The Duggars. Love them or pity them, one thing is certain. You have to respect their ability to raise that many children in the spotlight without any major catastrophes. The mega-family from Arkansas with 19 children has also never used any public assistance.
I’ve been a fan of the Duggar family since their first documentary on the Discovery Health channel in 2004 titled “14 Kids and Pregnant Again!” Looking back at YouTube clips of that special, I’m left with one major thought: Thank goodness the women of the family abandoned those floor-length, Pilgrim-style, plaid dresses with the pointed white collars.
Catch an episode of “19 Kids and Counting” on TLC a decade later, and the four eldest Duggar daughters: Jana, 24; Jill, 23; Jessa, 21; and Jinger, 20 are the epitome of grace, style, beauty, kindness and helpfulness.
These days, when you catch a 30-second preview of an upcoming episode, TLC playfully switches around the title to “19 Kids and Courting,” since it appears that for patriarch Jim Bob, 48, and wife Michelle, 47, the days of labor, delivery and dirty diapers are at last at an end. Instead, the focus has switched to the eldest Duggar children and whom they will court, and eventually, marry. Joshua, the couple’s oldest son, is a happily married man who works for the Family Research Council. He lives with his wife, Anna, and their three children, Mackynzie, 4; Michael, 3; and Marcus, 1, in Washington, D.C. And he’s just 26.
But as I watched the relationships of Jessa and Ben Seewald as well as Jill and Derick Dillard unfold this season, I was left with a series of questions that the episodes never satisfied. I’m not sure if the producers of the show don’t want to offend the Duggars by asking the “wrong” sort of question. But it’s hard for an audience to jump on board and empathize fully with the family unless key questions are addressed to help color-in the details of their daily lives. Of course, they’ve had their privacy invaded a great deal at this point and shouldn’t have to address anything they don’t want to talk about, but still, inquiring minds want to know.
As Independent Baptists, the Duggars have publicly stated that they are not part of the Quiverfull movement, yet they are evangelical, and very conservative, Christians. Early on in their marriage after Joshua was born, Michelle became pregnant while on the birth control pill. After miscarrying, the Duggars re-examined their convictions on birth control and decided to abstain from all forms of it, allowing God to decide their family size. They homeschooled each and every one of the children that followed, and eventually, built their own home in rural, northwestern Arkansas to fit everyone comfortably. They heavily monitor the kids’ Internet access and refrain from most secular entertainment such as TV shows, popular music and the magazines an average person skims through in the grocery store checkout line.
Although Michelle and Jim Bob went on normal dates and had physical contact while falling in love as teenagers, their children are expected to court a significant other only once parental permission has been obtained. Courting means no physical contact expect a side hug during greetings – holding hands is allowed upon engagement, while kissing is reserved for the altar. Both Jim Bob and Michelle have stated that aside from their children pledging to devote their lives to Jesus – I assume that means some version of being born again, the most important decision they will ever make is deciding whom they will marry – and presumably raise a family with. The lucky man or woman who wins the chance to woo a Duggar must have a Godly focus and a ministry mindset, although what that entails is never fully explained. Do you have to want to feed the poor in Africa and convert them to Christianity? What if you just organize clothing drives at your church or drop off canned foods at the nearby soup kitchen?
This season intrigue set in when Ben Seewald, a young man a few years younger than Jessa, formally asked to court her after meeting her at church and getting to know her over a period of weeks. Viewers watched as the couple was allowed to text each other, as long as one of Jessa’s parents was looped in on the conversation. Is that something Jessa requested? Do they still adhere to that rule months into the relationship?
When Derick Dillard, a young man doing missionary work in Nepal, expressed interest in Jill after spending ample time as Jim Bob’s prayer partner, the two began speaking. Via Skype. With Jim Bob and Michelle listening to the whole conversation from an adjoining couch in the family living room. But I was never sure what inappropriate exchange they were trying to guard against. Both Seewald and Dillard are from Arkansas, both are devout Christians, and both have agreed to play ball according to Jim Bob and Michelle’s rules. If that’s not love, I’m not sure what is. I feel like both are upstanding young men.
Seewald even runs his own windshield repair business and works at a country club while going to community college. And upon returning from Nepal, Dillard secured a job – at least that’s what he told Jim Bob before asking for Jill’s hand in marriage. The incredibly cute couple plans to marry later this month.
Yet I’m curious what these couples spent so many hours texting and skyping and emailing about exactly. How exciting can talking about Bible verses nonstop really be when you’re in love? I understand that debating theological issues when you’re passionate about them can be fun and fulfilling. Yet imagine never being able to discuss the music playing on the radio because you don’t listen to it? You couldn’t talk about movies or your mutual high school or college courses or friends, either. And what do they listen to when they drive around, anyway? Is NPR allowed?
At one point, I read that the daughters’ favorite series to read growing up was the Little House on the Prairie books by Laura Ingalls Wilder. But then in an interview more recently, Jessa is quoted as saying her siblings barely watch any TV except perhaps a rerun of The Andy Griffith Show. As long as it didn’t have a heavy romantic plotline or show immoral behavior like lying or stealing. So, can the Duggars read books? Real books? Christian fiction at least? If you can’t watch television or movies, and you must play an instrument to the tune of Christian Gospel music – all the Duggar kids are musical, – can you at least crack open a book? Nobody ever asks! It drives me crazy. I assume that Classical music is allowed on the violin or piano, but nobody ever asks that either.
Earlier I touched on the Duggar girls’ fashion sense. They’re all clearly gorgeous, and they dress very modestly but in modern fashions. But it’s a personal conviction of the girls – and one Michelle shared was hers before it was theirs – that girls don’t wear pants. Ever. So you’ll see them in a lot of dresses and skirts, all longer than knee length. Shirt sleeve length has crept closer to the shoulder now that the ladies are older, but only high neck lines pass the wearability test. The smaller girls are often seen wearing leggings under their outfits though. I guess that’s the closest they are allowed to get to pants?
So here comes the question: how do you exercise? All the older girls are slim and healthy, so do they just go on long walks across the family’s expansive property or what? Michelle has shared that when her older children were little, she did word searches with them to teach them key words like “modesty” and “covering,” and then they set their own clothing standards later. Of course they’d set strict ones! Could there be another option? Could they really say, “You know what, Mom? I’m feeling like shorts today?” What would happen if they did?
While one’s style of dress is totally up to them, it did sadden me a little to see Jill try on wedding gowns in a recent episode before she was formally engaged. No dress in that shop would fit her standards, so she immediately threw on a short sweater and discussed how the neckline would have to be raised. But it’s her wedding dress. The one moment in her life when, as an Evangelical Christian woman expected to be a loving wife and mother, she can truly shine. Can’t her dress be a little bit more bold than the day-to-day-wear? Sigh. I suppose not. I know she’ll pick something pretty and whimsical, but I wish it would also be a little bit modern.
Which leads me to the girls’ marriages in general. Who wouldn’t want to get married as soon as possible, so they could finally share physical contact with their chosen partner once they’ve met and gotten to know one another? These girls never got to mingle like regular kids at school. They didn’t make friends with many different world views or religious beliefs I’d imagine. It doesn’t seem like they’re allowed to attend college in a traditional way – are they? I know some use CollegePlus! courses online.
Isn’t it a tiny bit sad that they’ll never be able to just up and move to Boston for a job opportunity or hang out for a weekend in Manhattan with friends? I’m under the impression they’re on a pretty tight leash, with marriage being the main acceptable way out. Not that they don’t love their families. Not that their lives aren’t interesting or fulfilling – they have finished high school and some take online college courses. They are accomplished musicians and wrote a book together, “Growing Up Duggar.” They’ve traveled to China, England, Israel and other exotic places as part of the show. And the older kids have gone on mission trips to South America with Jim Bob. It seems like some know how to converse in Spanish, sew clothing, bake great desserts and an assortment of other useful skills.
But where’s their physical and intellectual freedom? I know Jill works as a midwife and Jana a doula, but could the girls really say they wanted to pursue a career and put off marriage? I’m sure they could never so much as go to lunch with a man then, with no promise of a ring and it being just for fun and all, so perhaps that’s why none of them will ever tread down that path. Michelle has stated there’s no need to get close to someone of the opposite sex unless marriage is a likely inevitability. So who would want to close the door on the only viable pathway leading to love?
I’d like to say the younger generations will be less strict and rigid with moral regulations than Jim Bob and Michelle have been. There are glimmers of home as when Ben is seen helping Jessa bake a pie while they spend some time together. But then she goes and visits his sisters, learns to create his favorite chicken alfredo dish and tells the camera she’ll probably be responsible for all the cooking – even though it’s far from her favorite task – because he’ll be at work all day. Why can’t she work too? Can she? Will she? Will he help her in the kitchen? There’s no way to know right now.
And what if one of the girls secretly didn’t want an unlimited amount of kids? Would she use birth control with her husband secretly and remain tight-lipped when questioned about her suspicious number of kids – “Just three???” There’s no way to know that either.
Anna Duggar, Josh’s wife, is a stay-at-home mom, and the pair seem to have a very loving and fulfilled marriage. They’re the only barometer right now for the route the Duggar girls may pick very soon. I support all choices as long as they’re freely made. And I know I’ll be watching to see exactly which ones the girls make in the future.