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A Quiverful of Secrets
Letting God decide your family size sounds extra-spiritual. But the truth is dark and unholy
Michelle Duggar has a story she tells often. Jim Bob tells it too. The story goes that as newlyweds, they went on the pill. Then they had their oldest son, Josh. They went back on the pill and suffered an early miscarriage. This brought them to their knees in repentance to God, as they learned using the pill was disobedient and rebellious. They decided to let God decide their family size. Then they had twins. Then another and another and another…
The Duggars consider prolific fertility God’s determination of how many children they should have. We might also understand that prolific fertility is the natural order of what happens with unprotected sex. When I asked this, as a new bride, I was met with blank stares. Like the licks on a tootsie-pop, the fundie world will never know if unlimited babies are God or happenstance. They’ve done their duty by refusing to say no.
When I hear this pill story, I don’t think of the Duggars. I think of the women who mentored me in fundamentalism about six years before the Duggar’s ginormous quiverful family hit the national stage. Because the story the Duggars tell about birth control isn’t original. It’s the fear-mongering rumor whispered among the followers of Bill Gothard’s Institute of Basic Life Principles (IBLP): birth control pills will kill your baby.
Michelle calls their early miscarriage, “allowing one of our own babies to be destroyed.”
My mentors said birth control pills kill babies and ruin fertility. They said the pill causes abortions.
That’s not how birth control pills work. If it was, women could have abortions whenever they want. But it’s exactly how shame works. And when I heard that story from one of my mentors shortly after having my first early miscarriage, the shame worked on me too. Had God just destroyed my baby to teach me a lesson of obedience?
How would I know He hadn’t? I already knew women shouldn’t go to the gynecologist or trust science. I knew that doctors might touch you inappropriately and that my lady parts were for my husband only. I had embarrassing experiences in my marriage a doctor might ask about, like bruises, and I knew my relationship needed a miracle if we were ever going to be happy.
Maybe it was like what the pastors and Bill Gothard often said. Children are a blessing of the Lord. Happy is the man who has his quiver full of them. And even though Baptists don’t agree with Catholic nuns, they liked what Mother Theresa of Calcutta said about children and flowers: no one could have too much of either.
Whether to use contraception or not became the hounding, haunting dilemma of the next thirteen years. I had nine pregnancies, five live babies, and four surviving children. Gravida 9, Para 5, it read on my last midwife intake form. Four of those pregnancies were conceived while trying to use a contraceptive method somewhat secretly. I never felt like God decided my family size. I never felt like God was anywhere near me, at all, if I’m honest. But like the good fundamentalist wife I’d learned to be, that didn’t stop me from trying.
I didn’t know HOW busy mothers of ten-plus kids did “it all.”
Our church had several quiverful families by the time I’d had my first baby, a boy I loved more than life itself. The IBLP growth model was for followers to recruit within churches. So IBLP men were in prominent positions of leadership and IBLP women were leading lines of children through the church halls like ducklings. Everyone looked so buttoned-up and happy.
I had serious doubts about capacity. At 20 and with a natural bend towards nurturing, I knew I had the skills to run a daycare. But how would I be able to offer each child the 24/7 nurturing and development they needed if I had a baby a year? How would I pay for diapers? For school? For braces? For vacations?
I lamented to my mentors, who told me I was the problem. And if not me, then Western values. And if not Western values, then sin. Because there was no argument permitted against the idea that having as many babies as possible was good and blessed and holy. “Lifestyles are expensive, not children,” they said.
They told me children didn’t need all that stuff. God would provide. And then, when I’d been in their midst for a while and it seemed like I might be swaying to their side, they let me in on their real secret: there’s a whole bunch of ordinary parenting things they just didn’t do. A list of things they skipped.
They introduced me to these issues one at a time—a list never recorded, that seemed to have no end. There was always one more area where I could scrimp. One more obstacle to more babies I could remove if only I sacrificed hard enough.
They started with sleepless nights. I could skip those if I sleep-trained my baby using Gary Ezzo’s Babywise way. A few things would happen when I did. First, my breast milk would stabilize and my fertility would return. Next, my husband would be rested and happy. This interested me more than fertility because he was volatile, especially when he was tired. Best of all, according to my mentors and the Ezzos, my little son would learn he was not the center of our universe and would stop his sinful crying to garner our attention.
I looked at my sweet baby with doubts his cries of hunger were sin. But who was I to argue with a quiverful Super Mom? Reluctantly, I gave Babywise a try.
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The heartbreak piled on from there.
I’ve often said that fundamentalism took what I wanted for myself and used it to exploit me. Nowhere was this more evident than in motherhood. The problem wasn’t the individual practices themselves––there’s nothing inherently wrong with having a large family or gently encouraging a baby to sleep, for example. The perversion came when each practice was twisted into principles we weren’t allowed to reject because they supported the high-control agenda of the religious movement we served.
The problem wasn’t the individual practices themselves––there’s nothing inherently wrong with having a large family or encouraging a baby to sleep on a routine, for example. The perversion came when each practice was twisted into principles we weren’t allowed to reject because they supported the high-control agenda of the religious movement we served.
— Tia Levings
I didn’t want to limit blessings. But weren’t other things blessings too? Like modern medicine? Science? Air conditioning? Living in a free country where women could work if they needed to help support their families?
My fundie mentors disagreed. Concerns were barriers we’d erected in our hearts to close our wombs against God’s will. The pressure to “let God decide” our family size and to have an “open womb” that never said no to penetration or conception was so constant it was in our atmosphere. There was never an acceptable reason to say no. And we had a moral obligation to remove any temptation that got in the way.
So having a second income was something we could skip. So was science. Medicine, from contraception to pain relievers. “Homepathics are better,” they said, sending me off on a new hobby of holistic healthcare to keep my children well. Because pediatrician visits were discouraged, as were vaccines, and eventually prenatal care.
“If they find a problem with the baby, they’ll recommend you terminate. Just trust God will help you deliver a healthy child,” they told me.
By the time I was Gravida 4, Para 2, I’d stopped getting haircuts, shopping, scheduling playdates, or seeing friends. I was trying to avoid having an ultrasound throughout my next pregnancy. The mentors were floating suggestions of husband-assisted childbirth, a nightmare for a woman whose husband hurt her. At night, staring alone at the moonlight, I fought to avoid admitting how sad and small our lives in fundamentalism had become, and how scared I really was.
The fundies didn’t advertise end results.
I have a reel on social media that starts out, “If they just came out and told you how fundamentalism would impact your family, no one would choose it.” Everything was tied to our eternal security, coupled with dooming prophesies of what would happen if we didn’t do things their way.
Many of those prophesies are self-fulfilling, such as how God can’t bless you with financial wealth. Poverty increases because you’re doing something secretly disobedient, when in fact, it’s probably because you keep on having kids on a single income.
We never heard where the “black sheep kids” went; they just vanished. No one mentioned the babies dying from Failure to Thrive or the children struggling with undiagnosed learning challenges. Oldest daughters often looked tired and sad but no one drew a connection to the exorbitant amount of misplaced responsibility they shouldered.
It was all so gradual. High-control religion overtook old-time religion during a twenty-year time span in our southern Baptist megachurch. Bill Gothard’s evangelists patiently influenced the deacon board and the congregation, finessing change slowly and strategically.
The mentors who ran the Ezzo Babywise groups understood that if they swayed the vulnerable young parents, they’d “get ahold” of two generations. The same approach was used in grooming our political views: we were shown graphic content as young children so fear and shock could shape us for life. And those who disagreed with us (or whom we disagreed with) were “othered” in pounding sermons week after week after week. Eventually, people gave in.
Understanding how cults recruit works is to understand the long game. They sell an ideal outcome—a blessed family and eternal security for a majority—without credence to the casualties along the way. Caring for individuals is short-sighted.
How did the Duggars do it? By signing up to have a reality TV show after their oldest son was a known child molester, and by sheltering that secret so completely that even their best friends, the Holts, didn’t know. This turns out to be a big deal considering Jim Bob Duggar was trying to secure a courtship with Jim Holt’s daughter, using her as bait to make his son Josh behave. Even their own daughters, Josh’s victims, didn’t matter as much as protecting a son and the reputation of the movement.
Only in hindsight can I see that those casualties are the norm, not the exception. More people are harmed in high-control religion, especially children—than are helped. The wreckage is laid bare in the docuseries Shiny Happy People, and my own story, A Well-Trained Wife, which comes out in August 2024. My book will join a growing list of memoirs as exiles find their words. The black sheep didn’t just vanish. We left.
Quiverfuls serve a purpose. And it’s a big one.
As I got deeper into the Quiverful communities and fundamentalist teachings through Bill Gothard’s IBLP, I learned about the motivations behind unlimited babies and why the men in control want ginormous white protestant families with rows of obedient, undereducated children.
Dominion theology, which teaches Christians are to take dominion over the world
Population dominance of the majority in race, beliefs, and politics
Maintaining high control of women and the complementarian authority and power structure
Women on contraception leave home more easily. They not only leave abuse but they pursue interests like careers and positions of power. Autonomy and agency lead them to question abusive practices and ask for help from doctors, therapists, and teachers. (Do you remember how angry it made conservatives when Hilary Clinton wrote “It Takes a Village?” IBLP-tied Rick Santorum wrote It Takes a Family in protest.) Women who aren’t constantly pregnant do other things with their time, often things they–– not the patriarchy’s henchmen ––choose to do.
But shaming birth control only works for so long. A more effective strategy by far has been to gaslight women into forgetting their concerns and guilt them into not being spiritual enough. And when that doesn’t squelch the doubts and arguments, patriarchs thread through the government and change access laws, because they’ve been preparing for that too.
Sometimes it feels like the list of abuse and neglect to have a quiverful never ends. As survivors share their stories of growing up quiverful, fundamentalist, and in Christian cults like the IBLP, new meta layers of neglect and abuse emerge. And it never fails to break my heart with compassion for young, tired, vulnerable parents looking at the shiny ideals and seemingly-happy homes run by buttoned-up parents who appear to have the messiness of life solved.
Anyone considering the quiverful life should take a good hard look at where the Duggars are now. Look past the smiling faces and pretty maids all in a row. Please don’t envy them. Don’t allow their facade to alter your self-worth. Look at the memoirs, the lawsuits, and the prison sentence. Listen to survivors.
I can tell you where I am.
I escaped high-control religion, which by then was a Covenant Reformed cult in 2007, and I escaped our violent marriage with my children later that year. What followed was ten years of legal wrangling and therapeutic healing. It’s a gripping story and a fight for health and survival. But here’s what I know for sure:
There is no magic formula that solves the human experience or guarantees a happy life. Any fundie who tells you otherwise is selling an ideal with hidden shadows. They’re serving a larger agenda and you and your babies, however many fill your quiver, will be sacrificed as pawns in a game you never saw coming.