Messy Families Are Holy Families
Steubenville’s Mike and Alicia Hernon launched the ‘Messy Family Project’ in 2015 to help Catholic parents strengthen their families against the tide of a hostile culture.
Mike and Alicia Hernon of the Messy Family Project have been married for 25 years and are the parents of 10 children. They acknowledge that marriage and parenthood can be “very messy,” but also describe it as a “great adventure.” Parenthood in secular Western culture is difficult, they believe, as Catholic parents are “communicating values to children that are antithetical to the culture.” Mike explained, “The world is in crisis and the Church is in crisis, but we cannot let it take us away from our key role of forming our children.”
The Steubenville, Ohio, couple launched their apostolate in 2015 as a free podcast, and it has grown to include coaching for married couples, producing written materials and videos on parenting and building a family, organizing Catholic couple getaways and engaging in public speaking. Alicia said, “We share our parenting fails, but also our joys and our triumphs. We want parents to understand that no one can make the impact in their children’s lives as they can.”
Here is a recent conversation with the couple.
What are some things in American culture you find harmful to families?
Alicia: The family is under attack more than ever, and it is more than difficult to raise kids in a very secularized culture. We need to keep our families healthy and intact, as this is where God designed the human person to be formed. Families live in an environment of widespread divorce, widely accepted same-sex “marriage” and situations in which family and parental rights are under attack. Powerful institutions in society create harmful policies that basically declare, “We know how to take care of your children better than you do.”
Mike: I would also like to point out harmful things that can easily get to us through the internet, such as pornography, particularly among men, and social media, which can deliver harmful messages to our children.
When you speak with couples, what behaviors do you observe which are most harmful to family life?
Mike: One thing I hate to hear is parents saying they are too busy, and the end result is that they shuttle their kids around to caregivers and do not spend enough time with them. And it is not just work that can take up all a parent’s time, it could be a recreational activity such as watching sports.
Parents need to make time for their marriage and their children. People ask Alicia and me how we make time with 10 children. I give them a simple answer: we make time. When you say no to other things, you are saying yes to what is most important.
Alicia: Too many people are buying in to what the world says is most important. We need to make loving our families our top priority. We need to make loving our spouses our top priority.
Mike: Yes. If you want to be a great parent, you need to be an amazing spouse.
What are some of the key components of a strong family life?
Mike: We believe there are four disciplines of a Catholic family. First, the mom and the dad are spiritual leaders of the home. Second, the marriage is the primary relationship. Third, parents have the primary responsibility of forming their children. And fourth, you must intentionally grow a family culture.
Alicia: A family culture is a way of life, an unwritten set of beliefs and values that bind your family. We’ve seen all kinds of families, and some work great, and some do not. I think having a family that works well starts with building a strong, intentional family culture.
What advice might you offer to couples about strengthening their marriages?
Alicia: You have to know yourself. You have to know your own story, and what wounds you bring into a marriage. You don’t have to have it all figured out, but you do have to have some awareness of your own story. We see a high level of sexual abuse among women, for example, and you cannot successfully bring that into a marriage without acknowledging it. Or, if a man has had a past addiction to pornography, that needs to be acknowledged.
Mike: Relationships are built with the material of time. So, a daily connection between couples and regular date nights are important. It’s a simple thing to do; we know what is important to us by what is on our calendars.
We need to do regular check-ins: Hi, how are you doing, what’s going on? We recommend the bookends of coffee and wine, talking over coffee in the morning and a glass of wine in the evening. We like to, for example, get up at 5:30 a.m. and go on a walk together. That has been our time to exercise and talk. Consistent check-ins with each other is so important. They lead to stronger marriages, and your kids need the security of your marriage so that they can thrive. Kids need to see the witness of their parents’ love, in which they can bask and grow.
We’ve met young couples who tell us that they cannot find time to spend together. We respond, “You don’t understand, this is not an option.”
Alicia: Married couples need to grow in their intimacy, whether it be emotional, physical or spiritual intimacy. This includes being vulnerable and honest to one another.
What advice would you offer to couples struggling in their marriages?
Mike: Often it starts with getting back to basics. Are you preoccupied with “busyness?” Are you not spending time together? How can we each contribute to the success of this relationship? Are we dying to ourselves, are we giving of ourselves? Make a resolution to get up each morning and show your spouse that you love him or her. Too many people look at their marriage and ask, what am I getting from this? They should ask, what am I giving?
Alicia: They should also pray to God to bless their marriage. They must realize it is for their own good, that of their children, and society and the Church as a whole.
Also, no struggling marriage should be left on its own. Reach out for help. Seek professional counseling, or at least the advice of a good friend.
Should wives be submissive to their husbands?
Alicia: We recently did a podcast on this topic, as we’ve heard some opinions out there that we think are not quite right. We see men and women as having complementary roles, the dad as the head and the wife as the heart. This does not mean all decisions are made by the husband. He is not a dictator. He shouldn’t be vetoing everything he sees his wife doing that he does not like.
But having the husband be the spiritual leader of the home can be a powerful influence on the kids. What does that mean for the wife? She is allowing her husband to protect her. The wife, in turn, should be speaking words of wisdom to her husband, building him up. We’ve found that it is the temptation of the husband to be passive, and for the wife to be manipulative. She should instead be encouraging him to go out and slay the dragon and protect her and the children.
Mike: When we hear instances of the wife criticizing the husband, particularly in public, that is one of the absolute worst things that can happen. Men have a need and desire for respect.
What is the goal of your apostolate?
Mike: We see ourselves as part of the New Evangelization through the family. Our message is basic: submit your lives to God and recognize your marriage is your path to holiness. At this time when so many marriages are floundering, we try to offer some basic principles for success which point couples towards one another in a healthy way.