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.

Moms’ Response to Baby’s Cries May Indicate Unresolved Childhood Wounds/Need for Counseling

A new study suggests that the way a mom feels about responding to her child’s cries may indicate the presence of unresolved–and perhaps unrecognized–childhood wounds.shutterstock_215227429

The research found that moms who either come from healthy families-of-origin OR have successfully resolved their childhood issues tend to respond more sensitively and compassionately to their baby’s cries, seeing those cries as a call for help.  By contrast, moms who had not adequately come to terms with their own negative childhood experiences tended to focus on how their baby’s cries affected them. Moms in this latter group tended to experience a crying baby as manipulative or a nuisance.   Instead of being prompted to provide a nurturing response, these moms tended to worry about how they were going to get their own needs met if they responded to their child as much as their child seemed to need them.

“Responding sensitively to infant crying is a difficult yet important task,” notes Esther M. Leerkes, professor of human development and family studies at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, who led the study. “Some mothers may need help controlling their own distress and interpreting babies’ crying as an attempt to communicate need or discomfort.”   READ MORE

The study presents a powerful argument that moms who struggle to respond compassionately, promptly, and sensitively to their baby’s cries should not write their resistance off to a difference in parenting style, but rather see it for what it is, a sign that there may be work to do on healing from childhood wounds. Rather than experiencing these findings as a judgment, moms who struggle to be nurturing in response to infant crying should be encouraged that there are effective ways to resolve the inner-tension that robs them of the joy of motherhood.

While every parent has off days, if you habitually tend to feel that you are in competition with your child to get your needs met, or experience your child’s cries as manipulative or a nuisance, contact the Pastoral Solutions Institute’s tele-counseling practice (740-266-6461) to learn more about how you can begin to heal your childhood hurts and free your heart to love your child the way God intends him or her to be loved.  You can get your needs met while being present to your child.  Let us show you how.

“Mothers Aren’t Important” Or Another Reason “Nobody Does Childhood Like the English”

Years ago, Mike Myers had a character on SNL called, “Simon.”  The segment would often show Myers as a little boy in a bathtub cheerfully and guilelessly talking about his awful family life, which he took completely in stride and wrote off with the catchphrase, “Because nobody does childhood like the English!”

I doubt anyone else remembers the segment, but as a family therapist, it stuck with me.  Well, flash forward a few decades later and The Guardian gives us another great example of why Simon was right with this article by columnist Catherine Deveny,     I’ve copied part of it here for your convenience but you should go read the whole thing.    My response to the article is below.

Being a mother is not the most important job in the world. There, I said it. Nor is it the toughest job, despite what the 92% of people polled in Parents Magazine reckon.

For any woman who uses that line, consider this: if this is meant to exalt motherhood, then why is the line always used to sell toilet cleaner? And if being a mother is that important, why aren’t all the highly paid men with stellar careers not devoting their lives to raising children? After all, I never hear “being a father is the most important job in the world”.

The deification of mothers not only delegitimises the relationship fathers, neighbours, friends, grandparents, teachers and carers have with children, it also diminishes the immense worth and value of these relationships. How do gay dads feel about this line, I wonder? Or the single dads, stepdads or granddads? No matter how devoted and hard working you are, fellas, you’ll always be second best.  READ THE REST HERE.

So let me take a moment to respond to Ms. Deveny because despite the snark, she raises some important questions.  Namely, why is motherhood so important?

Motherhood and The Music of Life

People have a tendency to think that babies don’t start learning until birth, but that isn’t true.  Research shows that babies are learning the entire time they are in the womb.  In particular, they are bonding to mom, learning her voice, listening to the music of her body and using that “music” to begin setting the rhythms of their own body (this process of learning to set the rhythms of their body to the rhythms of mom’s body will continue after birth for quite some time and is called “entrainment”).    The entire time baby is in the womb, he is learning to have a special relationship with mom that will continue for many months after birth.  Dads are important, but as the linked study shows, mom’s relationship is primary and unique.

Motherhood is the most important job because without mothers, life would not exist.  Yes, the man contributes sperm and the woman contributes an egg but the woman provides the environment for that life to grow–and only the woman can do this.  This is part of the “feminine genius” Pope John Paul II referred to and it is not incidental to the development, not just of a viable baby, but also to the development of a human person who is capable of neurological and emotional regulation.    Although it flies in the face of common parenting practices, the reason that mom continues to be primary to the child after birth is that because he has been listening to the “music” of mom’s voice and body (and has been learning to set the rhythms of his body to her music for the last 9 mos) it is actually jarring to the baby’s development to not be able to hear that music after he is born.  Over the next few months and years the baby will be learning many other “tunes” (Dad, Grandma and Grandpap, etc) and discover their own unique beauty, but for the first several months of life–really almost the first two + years–the baby’s body needs to learn mom’s song first so that his body and brain rhythms can be synched to hers.

The Best Music Teacher:  Mom vs. Many

Imagine that it is your job to learn a difficult song.  Imagine that the person teaching that song to you keeps patiently humming that same song over and over.  Bit by bit, you learn each measure, each key change, each crescendo and decrescendo until you have mastered the song.  Although we are using poetic language, the “song” in this metaphor represents the neurological work that is going on in the baby’s body. The baby has been taught in the womb to listen to mom’s body to learn to set his biological rhythms.  Those rhythms are not completely established at birth.  For instance, babies still get days and nights mixed up, they can’t reset their heart and respiration after stress on their own, they can’t self-soothe.   They need another person’s body to help them do that.  Mom’s body is actually best suited–biologically and neurologically speaking– for this job.  The more mom keeps baby close to her, the easier the child feels it is to learn the neuro-biological “song” that wires the different parts of his brain that enable him to have good emotional health, biological regulation and relational acuity.

Now, other people can soothe the baby, but their body sings a different music.  It may be beautiful in its own way, but it is different.  If someone else tries to comfort the baby the child will be confused, at least at first.  He has not been taught to listen to this strange song and will fight it at first because his brain and body viscerally react to the different rhythms contained in this other persons’ “song”; rhythms that conflict with the neurological  song the baby has been learning from mom for months in utero.  Imagine having to learn a very complicated bit of music, but instead of hearing the same bit of music over and over again, you hear a half dozen songs covering a half dozen different genres (classical, hip hop, rock, alternative) and then you are tested on how well you’ve learned that original, complicated piece; that very piece of music that is supposed to serve as the neurological foundation for the rest of your life.

Many Songs = Attachment Deficits

Eventually, most babies cared for by someone other than mom can learn to put enough of a song together to learn to at least basically regulate their neurological and emotional systems.  These babies will exhibit some degree of secure attachment but they will not be as securely attached as a baby who got to spend the majority of his time with mom.  That said, the more people who are caregivers to a baby and the less consistent those caregivers are the harder it is for the baby to learn any song at all.  This child develops an attachment disorder which, more than a psychological problem, is a neurological disorder that indicates that the child has not developed the structures of his brain that are responsible for bodily/emotional regulation and interpersonal attunement.

More than anyone else, it is the mother who is primarily responsible for setting all the baby’s basic brain and body functions that not only allow a child to be born, but allow that child to be a human being capable of bodily/emotional regulation and interpersonal connection.  Without mom, this process is significantly, and sometimes catastrophically, impaired.  This work is not only important, it is challenging but it is absolutely worth it.  In fact, it is essential for the optimal development of the person.

Motherhood:  It’s Elementary

Of course there are many more reasons why motherhood is important and challenging, but the reasons articulated in this response to Deveny’s article are not widely-known and are often unappreciated by even the most sensitive parents and even professionals.  Biologically, neurologically, and psychologically speaking, motherhood is important in basic and essential ways that fatherhood is not.   Fatherhood is tremendously important, and dads bring many unique gifts to the parenting table, and their absence is profoundly felt, but motherhood brings the more essential, and, in many ways, more elementary gifts to the parenting table.

People like Deveny, who are ignorant of science and psychology and buy into the unscientific feminist paradigm that says gender is just a social construct and that the body doesn’t really matter don’t get motherhood, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t valuable.  It just means that that they are blind to reality.

If you’d like to learn more about how moms matter and how to help your children experience the attachment they need to become everything God created them to be, check out Parenting with Grace: The  Catholic Parents’ Guide to Raising (almost) Perfect Kids.