Monday, June 27, 2011

Have all the babies you want, but raise 'em yourselves.

To me, being a liberal means being accepting of others' views, whether or not they happen to coincide with my own. That said, though, I am having a hard time with the Duggars.

The Duggars, if you haven't yet come across them, are an Arkansas family with 19 kids. They're conservative fundamentalists who subscribe to Bill Gothard's Institute in Basic Life Principles, and this means, among other things, that their kids are home-schooled, the girls wear only skirts or dresses, and no one goes to college. Their show, 19 Kids and Counting (formerly 18 Kids and Counting, formerly 17 Kids and Counting, etc.), is in its fourth season on the cable channel TLC.

I'm a TLC addict, drawn to such programs as Little People, Big World; My Big, Fat Gypsy Wedding; and The Little Couple as well as the Duggars' show. I don't like all TLC's shows; despite the screaming Italian-ness of it, I've never gotten into Cake Boss, for example. But I like reality shows that skew toward the documentary end of the genre, and the TLC brand of reality doesn't tend to be too flashy.

I'm obviously not a conservative or a fundamentalist, and the whole Gothardism thing seems mighty scary to me. But I've enjoyed watching the Duggars in part because they're so different from myself -- sort of like English gypsies, for that matter, or dwarves -- and because they have so darned many kids. At the beginning, it was really interesting to see how they function with so many bodies in one house. (The frequent pop-ups are amusing: The Duggars go through 133 pairs of underwear in a week! A typical shopping trip includes 52 cans of corn!)

But now, four years down the road, I can't help but experience a slight "ick" factor when I watch them. Keeping in mind, again, that they're not hurting me, and to each his/her own, I'm troubled by the strictly adhered-to gender roles, especially the lack of opportunity for the young women.

Four older girls who range in age from about 17 to 21 make up the pseudo-Mommy Brigade in the Duggar family. The actual mom, Michelle, doesn't seem to do a whole lot but have babies and take care of them for a few months before handing them over to the older girls, one of whom is termed each baby's "buddy." Not only do the girls handle the care of the babies and children, but they shop for all the groceries and cook all the meals, do all the cleaning and laundry, chauffeur the younger kids around, plan and execute birthday parties and other special events, soothe cuts and scrapes, dole out kisses and kind words ... the list goes on.

Michelle and her husband, Jim-Bob (yep, that's his name, for real) often praise their daughters for taking such good care of the house and the children, while never seeming to realize that the girls are doing all the jobs they, the parents, signed on to do when they decided to have 19 children. With the exception of maybe one of them, the girls look sad and drawn and tired. Think of it -- more than a dozen little ones to raise, including the 19th child, a baby girl born three months prematurely a year and a half ago.

The girls are lovely and seem very kind. The faith of the entire family seems quite genuine: "We have so many kids because children are a gift from God, and when God decides it's time for us to stop having them, He'll let us know." But, really, come on.

If that logic worked across the board, aren’t babies born to 14-year-olds “gifts from God,” too? Should teenagers then keep having babies until God “closes their wombs” as well?


One of my co-workers, an evangelical fundamentalist with whom I frequently engage in thoughtful, respectful debates, says families like the Duggars bother some of us because “they’re so close to home. We expect families in the Middle East to behave differently and have different values with regard to religion and family life. But when things that are ‘different’ go on in our own backyards, we don’t know what to think.”

He has a point. But I do know what to think, and that’s this: If the Duggars want to have 10 more babies, all the more power to them. But they’re the ones who need to be doing all the work involved with raising those babies, and they need to allow their children to make the same choices other young people make when they finish high school. If the kids choose vocation or at-home parenthood over other paths, so be it. But if college and career are on their radar, let them explore those, too.

On their website, the Duggars tell us this: Our prayer is that each individual that watches our show, sees our interviews or reads this website will be challenged to draw closer to God, closer to their own family and discover the bigger picture about God’s plan for their own lives.

Good enough, but allow me to bust out my Catholic-girl catechism and throw this at you, Duggars: Our children are not our children, but God's. Doesn't it make sense, then, that your plan for those children, Duggars, might not be God's plan? God could very well want those girls to become doctors or plumbers or lifeguards or athletes.

My advice: Take the babies from your daughters' arms and let those young women go off into the world. After all, if you've raised them the way you've intended, don't you trust them to "do the right thing" on their own? Otherwise, if things keep going the way they seem to be, and viewers begin (or continue) to be skeeved out by your style of parenting, this could prove the end of the TLC gravy train -- and a detriment to the message you seem to want to send.


  1. very well written. This show skeeves me out as well but I CAN'T STOP WATCHING!

  2. The Duggars sort of remind me of families over in India. They expect the daughters to remain chaste until marriage. Not even hand holding or touching, going off alone, on a date, not even sitting together without the company of married adults. Once the daughter is married, she becomes her husband's property, and if in a traditional family is expected to move into her mother in law's home and for the rest of her life, bear children to make everyone proud, and take care of her mother in law until she dies.

    Education is not really pushed, as an educated woman has no need for it when she is a wife and mother.

    In non traditional families however it is different.

    I can't watch this show much because it is difficult to digest. I cannot imagine purposefully raising disadvantaged children, by refusing to allow them to become educated at a real college just so you can keep them at home to raise your younger babies. Michelle touts herself as a great mother, and the Gothardites praise her to high heaven, but in reality what in the world does Michelle do all day long? Because when the cameras are on, all we see is Jessa, Jinger, Jill, and Jana as sister mothers to the children. Joy is up next. It's very sad. I wish TLC would take the show off. It's not good to encourage this sort of behavior.