Happy 20th Baby!

It’s official: Baby number 20 is on its way. The Duggar Family, stars of their own reality TLC program, Nineteen Kids and Counting, just announced (on the Today Show, naturally) that they will be having their twentieth child next April. Said Michelle during the big announcement, “I was not thinking that God would give us another one, and we are just so grateful.” And Jim Bob: “Wow. I can’t believe it. Twenty. I can’t . . . I thought we’d maybe have two or three. It’s a miracle. Twenty. It blows my mind. I’m sure it blows your mind. This is amazing.”

No doubt you’ve heard of the Duggars, Michelle and Jim Bob of Arkansas, who are part of the Quiverfull movement and who have made their own children into a kind of franchise. Each of the nineteen children (and counting!) have a “J” name, and you can tell by the younger kids’ names that Michelle and Jim Bob are kind of stretching things, trying to find names that seem at least a little normal. Who knows what they’ll come up with, once Michelle pops out kid number twenty. So far as I remember, they’ve yet to name a kid John-Boy, the hunk of burning Walton love from my childhood.

We’ll cover the Quiverfull movement in another post, but I’m having intensely skeevy feelings about the entire Duggar phenomena, their kids’ strange names not withstanding. Michelle Duggar has been pregnant or nursing a large portion of her adult life, and the last child, born when Michelle was 43, had significant at-birth health issues; Michelle faired poorly, too, being an older mom (but hey! I’m 43: that’s not old!) who’d already pushed eighteen kids through her birth canal. But, despite the danger to her baby and to herself, she’s ready to give it another go because, as she said in The Huffington Post last month, “children are a gift from God and a blessing and we think that really is our mission.”

(And let me step aside here to wonder what this feels like to infertile women, who must hear this as an indictment against them and their wombs. Are they guessing that God really wants to bless Michelle twenty times, and them not at all?)

The sense that each child is a blessing from God has been part of the Duggar’s ideology long before the TLC show, so at least this part is consistent. Like others in the Quiverfull movement, they believe any child is a gift from God, and so by using birth control of any sort, they are circumventing God’s plan. Which, given my cynicism, makes me want to ask: Do you think it was part of God’s plan to have your children exploited on a television show? To grow rich off of the voyeuristic tendencies of reality-television-hungry Americans? Was it part of God’s plan for your 19th child to be born with significant health issues? Will it be part of God’s plan for Michelle to face a 20th pregnancy, risk death, leave her nineteen other kids without a mom? (Is it part of God’s plan for some women, who long for children with a visceral pain I will never understand, should go without the blessings Michelle has received, 20 times over?)

Look. I certainly believe children are a significant gift from God. My two boys are the best gift I’ve ever received, a miracle I thank God for every single day (even when they exhaust me). And I’ve just this week been blessed with my first grandchild, another miracle—especially because I’m not nearly old enough to be a grandma! But the idea that women need to pump out as many babies as possible is problematic, not least of which is that the seven millionth child was born last week, and there’s not nearly enough resources for every Duggar girl to be so fecund as her mother. Also problematic is the Duggars’ willingness to propagate on national television, becoming in the process a face for evangelical Christianity. A distorted face, to be sure, but a face nonetheless.

Perhaps the show is so popular because it reinforces common stereotypes about evangelicalism—stereotypes that, quite honestly, many Christians themselves seem to embrace: that a woman’s primary roles are as helpmeet, as womb, as nurturer; that Christian women wear modest prairie dresses and long hair; that homeschooling is the only, holy way for children to be raised; that daughters, when they reach the right age, should take their place as helpers and nurturers for the family’s younger children; and that women should never pursuing their own identities and interests outside of the family and its needs.

So Number 20 will be born sometime next year, and the Duggar women will have one more child to take care of in front of a national audience. And people everywhere will imagine that evangelical Christians are as crazy as this crew. And even some Christian women will see the Duggar lifestyle as admirable, Michelle the godly model to which they aspire—but without the camera crews, the television contract, and the supportive daughters to help carry their loads.