Kristin Hodson is the founder and executive director of The Healing Group. As a LCSW and Certified Sex Therapist, she specializes in maternal mental health and healthy sexuality. In this interview she discusses issues regarding sexuality that are unique to conservative religious cultures, developing the confidence and skills to talk with our kids about intimacy, how we can better identify and support mothers who might be struggling with postpartum depression, and the importance of seeking out Christlike love and understanding in our relationships with those in the LGBTQ community.
How did the fields of psychotherapy and healthy sexuality become your calling?
It really started with my own personal experience with therapy. When I was a teenager, my parents got divorced. Thankfully, they allowed me to go to therapy, and I loved the results and the changes that were happening in my life. The seeds were planted at that point and they didn’t really take root until I went to BYU Hawaii where they have an incredible international social work program. I knew from there that I wanted to be not just a social worker, but a therapist, and really help people’s lives.
With a bachelor’s in social work, you’re limited in the kind of work you can do. It’s more of a base degree to jump into your master’s degree, which then allows you to pursue clinical or hospital work. Again, I knew I wanted to be a therapist, but I had no idea what my specialization would be. I really wanted something I could become passionate and knowledgeable about, but didn’t find it for the first couple of years until I got pregnant. I experienced a lot of anxiety, and it triggered some thoughts that I assumed were normal. It was really hard. All I knew about postpartum depression was what I had learned through the media, and it really scared me.
My provider at the time wasn’t very helpful either. When I asked about signs of depression to watch for, she didn’t really give me answers. All she said was, “You can either take meds and treat the depression or you can pull up your boot straps and move forward.” I thought I would just pull myself up, but that really didn’t work. I quickly realized, “I am a therapist, and I need help. I can’t even name what this is because I was never taught this in school and I can’t see any therapists that are able to help me with what is going on.” That was a segue into the first piece of my calling. Through pregnancy, childbirth, and other experiences, I realized that not only is PPD [postpartum depression] a major issue, but I live in Utah with the highest birth rate in the country. How are there not more resources and support for women and families experiencing this?
Why did you decide to open The Healing Group?
Before I got pregnant, I was working at another clinic as a general practitioner. There was one client in particular who came in who, in hindsight, I know was experiencing postpartum anxiety and OCD. But at the time I didn’t know that’s what it was, and my supervisor didn’t either. So the client really didn’t get the help she needed or deserved. Once I had my own postpartum experiences, after my maternity leave from that clinic I thought, “I can’t go back. If it’s not out there, I need to create my own group and make these resources available for women and families.” So I started The Healing Group. I was young, 28 and a new mom, but felt very strongly that this needed to happen. I’ve always had a very entrepreneurial and business minded spirit. I love merging clinical work with business, so I started by renting office space from a therapist that I knew and grew it from there. It didn’t grow because of a one-woman show. It has grown because of family, as well as a collective of amazing partners and colleagues passionate about the work we do and the difference we are making.
Your group now focuses on a number of specialties. How did that evolve?
We were the first clinic doing maternal mental health. Over time, as people were figuring out their reproductive past—ether they were able to get pregnant or pursuing adoption or experiencing infertility—sex and sexuality were always a part of their story. People were always telling me their sexual stories, which makes absolute sense, so that was the next piece presented. I went to an organization called AASECT to become a certified sex therapist and co-authored a book called Real Intimacy to open up the door. That piece of my practice exploded, more than the perinatal piece.
People are hungry to talk about healthy sexuality, to get information and answers. They want to be able to talk about it in their relationships and with their children. When we started to see what was happening, we decided that we wanted to be a specialty clinic. So now we do maternal mental health, sexual health, and couples. I think of The Healing Group a lot like my child. It was born three months after my firstborn, so I’ve raised my clinic and all of my children together. I had an initial idea of what that clinic would be, and it changed and evolved over all these different developmental stages, just like any child. My relationship and growth through The Healing Group has been complex, but I deeply love it and wouldn’t trade it for the world.
Do you see specific issues regarding sexuality that Mormon women or Mormon couples face that might be unique to conservative religious cultures?
Yes. A big one is a lack of knowledge around anatomy and bodies. A lot of people come in and are not aware of their bodies. Particularly women, where they haven’t fostered a connection around their sexual desires. This could change as different generations grow up, but I would say currently a lot of girls are unfamiliar with their bodies and go into marriage hoping that their partners know more about their bodies than they do. So there’s a lot of education about how bodies work, how pleasure works, all of these different things.
Another issue is sexual shame and guilt. I see a lot of women who develop an identity around chastity. When they get married, the transition is that now you should be sexual, it should be fun, you should love it, and the world is your oyster. That transition is really difficult when identity is wrapped around this one idea of being chaste. Many women will say “I had desire before I got married. Once I got married, I am not interested, even though I know I should be.” Laura Brotherson called it “Good Girl Syndrome.” The feeling that, “I realize it’s okay now that I’m married, but I feel really bad about what I’m doing sexually and it doesn’t feel right.” If you spend your whole life developing one way of thinking about your body and your sexuality, your desires are really hard to switch just because you have a ceremony that says you can.
A lot of women don’t have the space to talk about their sexuality until they’ve been hurt, such as if they discover their spouse has been viewing pornography. Then when they’ve been hurt, now they’re talking about their sexuality and exploring it. Ideally women can develop their own sexual identity from a place of positivity instead of just in the shadow of a hurtful event.
Another thing is helping couples develop authority and stewardship over their sexual relationship. A question that comes up all the time is, “What’s okay for us to do sexually and what’s not okay?” Again, when you’re used to the rules being laid out of what you can and cannot do over the course of your life, it’s easy to just keep wanting to know the rules. The LDS Church doesn’t provide the rules post-marriage. The rules are: don’t do anything that is coercive, abusive, or unnatural. That’s it. It’s often difficult for couples to start learning how to have the conversation and developing that relationship with each other. Deciding what works for us, what doesn’t, what elevates our relationship, what helps with our connection, what brings us to feel more intimate with each other. Talking about these things is a new skill set, and a new level of comfort that many haven’t experienced before.
What are parents often missing with teaching kids about bodies and sexuality?
The first piece most parents are missing is that the reality is none of us got this education while we were growing up. So we don’t have the skills or the comfort to trigger these conversations. The second is fear. Fear that if we talk about things, our kids are going to become more curious. That we’re going to lead them down a path to be more sexual than we want them to, when none of the research supports that fear. Strong data shows that the more education you give your children, the more you’re having these talks across an entire life span, the longer kids are delaying sexual intercourse. We should front load our conversations and move away from having “the talk.” There’s an idea that when my kid turns 8 and they’re baptized, they are ready to have “the talk.”
I do a lot of presentations on the ward and stake level to help parents develop skills to talk to their kids about sex. Both of these things are going on to encourage parents to start having conversations about sexual health and sexuality from the moment kids are born and having many one-minute conversations across the lifespan, just like what we’re doing with reading and math. Kids are learning constantly, and learning thousands of hours of reading and math in school because they are building blocks. You need to have repetitive learning so you can build more complex skills. With sexuality, people are getting 17.2 hours of education between kindergarten and 12th grade, which is about an hour a year, and not nearly enough. We wonder why we are having all of these problems around sexuality when we’re not spending the time to teach and navigate. We’re not even talking about it. If you go back to For the Strength of Youth, it doesn’t solely talk about sexuality. There’s a whole section around dating and love and relationships. We hope that love comes before a sexual experience, so we also need to be talking regularly about boundaries and consent and indicators of a healthy relationship. That can start the moment kids are born.
I’ve spent a lot of time researching and reading about development of agency, which is such a critical part of our gospel. We’re not yet to the point where we can start to make values and agency and normal development all able to coexist. So how do we develop agency over a lifetime? When I’m confronted with pornography, if I’ve already been working with my sexuality and my values and my integrity, I’m even more prepared and know how to respond. It’s not a new concept and I’m not overwhelmed or flooded with a variety of overwhelming emotions.
If we work more with developing people’s agency and talking about normal sexuality, from what I see, there wouldn’t be such a rampant overflow of people exploring their sexuality through pornography. There would be healthier channels to normalize and to make sense of and figure all of these things out. I think people have this either/or. Instead we could say, “We understand what is developmentally normal, and we know our gospel standards and our values.” I don’t see those as mutually exclusive.
I’m involved in Smart Kids Utah, which is a parent-led political group to further comprehensive sex education. There are a lot of misconceptions about sex education in schools, but the reality is that comprehensive sex education includes transparency with parents on curriculum so that families can then overlay their values with that information. Right now, sex education is not seen as a health issue, but as a moral issue. As long as it is a moral issue and not a health issue, it’s going to be really tricky. So we’re still stuck. Our country is desperate for people to know and understand those skills.
Tell me about your work with postpartum depression. What are we lacking in our understanding and what can we better do to support women, particularly within a Church context?
The Healing Group does a lot to raise community awareness and to reduce the stigma around pregnancy and postpartum anxiety disorder—giving people permission to say, “I don’t feel like myself.” One in seven women are likely to experience symptoms of a perinatal anxiety disorder and 10% of men will. If women view it as, “I’m either a good mom or I have postpartum depression,” a lot of women will ignore their symptoms because they don’t want to be “that mom.” I was there. Initially I viewed it as a weakness, rather than, “This is happening and is a really common experience for a lot of parents.” The Healing Group links arms, trying to work with others in the community to cast as wide a net possible so that people reach out for help and get the support they need. They typically get better quick, and don’t feel so alone and isolated, which is one of the worst things you can start to feel when you’re already feeling down and overwhelmed.
The first thing would be to see this as a relevant women’s issue, since 50% of the population are women. A lot of people have the idea that a mom experiencing postpartum depression cries all of the time and can’t get out of bed. When I have a new client come in who is really well put together—her hair is done, her clothes are perfect—I get more worried than with one who presents with mild stains on her shirt and her hair disheveled. Because the woman holding herself together hurts a lot. Often it’s behind the scenes. In LDS Church culture we put a large emphasis on both the Family Proclamation and motherhood. But I think we can do a much better job with educating and partnering. Creating discussions around how we support each other as mothers and utilize our built-in networks within the Church, so we’re not only reaching out when we’re not doing well. Let’s do education on postpartum depression and what it is not. A lot like sexuality, we get educated on what it is through the media, and the stories that make it to the media are some of the worst cases. Often the stigma of PPD is that if you aren’t experiencing severe symptoms then it’s not that bad.
We can think about new ways to minister to a mother who might be struggling. How do you open that conversation up so that they don’t feel judged or ashamed? How do we take pressure off new mothers that feel they have to do it all, and find potential job sharing or calling sharing? Being willing to reimagine things, such as not just having changing tables in the women’s bathrooms. A partnering view rather than, “This is all yours since you’re the mother.” There are a lot of ways we could support women proactively, not only if they’re not doing well after they have a baby.
We also need to think differently about the postpartum year. When I had my first baby, I was in Young Women’s. The leaders I served with were nice and had no ill intent, but they would ask, “How long do you think you’ll need before you come back after the baby? Some of us think it’s going to take you about three months.” That made me feel really bad, because their belief was that I couldn’t get it together sooner. There were other women who came back two or three weeks after their baby. I remember saying I didn’t know when I would come back, I’ve never been a mom, I have no idea. But feeling this pressure to have it look a certain way, yet needing support beyond the week of meals. I needed someone to come check on me in six weeks, and someone to come check on me at three months, because symptoms of postpartum depression usually show up three to six to nine months later. So this belief that you’re out of the woods after four weeks is not true. I think there’s a lot of pressure around what motherhood is supposed to look like, what it means to be a good mother and what that looks like, because there’s such worth around your identity as a mother. We put a lot of pressure to do it perfectly and do it well without help, because everyone around us is doing that as well.
What are red flags of PPD we should watch for in friends and loved ones?
When you think of stress, anxiety, or OCD you think of someone that is checking the locks. Often that’s not how it presents. They just have scary and intrusive thoughts, so they won’t leave their home. They won’t want to go out because they’re worried something’s going to happen to their baby. Another of the most common symptoms is anger. When you have a really angry response to something that you wouldn’t typically get so angry about. It’s also tears. It’s looking like everything is perfect and put together.
Learn how to check in regularly as a friend, as a sister, as you are ministering. Sometimes it’s not obvious. When you have a relationship where you can ask someone how it’s going, and if you’re already checking in with them regularly, then it might be on that fifth time when you ask how they’re doing, they might say, “I’m not doing as well as I thought.” There is trust. Ask them how they are sleeping. As women we normalize that none of us get sleep. But if a mom is getting less than a four hour chunk for an extended period of time, that will take a toll. When we minister to someone, take a washcloth and wipe off their counter and don’t expect them to entertain you. Rather, support them by asking if you can hold their baby while they take a shower or go sit in the bath for 20 minutes or brush their teeth. Doing all of these things and having a relationship really make a difference in changing the belief that we just have to endure through motherhood. We can help each other out in this experience of motherhood.
There are stigmas around mental health in general. Do you see anything specific to the Mormon community in that regard?
I think there’s a mentality around self-reliance. We’re surrounded by a variety of women that seem to not only be doing it, but doing it well and thriving. Whether that’s true or not doesn’t matter, because in our minds that’s the story we’re telling ourselves. We’re comparing it against ourselves. Then you just feel terrible. You can get lost in Instagram and Pinterest, pictures of families and mothers that always have smiling faces and their kids are all put together. It can cause you to say, “What is wrong with me? I don’t want to reach out.”
It seems as if there’s this belief that you need to do everything you can before finally going to counseling. Like it’s a last ditch effort. They’re trying to find natural interventions, yet counseling and talking are some of the most natural things you can do. With praying and other religious rituals, if you’re experiencing symptoms of anxiety and OCD, you can start to become obsessive about doing all of these things, and it can exacerbate the problem. Then you can start to wonder, “Why am I going through this? I can’t feel the Spirit, I can’t feel God.”
How can women take charge of their own growth and healing?
Having confidence in themselves and believing that they are entitled to their own voice. Learning how to use their voice to be able to claim what they want and don’t want. Learning how to set boundaries. Giving themselves permission to do or not do certain things. Knowing that their lives need to matter to them and that what might be growth and healing for them may not be the standard trajectory that packages up nice in a cultural mold. Developing differentiation that says, “I can hold on to who I am and who I want to be in spite of group pressure or cultural pressure.” Those are all pieces of growth and healing and becoming the authority over their pasts.
A lot of women start to explore things that might not fit within the mold. I view it as trying on new views of ourselves that we don’t have to be stuck with. We can try it on, see how it feels, play with it until it feels more successful. There are many people who are more than willing to tell you what to do with your life and whether you’re doing things the right or wrong way. As a therapist I want to hold space for women to figure that out for themselves and to self-validate their choices. You’re going to get a lot of people who won’t validate you, and that’s not an indication that what you’re doing is wrong.
You also speak to women’s groups on how to find balance and joy in everyday living. Where do imbalances often happen for women and what advice do you give?
Imbalances often come in partnering and being willing to do a lot of volunteer work rather than paid work. We may not identify as “working mothers,” yet are working sometimes more than full-time managing all of the different things in our home along with the volunteer efforts we are pursuing. In marriages, women often take on more of the workload at home. I love to draw on the work of Dr. Julie Hanks. She’s done a great job to help men and women see how they can bring more balance into their partnerships so that they’re both able to pursue their passions and their dreams, as well as fulfill their parental responsibilities. We do a lot of discussions around that and a lot of discussions around learning how to say no and to say yes with intention. Sitting with that uncomfortable feeling of not having to explain it or justify it or apologize for it.
So how do you follow all of your own advice in balancing your time with speaking, counseling, family, etc?
I will be fully transparent and say I am always trying to get myself back in balance and have to accept the times when I’m out of balance. This last year I’ve really been out of balance, almost to the point where it was taking a large toll on my health. One of the major goals my husband and I have while we’re here in Costa Rica is to further our partnering. He has recognized for a long time that we both have passions in the areas where we feel called, and while I’ve been able to learn both the domestic and my professional world, he has not done as good a job at being involved in the domestic world. So we are starting to come up with systems of meal planning so he and I both know what dinner is coming down the pipeline. He can get it started or I can get it started, and we begin to name and divide what can be called invisible labor. The balance is coming not because I do it all, but because my husband and I are starting to learn how to partner differently. I think the idea of arriving at and living in balance is inaccurate. I don’t know if that exists. We should be working towards being able to recognize when and where we’re out of balance. More often I feel like I’m juggling, and at times I have too many balls up in the air and need to get some of the balls out. So I’m always visiting and revisiting and trying to get back into balance and juggling less.
What prompted you to move to Costa Rica for a year?
It was my husband actually. We had gotten to the point where life had become unmanageable. With each kid, we didn’t evaluate and clear stuff from our plates. We had the same amount of obligations and responsibilities, and just kept adding things they were involved in. It multiplied until it was started to take a toll on my health and I had a few medical conditions arise. We felt that, as a family, we were tending more to our commitments than to each other. My husband was watching our oldest get older and felt time was passing us by and we were not being intentional. We were just kind of going with the flow. Being in Salt Lake with my area of specialization, I was being asked to speak more and more. I wasn’t doing a good job of being more discerning about where I was donating my time and what I was being involved in, so we were just crumbling. Our goal in coming out here was to reset, to bond as a family, and to make some memories. The word we are using while we are out here is “reimagine.” Let’s reimagine the way that we can do this life instead of just doing what we see everyone else do. Let’s reimagine and see what bubbles up and how we can enjoy and embrace life differently than how we’ve been doing it.
Did you worry it would affect your work, not being there in person? Or did you feel like you’d be more intentional in what you choose to pursue?
Ultimately I think that will be the unforeseeable gift in it all. But it was really hard and sad for me to untangle from the media relationships. I have really good media presence and relationships in Utah, and really media is all about relationships. I teach at the U and have worked really hard to get a Sexual Health Certificate Program there. I’ve also still got my practice. I’ve had to really trust. It seems that whenever God really needs to communicate with me, the pattern is that He plucks me up from where I’m living and takes me somewhere by the sea. Always. Before He has moved me to Florida, to Hawaii. I also had a huge spiritual time when I went to Lake Powell a few years ago. So when this came up I thought, “Oh, it’s time for God to teach me some things that I can’t learn in this environment.” I feel like bold moves, such as moving everything, don’t ever come at convenient times. So I was curious just enough to think, “Why is this coming up now when it couldn’t be a worse time? Maybe it is a better time beyond what I can see with my own eyes, and I’m curious just enough to see what’s going to come out on the other side.”
Do you work much with LGBTQ individuals?
The LGBTQ Mormon population is where my heart is so much. I do a lot of that work. This is becoming a topic that touches many people within the Church. There have been very strong doctrinal pronouncements and policies made. One of the greatest challenges to my faith is the current approach within the Church towards the LGBTQ population because these are the clients I work with. How do people work with love and compassion and understanding around this issue that they may not understand or have experience with? How do we reconcile the two? I don’t have big answers for the “how” other than to seek out Christlike love and personal revelation. Focusing our hearts more on “How do I love and serve and embrace every single person?” and really exhibiting our belief that every child is a child of God.
I work with a lot of people who are in mixed-orientation marriages, as well as those that are LGBTQ and love the gospel. It is excruciatingly painful to have things the way they currently are: to feel like they have to choose between how they are religiously-oriented as a Mormon and how they are sexually-oriented. It boils down to not determining if we can love someone based on their orientation or how they’re choosing to live their life. We need to love everybody and allow people to have their own spiritual journey, their own way of looking, instead of feeling like we’ve got the answers and can sit comfortably because we’ve got things figured out. I wish I could share parts of all the people that I work with and have people listen to them and their struggle and heartache. When you see someone beyond just a letter of LGBTQ, and know their heart, it’s really hard to have clear cut and dried answers around the issue.
How does your faith influence your work?
I want to speak briefly about a Primary song I wrote a year ago called “Sariah’s Faith,” that goes in conjunction with “Nephi’s Courage”. I was a Primary chorister for six years in two wards. When I was first called, I laughed and said, “You know I can’t read music, right?” The bishopric member replied, “I’m not calling you to read music, I’m calling you for your enthusiasm.” And I’ve got that. Yet I was frustrated and heartbroken that all of these kids are not getting to learn or sing about strong women in the scriptures. It was hard to look at their little faces every week and feel that. This is where my faith and my work kind of align, because I knew the messages were being internalized and interpreted, and you can’t be what you can’t see.
I came home frustrated one day after leading music, and started to read about Sariah. All of a sudden words came, and within 15 minutes I wrote them all down. I thought, “That’s nice,” but not much more of it. About six months later I felt spiritually nudged with, “What are you going to do with what I gave you?” I thought, “I have no idea. I don’t know what this is.” A pianist named Paul Cardall was in my ward at the time, and I told him, “Hey, I’ve got these things, they might be lyrics or something, can you help me here?” He pointed me to a Facebook group, and I posted that I had a song called “Sariah’s Faith.” A musician named Monica Scott, who I didn’t know at the time, said she was interested. She was busy and didn’t want to pick up any more projects, but said, “If I don’t get inspiration for this song in the next 24 hours, I’m not going to do it.” As she was picking up kids from school, all of the music downloaded in her head. Every little thing fell into place. My Primary sang Sariah’s Faith in our Primary program that year, and it’s been sung in a lot of Primary programs and translated into different languages. That was a really cool experience. I didn’t ever imagine it would be like that. I just wanted to write something for my own Primary kids.
I have a strong testimony of my Heavenly Parents, that they want us to have happy and fulfilling relationships. That can look messy at times, but my faith allows me to sit in the mess with people. It also allows me to hold faith for them to own their story, to claim their narrative, and to be supported in their journey. To have the big picture in mind that we are down here for a lifetime, and that learning is over a lifetime. So with my work, my faith has allowed me to not have an agenda that’s bigger for the person than their own agenda, and what fits for their plan. I feel like there’s bigger purpose and plan for everybody, and I get to be a part of their journey.
Relationships are at the core of our gospel, and wanting to help people have healthier and happier relationships deeply matters to me. Sexuality is by divine design, and it’s something that we have to work at with our spouse over a lifetime. You might figure out your sexual relationship in your 20s, and then you have your first baby and it changes. Then you have a few more babies, then you hit 40 and your body is not functioning the same way and you have to figure it out again. It causes us to continually have the opportunity to turn toward each other and continue to develop our relationship with ourselves and our spouses and God. That’s something that I find really fulfilling and purposeful in the big scheme of things.
At A Glance
Name: Kristin Burnett Hodson
Location: I was born in Virginia raised in Salt Lake City and am currently living on the coast of Costa Rica.
Marital History: Married 12 years.
Children: I have three wonderful children ages 9, 7 and 3.
Occupation: Founder and President of The Healing Group, Licensed Clinical Social Worker, Sex Therapist, Adjunct Professor at the University of Utah
Convert to Church?: Born in the church but always working toward my conversion.
Schools Attended: Skyline High, Weber State University, BYU-Hawaii, University of Utah
Languages Spoken at Home: English and working to Spanish as a family
Favorite Hymn: In Humility, Our Savior. This song reminds me of church with my mom and wanting to sing alto like she could. Because I couldn't read music (and I still can't), I would just listen to her voice and try to match the pitch. To this day, singing alto to this song connects me to my mother. I also wrote a primary song along side Monica Scott called Sariah's Faith. This song was a huge answer to prayer in helping my kids learn about strong women in the scriptures through music. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xBfLBxW2xsE
Personal Websites: www.thehealinggroup.com, and www.kristinbhodson.com/, and www.TheTaoOfHodson.com
Interview Produced by Nollie Haws