Friday, May 9, 2008

Eighteen Kids Make a Quiverfull

A woman in Arkansas, Michelle Duggar, is expecting her eighteenth child, according to an AP story that was reported today. And she's delighted about it. The tone of the press coverage is just as chirpy as the mother-to-be herself:
It's a happy Mother's Day for an Arkansas woman — she's pregnant with her 18th child. Michelle Duggar, 41, is due on New Year's Day, and the latest addition will join seven sisters and 10 brothers. There are two sets of twins.

"We've had three in January, three in December. Those two months are a busy time for us," she said, laughing.

The Duggars' oldest child, Josh, is 20, and the youngest, Jennifer, is nine months old.

The fast-growing family lives in Tontitown in northwest Arkansas in a 7,000-square-foot home. All the children — whose names start with the letter J — are home-schooled.

Duggar has been been pregnant for more than 11 years of her life, and the family is in the process of filming another series for Discovery Health.
(Source: AP via Yahoo)
I realize it may sound Grinch-like to grouse about another woman's pregnancy. I'm willing to take her joy at face value; I'm also willing to grant that reproductive rights has to include the right to make childbearing decisions that I personally find incomprehensible.

But there's a darker side to the Duggar megafamily, one that's not much covered in the media. The only trace of it in the AP article is a single sentence:
She and her husband, Jim Bob Duggar, said they'll keep having children as long as God wills it.
This is a phrase we've heard before. Remember the Andrea Yates case, where a Texas woman suffering from postpartum psychosis drowned all five of her children in the bathtub? She and her husband, too, transferred all of their moral agency to "God's will," even after previous pregnancies had obviously made Ms. Yates mentally ill.

I'm not suggesting that Ms. Duggar is going to snap under the strain - not at all. (In fact, with a highly regimented system for enlisting the children in household work, her life is immeasurably more organized than my own. Not that I'd want to trade.) But there's a huge element of coercion in these fundamentalist communities that insist women forego birth control and turn their bodies over to God (and their husbands).

This is how the Duggars themselves describe their decision to accept as many children as their God will give them:
Jim Bob and Michelle Duggar married July 21st, 1984. At that time, they chose to use the birth control pill. They thought, “We don’t want children right now. We can’t afford them. We want children in our timing, when we’re ready.” Four years later they decided to have their first child. Then, Michelle went back on the pill, but she conceived and had a miscarriage. At that point they talked with a Christian medical doctor and read the fine print in the contraceptives package. They found that while taking the pill you can get pregnant and then miscarry. They were grieved! They were Christians! They were pro-life! They realized that their selfish actions had taken the life of their child.
They teach their kids creationism in their homeschooling, so the weird science in this passage is no shocker. They're parroting the idea that the pill is an abortifacient, which is simply not supported by any real, non-wingnut science. It is, however, at the heart of the anti-abortion movement's campaign to make hormonal birth control inaccessible (by convincing pharmacists not to fill prescriptions) and ultimately illegal.

Here's the rest of the story that's not being told by the media: Religiously, the Duggars are fundamentalist Baptists who - according to Wikipedia - support the Quiverfull movement. As journalist Kathryn Joyce reported in The Nation in late 2006, the Quiverfull movement demands wives be subservient to their husbands and bear as many children as possible to be "arrows" in a holy war against liberalism. Their bodies, Joyce writes, are to be a "living sacrifice" to God. The goal is to out-reproduce those of us who don't share their beliefs in an attempt to promote God's kingdom on earth, or at least their version of it. (Read Joyce's article; it's wonderfully reported, albeit chilling.)

Why do women go along with this pseudo-theology? I don't believe fundamentalist women - even those involved in such obviously anti-feminist movements as Quiverfull - are mere dupes. Just because a wife pledges subservience doesn't mean she's powerless. Quiverfull women, like Michelle Duggar, homeschool their children. For me, that would be a quick ticket to the loony bin. For Quiverfull women, I suspect it can be a source of power and satisfaction. Similarly, these women can build an identity around being crucial to building an army for God. Quiverfull elevates the status of motherhood, making it not just "the most important job in the world" (as the tired cliché would have it) but a holy mission. If you're already drawn toward having a large family anyway, what quicker route to fulfillment and meaning?

Another clue to the power Quiverfull women (and fundamentalist wives more generally) wield in mothering comes from the Duggar family's own website. It refers to "training" children and a "desire to train up their children to follow God with their whole heart." This is not-exactly-veiled code for an authoritarian approach to discipline that some fundamentalist Christians embrace. Two of its main exponents, Michael and Debi Pearl, describe it as geared toward producing perfect obedience:
"Train up a child in the way he should go: and when he is old, he will not depart from it (Prov. 22:6)." Train up, not beat up. Train up, not discipline up. Train up, not educate up. Train up, not "positive affirmation" up. Training is the most obvious missing element in child rearing. Training is not discipline. A child will need more than "obedience training," but without it everything else will be insufficient. ...

There is much satisfaction in training up a child. It is easy and challenging. When my children were able to crawl (in the case of one, roll) around the room, I set up training sessions.

Try it yourself. Place an appealing object where they can reach it, maybe in a "No-no" corner or on an apple juice table (That's where the coffee table once sat). When they spy it and make a dive for it, in a calm voice say, "No, don't touch it." They will already be familiar with the "No," so they will pause, look at you in wonder and then turn around and grab it. Switch their hand once and simultaneously say, "No." Remember, you are not disciplining, you are training. One spat with a little switch is enough. They will again pull back their hand and consider the relationship between the object, their desire, the command and the little reinforcing pain.
(From Michael and Debi Pearl, "To Train up a Child")
Imagine deliberately setting up situations where an infant will be hit with a switch. An infant who's just learned to crawl! My Bear started that at six months! Even that exemplar of Christian authoritarianism, James Dobson, says: "There is no excuse for spanking babies or children younger than 15 to 18 months of age."

You could say many things about the parent in this vignette - that she (or he) is an incredible control freak, that she is indulging in cruelty. The one thing you can't say is that the parent is powerless. And therein, too, must lie some of the appeal for women who voluntarily sign up for fundamentalist family life. (I'm not thinking here at all of sects like the FLDS, where women have very little choice.)

But do you hear about any of this in the media version of the Duggar's story? No! Instead, the coverage emphasizes the quaintness, or cuteness, or sheer unusualness of the Duggars having (almost) 18 children. The website for the Discovery Channel show has fun games like "Name that Duggar!" But you scarcely hear a peep about the Quiverfull movement, its goals, its call for female subservience, or its adherents' medieval approach to child rearing - I mean, training.

Update, 11:20 p.m., May 10: Please check out the first comment for a fascinating inside perspective from a Quiverfull mother who practices attachment parenting and rejects the notion of wifely subservience. I'm glad to know that the movement is not monolithic and that there are some strong and assertive women in it. Thank you, Betsy, for your remarks.


Anonymous said...

I must respectfully disagree with your generalizations which lump Quiverfull families as a whole with those who practice wifely submission and Ezzo/Pearl-style child training techniques.

My husband and I believe that God opens and closes every woman's womb and a part of living our life by faith is trusting God with our family planning. However, I am anything but a submissive wife (if I waited for my husband to make decisions we'd never get anything done!) and we are certainly not attempting to have "as many children as possible."

We practice attachment parenting (co-sleeping, baby-wearing, extended/tandem breastfeeding, etc) and do not spank or "train" our children like animals. Alfie Kohn's book "Unconditional Parenting" is one of my favorite parenting books.

We use infant pottying (elimination communication - as well as other methods to reduce our family's impact on the environment.

We are not raising our children to be "warriors." We are currently in the process of procuring some property so we can start teaching our children our children how to be self-sufficient and environmentally conscious through the methods of permaculture.

We want to raise healthy, eco-conscious children who know how to live without having to buy everything from the store. We want our children to know that living lightly on the earth is a necessity. The more children that are raised with this mindset, I believe, the better off our future generations will be.

I actually know several families like ours who leave their family planning up to God and also strive to be conscious of their impact on the earth and who raise their children without resorting to disturbing behaviorist methods.

Not all of us are crazy control freaks or submissive to our husbands. As I was writing this, for example, my husband was organizing our kitchen and preparing dinner. Before you get a picture of tater tot casserole in your head, he's making organic curried lentils with brown rice and asparagus. From scratch (even to getting the coconut milk from a real coconut which will be part of dessert) and he made up the recipe himself as he frequently does.

He cooks quite often and helps around the house whenever I ask (and even when I don't ask!). He was raised by a very progressive mother whose values we plan on passing on to our children, both male and female.

I do agree that the Duggars have some very unpleasant aspects... However, not all quiverfull families do what the Duggars do and I just wanted to let you know :)


Sungold said...

Betsy, welcome to my blog. I'm grateful for your telling your view of this story, and for doing so in a way that so nicely expresses your respect for your children and your earth.

I do differ from you - profoundly - on your approach to family planning. But I appreciate that there's a lot of variety among conservative Christian families (not just those who identify with the Quiverfull approach) and that's why my post 1) tried to tie my analysis pretty closely to the Duggars' own statements, and 2) emphasized that I do *not* see fundamentalist Christian wives as fools or dupes. I also see a gap between ideology - as expressed in wedding vows where the wife promises unilaterally to obey - and actual practice - where fundamentalist or conservative couples behave pragmatically in ways that are not necessarily less egalitarian than my own marriage!

I appreciate also your approach to childrearing. I don't consider myself an attachment parent but definitely used all the techniques you describe (except for the pottying) when my two kids were infants. Thanks for setting the record straight. I'm familiar with the "public face" of Quiverfull and it's good to hear from someone whose approach is kinder and gentler.

Regarding the environment, I guess the one question I still have is how you reconcile a large family - even with ecofriendly consumption habits - with the growing pressures that the earth's population is putting on the environment? I struggle with this even though we only had two kids, and even though our life is arranged so that we don't have to do much driving, for example. I'd love to hear your thoughts on this.

Again, thanks for stopping by, Betsy, and many blessings to you, too.

Anonymous said...

Thank you so much for your warm welcome!

"I guess the one question I still have is how you reconcile a large family - even with ecofriendly consumption habits - with the growing pressures that the earth's population is putting on the environment? .... I'd love to hear your thoughts on this."

Well, I'll see how well I can sum this up :) First of all, being Quiverfull does not necessarily equal having a large family. I can name QF families (families I am personally acquainted with) who have between one and fourteen children. The couple who only have one child were married for 12 years, did not prevent pregnancy or try to get pregnant, and then all of a sudden they found themselves expecting! They have not gotten pregnant since and are nearing 40 now.

One QF woman I know has three children and is well into menopause now. She had her first two children less than two years apart and then it was about 10 years longer before she had her third. Another QF friend had one child and almost 20 years later had her second without trying to prevent or to conceive between the two. About half of the QF families I know do have between four and six children, but that doesn't always necessarily happen.

I'm not dodging your question, I just wanted to first explain that not using birth control doesn't necessarily equal a huge family. However, there's nothing newsworthy about a family with 2 or 3 children and most people would simply assume that these families used birth control even though they did not.

I reconcile my potential large family with my environmental concerns by endeavoring to raise however many children I have with a sense of responsibility to the earth. We're working towards having no need for buying anything prepackaged. At the moment we are down to one can of trash per 4 months and one (trash) can full of recycling per month. We live close enough to town to walk most places and we combine car trips as much as possible.

We're experimenting with more efficient ways of composting our foods scraps (bokashi) in addition to using vegetable ends and locally grown chicken bones to make nourishing stocks (we cook according to many of the principles promoted in the book "Nourishing Traditions"). We also live in a 600 sq/ft home and we only have two children so far (after 5 years of marriage).

We are fairly early in our journey to reduce our footprint, but every month we get better and better!

I also have a theory... it might be a little nutty, but I think it might be a good idea for folks who are good stewards of the earth to have more children instead of fewer. Those of us who are environmentally conscious are less likely to have large families, but it is so important for the next generation to know how to care for our planet! I believe that the best way for children to learn to be environmentally conscious adults is to be raised believing that the earth is a precious living resource that needs to be used wisely and gently. The more children raised by eco-conscious parents, the better, in my opinion.

So... I guess maybe I'm raising my children to be eco-warriors (warriors after all!) in the hopes that they will better the world for their generation and the generations to come. Perhaps it's idealistic, but we in the "civilized" world cannot go on living as we have been. I believe that we need to get back to our roots and discover new ways of living life before the current system fails.

We have to run out the door now, but I hope that makes sense! There is much more to my beliefs than that, but it seems to be a decent summation.


Sungold said...

Hi, and I'm glad you stopped by again, Betsy. I hope you notice that I edited the original post in the hope that readers will take a look at your comments. Even if they don't, I've found them illuminating.

I understand that one reason Michelle Duggan attracts controversy is that she's deliberately trying to increase her family size, rather than leaving it up to divine judgment. Since the history of pregnancy and childbirth is my research specialty, I'm well aware at how widely fertility can vary when it's left up to nature.

I'm impressed by your success in reducing trash. It's hard to get down as far as you've gone, even with composting - it sounds like you're doing an amazing job of it. And you've got me curious about bokashi, which I just googled. (As if I do a decent job of keeping up with my garden as it is! I love it but it's always a little out of control. Which is maybe just fine.)

Thanks again for sharing your stories and philosophy. And a very happy Mother's Day to you!