Michelle Duggar and her husband Jim Bob are expecting their 20th child, the couple revealed exclusively to TODAY.
“We are so excited,” Michelle Duggar told TODAY Moms before the broadcast. Now three and a half months pregnant, the mom of 19 says she was actually surprised to discover that she’s expecting again at 45. “I was not thinking that God would give us another one, and we are just so grateful.”
In all seriousness, though, the newest Duggar always prompts debates across the feminist blogosphere about the appropriateness of criticizing women who choose to have large families. And certainly it’s generally accepted that it’s antifeminist to tell a mother how (or in what volume) she should parent. And it’s certainly a woman’s choice to be (or not be) a stay-at-home mom, have babies, have tons of babies, and/or measure her proudest accomplishment on the success of her family. (No snark intended there–God knows the world would benefit from a well-rounded and educated next generation.)
But concentrating on that aspect of the large-family discussion misses one essential element of the Duggar superfamily debate: the patriarchal, fundamentalist Christian dogma that influences women like Michelle Duggar to carry 20 pregnancies, particularly in light of #19, which was traumatic (verging on fatal) for both mother and micro-preemie baby.
It’s not that the subject of biblical patriarchy never comes up. When the “personhood amendment” came up–and, gloriously, went down–in Mississippi, it was a clear sign from fundamentalists that a potential life was more valuable than the walking incubator that carried it. But put that same mentality in the context of an actual family, and a mother willing to “lay down her life” for her next baby, we back off, afraid to be perceived as judging the Duggars and questioning their choices.
And I absolutely agree that judging the Duggars for choosing a large family is wrong–particularly Michelle Duggar, who as the “helpmeet” part of the marriage would have no power to stop reproducing even if she wanted to. But it’s not wrong to examine that choice in the context of a religious movement that espouses that same fetal primacy that we feel comfortable criticizing anywhere else.
So no, absolutely don’t judge the Duggar family. No “clown car” jokes. Don’t speculate on the amount of “spring” in Michelle’s uterus (seriously, ew). And don’t offer instructions on how not to get pregnant–believe it or not, they know.
But in our current political environment, where the belief that birth control is murder and the life of a woman is less important than that of a zygote is received with so much serious consideration that it’s appeared on not one but numerous ballots, we can’t ignore the fact that such beliefs are integral to movements like Quiverfull and biblical patriarchy. We can’t ignore the fact that the entire thing started with the uninformed belief that birth control pills cause miscarriage.
It’s hard to raise the topic without triggering a flood of judgmental comments about Michelle Duggar’s mental state or physical health. (Oddly, Jim Bob Duggar seldom receives as much targeted criticism.) Any discussion of biblical patriarchy vis a vis the ever-growing Duggar family has to be very carefully moderated to avoid that path. But we can’t avoid the subject entirely for fear of stumbling into the feminist minefield of parenthood and choice.
This isn’t about choice–it’s about not-choice. It’s about religious beliefs that take choice away from women and leave their lives and lifestyles up to God through the vagaries of the human reproductive system. It’s about a conservative movement that would never directly identify with movements like biblical patriarchy, yet tries to impose it on every woman in the U.S., willing or not, state by state or the whole country in one fell swoop. And while the mascot of that movement is the cuddly little cooing baby, the reality is a lot closer to a woman being airlifted to a hospital to save her life.