I am a therapist in private practice specializing in young adults with mood disorders such as depression and anxiety. I have also been in therapy for many years. Below are some of the mindsets and tools from my experiences that have helped me and my clients manage mood disorders and start living a more intentional life.
Understanding the Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT) model
Believing that self worth is inherent simply because you exist
Investing in yourself
Having a mantra
Surrounding yourself with content that lifts you up
Daring to be vulnerable
Finding your meditation
Remember that John Mayer song Daughters? You know the one, …”Fathers, be good to your daughters, daughters will love like you do, girls become lovers who turn into mothers, so mothers be good to your daughters too”. Women and religious trauma were probably not what John Mayer was calling to mind when he wrote it but it’s what I think of these days when I hear this song.
Religious trauma comes in many forms. I want to talk about the trauma that is inherent in all major world/patriarchal religions but isn’t talked about nearly as much as cults and fundamentalist trauma is. Patriarchal religions are fundamentally contradictory to womens’ healthy development of sense of self. The trauma women experience through the sexism and misogyny built into patriarchal religions is long lasting and deeply impactful. The oppression of women is infused into our culture, workforce, marriages, politics, entertainment and most costly, into our parenting and so much of it is greenlit and defended through religious teaching.
As both a mother of a daughter and an atheist it is incomprehensible for me to imagine teaching my child that she is subservient to males or that she is inherently sinful and should feel shame about her body, menstruation or sexuality. This is a person I love more than anything else in the world. Everyday since she was born my life has been centered around making sure she is safe, healthy and has everything she needs to thrive. Why would I ever consider teaching her that she is inferior to anyone, nevermind a whole gender? Let's really think about this for a minute.
Say that a devout christian couple has every intention of raising their future children in their religion. Okay fine. They are planning what they have been taught you do, raise your child in your religion. But then their first child is born, a daughter, and she is their whole world. They are loving dutiful parents. At six months or so they dress that precious baby girl up in a white gown and baptize her in a religion that will someday too soon shame her and oppress her. This choice defies every instinct we have as parents.They love their child so much. Yet they literally throw a party to celebrate an induction into a religion that openly and unapologetically disenfranchises their child. How can they go through with this now that they have this baby daughter in their arms? To a non religious person it must sound like a really messed up thing to do. This is your child. Don’t you want what is best for her? Why would you send her into a community that will work hard to uphold male superiority and power to her detriment?
I think that is a very good question and one every religious parents need to ask themselves. Parents, I know it's uncomfortable, more than uncomfortable, painful, intolerable even, but please do it anyway because your child is worth it. Your daughter deserves to have a chance to grow up believing she is equal in all ways to men.
When parents make the choice to raise their daughters in a patriarchal religion it plants a seed in the child. A seed that no amount of love, attention or encouragement can compensate for. That seed is a message of worthlessness. We are talking about a basic sense of humanism stripped from our daughters. You can’t believe in your own inalienable rights as a human and believe what patriarchal religion teaches about a woman's place at the same time. Those are fundamentally contradictory concepts.
The patriarchal religious teachings are not subtle either. “ Woman sinned first”, ”Women shall submit to their husbands” "Husbands are the head of the family and priesthood” “Women must remain pure for their husbands”. The expectations of women are loud and clear. Stay sweet, be good, serve others, be obedient, don’t question.
I do not believe that as an atheist the love I feel for my children is greater than the love christian, jewish or muslim parents feel for their children. I do believe that religious parents are avoiding a deeply uncomfortable truth about the cognitive dissonance involved when you choose to bring up your very loved child into a sexist, oppressive religion.
As a therapist I see the impact that being raised in a patriarchal, misogynistic religion has on the grown up daughters first hand. Many women struggle to deconstruct and untangle their sense of self worth from the religious teachings they were brought up with. It is common for women raised in religious families to struggle with anxiety, depression, and low self esteem. In some extremes the indoctrination has left women believing they are going to hell and undeserving of love.
Parents, we can do better by our daughters. Being good to our daughters means believing she is just as worthy a human as her father and brothers, as all men.
Conversations With Other Moms
If I had to pick the one thing that has helped me the most as a parent it would be the validating, authentic and vulnerable conversations I have had with other moms. Most of these conversations were casual and without agenda but they matter so much to me because they showed me what self compassion looks like.
When I first became a mom I had a colleague named Laurie. Laurie was an invaluable support for me during my early parenting years in many ways but the one conversation I still think about nearly 8 years later is when she shared that sometimes she yells at her kids to “fucking stop it”. Laurie is an amazing mom who parents with intention and gentleness so for her to be vulnerable enough to share that she loses it sometimes too resonated with me deeply and provided a helpful reframe when I struggle with feelings of inadequacies and guilt with my parenting
Having this one conversation on deck for moments like these has helped challenge that unkind voice in my head that is trying to convince me that I am a bad mom. It has helped remind me that we can hold more than one truth at the same time. It can be true that I am a loving parent who is doing a good job and also true that I yell at my kids sometimes that “I’ve had it with your fucking fighting”. I don’t love that I yell at my kids. I am not proud of it and I do not believe that it is the best way to handle a hard parenting moment. I also accept that I am an imperfect human who is doing a really hard thing and I’m trying my best.
We may not even realize how much it means to other moms when we are vulnerable and authentic with them. When we risk showing our messy, imperfect lives while being compassionate towards ourselves we are modeling self-acceptance and challenging that mean and unhelpful inner dialogue that so many moms have inside that just doesn't serve us. I don’t beat myself up nearly as much when I mess up and I try to look at the times when I do lose my cool as a signal that it’s time for some selfcare so I can recharge and come back to parenting with more patience. And you know what? Since I started being kinder towards myself I noticed that I yell less often and have more patience. To a self-judging mom, being kinder towards yourself, ESPECIALLY when you’ve just messed up, might sound counterintuitive but this one shift has been transformative for my parenting, and my overall mental health.
Jennifer Simmons is a Licensed Professional Counselor and owner of Open Minds Counseling LLC located in Durham, CT. She provinces compassionate mental health services and is a passionate feminist committed to helping women heal and deconstruct the patriarchy.