, and doing it the same old way you always do. Books like Overcoming Passive-Aggression by Dr. Tim Murphy and The Corporal Works of Mommy (and Daddy Too!) by Lisa and Greg Popcak can be a huge help in these areas.  Counseling can also be a great help for reclaiming your sense of competence and creativity.

3.  They have supportive, involved husbands 

(and other supportive relationships).

A recent Today survey found that 46% of moms find their relationship with their husband more stressful than their relationship with their children.  These moms complained of critical, unhelpful, husbands who were poor helpmates around the house, disengaged fathers, and demanding spouses.

Happy SAHMs have husbands who are vocal about their support and praise for the work their SAHM wives do, are active helpers around the house, effective disciplinarians with the children, and engaged dads. Research by the Gottman Relationship Institute also shows that husbands of happy SAHM’s exhibit strong emotional intelligence; that is, they demonstrate both the ability to genuinely value and appreciate her perspective (even when they don’t agree) and an openness to respecting and learning from her expertise (as opposed to just going along to get along).

Happy SAHMs also do what they can to cultivate other supportive friendships, but it is important to note that having supportive friendships does not tend to make up for having an unsupportive spouse in terms of the risk of depression for SAHMs.

WHAT TO DO:  Know that you have a right to the support you need from your husband to be a great mom. If your husband is a greater source of stress than your kids, seek marriage help today.  Go to Retrouvaille.  Seek professional, marriage-friendly counseling.  If you were sick, you wouldn’t ask permission to go to the doctor.  Your husband doesn’t have to agree that you need counseling (in fact, he won’t if the current arrangement is “working” for him).  Talk to him about it, but whether he wants to or not, make the appointment.  Let him know you’re going with him or without him and you’d prefer he be part of the changes that are coming.  Get the help you need to have the husband you deserve and give your kids the father they need.

4. They Can Meet Their Needs.

Happy SAHMs  feel confident in their ability to meet their personal, financial and other needs—both on their own and with the support of the people in their life.  They are confident in their right to say to their husband, “Honey, I need your help with X.” whether that involves getting a shower in the morning, getting help with a discipline issue, getting assistance with household chores, or any other temporal, financial, emotional, relational, or spiritual need they have—and they are confident that such help will be forthcoming.

If their needs are not being met, they see it as a problem that must be solved, not as a trial that must be endured.  Silently.  With much sighing and hand-wringing because they dare to even have needs much less hope that one day they might be met. Depression can result from the accumulation of unmet needs and the hopelessness of ever being seen as anything but a vending machine.  Anyone can fall prey to this habit, but anxiously-attached moms are particularly prone to this tendency.

It is admittedly difficult to find the healthy balance that allows you to attend your children’s needs, your spouse’s needs and your own needs, but happy SAHMs see this as a challenge, not as an impossible dream.  They use their creativity, assertiveness, and intelligence to find ways to achieve balance, gather new tools, and get the support they need to get their needs met.  They work hard to avoid polarized thinking; acting like they have to constantly choose between meeting their needs or anyone else’s.  They recognize the challenges involved in maintaining good self-care, but see it as a task the requires ongoing collaboration and communication with their husband and children.

WHAT TO DO:  Stop assuming that you are supposed to be a super-hero who is not allowed to have or express your needs much less expect that they should be met.  On the days you spontaneously feel even slightly more connected to your “best self” write down the things that happened that made this possible.  Did you get more rest?  Exercise? Time to pray?  Did you do something enjoyable? Pace yourself differently?  Prioritize your relationships over certain tasks?  These are needs.  Prioritize them.  Talk with your husband and (to the degree that it is appropriate) your children, about how you can all work together to make these things happen on a regular basis.  If your spouse or family are either not receptive or hostile to this idea, seek professional help immediately.  This is an unhealthy dynamic that will undermine your mental health and the stability of your marriage and family if it is allowed to continue.

One book that can help you do a better job of identifying your needs and finding the balance that allows you to be a healthy, fulfilled SAHM is Then Comes Baby: The Catholic Guide to Surviving and Thriving in the First Three Years of Parenthood by Dr. Greg and Lisa Popcak.  And, as above, counseling can be a great help to developing these skills.

Bringing it Home

No doubt you can think of many other challenges that make the life of the SAHM a challenge, but chances are, most of these other things fit into one of the above categories.

The more you have the skills and resources associated with the above four categories, the more likely you will naturally be able to find real joy and meaning in your role as a SAHM.  By contrast, the more you oppressed (or depressed) you feel by your role as an SAHM, the more likely it is that you are missing some or all of the above.

No one can force you to be a SAHM.  If you genuinely don’t want to do it, you are certainly free to do something else.  There are many paths. But if there is any part of you that values the idea of being an SAHM, regardless of your personality or circumstances, you can find greater fulfillment if you commit to getting the resources you need to find meaning and joy in your role.  It might take time, and it might take a little more effort than you thought it might, but your happiness and wellbeing–and the happiness and wellbeing of your family—is absolutely worth it.

To discover more resources to help you be a happy, healthy, fulfilled mom, including professional, Catholic tele-counseling services, visit me at

*NOTE:  Presumably, all of the above information applies to stay-at-home-dads as well. My experience in counseling SAHDs over the years certainly suggests this to be the case. Unfortunately, there is currently not enough research on SAHD’s to be able to draw definitive conclusions.

St. Joseph: Our Father? – Part 1


Guest post by Dave McClow.

Fatherlessness has become an epidemic in our society:  43% of our kids grow up without fathers (US Census), approaching a catastrophe rivaling the 1918 flu pandemic when an estimated 56% of the world was infected.  Fatherlessness is devastating—legally, morally, psychologically, and spiritually. A shocking snapshot of our fatherless youth shows they comprise 63% of youth suicides (US Dept. Of Health/Census)–5 times the average; 90% of all homeless and runaway children–32 times the average; 85% of all children who show behavior disorders–20 times the average (Center for Disease Control); 80% of rapists with anger problems–14 times the average (Justice & Behavior, Vol 14, p. 403-26); and 71% of all high school dropouts–9 times the average (National Principals Association Report).

Fatherlessness is a Catholic problem in two ways:  1) because God is father, it creates a crisis of faith and is partly responsible for the rise of the religious “nones” (70% are millennials, 23% are adults, and 57% are men) and 2) it challenges how we evangelize the fatherless.

The antidote is men fully living out their faith as spiritual fathers by informally adopting our lost generation.  Our faith calls us to care for the “least” and the vulnerable (Mt. 25:40) and to “Go and make disciples of all nations” (Mt. 28:19)—that’s spiritual fatherhood; that’s the summit of being a man, and St. Joseph is our prototypical model.

How is St. Joseph a Spiritual Father?

St. Joseph took two roads to spiritual fatherhood: 1) through the incarnation, and 2) through participation in a new order of family.

God the Father, our real prototype of spiritual fatherhood (Eph. 3:14), asked St. Joseph to be Jesus’ father.  John Paul II says that even though his fatherhood is not biological, he is not just an “apparent” or “substitute” father.  Rather, he “fully shares in authentic human fatherhood and the mission of a father in the family“ (RC, 21).  How is this so?  As the Incarnation, Jesus’ whole purpose is to reveal the Father and true fatherhood (Jn 14:9).  And John Paul II explains that the Holy Family is inserted directly into the mystery of the Incarnation.  And so, though St. Joseph is not Jesus’ biological father, when he reveals, relives, and radiates the very fatherhood of God, he becomes Jesus’ authentic human, and I would add spiritual, father.  His masculinity is fully expressed in his spiritual fatherhood, as it should be for all men, first and foremost, even if they are not biological fathers.

A New Order of Family

“Who are my mother and brothers?  Whoever does the will of God is my brother, and sister, and mother” (Mt. 12:46-50; cf., Mk. 3:31-35; Lk 27-28).  Is Jesus trying to escape a stereotypical overbearing Jewish mother?  I don’t think so!  Instead, John Paul II believes Jesus is establishing a whole new order of family and parenthood based on obedience.  And who is more obedient than Mary?  Jesus is preparing her for the crowning event of her new spiritual motherhood at the foot of cross: “Son, behold your Mother” (Jn 19:26-27).  In the new order, Jesus gives us and the Church his own mother.

Similarly, St. Joseph, as Jesus’ spiritual father, can also be our father.  Spiritual fatherhood (or motherhood) includes any action of care for others, i.e., the corporal or spiritual works of mercy.

“Joseph did.…” These two words and their variants, “he took the child…and went…” define St. Joseph’s role in salvation history.  He is not known for what he said in the Gospels—he said nothing!  But he listens to God in his inner life—his dreams—and then does the hard thing!  He protects the Son of God and his mother through many obstacles and threats—spiritual fatherhood is always an adventure!  He cares for and educates a child who is not his own in obedience to God’s word.  And as a just and generous man, he is willing to sacrifice much.  He is a good spiritual father to Jesus, and to us.

Spiritual fatherhood, as the summit of masculinity, is open to any age.  For years I watched the 5th and 6th grade boys at my local parish mentor or shepherd the younger boys during Mass.  When men or boys live out who they are created to be as spiritual fathers, they become more themselves, more masculine; they follow St. Joseph, our model, in revealing, reliving, and radiating God’s fatherhood to others.  In Part 2 I will explore more of the practical side of St. Joseph’s spiritual fatherhood as priest, prophet, and king.

The fatherlessness of this generation will spread like a cancer if unopposed.  Catholic men must be a witness, exercising their God-given gender and masculinity as spiritual fathers.  Our Church and culture depend on us!  We must imitate our father St. Joseph in revealing, reliving, and radiating God’s fatherhood to spiritual children who are not our own.  To whom can you be a spiritual father in your neighborhood or parish today?


Guest post by Dave McClow  Associate Counselor, Pastoral Solutions Institute

Kids on My Mind: Parenting Changes Dad’s Brain!


We’ve known for quite a while that parenthood facilitates changes in mom’s brain that help her be more nurturing.  It turns out that being a hands-on parent changes dad’s brain too!

“Our findings add to the evidence that fathers, and not just mothers, undergo hormonal changes that are likely to facilitate increased empathy and motivation to care for their children,” said lead author Dr. James Rilling, an Emory University anthropologist and director of the Laboratory for Darwinian Neuroscience.

The study found that oxytocin, known to be the primary hormone in bonding, is more present in involved dads and that increased levels of this hormone stimulate the brain in unique ways.  Specifically…

This heightened activity in the caudate nucleus, dorsal anterior cingulate and visual cortex suggests that doses of oxytocin may augment feelings of reward and empathy in fathers, as well as their motivation to pay attention to their children, according to the study’s findings.

The study goes on to suggest that oxytocin therapy–in which a father is dosed with a nasal spray containing oxytocin–could be a helpful treatment for dads experiencing paternal postnatal depression (PPND–which affects up to 25% of new fathers) and makes it difficult for some dads to adequately connect with their children.

St. John Paul II’s theology of the body teaches us that reflecting on God’s design of our bodies can teach us a great deal about his intention for our relationships.  One of the primary conclusions of TOB is that we were created for connection and that every part of our being cries out for union with God and the people around us. Research like this really shows that God created fathers to be connected and affectionate with their children. Not only is doing so is good for baby’s brains  (previous studies show that affectionate fathers stimulate baby’s brain in ways that help the child regulate aggression) but affectionate connection also good for dad’s physiological sense of well being.  We were created for love, and our bodies speak to this truth. Dads can’t be whole unless they embrace the psychological, spiritual, and neurological invitation to love their children as God the Father loves us.

To learn more about becoming a father after God’s own heart, check out The Be-DAD-itudes: 8 Ways to Be An Awesome Dad



A Different Kind of Fatherhood for All Men?

Image via Shutterstock

Image via Shutterstock

A guest blog by Pastoral Solutions Institute pastoral counseling associate, Dave McClow, M.Div., LISW, LMFT.

The Ultimate Challenge, at least in this column, is about men and faith.  But today I will use an example of a fictional female character to illustrate a different kind of fatherhood.

C.S. Lewis’ The Great Divorce tells the story of a man from hell who takes a bus tour of Heaven. He sees some “bright Spirits.”  Amongst them is a lady surrounded by musicians, and boys and girls singing to her and honoring her.  The man notices her exquisite beauty but cannot remember if she was naked or not.  She was either naked, covered with “joy and courtesy,” or “her inmost spirit shone through the clothes.”

He wonders if this lady with “unbearable beauty” was Mother Mary herself.  But his guide quickly corrects, “Not at all….Her name…was Sarah Smith.”  On Earth she was no one special, but in Heaven, “She is one of the great ones.”  And the many young men and women are her sons and daughters.  The man is dumbfounded, saying she must have had a very large family.  The guide explains,

“Every young man or boy that met her became her son—even if it was only the boy that brought the meat to her back door. Every girl that met her was her daughter.”

The man asks, “Isn’t that a bit hard on their own parents?”

“No. There are those that steal other people’s children.  But her motherhood was of a different kind. Those on whom it fell went back to their natural parents loving them more. Few men looked on her without becoming, in a certain fashion, her lovers. But it was the kind of love that made them not less true, but truer, to their own wives.”

The woman was surrounded by animals as well.  This seemed a bit excessive for the man, but the guide responds:

“Every beast and bird that came near her had its place in her love.  In her they became themselves.  And now the abundance of life she has in Christ from the Father flows over into them.”

The man is amazed.  The guide continues,

“It is like when you throw a stone into a pool, and the concentric waves spread out further and further. Who knows where it will end? Redeemed humanity is still young, it has hardly come to its full strength.  But already there is joy enough in the little finger of a great saint such as yonder lady to waken all the dead things of the universe into life.”

Spiritual Fatherhood

Lewis illustrates a different kind of motherhood.  But what can Sarah Smith teach men?

  1. There is a “different kind of fatherhood” in Heaven which is first lived out on Earth! It is spiritual fatherhood.  It is for all men, even the average single or married man, with or without kids—not just the elite canonized saints.  Everyone you meet is your spiritual child, but especially the widow, the orphan, and “the least of them.” The calling of every Catholic man is to “go and make disciples of all nations.”
  2. How are we to live out spiritual fatherhood? Spiritual fathers are not possessive and do not use people for their own selfish gain. Paraphrasing Lewis’ lines regarding the animals, every person who comes near a man has his or her place in the man’s love as his spiritual child, and in him they become themselves.  When people meet true Catholic men living as spiritual fathers, they are loved deeply and become more themselves, who they are meant to be.  This “different kind” of love always implicitly or explicitly challenges them, sending them back to their lives with more love toward others.
  3. Lewis uses the image of a stone that creates ripples of concentric circles. In other words, God’s love must always be fertile and fruitful!  You must beget children who must beget children who must….You get the idea!  There is no infertility in Heaven!

St. John Paul II challenges biological fathers to be the stone that creates the ripples:  “In revealing and in reliving on earth the very fatherhood of God, a man is called upon to ensure the harmonious and united development of all the members of the family….”  This is the call for all men, as spiritual fathers, not just biological dads!

  1. There is a power in spiritual fatherhood!  As Lewis says, “Redeemed humanity is still young, it has hardly come to its full strength.”  But the joy in only one’s little finger can awaken “all the dead things of the universe into life.”  The ultimate power of love and joy culminates in the Resurrection.  In the same way, the love and joy of our spiritual fatherhood is the greatest power in the universe!

The ultimate power of and challenge to spiritual fathers: we both conceive spiritual children and resurrect them when wounded by sin through revealing and reliving “the very fatherhood of God” via our love and joy for them.  We then challenge them to a fertile love, to create their own ripple effects until they illuminate “all nations.”  “Arise, let us be on our way” (Jn. 14:31).

Soccer and the Sacred Heart: The Rhythm of Spiritual Fatherhood


A guest post by Pastoral Solutions Institute Associate Pastoral Counselor, Dave McClow, M.Div., LMFT.

June is the month of the Sacred Heart of Jesus.  Father’s day also falls within the month, and spiritual fatherhood ties these two together.

The human heart always operates in two directions—the muscle contracts and then relaxes.  If this rhythm is disrupted, you have earned a trip to either the ER or the undertaker.  There is also a rhythm of Catholic fatherhood—the rhythm of loving, then challenging; of being tender, then tough.  Disruption of this rhythm can create major problems for kids.


Chad played soccer.  His parents were highly successful professionals, trying to motivate Chad to pay attention and engage in the game with some intensity.  They were turning the situation into a life lesson:  “How do you expect to succeed if you can’t do this?”  There was a lot of criticism and pressure to perform.  Another team was using psych ops, trashing Chad and his team.  The way they talked, I would have sworn this was a U.S. Olympic competition, but Chad was in fourth grade! The parents assured me their behavior was mild compared to other parents.  Nevertheless, the results were predictable:  Chad was anxious, highly critical of himself, and impulsive, almost explosive at times.  He was performing to be loved, which left him only as good as his last performance.  The rhythm of Catholic fatherhood was broken, and they were all frustrated.

Sacred Heart and Spiritual Fatherhood

Jesus’ Sacred Heart teaches men a lot about this rhythm of fatherhood.  During his time on earth Jesus fathered no physical children (unless you believe the fiction writer Dan Brown).  But he was a spiritual father—a leader, mentor, and coach (and much more), to the twelve apostles and his other disciples!  He loved and challenged them.  It was the Heart of Jesus that revealed how his Father’s heart was turned towards his children—us—in love and mercy.  The Father’s heart is what we need to receive and what we are to give to others.  Scripture confirms the giving part, “The hearts of fathers will be turned back to the children” (Mal 3:24, 4:6; Lk 1:17; Sir 48:10).  Jesus actually became indignant, incensed, or irate at the disciples for hindering the little children from coming to him to be embraced, touched, and blessed  by him (Mk. 10:13-16).  He was tough on his disciples and tender towards the children in his spiritual fatherhood!

St. John Paul II reflected on the Sacred Heart quite a bit.  In talking about the gift of the Holy Spirit called piety (reverence, devoutness), he says, “the Spirit heals our hearts of every form of hardness, and opens them to tenderness toward God and our brothers and sisters” (May 28, 1989). From our sonship, tenderness flows toward God and is expressed in prayer that arises from our own poverty and void of chasing after earthly things, and then turns toward him for “grace, help, and pardon.” It is piety which directs us to trust God as “a good and generous Father” and to call him Abba (Gal. 4:4-7)!

This tenderness is manifested in meekness, a familial openness, toward our neighbor.  Meekness is not weakness!  Meekness is having the power to act or destroy, but not using it.  The Spirit infuses into us a new capacity to love others, making our “heart[s] participate in some manner in the very meekness of the Heart of Christ.”  Our spiritual fatherhood is made complete we when see others as part of the family of God, treating them with tenderness and friendliness.

Back to Soccer

I worked with Chad’s father to create new liturgies (rituals and routines) in their domestic church that communicated love to Chad.  He affirmed Chad as a son rather than just his performance.  And we shifted the focus from results, which Chad could not control, to his efforts—so while he might not always score a goal, he could always choose to play hard.  These changes made a huge difference.  Chad paid more attention, became more self-motivated, and everyone noticed the change.  In fact, in one game, he was playing hard, but they were losing badly.  He had put his shorts on backwards, and though it was not obvious, a friend started to harass him about it.  Normally Chad would have blown up, but instead he retorted, “Do you really think that’s the biggest problem we have here?”  I was amazed and laughed, saying, “I can’t even get adults to do this!”  Chad was feeling much more secure and loved.  The rhythm was back in right order:  love and challenge; tenderness and toughness. We had returned from Olympic tryouts to fourth grade soccer!

The Challenge

June is the month of the Sacred Heart.  It includes Father’s Day, which celebrates physical fatherhood.  But we must challenge all men to follow the Sacred Heart and be spiritual fathers, turning their hearts towards all fatherless children in tenderness, challenging them to be the best versions of themselves.  All men are called to reveal and relive the very fatherhood of God on Earth—this is spiritual fatherhood.

A Crisis In Catholic Fatherhood


A recent caller to my radio program said that she and her husband weren’t on the same spiritual level.  He didn’t go to mass or pray with her. He zoned out when she talked about the faith.  As a result, her children were starting to buck her efforts to form them in the faith.  The problem, as she saw it, was that “he’s a convert so it just isn’t reasonable for me to expect him to be in the same place that I am.”  Thinking that he might be a recent convert, I was hopeful that there might be some positive momentum to build on.  I asked her when her husband came into the church.

“Twenty-five years ago” was her surprising answer.

My initial reaction was to think this was an extreme case, but I wonder if it isn’t indicative of the reality in the church.  Catholics simply don’t expect husbands and fathers to do more than warm pews, and we think we’re lucky if we can get that.  In almost two decades of marriage ministry, I have spoken to Catholics around the world and I cannot count the number of times I have heard wives complain, on the one hand, that they do not have a husband who can share their spiritual life or help raise their kids in the faith but, on the other hand, simultaneously dismiss their own concern by saying in the next breath, “but I can’t expect him to be in the same place I am.”

Why in heaven’s name not?  We expect men to do all kinds of hard things; be faithful, provide for their families, be there for their kids, not abuse their wife or children, not drink to excess, be, generally speaking,  decent people.  Do all men do these things? Of course not, but when they don’t, we insist that there is a serious problems to be dealt with and we offer help and guidance to those who struggle with those problems.  Sadly,  for the most part, when Catholics hear that that a father doesn’t know how to take point, spiritually, at home, we collectively shrug. “That’s just the way men are.”

True, Catholic men’s ministries are trying to address this problem, but in all but a few instances these ministries are struggling for survival.  Why?  In my experience it is largely because Catholics don’t really expect men to be intentional disciples.  Furthermore, with so many crises in the world, it’s hard to find the energy to prioritize what seems like a middle-class problem. We just don’t appreciate the true social cost of spiritually absent fathers.

But it is a huge problem for both our Church and society as a whole.  One major study found that children raised in households where fathers are not active in the faith have about a 3% chance of being faithful as adults.  Concerned with social justice?  Another major study found that the biggest difference between those who rescued Jews during the Holocaust versus those who collaborated in the persecution or simply stood silently by was not their levels of church involvement or educational attainment, political affiliation, or socioeconomic status.  The biggest difference was that rescuers were raised in homes where fathers took the lead in forming their children’s character.

Why are fathers so important?  For the first several months of life, babies  do not know that they and their mothers are different people.  They grew inside their mothers and, once they are born, they continue to believe that they and their mother are one being.  Father, in a very real way, is experienced by baby as “the first other.”   Biologically and developmentally speaking, father is “the world” to the child.  If the role of mother is teaching baby how to think about the more private realms of life and home, it is the role of father to represent how “the world” works .  If mom is prayerful, the child might see prayer as important, but, primarily,  a private matter.  If dad is prayerful, the child is socialized to believe that prayer and faith are public, pro-social activities that are meant to positively impact the world.

The ability of fathers to be spiritually engaged in their families is not merely a quality of life issue.  It is a foundational crisis that is at the root of a host of serious social problems.  Church leaders must insist that Catholic men step into the spiritual vacuum in the home.  Catholic women must demand that their husbands open their hearts to becoming spiritual leaders.  Catholic men must challenge themselves to cultivate spiritual leadership skills like they learn anything else.  The future of our Church and our society depend on it.

Dr. Greg Popcak is the host of More2Life Radio and the author of many books, including The Corporal Works of Mommy (and Daddy Too)!  Visit him at

Pope Francis: The Heart of Spiritual Fathers

A guest post by Pastoral Solutions Institute Clinical Pastoral Counselor, Dave McClow, M.Div, LMFT.

Image via Shutterstock. Used with permission.

Image via Shutterstock. Used with permission.

Cardinal Kasper thinks that “heroism is not for the average Christian.” Can you hear Jesus say, “Be mediocre, as your heavenly Father is mediocre”?  Or, “If it is hard to do, don’t bother picking up your cross”?  Or, “Lay down your life if it’s convenient”?  I don’t think sooo….  Men need to be challenged!  They need to be loved, but they definitely need to be challenged to live a heroic life.  In fact, I think that all men are created to live heroic lives as spiritual fathers, to make a difference in our world.  The real question is not if, but how, do we live heroic lives as spiritual fathers?  During Pope Francis’ recent visit, he provided some answers.

In a Catholic vision of masculinity, I have suggested that spiritual fatherhood is the summit of being a man.  Pope Francis speaks to this new order of fatherhood: “[A pastor] will enable his brothers…to hear and experience God’s promise, which can expand their experience of…fatherhood… (Mk 3:31-35)” (Meeting with Bishops, 11/27/15).  Jesus instituted this new spiritual family or household when he said, “whoever does the will of God” is my family (Mk 3:35).

What gets in the way of living out a heroic life as a spiritual father?  Since the fall of Satan there has been a battle that creates fear in the world!  Pope Francis proclaims, “Bishops [spiritual fathers] need to be lucidly aware of the battle between light and darkness being fought in this world” (To the US Bishops, 11/23/15); and he encourages us to teach our “children to be excited by every gesture aimed at overcoming evil” (WMF, 11/27/15).

Pope Francis believes that our consumer culture that “discards everything” is destructive, saying it produces “a radical sense of loneliness.” We seek empty things including “accumulating ‘friends’ on [a] social network.”  The result: “[l]oneliness with fear of commitment in a limitless effort to feel recognized” (Meeting with Bishops, 11/27/15).

I think that fear is at the root of most, if not all, sin and always disrupts love and relationships.

What is the remedy to fear?  It is heroic spiritual fatherhood, which always starts with receiving love in the heart! The Apostle John writes, “There is no fear in love, but perfect love drives out fear” (1 Jn 4:18). Pope Francis chimes in, “‘[L]ove consists in this, not that we have loved God but that he loved us’ first (1 Jn 4:10). That love gives us a profound certainty: we are sought by God; he waits for us.  It is this confidence which makes disciples encourage, support and nurture the good things happening all around them” (WMF 11/27/15).

Pope Francis speaks of the heart: “It will do us good to think back on our lives with the grace of remembrance.…of the amazement which our encounter with Jesus Christ awakens in our hearts” (Vespers, 11/24/15).  Memory is the key to the heart and to our faith!

Maybe you have not had this amazing encounter with Christ.  You must find ways to experience his love in your heart as a beloved son!  Talk to your priest or someone you know who is living the faith.  Go to a conference; go to a men’s meeting; go on retreat; listen to Catholic radio; or start reading the Gospel of John.  And above all else, start talking to God as a friend, which is simply prayer.  You can’t give what you don’t have!

If you have had this amazing encounter with Christ, remember it, relive it!  Our identity is based on remembering who we are in Christ, and it leads us to joy.  “[T]he joy of men…who love God attracts others to him” (Vespers, 11/24/15).

Authentic Catholic men receive love as sons and offer it as spiritual fathers.  Love must be encountered, received, and experienced in our heads, hearts, and hands for us to be fully integrated or wise.

How do we heroically live out love as spiritual fathers?  Pope Francis explains, “[a] grateful heart is spontaneously impelled to serve the Lord and to find expression in a life of commitment to our work. Once we come to realize how much God has given us, a life of self-sacrifice, of working for him and for others, becomes a privileged way of responding to his great love” (Vespers, 11/24/15).

Our response to this love must be lived heroically, but not necessarily conspicuously.  The Pope states that happiness and holiness are “always tied to little gestures….These little gestures are those we learn at home, in the family….quiet things.…little signs of tenderness, affection and compassion….small daily signs which make us feel at home” (WMF, 11/27/15).  As spiritual fathers living out our priesthood, we must give blessings and hugs upon awakening or before bed.  We must have little ways of acknowledging our friends and co-workers.  Our daily liturgy consists of these little rituals and routines that communicate our love for others.  Moreover, “the heart of the Pope [and spiritual fathers] expands to include everyone. To testify to the immensity of God’s love is the heart of [our] mission…”

Pope Francis knows “there is always the temptation to give in to fear [and self-pity].” “But we also know that we have been given a spirit of courage and not of timidity” (To the US Bishops, 11/23/15).  To conquer fear, we must experience and remember in our hearts God’s love for us as sons.  This will “impel” us to action with “boundless generosity,” sacrifice, and love for our spiritual children—our neighbor and the fatherless.  We must then challenge our spiritual sons to live from their hearts as spiritual fathers.

On St. Joseph’s Feast Day, 15 Reasons Dads Matter (#15 Will Shock You!)

Image via Shutterstock

Image via Shutterstock

St. Joseph is the Patron of Fathers and in honor St Joseph’s Feast Day today (March 19th), I thought it would be good to take some time to remind us all how important dads are.  Check out these great dad facts!  (Teaser:  I saved the most surprising fact for last!)

1.  Fathers’ interaction with babies (engaging in cognitively stimulating activities, emotional warmth, physical care) reduced their infants’ chances of experiencing cognitive delay

2.  Children whose fathers are involved in rearing them (“sensitive and responsive fathering”) fare better on cognitive tests and in language ability than those with less responsive or involved fathers.

3.  Fathers who are involved in their children’s schools and academic achievement, regardless of their own educational level, are increasing the chances their child will graduate from high school, and perhaps go to vocational school, or even to college.

4.  A fathers’ involvement in children’s school activities protects at-risk children from failing or dropping out.

5. Positive father involvement decreased boys’ problem behaviors (especially boys with more challenging temperaments) and better mental health for girls.

6. Fathers who are more involved with their children tend to raise children who experience more success in their career.

7.  Fathers being involved in their children’s lives protects against risk factors that pose harm for children (such as problematic behavior, maternal depression and family economic hardship).

8.  Father involvement is associated with promoting children’s social and language skills.

9.  Involved fathering is related to lower rates of child problem behaviors, including hyperactivity, as well as reduced teen violence, delinquency, and other problems with the law.

10.  Father involvement is associated with positive child characteristics such as increased: empathy, self-esteem, self-control, feelings of ability to achieve, psychological well-being, social competence, life skills, and less sex-stereotyped beliefs.

11.  Children in foster care who have involved fathers are more likely to be reunited with their families and experience shorter stays in foster homes.

12.  Children who grow up in homes with involved fathers are more likely to take an active and positive role in raising their own families. For example, fathers who recall a secure, loving relationship with both parents are more involved in the lives of their infants and more supportive to their wives.

13.  Both men and women who remember having loving, supportive fathers had high life satisfaction and self-esteem.

14.  Educational programs that successfully increased father involvement produced positive changes in children’s behavior.

15.  Most importantly, when it comes to passing our faith and values on to our kids it is critical for fathers to take the lead. When mom and dad are regular churchgoers, 33% of their children will be regular churchgoers and 41% will at least attend irregularly.  BUT SHOCKINGLY WHEN DAD ALONE IS A CHURCHGOER, FAITH RETENTION RATE ARE EVEN HIGHER!  It turns out 38% of children with irregular churchgoing mothers but active fathers grow up to attend church regularly and 44% of children with non-active churchgoing moms but faithful dads grow up to go to church regularly.

Obviously that doesn’t mean moms shouldn’t go to church with their families, but it does mean that the more committed and active dads are, the more likely it is that the children will follow his lead with regard to faith and values even when mom isn’t involved.  By contrast, if the father is an irregular churchgoer and the mother regular, only 3 percent of the children will subsequently become regulars themselves, while a further 59 percent will become irregulars. Thirty-eight percent will be lost.  LIKEWISE if the father is non-practicing and mother regular, only 2 percent of children will become regular worshipers, and 37 percent will attend irregularly. Over 60 percent of their children will be lost completely to the church!

The bottom line?  Dads matter. A lot.  For more thoughts on ways to be a great, involved, faithful dad, check out Parenting with Grace (especially our “Dad’s Da Man!” chapter) and Then Comes Baby (especially our chapters on involved fatherhood).  And Happy Feast of St. Joseph!


(Facts gathered from: Bronte-Tinkew et al., 2008; Chang et al., 2008; Flouri, 2008; Lamb & Lewis, 2004; Lamb & Tamis-Lemonda, 2004; Pleck & Masciadrelli, 2004; Sarkadi et al., 2008; Haug & Warner, 2000)


The Prodigal Father: Benedict XVI on Fathering

Check out this great post on Catholic fatherhood by Dave McClow.  Dave works for me as a clinical pastoral counseling associate with the Pastoral Solutions Institute’s Tele-Counseling Practice. He has some great insights.  I hope you enjoy!

The “prodigal father” is the story of our time It is the story of fatherlessness in our families.  Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI is and has always been highly aware of the crisis of fatherhood and its implications for society (see my previous blog).  He knows that when fatherhood is gutted, “something in the basic structure of human existence has been damaged” (The God of Jesus Christ, p. 29).  But he is also supremely insightful about what happens in the family, both positively and negatively, because of fathers! Let’s start out with the problems:

Prodigal Fatherhood

“A theologian has said that to­day we ought to supplement the story of the Prodigal Son with that of the prodigal father. Fathers are often entirely occupied by their work and give more wholehearted attention to their work than to their child, more to achievement than to gifts, and to the tasks implied by those gifts. But the loss of involvement of the father also causes grave inner damage to the sons” (God and the World, pp. 274-275).

I’m not sure why he leaves out daughters, but the effect is just as devastating for daughters.  Are you leaving behind the gift of your children for busy-ness or business?  Are you too task and achievement oriented?  Part of this over-focus is the religious nature of our masculinity—our natural inclination toward sacrifice for a cause.  This is masculine spirituality that is often not acknowledged by men or women.  If men can’t relate to God as men, they turn to things which are not ultimate—that is, to things Scripture calls idols.  This is why work, hobbies, and sports can become all-consuming.

Fear is another component of turning to non-ultimate things.  Sometimes a lot of men view the murky waters of relationships and emotions at home like a foreign country to be feared. They would rather turn elsewhere to feel like a success.  We need to invoke my vote for St. John Paul II’s #2 motto (after “Totus Tuus, Totally yours, Mary”), “Be not afraid!”  We need to have courage!  There is nothing wrong with work, hobbies, or sports, but they must be rightly ordered—they must not take precedence over people or God.  Even virtues in the extremes become vice.

As Pope, Benedict XVI includes in the problem list broken families, worries, and money problems, along with “the distracting invasion of the media” in our daily life.  All of these things “can stand in the way of a calm and constructive relationship between father and child.” “It is not easy for those who have experienced an excessively authoritarian and inflexible father or one who was indifferent and lacking in affection, or even absent, to think serenely of God and to entrust themselves to him with confidence” (General Audience, January 30, 2013).


He nails the problems of modern life including technology; and the perennial problems of fathers who can be excessively rigid, indifferent, lacking in affection, or even absent.  These things damage our view of God and make it difficult to trust.  Next, as Cardinal Ratzinger, he contrasts two very different fathers: Zeus and God the Father.

If we look for a moment at pagan mythologies, then the father-god Zeus, for instance, is portrayed as moody, unpredictable, and willful: the father does incorporate power and authority, but without the corresponding degree of responsibility, the limitation of power through justice and kindness (God and the World, pp. 274-275).

If you are the kind of father who wants your kids to obey just because you’re the father, you’re in the Zeus camp, which uses the power and authority of the role without the responsibility which limits that power through justice and kindness.  This father uses domination and fear to lord it over the kids and demands obedience.  Consequently, because they don’t like the master/slave relationship, the kids usually have a temper problem and find ways to rebel.  Or as Protestant apologist Josh McDowell has aptly put it, “Rules without relationship leads to rebellion.”  The master/slave idea is found more in Islam, a word which means submission. Allah is not a loving Father—in fact, this idea is blasphemous to a Muslim.  Allah is an all-powerful God who must be obeyed.

God the Father as our Model

Zeus shows us how not to be a good father.  The Pope Emeritus says that Scripture helps us know of “a God who shows us what it really means to be ‘father’; and it is the Gospel, especially, which reveals to us this face of God as a Father who loves” (General Audience, January 30, 2013). The Father uses power and responsibility with justice and kindness, which is a more relational approach. As Cardinal Ratzinger, he unpacks this idea:

The Father as he appears in the Old Testament is quite different [from Zeus], and still more in what Jesus says about the Father: here, power corresponds to responsibility; here we meet a picture of power that is prop­erly directed, that is at one with love, that does not dominate through fear but creates trust. The fatherhood of God means devotion toward us, an acceptance of us by God at the deepest level, so that we can belong to him and turn to him in childlike love. Certainly, his fatherhood does mean that he sets the standards and corrects us with a strictness that manifests his love and that is always ready to forgive (God and the World, pp. 274-275).

So the Father loves us first (1 Jn.) and is devoted to us, and this love creates trust, acceptance, and belonging!   (READ MORE)


Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI on the Crisis of Fatherhood

“Something in the basic structure of human existence has been damaged!”

A Guest Blog by Dave McClow, M.Div., LCSW, LMFT, a clinical pastoral counseling associate of the Pastoral Solutions Institute.

I am a collector of quotes (well…books, too), and I am thinking through a theology of masculinity.  I think a theology of what it means be to a man culminates in spiritual fatherhood always, and at times in biological fatherhood that is lived out in chivalry as priest, prophet, and king.  Manhood certainly includes and passes through sonship, brotherhood, and husbandhood.  These states of being always have a spiritual side, and only sometimes is there a physical side as brother or husband.  I’ll write more about those things later.  Our culture has inflicted a sustained attack on men and fatherhood, which has resulted in soaring rates of fatherlessness, creating dire consequences for individuals, families, and societies (see my previous blog). I wanted to highlight a few quotes from Cardinal Ratzinger, and later from Pope Benedict XVI, on the crisis of fatherhood, which he sees as a threat to human existence.  These quotes support my call for the Church to lead the way in developing a theology of masculinity.

The Crisis

Of course spiritual and biological fatherhood have their roots in God’s Fatherhood (Eph 3:14), and human fatherhood has a tremendous impact on our perception of and relationship with God.  In 2001, in an address to a congregation in Palermo, Italy, Cardinal Ratzinger basically argues that if you destroy human fatherhood, you destroy humanity.  (A similar case could be made for

God himself “willed to manifest and describe himself as Father.” “Human fatherhood gives us an anticipation of what He is. But when this fatherhood does not exist, when it is experienced only as a biological phenomenon, without its human and spiritual dimension, all statements about God the Father are empty. The crisis of fatherhood we are living today is an element, perhaps the most important, threatening man in his humanity. The dissolution of fatherhood and motherhood is linked to the dissolution of our being sons and daughters.”motherhood.)


Later in this talk he appears to link this threat to humanity with the ability to turn people into numbers and exterminate them in concentration camps.  He restates the threat in the book The God of Jesus Christ: Meditations on the Triune God:

The crisis of fatherhood that we are experiencing today is a basic aspect of the crisis that threatens mankind as a whole. Where fatherhood is perceived only as a biological accident on which no genuinely human claims may be based, or the father is seen as a tyrant whose yoke must be thrown off, something in the basic structure of human existence has been damaged (p. 29).


This a powerful indictment of our culture that ridicules men and makes fathers irrelevant, from TV programs, through Government programs, to the ability to conceive babies outside of a sexual relationship—indeed “something in the basic structure of human existence has been damaged.” Cardinal Ratzinger continues his connection between the destruction of human fatherhood and our perceptions of God’s fatherhood:

Human fatherhood can give us an inkling of what God is; but where fatherhood no longer exists, where genuine fatherhood is no longer experienced as a phenomenon that goes bey

ond the biological dimension to embrace a human and intellectual sphere as well, it becomes meaningless to speak of God the Father. Where human fatherhood disappears, it is no longer possible to speak and think of God. It is not God who is dead; what is dead (at least to a large extent) is the precondition in man that makes it possible for God to live in the world. The crisis of fatherhood that we are experiencing today is a basic aspect of the crisis that threatens mankind as a whole (The God of Jesus Christ, p. 29).

Cardinal Ratzinger is not known to exaggerate!  Clearly he sees a threat to humanity in the attack on fatherhood.  St. John Paul II would agree with the nature and scope of the problem and points out that it is not a new attack: “Original sin, then, attempts to abolish fatherhood, destroying its rays which permeate the created world, placing in doubt the truth about God who is Love and leaving man only with a sense of the master-slave relationship” (Crossing the Threshold of Hope, p. 228, emphasis in original).

The Damage and the Remedy

The damage to our existence is that men and thus God are seen only as tyrants.  While some men are tyrants, most are not.  Those who are tyrants definitely need our help to live out authentic masculinity and fatherhood.  We, as the Church, need to lead the way in defining masculinity and fatherhood.

God is most certainly not a tyrant.  In fact, he goes to extreme lengths to demonstrate this: he allows us to be the tyrants, complete with murderous rage toward him, and he allows us to kill him.  No one is exempt from this responsibility. It is no mistake that in the Palm Sunday and Good Friday readings of the Passion it is we in the pews who speak the line “Crucify him!”  And what is the response of Jesus?  “Father, forgive them, they know not what they do” (Lk. 23:34).  If the Father or Jesus were going to be a tyrant here, humanity should have been wiped off the face of the earth for merely threatening the Son of God with death.  Instead, God the Father is demonstrating his love through Jesus on the cross by absorbing, and loving us in spite of, our rage, our shame, and our sin.  I think this is one of the most profound psychological truths of our faith: we are loved even when we rage at God. There is nothing more extreme and nothing more healing.  The world would be a different place if we were to allow Jesus to absorb our shame and rage as he came to do—if we were to direct our rage for others toward him, have him absorb it all, and receive his tender love for us.  The cross is God’s antidote to this attack on fatherhood—it destroys the perception of God as a master and tyrant, revealing him as the true Father that he is.

God’s Fatherhood, Memory, and Our Identity

Pope Benedict XVI further develops the importance of the proper view of God’s Fatherhood.  To remember that God is a good and loving Father helps us know who we are—it forms our identity!  Identity is critical for us as human persons.  I might say that most, if not all, psychological disorders come from identity problems, especially through distortions that come from abuse and neglect.  Benedict gave this reflection on the Sunday readings in a homily at the World Meeting of Families in 2006:

Esther’s father had passed on to her, along with the memory of her forebears and her people, the memory of a God who is the origin of all and to whom all are called to answer. The memory of God the Father, who chose a people for himself and who acts in history for our salvation. The memory of this Father sheds light on our deepest human identity: where we come from, who we are, and how great is our dignity. Certainly we come from our parents and we are their children, but we also come from God who has created us in his image and called us to be his children. Consequently, at the origin of every human being there is not something haphazard or chance, but a loving plan of God. This was revealed to us by Jesus Christ, the true Son of God and a perfect man. He knew whence he came and whence all of us have come: from the love of his Father and our Father.

Memory and remembering are integral parts of our faith, the Eucharist—“Do this in remembrance of me,” and our identities.  Think of the devastation families feel when their par

ents’ memory is gone and they don’t remember their children.  Knowing and remembering our true Father in heaven is crucial for our identities.  It lets us know we are his children and that we are loved even when we have trouble loving him.  Holy Mother Church is not unaware of the difficulties that parenting blunders create for her children and suggests that they must be cleansed and purified:


2779 Before we make our own this first exclamation of the Lord’s Prayer, we must humbly cleanse our hearts of certain false images drawn “from this world.” … The purification of our hearts has to do with paternal or maternal images, stemming from our personal and cultural history, and influencing our relationship with God. God our Father transcends the categories of the created world. To impose our own ideas in this area “upon him” would be to fabricate idols to adore or pull down. To pray to the Father is to enter into his mystery as he is and as the Son has revealed him to us. (See also 239)




There is a crisis of fatherhood. If fatherhood and men are seen only as “biological accidents” to be ridiculed or as “tyrants” to be thrown off, then God the Father’s face is so disfigured that it is not recognizable and our identities are distorted threatening life itself—indeed “something in the basic structure of human existence has been damaged.”  A theology of masculinity is needed—one that restores the basic structure of human existence:  fatherhood.  Men are spiritual sons, brothers, and husbands first, but the summit of being a man is being spiritual fathers always, and biological fathers sometimes. If the summit of being a man is spiritual fatherhood, then the source and model of that fatherhood is God the Father.  This needs to be proclaimed from the pulpit regularly as a part of the New Evangelization to form men to be authentic spiritual fathers.


Men of God, in the meantime, begin your own work in prayer and purification of the false parental images that distort the Father’s true face.  Tear down the idols! If you get stuck, get help!  Start the healing: talk to a priest, a friend, or a counselor; go to a men’s group; or call us at the Pastoral Solutions Institute