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How My Traumatic Religious Upbringing Shaped Me Into A Better Parent

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Distraught woman praying

My Traumatic Religious Upbringing Has Shaped Me Into A Better Parent

Yes, I know that’s a controversial statement. And having spent years in recovery from religious trauma (and still a long way to go), it’s not a path to parental enlightenment I’d particularly recommend.

But in the decade and a half since escaping the strict, destructive religious world I was raised in, losing and rediscovering my own personal faith, and becoming a mom, I have armed myself with a few guidelines on how I intend to raise my daughter in the safest possible relationship with religion. 

Unlike my own upbringing, I won’t shame her for her body or sexuality. 

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Having had the unfortunate luck to grow up in conservative evangelical Christianity in the thick of the purity movement of the 90s, I endured endless lectures on keeping myself “pure” until marriage. As with many like-minded pastors at the time, mine seemed to especially enjoy the comparison of young women’s bodies to a stick of chewing gum.

Even as much as a kiss — or dare I say — front/normal hug, would ensure that my future spouse (ahem, husband, obviously) would not want to touch me because who wants to chew a piece of used chewing gum? 

“Dress modestly, girls!” demanded my pastor. “Do not lead young men astray by dressing seductively.” 

Parents, word of advice: if a spiritual leader — or anyone — ever says something even remotely similar to your child, RUN. My pastor obviously had deep, troubling issues with women and sexuality and was projecting his own mindset onto the congregation. As an adult, and now a parent, it gives me chills to realize how many parents in the church, mine included, did not see that.

Sadly, for years after I completely left the evangelical moment, I felt shame about my body and sexuality. The pastors, media, and culture I was exposed to so early in my life left emotional scars I've yet to even name. I have come to terms with the fact that this will be an area of my deconstruction journey that I will always be recovering from. But it's a trauma I'm determined my own daughter will never know.

She will also never know what it is like to grow up in constant fear of sin, pain, death, and hell.

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I remember the fire and brimstone messages of my childhood pastor all too well.

“Repent now or spend eternity in a pit of hellfire!”, he would scream from the pulpit.

I was 10 years old when I graduated from children's church (a wholly disturbing place all its own) and had to endure two hours each Sunday morning listening to these scare tactics.

It always began the same way, the world as a hopeless place full of liars, murderers, and sin, and ended the same way, with congregants falling on their hands and knees to be 'saved,' followed by generous collections being taken. 

Being a mere child, I was especially affected by the dark, vivid descriptions of what I felt to be inevitable.

I used to lie awake at night thinking of all the possible ways I might have sinned in the day and fervently praying for repentance. I was terrified that I might die — or even more likely — that Jesus may return (rapture doctrine was also a sermon staple) and I would be damned to an eternity of hell. 

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The constant fear that I was somehow disappointing God by my actions, or even thoughts (because negative thoughts could also be considered a sin), caused deep anxiety within me. And it laid the groundwork for self-depreciation and an unhealthy need for approval from others.

My daughter is being raised to be confident in who she is. As her mom, the last thing I would ever want is for her to be afraid of her future or feel like she could ever possibly be a disappointment to anyone who truly matters.

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Instead, I am teaching her that the God I worship is loving, accepting, and affirming of everyone.

Whether gay, straight, bi, trans, queer, or otherwise, she won't be restricted to the same square heteronormative box I was at her age. She won't endure the emotional abuse suffered by so many of my LGBTQ+ church peers who were punished, and often completely rejected, by their families.

Is it any wonder that parents' religious beliefs about homosexuality are associated with double the risk of suicide among LGBTQ 18 to 24-year-olds?

I believe that a truly loving Creator would love all Her children unconditionally and not desire them to change who they are in order to fit in the man-made mold that is a religious institution. Any person, deity, or organization that represents anything otherwise is not worthy of my daughter's time or attention.

I want her to know it’s OK with me if she chooses to practice a different religion or if she chooses to practice none, at all.

I am raising her within the church (a church that is open, inclusive, and affirming — a far cry from the one of my childhood) because it’s now become a safe and positive space for me, and I want to share parts of my life that I truly enjoy with her.

But as she gets older, if she decides that my church, or any, is simply not for her, I will be nothing but supportive of her decision. I am raising my daughter with the knowledge that there are a plethora of spiritual traditions in this beautiful world and none are superior to others. 

Perhaps in the future, I will be invited to her Hanukkah or Eid dinner instead of Christmas. Perhaps she will decide she is happy sans any kind of religion. And all of those possibilities are more than fine with me.

What’s helped me massively in my own journey of religious deconstruction is finding online communities of other women who have survived similar trauma.

I am still recovering from the propaganda, lies, and fear instilled in me by people who should have nurtured and guided me.

It's been a long road and took stepping outside of faith altogether, to come to terms with what my own personal beliefs are. These days, I do appreciate the various aspects of being a part of a faith community, provided it's a healthy and positive one.

Ultimately, as a mother, though, I will always choose my child's well-being over any institution. And that is perhaps the greatest lesson that surviving religious trauma has taught me.

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Melissa Dixon is a freelance writer, mom, and foreign-service spouse currently splitting her time between Paris, France, and Athens, Greece. 

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