Everyone’s got their guilty pleasure TV show, and mine is 19 and Kids and Counting (formerly 18 Kids and Counting, formerly 17 Kids and Counting, etc) on the TLC channel. The show stars the Duggar family, a fundamentalist Christian clan in Arkansas who put Jesus in charge of their womb and homeschool their ever-growing brood. Jim-Bob and Michelle Duggar are the parents of 19 kids, the oldest of whom is 21 and married with a baby of his own and the youngest of whom is a micropreemie who has been in a hospital incubator almost every day of her life. Said micropreemie, Josie (all the Duggar kids’ names start with J, including Jinger) has brought a new kind of attention on the Duggar family, who are usually trotted out as examples of sterling family values or just gaped at for their hugeness.
As a longtime viewer of the show (and before that, the semi-regular specials that first introduced the country to the Duggars), I really do feel like I know the members of the family. There are some I’d hang out with, some who would drive me crazy, and some who are really freakin’ adorable. But the one I’m the most obsessed with is the matriarch Michelle herself. She has won numerous Mother of the Year awards and appears at Christian moms’ conferences to give parenting tips. (One such tip: if you’re feeling overwhelmed by all the work, pray for a “laundry angel.”) However, for all her accolades as a mother, it doesn’t really seem like Michelle does a whole lot of, well, mothering. Because she’s constantly pregnant, the work of taking care of the house and children usually falls to the four oldest Duggar daughters, who are all in their teens or early twenties. Thanks to the Duggars’ strictly enforced gender norms, it falls to the girls to cook, shop, clean, do laundry, potty-train, and homeschool their younger siblings with little, if any, help from their brothers. When toddler Jennifer skins her knee and starts crying, it’s not her mother she calls out for – it’s her sister Jill. Unlike Michelle, these four young women didn’t choose to become mothers – the role has been forced upon them because their own mom is too busy making media appearances and more babies.
As a pro-choice woman, Michelle Duggar is the absolute test of my beliefs. I believe that choice means a woman can have kids or not have kids as she wants to, and that she should be able to control the size of her family as she sees fit. But when that choice is taken to an incredible extreme – 19 children, one of whom is battling health conditions in the hospital – part of me just wants to tell the Duggars to quit it already. Despite Josie’s fragile condition, Michelle and Jim-Bob have both said that they leave their family planning up to God, and that if he chooses to “close their womb,” he will. Michelle, who is only 43, seems still to be in her childbearing years. Due to their beliefs, the couple will not use any contraception or natural family planning, so unless they choose to abstain it seems like Duggar Child #20 is an inevitability. There’s a part of me that wants to shake Michelle really, really hard and tell her about the increased risks of pregnancy at her age and fecundity, although it’s entirely likely she’s already aware of those facts and chooses to ignore them. I also want to show her the 19 other great kids she already has and whom she hardly ever spends time with. (During one famous scene in a previous special, Michelle was listing her kids’ names and some qualities about them – as she got further down the list she had less and less to say about each kid.) Then again, being pro-choice means that I have to respect every choice, even the ones I disagree with: to paraphrase Larry Flynt, “free speech isn’t about protecting speech you like, it’s about protecting speech you hate.” I should support Michelle’s right to have as many kids as she wants to, but I’ll tell you what I don’t support: the effects her choices have on other people, namely her kids. Having kids isn’t some sort of contest. Michelle doesn’t seem super interested in raising the kids or being involved in their lives once they’ve finished breastfeeding. As a result, she’s making choices for her teen daughters, and they’re not great ones. Instead of going to college, having part-time jobs, or dating, her daughters are spending their teen years raising their mother’s children. And that’s no kind of choice I can get behind.