Jinger Duggar Vuolo as a teen and today.
Courtesy of Jinger Duggar Vuolo

Jinger Duggar Was Taught Motherhood Defined Her — & Then She Broke Free

The former Counting On star opens up about disentangling her faith from her strict religious upbringing in her new memoir, Becoming Free Indeed.

Growing up, Jinger Duggar Vuolo thought she knew exactly what life had in store for her. “Within the setting that I was raised in, it was just assumed that you would get married young, and have as many kids as God would bless you with, and so any form of birth control was out of the picture,” she explains to me by Zoom. “You don’t think too much about because it’s just what I knew was my future.” But in her new memoir, Becoming Free Indeed, Vuolo disentangles what she was taught growing up from what her faith — not one faith leader claiming to speak for God — has to say on the matter. “Being a mom is not what needs to identify you as having God’s favor and blessing on your life,” she tells me. “I realized that’s not all I’m called to be.”

Vuolo grew up the sixth of what would ultimately be 19 children born to Jim-Bob and Michelle Duggar. From 2007 to 2020, she appeared on TLC series and specials, including 19 Kids and Counting and then Counting On, a series that focused on the older Duggar siblings as they started their own families.

Vuolo speaks warmly of her family, especially her mother and older sisters. While she admits some differences (frankly not having some differences within a family of 21 would be eerie), she describes her childhood as sweet and happy.

Four more children would join the Duggar family after this photo was taken.Courtesy Jinger Duggar Vuolo.

But for as positive as she is regarding her family (with a brief exception where she acknowledges her brother, Josh, who is currently serving prison time for possession of child pornography, as “a hypocrite”), her condemnation of the religious organization she was raised in is full-throated and, indeed, goes much farther than I’d anticipated.

The Duggars were champions of the Institute of Basic Life Principles (IBLP), a deeply conservative, idiosyncratic Christian organization that has been described as a cult. IBLP was founded by Bill Gothard, who has been accused of sexual harassment and assault by more than 30 women. Vuolo describes him as the most influential person in her young life aside from her parents.

“Bill Gothard taught that life was a very delicate cause and effect sequence,” she explains. “So he said, ‘If you live by these principles, your life will be blessed. It will be a success. Everything you do will prosper. And if you don't, then your life will be one disaster after another.’ So I did believe that that’s how life worked.”

This belief of inputs from the faithful and outputs from the divine were so stringent that any misfortune that befell someone — from illness to sexual assault — was seen as divine punishment, whether or not an individual even realized they were “sinning.” Even worse was when the “input” expected from her wasn’t clear. Does God want her to stay inside and study her Bible, or does He want her to spend time with her family? Both aspects are part of her Christian values, but what if she chose poorly?

“Situations like that would cause so much fear and anxiety in me it was crippling,” she says. “That’s so damaging, and especially when you’re a young teen, you’re trying to go about your life, figure out life, and it’s not easy because I was so afraid of a lot of things. Basically everything.”

Fear didn’t stop with what you yourself did, either: even exposure to something considered taboo could bring on punishment.

“For instance,” she shares, “one story [Gothard] told was about a young kid who listened to rock music and he was killed in a car accident because of it. There was one time I was writing to a Bill Gothard seminar and somebody turned on rock music, and I was sure we were probably going to get into a car accident and die. That's the type of thinking that you get into, and it is so destructive.”

But starting in the 2010s, through both her relationship with her now-husband Jeremy Vuolo (a former pastor at Grace Community Church in Laredo, Texas and current divinity student) and her brother-in-law, Ben Seewald — faithful people whose religious views diverged from the Duggars’ more rigid practices — Vuolo began to question the “fear-based superstitious teachings” she’d been raised to believe.

The pair were wed in November 2016 – their relationship helped prompt Jinger Duggar Vuolo to reexamine her faith.Courtesy of Jinger Duggar Vuolo.

This included many of the “harmful” ideas IBLP had about women, including the idea that her purpose in life was to have “as many [children] as the Lord wants to give us.”

“The Bible does speak about children being a blessing from God, but what does that mean?” she muses. “Does that mean that because anything is a blessing from God, I have to have as much of it as possible? Or is there a liberty for Christians to choose how many kids they want?”

She began to acknowledge that under Gothard’s teachings, women were often trapped in “abusive” situations. Those who struggled with infertility were riddled with sorrow, guilt, and no sense of purpose because IBLP principles didn’t allow for any purpose outside of motherhood. Women who could have children found themselves overwhelmed, in dire financial straits (any kind of debt, including a mortgage, is considered a sin in IBLP) and sometimes even in physical danger in order to allow the Lord to “bless” them as much as possible.

“It was so helpful for me to be able to go back to the Bible and realize, okay, [motherhood] is not my only identity. My first identity is being the person made in the image of God.”

Ultimately, the Vuolos decided to wait a year after getting married to have children, and are currently parents to Felicity, 4, and Evangeline, 2. “We’ll see about the future; maybe number three eventually but we’re just enjoying our girls right now,” she shares.

“I’m so grateful too now, looking at my girls’ lives,” she says. “I think the beautiful thing is not sheltering them from the world around them, but having them see that it’s a sweet opportunity to be able to engage with those around you.”

Jinger Duggar Vuolo describes her third book as the hardest to write due to the deeply personal subject matter.Courtesy of Jinger Duggar Vuolo.

As for herself, she knows that disentangling her upbringing from her true faith, and how she wants to move into the future, is still only in its “early stages,” but she’s grateful to be in “a healthy place to process” it all. While her sense of freedom almost certainly doesn’t line up with the expectations of more secular onlookers, she’s done with trying to live up to others’ expectations.

“A huge part of my story is that everybody has an expectation on how they want me to live,” she says. “And so I know that some people will say it’s a disappointment that I don’t throw off everything, but at the same time ... I have let go of more than probably a lot of people would expect.”

Becoming Free Indeed, Vuolo’s third book, is out Jan. 31, 2023.