In November 2011, Jim Bob and Nancy Duggar announced that she is pregnant with their 20th child, due in April of 2012. The Duggars are known for leading their brood through a TLC cable channel reality program, “19 and Counting.” For all their kids, they haven’t provoked the national criticism that followed Nadya Suleman’s decision to proceed with a pregnancy involving 8 fetuses.
“OctoMom,” as Suleman was widely known, provoked a strong backlash in 2009, in part because she had no apparent means – beyond the kindness of family and strangers – by which to support the 6 children she already had, not to mention 8 premature newborns. Not to mention either that there was no dad in sight. Not to mention that fertility clinicians had been involved, who presumably got paid somehow for transferring how many embryos into Suleman exactly? In short, Suleman seemed utterly unprepared for caring for 14 children.
The Duggars haven’t gotten this kind of backlash because they’re not in Suleman’s shoes. There’s a Dad front and center. There’s a Mom who’s pretty much indistinguishable from other middle class women who prep meals, clean clothes, and trot their children to the dentist. From every appearance, they are not only making their own way, they help others when they can. No clinicians are involved in making the pregnancies possible either. For all that, a woman having her 20th child is something right out of our cultural nightmares about remote, tribal Africa. Even hillbillies Ma and Pa Kettle only 15 children in their 1950s and 1960s comedy films.
According to their family webpage (duggarfamily.com), early in her life Michelle took an oral contraceptive, got pregnant nevertheless, and miscarried. “At that point they talked with a Christian medical doctor and read the fine print in the contraceptives package. They found that while taking the pill you can get pregnant and then miscarry. They were grieved! They were Christians! They were pro-life! They realized that their selfish actions had taken the life of their child.” Actually, spontaneous abortions can happen for lots of reasons so it’s hard to draw that conclusion absolutely. Even so, Jim Bob and Nancy Duggard evidently believe they put their second child in harm’s way, and in some sense all the later children are a way of making amends for that mistake.
Why would anyone want 20 children? Should anybody have 20 children? The Duggars are a hard target because they seem to be a functional family, attentive to one another, and paying their own way. Their inflated number is more a curiosity than a screen onto which American can project its worst fears about bad mothers, overpopulation, and fertility medicine gone wild. In any case, what’s the alternative here: some kind of state intervention? Legislatures putting limits on how many kids parents can have? I honestly doubt there’s much demand on the part of women or men to have that many children, at least if they have to be responsible for them. Most people judge, correctly and prudently, that a few children are the way to balance the things that make life worthwhile.