The Child-Parents and Sister Moms of Duggarville
Parentification leaves a helluva scar.
Dear fellow survivor,
I made a reel on Instagram with a snip of the “19 Kids and Counting” introduction running in the background. It’s the part where Michelle Duggar brags, “And I delivered all of them myself,” and then one of the kids talks about “somehow we get it all done.” I then asked if this part ever made you feel overwhelmed.
Within hours I was flooded with messages of another kind. It wasn’t overwhelm they felt. It was betrayal.
In their book, The Duggars: 20 and Counting, Michelle shared that she’s often stopped by someone on the street or in the store when she’s out with her children. The other will exclaim, “I don’t know how you do it! I’m struggling just with two!”
Michelle went on to share that she smiles and counts each child as a gift and a joy.
This, we should note, is not an answer to the question of “how,” but a deflection tinged with shame. No one struggles with too much joy, right? If you’re struggling, you must not know how to manage your gifts.
The section wraps with an anecdote of how they used to live in a really small house but now they live in a really big one! And they have a bus instead of a van! Ironically, life is so much easier with more!
I was a young mother with new mentors when the Duggars began airing TV specials. I knew first hand that life with young babies, in poverty and abuse, and in a small house was hard. I also knew I had to bide my time until my oldest children grew a few years. Because the Duggar system of “how to manage” spread through the Bill Gothard/Institute of Basic Life Principles community in kind: the oldest children help raise the younger. If you do it right, you can pass a newly-weaned toddler off to an older child and get going on the next one. Michelle called it the buddy system.
The Duggars wanted a Quiverful.
The verse comes from the Psalms:
Like arrows in the hands of a warrior are children born in one’s youth. Happy is the man that hath his quiver full of them: they shall not be ashamed, but they shall speak with the enemies in the gate. “You are the bows from which your children as living arrows are sent forth.”
Christian fundamentalists often speak of holy warfare and building armies for God. Children are arrows…and soldiers, warriors, gifts, objects, optics…but the idea is that a blessed man has many, many arrows to fight the world and all its sinful pressures.
In order to have as many children as one can, an entire mindshift is needed. One can not listen to the “world” say children are expensive or have needs. No. First, you simplify and streamline the entire perspective. Bring it down to essentials: Man, woman, sperm, egg, birth, milk…and then the war training begins.
People often balk at the word “training” because it conjures images of animals. But the Duggars and my Gothard fundie mentors used that word extensively. It comes from the book of Proverbs:
Train up a child in the way he should go, And when he is old he will not depart from it.
It’s also the title of a book by Michael Pearl that encourages training babies as young as four months old not to crawl off a blanket by switching them with a rod. Spank training is an essential tenet in fundamentalist homes, and there’s not really an age limit. Training with a rod is used for behavior modification, repression, and discipline. Training sessions may last for hours.
So, the Duggars famously had a large quiverful (but “full” is a myth because there is never enough), and they started behavior training pretty much from the start, and through enough used-cars, flipped properties, and TV specials (in which they didn’t tell their kids they were getting paid for) they now had a 7,000 square foot home built for cash and a big van. And none of that answered for “how” they did it.
By 2008, when the book came out, I wasn’t “doing it” very well. I’d refused to blanket train and stopped spanking years before. I’d become heartbroken and frustrated skipping the many ordinary parenting responsibilities my Gothard fundie mentors said I could skip in order to have a quiverful. Doctors! Haircuts! Socialization! Friends! Snacks! The teen years! A second income! I’d begun doing every single one. And by that year, I’d fled at midnight with my children to escape domestic abuse our church said was my husband’s right and role to do. I was now a full-fledged fundamentalist failure: a single mom, employed, and a little all over the place.
And still, I bought Michelle and Jim Bob’s book. I watched 19 Kids and Counting. The shiny wholesome image, soft voices, and everyone smiling still drew me in, too. Gothard and Duggar-style fundamentalism was like a happiness drug, using the desires of my heart for a healthy family and thriving children as a way to lure me under their control. So don’t feel bad if you’re in the ranks of viewers who watched like a train-wreck you couldn’t gaze away from. That was by design.
I flinched knowing the backstory and the ugly secrets behind closed doors. It took me years of trauma therapy to identify triggers, layers, sources and truth. I started writing about it. Then the Duggar trial happened and I started making reels. That’s why I posted the overwhelm video on Instagram that day. I share what living in fundamentalism is really like.
The “how” Michelle does it is what she stated herself: the buddy system.
Every younger child is assigned an older child to help raise them. What that means is that the younger one bonds to their sibling the way they should have a parent. And the older one simply becomes a sister mom, shouldering an inappropriate amount of responsibility for 8, 9, 12, 16. When the older one leaves to get married, there’s an incredible amount of grief and loss, and as the comments shared: exhaustion and trauma.
This was no secret. Besides being featured on the show and published in print, it was key advice shared in nursing rooms, mom-to-mom. Preternaturally mature teens (most often girls) were praised for their sweet and willing service. Having been trained to never say no, never argue, never resist, they truly had no choice in the matter.
Whenever a mom would offer this advice as an answer to my overwhelmed tears, because I was going to have three children under three, or five children with an abusive man, I’d look at the eyes of their older daughters. They looked dead inside. I didn’t want that for my daughter.
After I left my marriage, I raised my kids very differently. I remember saying often, “this is my job, not yours.” It took us years, the rest of their childhoods really, to recondition. To see where the line was between “being helpful” and “being given too much of my responsibility.” The voices in my comments and messages never heard that from their parents. Their emotional needs, and many of their physical ones too, went unmet so that they could provide labor for their parents.
These parents were more interested in having a quiverful of babies than raising children. The priority was on the womb.
Parentified children and sister moms grew up already exhausted. They often don’t want children of their own: they want lives. They want to redeem their teenage years and experience privacy, sleep, playfulness, fun, experimentation, adventure, autonomy. They know their development was stunted. Many are rejected by their families for wanting this. They’re denied access to their younger siblings. Labeled the black sheep. Ostracized and excommunicated. Shunned.
Their burden is heavy. Their hearts are scarred. They don’t want to fight their father’s battles or do their mother’s bidding. They’re human beings, not arrows or optics for their father’s vision. The children are the ones lost in the fundamentalist holy war and the Gothard/Duggar patriarchs have created an army of broken-hearted refugees who are increasingly rising up to have their say.
To learn more about why I think doing it Duggar-style is dangerous, sign up for my Behind the Scenes newsletter.
Come follow my posts on Instagram. I’d love to hear your story.