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.
At the heart of this reality-show depiction of "extreme motherhood" is a growing conservative Christian emphasis on the importance of women submitting to their husbands and fathers, an antifeminist backlash that holds that gender equality is contrary to God's law and that women's highest calling is as wives and "prolific" mothers.
Mary Pride, an early homeschooling leader whose 1985 book "The Way Home: Beyond Feminism, Back to Reality" is a founding text of Quiverfull, convinced many readers that regulating one's fertility is a slippery slope. "Family planning is the mother of abortion," she writes. "A generation had to be indoctrinated in the ideal of planning children around personal convenience before abortion could be popular." Instead, Pride and her peers argue, Christians should leave family planning in God's hands, and become "maternal missionaries": birthing as many children as He gives them as both a demonstration of radical faith and obedience, as well as a plan to effect Christian revival in the culture through demographic means—that is, by having more children than their political opponents.
Quiverfull advocates see their lifestyle, and their abundant progeny, as a living denunciation of what they call "the contraceptive mentality": demonstrating their commitment to end abortion by accepting all children as "unqualified blessings" from God. They often underscore the point by referring to their children as "blessings," as in their "eight"—or 10, or 12—"blessings at home": language that has spilled over into the mainstream among families that do not follow the Quiverfull conviction, such as the Gosselins (of TLC's "Jon and Kate Plus Eight"), Suleman and even former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin. It's this ideological grounding, tying the Quiverfull conviction to growing anticontraception efforts among abortion opponents worldwide, that makes Quiverfull arguments relevant far beyond the movement's small but growing numbers. (As a movement, it likely numbers in the tens of thousands, though hard numbers are not available.)
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. "If the body of Christ had been reproducing as we were designed to do," the Hesses write, "we would not be in the mess we are today." Nancy Campbell, author of another movement book from 2003 called "Be Fruitful and Multiply," exhorts Christian women to do just that with promises of spiritual glory. "Oh what a vision," she writes, "to invade the earth with mighty sons and daughters who have been trained and prepared for God's divine purposes."
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.
Quiverfull's pronatalist emphasis is linked to a companion doctrine of strident antifeminism among conservative Christians who see the women's liberation movement as the origin of a host of social ills, from abortion to divorce, women working and teen sex. "Feminism is a totally self-consistent system aimed at rejecting God's role for women," Pride wrote in 1985; since then, the movement she helped create has erected an opposite and equally self-consistent system of "biblical womanhood."
At the forefront of evangelical opposition to feminism is a group of self-described "patriarchy" advocates, who have reclaimed the term from women's studies curricula to advocate a strict "complementarian" theology of wives and daughters being submissive to their husbands and fathers. This resurgent emphasis on women's submissiveness takes many forms, from the statement by the 16 million member Southern Baptist Convention that wives must "graciously submit" to their husband's "loving headship" and the theological works being written by the SBC-affiliated Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, to far more severe interpretations that claim women's absolute obedience to their husbands is the first, necessary step toward Christians reclaiming the culture. Part of the Quiverfull mission is raising large families that embrace these traditional gender roles and teach their daughters to do the same.
Some of the next generation of daughters is responding. Anna Sofia and Elizabeth Botkin, two young women in the Quiverfull movement who authored a book encouraging daughters to follow in their mothers' footsteps, "So Much More: The Remarkable Influence of Visionary Daughters on the Kingdom of God," instruct their young peers to view motherhood to as women's "final secret weapon in the battle for progressive dominion." "Too many women forget that the hand that rocks the cradle really does rule the world," they write. "We should think ahead, not only to our children, but to our grandchildren and great-grandchildren, aspiring to be a mother of thousands of millions, and aspiring to see our children possess the gates of their enemies for the glory of God."
Dreams of demographic dominion aside, what's problematic about Quiverfull for many is the position the movement relegates women to on its way there. Cheryl Lindsey Seelhoff, a former Quiverfull writer who left the movement, says that the lifestyle is frequently one of unrelenting duty and labor that leaves women little recourse if the demands of their lives prove too much to bear. "The Quiverfull movement holds up as examples men like the Duggars ... all men of means. But for every family like this, there are ten or fifty or one hundred Quiverfull families living in what most would consider to be poverty ... Mothers are in a constant cycle, often, of pregnancy, breastfeeding, and the care of toddlers." Women are expected to feed and care for a large family on what are frequently limited resources, and the strain leads some to suffer clinical levels of exhaustion and self-neglect. The work that mothers can't manage usually falls to their eldest daughters, who learn early that their role in life is domestic, as helpmeets to their parents and later their husbands, and as mothers to many children.
Quiverfull and what could be called the submissive lifestyle are ultimately convictions of faith, and many women choose to follow them regardless of potential hardships. This is, of course, their choice, but fans of TV's novel large families should not overlook their comprehensive ideology that argues that family planning and feminism are cultural scourges to be eradicated, and that women's highest calling is in becoming prolific mothers and submissive wives. A glimpse of this reality is sometimes visible beneath TV's glossy treatment of Quiverfull families, but more often it's difficult to see the hard edges of ideology underlying yet another large family adventure.