Monday, December 29, 2008

The Duggar Thing

Everyone has been talking about it, so I might as well, too. Now that Michelle Duggar has recently given birth to her eighteenth J-named offspring, the Duggar family again crops up in (mostly negative) conversations everywhere. Arriving just in time to be Christmas party small-talk topical probably only increased the popularity of the Aren't-The-Duggars-Totally-Nuts subject. So, I might as well express myself too.

First, I will say I share the sentiments of many. I can barely get my head around what that would actually be like. At our family Christmas party, all thirteen of my Cumberland nieces and nephews, plus my own three kids posed for a picture. This is what the Duggar family actually is all the time, plus two more! It is simultaneously fascinating and slightly horrifying to contemplate.

The Duggars, along with a small sliver of the population nicknamed "Quiverful" families, believe that they should have all the children that would naturally occur in the course of their fertile years. They reject birth control and sterilization.
Many people - even Christians - utterly hate the Duggars. The interesting thing to me is that people like the Duggars are the only Christians who actually carry their beliefs about God's sovereign plan in creating life to it's full and logical conclusion. Here are the Christian beliefs that apply:

1) God intentionally designs every single person for His express purpose.
2) God's will is always superior to human will.

Is any person accidentally created by God? Are there people God would rather not create, but since the silly humans fail to use birth control or become sterilized, He just has to go along with it and make another person? Does God need people to intervene and make it impossible or improbable that they will bring another life into existence?

The argument against it, I've heard, is this: "Don't you think God means for us to use our brains?" This is a condescending way of saying, shouldn't we intelligently avail ourselves of medical means of limiting children? Actually, I would say the answer is No. The Bible gives constant examples of how God wanted people to do what made no sense to their human intelligence. What happened to Abraham? He started to think maybe God must have meant something else when He said He would be the father of many, because God surely didn't mean it would be with Sarah! She was way too old! So, Abe worked out a plan to conceive with Hagar, Sarah's servant.(Actually, I think Sarah nagged him about and then later regretted it.) Anyway, none of that worked out too well. God actually did mean he would be the father of many through Sarah after all.

As unimaginable as I think it is to have a family like the Duggars, and frankly, I don't envy Michelle, I think they are right to put their money where their mouth is. It's better than being one of the majority of Christians who simultaneously believe two incongruent things: that God purposes every life and yet, that they must control their childbearing. Besides that, the Duggars have serious nerve. I don't think I'd be a big fan of holding my extreme beliefs up for national criticism. More people hate them than admire them and even people who admire them in some respect still tend to feel, "Better them than me!"

Okay, now I've gone over the philosophical point of my post, but I still have lighter things to say about the Duggars. Although I watch the TLC show with deep fascination, there's still a lot I would love to know. So, here is my Top Ten Questions to Ask the Duggars:

1) How can Michelle's body parts actually hold up for all that? I don't mean this in a rude way. I've had four babies and I know what can happen to relevant muscles, organs, skin, etc. I'm actually surprised she hasn't suffered serious pelvic collapse.

2) How in the world does the homeschooling work? Seriously. I'm wondering if the younger kids' "buddy" is responsible for teaching reading, writing and 'rithmetic. Because how could Mom ever spend the individual time with what has to be at least six or seven pre-fluent readers?

3) How does medical care work? Do they all go, say, for six-month dental checkups, or are they crisis-only in their approach? I just took three kids to the dentist to the tune of four hundred bucks. The next week, Collin broke his front tooth and I spent another four hundred plus getting that fixed. How the dentistry of 18 kids can work out is unimaginable.

4) How do you mentally keep abreast of eighteen kids? I mean things like who's at what stage of adolescence, who needs to start potty-training, who needs more kisses and hugs, who really needs some personal time with Mom, and so on?

5) What do they do for birthdays? Do they give Christmas gifts? I'm figuring there has to be a month or two that holds three or four birthdays. Do they celebrate each child? Or would that just be totally unfeasible?

6) Do they have toys? Do the children get to have personal possessions or is everything just group belongings?

7) Why no dancing?

8) Does Michelle ever lose her patience?

9) How in the world would anyone ever get a husband to go along with this?

10) Why, having exhausted all those J-names, haven't they had a Julia? Come on! Dad was rooting for Julie Grace for this most recent baby and I was all, "YES!", but no, they went and picked out a hyphenated name with a weird middle name. Darn it. Should have listened to Dad. Oh well. Maybe the next one will get to be Julie. So, Michelle, go with Julie next time. Let me enjoy this one vicarious pleasure with your prodigious procreation. Julie Faith.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Big Brother

Imagine this: Suppose you had your first baby six months ago. In the mail, you receive a postcard from the county government. You have been scheduled for your first parenting assessment. Now, in this imaginary scenario, you are not surprised, because you know there is a state law requiring you to meet with a county official twice-yearly to assess your child's progress, but you still resent the implication a little bit.

You arrive at your appointment and meet a fairly attractive middle-aged lady with very bright lipstick. Before you have even sit down, she politely, but probingly, asks, "So, do you follow any particular parenting program?" Since you are the embodiment of all things antithetical to a parenting program, you smile and say, "No, I'm eclectic. I go by feel."

She skootches a three-page document across the table at you and, along with general questions you knew she would ask, there are also quite a few pretty intrusive questions, questions that far overreach what you are legally obligated to provide. The official wants to know if your child has their own bed and bedroom and if they sleep in it always, sometimes or never and where they sleep if not their bed. She asks you to provide a sample menu of what your child eats in a given week. You tell her you engage in a lovely evening activity of reading bedtime stories and she tells you next time she needs a book list and receipts from the library, indicating that you actually have checked out books. When you tell her you take your child to Kindermusik, she asks if you have brought any cancelled checks to verify that. You find yourself annoyed with these questions and you know she is going outside the bounds of the law, but you also don't want to rub her the wrong way, because she has the power to declare you unfit.

She wants to know if your child has hit all the appropriate milestones for her age. She's dismayed that you admit the child does not sit on her own yet. And she would like to know just how long you intend to breastfeed because, while a year is encouraged, clearly anything beyond that would be unusual. And it goes without saying that she expects a verification form from your child's pediatrician, stating that the child appears to be healthy.

You may chuckle at the absurdity of the government intruding so thoroughly into family life. But if you are a homeschooler and have reviewed through your county Board of Education, you may not find it so absurd. For those of you who don't know, in Maryland you must either homeschool under an umbrella who sets the educational policies or you must be reviewed twice-yearly by a representative from the county Board of Education. This is only the second time in my homeschooling career that I have chosen the county option. Finances drove my decision, as this "service" is provided by the government, but the umbrella is paid out-of-pocket. Both of my county review experiences have been parallels to my analogous story above.

I know that some would say the review process is an important "safeguard", so the few wackos can be identified. But, if that is true, why aren't all parents being supervised by "officials"? How do we normally identify someone who is neglecting or abusing their children? One or more people who know the abuser will report the family to the authorities. Why the big fear that homeschooling couldn't be done this way?

It strikes me that the homeschooling review has a "guilty until proven innocent" feel to it. We must prove our children are being taught math. We must document that they are learning science. (Which is the one that peeves me the most, by the way, since science is not about filling blanks in a worktext, but is about doing things and having actual experiences.)We must give evidence that they have learned history. I swear we could build a scale model of the Eiffel Tower out of toothpicks, but if I didn't give them a damn piece of paper to fill out about France, it would mean nothing to the county reviewer.

The irony is that, as annoying as I found the review to be, Maryland has some of the most agreeable homeschooling laws of any state in the northeast. Its Pennsylvania that sends shivers down the spine of the even the most dedicated homeschooler, with their onerous portfolios and evaluations and attendance logs. Attendance logs? What a ridiculous concept to learning! I haven't attended school in a couple of decades now, but I daresay I haven't stopped learning. But I digress. Better Maryland than Pennsylvania. And better now than prior to 1980 or so, when homeschooling really started to gain status as a valid choice. But even with our fairly easy-to-comply-with laws, the idealistic Libertarian in me does taste bile at the thought of another county review. I resent being treated with a skepticism usually reserved for ex-convicts.