What '19 Kids and Counting' Doesn’t Tell You About Growing Up In A Strict Christian Family Like The Duggars'

I have one kid, and there are days when I can barely manage to microwave some of those $15-a-box organic chicken nuggets for dinner and get him into bed without going bonkers. So my fascination with the TLC reality show 19 Kids and Counting started as a novelty, really. How does a family with so many children do anything? Bath time, bedtime, grocery shopping… potty training? It didn’t hurt that many of my female relatives and friends watched the show too, fueling my interest in all things Duggar. I confess to even browsing the Duggar family’s favorite recipes on their website. (Grandma Duggar’s Favorite Banana Cake? Yes, please!)

As I read more about this super-sized clan, I quickly learned that much of what interested me about the Duggars was tied to their beliefs and values. Whether it was their modest attire (long hair, no pants, no skimpy swimsuits) or the fact that they replaced traditional dating with a more formal (and chaperoned!) courtship process, the Duggars lifestyle fascinated me as a wife, mother, and feminist.

I soon found myself digging into Kathryn Joyce’s nonfiction book Quiverfull: Inside the Christian Patriarchy Movement , a study of a religious movement that advocates traditional roles for men and women, modest dress, homeschooling, and large families. While in the book Joyce describes the Duggars as "the most famous" of "large, ideologically driven families," the Duggars have dissociated from the Quiverfull movement when asked about it, saying, "We are simply Bible-believing Christians who desire to follow God's Word and apply it to our lives." Despite shunning the label, the Duggars do practice several similar behaviors and rituals associated with the movement on their television show, which is what kept me super-interested in Quiverfull families, and other very conservative, ideologically-driven families like them. I became so curious about the Duggars and the way they live their lives that I decided to set my upcoming young adult novel Devoted inside a Duggar-like world. Minus the reality television cameras, of course.

Devoted tells the story of 17-year-old Rachel Walker, one of 10 children growing up in a rural part of Texas. Like similar rules that Jana, Jinger, and Jill follow, Rachel doesn't cut her hair, wear pants, or go anywhere unchaperoned. Like two of the Duggar daughters have done, Rachel expects to get married young and have a lot of babies herself. But Rachel isn’t sure this is the life she wants for herself, and that’s the tension I explore in my book about a Quiverfull family.

Devoted by Jennifer Mathieu, $9, Amazon

Although none of the Duggar girls have yet shown any outward signs of rebellion, in my research for Devoted I was able to interview a few young women who were raised in large, strictly religious families, and I spent hours reading blogs by women who have left such a lifestyle behind. Here’s what 19 Kids and Counting doesn’t tell you about life for some who grow up in a strictly religious movement like this.

All of Those Children Are Soldiers for Christ

According to Joyce's book, Quiverfull families don’t just have lots of kids because they love onesies and baby talk. They live by a part of the Bible that claims, “Like arrows in the hands of a warrior are children born in one’s youth. Blessed is the man whose quiver is full of them.” All those babies are expected to serve the Lord and spread the message of Christ. Families who’ve joined the movement have gone so far as to have vasectomies and tubal ligations reversed with the help of sterilization reversal ministries in order to have more kids. One woman I interviewed said not even postpartum depression was enough to stop her mother from having baby after baby.

But It’s Not Just About Having a Lot of Children

Through my research for Devoted, I spoke with young women raised in Quiverfull homes and learned that it’s not just about having lots of kids. Going Quiverfull means believing in an entire lifestyle that’s dictated by the Bible. From not cutting their hair to homeschooling to believing in strict gender roles for men and women, growing up this way means lots of specific rules that stem from a strict interpretation of the Bible, although there is no organized church or official church hierarchy, and not all Quiverfull families follow every single aspect of the lifestyle. Like many movements, Quiverfull families represent a spectrum of beliefs; however, the core of the movement is the belief that God is in charge of how many children a family will have.

One rule I found especially interesting is how many girls raised in this world believe they need to dress modestly to prevent guys from lusting after them. I even read a modesty checklist used by some Quiverfull girls that asked questions like, “Does my shirt reveal any part of my cleavage? When I am wearing a loose-fitting blouse or scoop-neck, can I see anything when I lean over?” It even asks girls to raise their arms over their heads to make sure they don’t accidentally reveal their stomachs.

It's Important to Live Debt-Free

Quiverfull ideology promotes the idea of living debt-free. In Joyce's book, she writes, "Many Quiverfull families have strong beliefs against government assistance and personal debt — often going to extreme measures of subsistence-living...in order to live debt free." But since living Quiverfull also means having a ton of kids and living on one income — the man’s — all that often adds up to a very tight financial situation.

This is another belief that the Duggars share with those who live Quiverfull. They have spoken openly about their desire to live debt-free. Of course, unlike similar families of such a large size, the Duggars have extra income from their television programs and book deals. Many families who attempt to live debt-free like the Duggars aren't so fortunate.

Joyce’s book details one woman who was given a budget of $25 a week to feed a family with six children, and many ex-Quiverfull kids have shared stories of growing up with food insecurity and fear of not having enough of the basics. Cynthia Jeub, a former Quiverfull kid with 15 brothers and sisters who is now estranged from her parents (and who was also part of a reality television show), blogged about how money was one of the issues she claims she fought over with her father — and one of the issues that ultimately forced her to leave home for good.

Not Everyone Ends Up Happy

With the Quiverfull movement gaining steam in the 1980s (if you want to read a seminal text, check out Mary Pride’s The Way Home: Beyond Feminism Back to Reality, published in 1985), many of the children of the Quiverfull movement are now coming of age. And many are speaking out about the doubts and frustrations they have over how they were raised. Some of their moms are, too.

Vyckie Garrison’s No Longer Quivering blog is one terrific source of information on what it’s like to transition from Quiverfull to “worldly” (QF-speak for the world outside the movement). You can also find many of their voices at the website Homeschoolers Anonymous.

And If They Seem Happy, They Might Not Be

When I told people I was working on a novel that critiqued a Duggar-like world, the response I heard from a lot of people was, “But the Duggars seem so happy.” And they do. Of course, we can't know for sure how the Duggar daughters feel — they may be very content, and we can't assume anything on their behalves. I was struck, though, that when I dug deeper into my research for Devoted, I learned that some kids in families similar to the Duggars are often taught by Quiverfull parents that not acting happy is actually a public shaming of their moms and dads. If “a joyful heart makes a cheerful face” as the Bible says, children who know joy in the Lord should always seem happy. And if they don’t seem happy, they’re openly going against their parents’ teachings about God.

When I asked one source if she ever wondered about her own happiness, she said she was taught that her own happiness didn't matter. She had to put God and her family first, and whatever emotions she felt were secondary if they were even important at all. The suppression of emotions like anger and frustration by the women I interviewed and read about is one of the most interesting (and heartbreaking) things I learned while researching Devoted.

After writing this book, I can’t really watch 19 Kids and Counting anymore — not even for kicks. I’ve read and heard too many sad stories. When I revealed this to one woman who served as my biggest source for the novel — and to whom I’ve dedicated the book — she told me that means I really understand the movement she grew up in and the difficult struggle she and others like her went through. With Devoted, it’s not my intent to bash the Duggars or people of faith. Instead, I want to present one young woman’s journey out of a very specific type of upbringing, and the sacrifices she has to make to do it. Although fictional, she’s not the only one.

Image: DCL/TLC