Extreme Motherhood

Kathryn Joyce, Newsweek Web Exclusive, March 17, 2009

If there is a wholesome counterpoint to the gossip-rich travails of single-mom Nadya Suleman and her 14 children, it might be Jim Bob and Michelle Duggar, who had their 18th child just weeks before the arrival of Suleman’s octuplets in January. The Duggar birth was televised on the Arkansas couple’s popular TLC reality show, “17 Kids and Counting” (now “18 Kids and Counting”). Unlike Suleman, who was vilified as the freakish, government-assistance-dependent “Octomom,” the Duggars’ abundant progeny often attract admiration. Their children play violin, their palatial home is immaculate and the family matriarch is a soft-spoken multitasker who gently keeps order in her immense household.

Watching Michelle Duggar manage her Herculean tasks is addictive. We like to marvel at the logistics of life in oversized reality-TV families like the Duggars or the participants of the series “Kids By the Dozen” (also on TLC), which features families with at least 12 children each. How do they do all that laundry every week? Afford all those gallons of milk or cope with a joint birthday party for 13?

But there’s one big omission from the on-screen portrayal of many of these families: their motivation. Though the Duggars do describe themselves as conservative Christians, in reality, they follow a belief system that goes far beyond “Cheaper by the Dozen” high jinks. It is a pro-life-purist lifestyle known as Quiverfull, where women forgo all birth-control options, viewing contraception as a form of abortion and considering even natural family planning an attempt to control a realm–fertility–that should be entrusted to divine providence.

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Often, children of the movement are also called “arrows.” Quiverfull takes its name from Psalm 127: “Like arrows in the hands of a warrior are sons born in one’s youth. Blessed is the man whose quiver is full of them. They will not be put to shame when they contend with their enemies in the gate.” A wealth of military metaphors follows from this namesake, as Pride and her fellow advocates urge women toward militant fecundity in the service of religious rebirth: creating what they bluntly refer to as an army of devout children to wage spiritual battle against God’s enemies. As Quiverfull author Rachel Scott writes in her 2004 movement book, “Birthing God’s Mighty Warriors,” “Children are our ammunition in the spiritual realm to whip the enemy! These special arrows were handcrafted by the warrior himself and were carefully fashioned to achieve the purpose of annihilating the enemy.”

Quiverfull advocates Rick and Jan Hess, authors of 1990’s “A Full Quiver: Family Planning and the Lordship of Christ,” envision the worldly gains such a method could bring, if more Christians began producing “full quivers” of “arrows for the war”: control of both houses of Congress, the “reclamation” of sinful cities like San Francisco and massive boycotts of companies that do not comply with conservative Christian mores. {snip}

Quiverfull doesn’t follow from any particular church’s teachings but rather is a conviction shared by evangelical and fundamentalist Christians across denominational lines, often spread through the burgeoning conservative homeschooling community, which the U.S. Department of Education estimates has more than 1 million school-age children, and which homeschooling groups say easily has twice that number.

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