SPRINGDALE, Ark. – Jim Bob and Michelle Duggar are baby boomers. They may not fit the age profile of the post-World War II generation, but the numbers don’t lie: They have 16 children. Ten boys, six girls. Together, as a couple. All theirs, biologically. And they may have more, Lord willing.
“We never dreamed we would have 16 children,” said Jim Bob Duggar, a soft-spoken, 40-year-old former state lawmaker, as he surveys what Michelle lovingly refers to as their home’s “serene chaos.”
Now, he said, “We wouldn’t have it any other way.”
As a couple, the Duggars’ approach to family planning is simple: They are born-again Christians who view the Bible as their life’s manual – and the Bible describes children as a blessing from God. They will cheerfully accept as many blessings as God ordains.
So far, the blessings have added up to more children than all but a tiny fraction of American families have.
Life with the Duggars in the hills of northwest Arkansas is part “Little House on the Prairie,” part “Yours, Mine and Ours” – except the only blending in this real-life family occurs with restaurantlike precision at mealtime.
The girls – and their 39-year-old mother – don skirts or dresses (no pants) and white socks. The boys – and their father – dress most days in the same colored polo shirts and slacks or jeans, with black socks. The sameness of their attire helps with laundry and organization.
The girls embrace a similar hairstyle, long and pulled back with a clip, flowing to near their waistlines. The boys’ hair is closely cropped, often cemented into position with gel.
The girls do most of the cooking, though they’ve been taught to change a tire and check the oil. The boys are trained to fix the cars and make home repairs, though they cook occasionally – mostly on the grill.
The U.S. Census Bureau’s latest figures, for 2002, reveal that 0.3 percent of women ages 15 to 44 have given birth to seven or more children. Moreover, the number of U.S. women birthing seven or more children has declined steadily since the government began tracking the demographic in 1976.
In an era when the ideal family is widely viewed as two children – one girl, one boy – the Duggars are an anomaly, attracting worldwide media attention.
For two years, the Discovery Health Channel has chronicled the family through a series of documentaries. When Johanna Faith was born Oct. 11, the network’s cameras captured footage for the series’ next installment, to be aired in March.
In the weeks after their 16th child arrived, the couple appeared on CBS’ “The Early Show” and NBC’s “Today.” Mrs. Duggar did about 75 radio interviews. And the family has welcomed a steady stream of foreign journalists, including a recent visit from a three-man crew with the Korean Broadcasting System.
Inquiring minds want to know: How do they make it work? The answer: It’s all about faith, finances and family. It’s a system developed over their two decades together, and still evolving today.
The Duggars met as teenagers. She was a cheerleader at the public high school here. He attended a private Christian school.
They first crossed paths when he and a friend were visiting prospects for their church, First Baptist of Springdale. She had just become Christian. They didn’t see each other again until much later, when she was hired to work in a frozen yogurt shop that was managed by Mr. Duggar’s mother, Mary.
The couple married just after she graduated from high school. He was 19, she 17. Neither went to college. Together, they launched a used-car business, then towing and real estate businesses. Both are licensed real estate agents.
The Duggars didn’t start out to have 16 children – or more. Early on, she took birth-control pills. After their first child, son Joshua, was born in 1988, Mrs. Duggar began taking them again. Before long, she suffered a miscarriage they believed was caused by the birth control.
“We were just shocked,” Mr. Duggar said. “We consider ourselves pro-life. We thought, `What have we done?’ “
They decided to let God determine the size of their family. Fifteen children later, Mrs. Duggar remains healthy and willing to keep having children. None of their children has health problems, and only one wears glasses.
The Duggars live temporarily in a 2,200-square-foot rented house along a busy street, not far from Interstate 540 in this town of about 50,000. They are building – debt-free – a 7,000-square-foot house in nearby Tontitown.
They don’t adhere to a rigid schedule, but in an often-frenzied world with 18 people living in such tight quarters, there are daily imperatives: a midmorning Bible reading with Dad, home-school lessons with Mom.
“This place is like Grand Central Station,” said Mr. Duggar’s mother, Mary, a real-estate broker who often lends a hand.
Indeed, it seems solitude is a precious, elusive treasure. But it is a house of smiles. There are squabbles. But amid the chaos, there is a vibrant rhythm to life.
There is the ever-present backdrop of hymns, played on the piano by the children. Television is watched sparingly. There are rambunctious little boys chasing one another through the house, climbing onto furniture, balancing themselves on the arms of chairs.
Someone always seems to be snacking, usually on a large dill pickle, a family staple. And 4-year-old James never seems to tire of sidling up to a media visitor, tilting his head with a grin, and asking, “How many are you?”
“It’s like going to a 10-ring circus,” Mr. Duggar said. “It is just fun all the time.”
On a recent morning, the family gathers in its spartan living room, most sitting in a circle on the light tan carpet, their legs crossed. Opening a black leather-covered King James Bible, Mr. Duggar reads a chapter from Proverbs, then stops to drive home the meaning of verses that exhort truthful speech.
“What would you think if I said, ‘We’re going to go to Silver Dollar City tomorrow’ – then the next day, I told you, ‘No, I’ve changed my mind; we’re going to stay home and do laundry’?”
The youngsters giggled at the thought. It was no contest: Silver Dollar City, any day. And it wouldn’t have been acceptable for Dad not to make good on his word.
“Some day,” Mr. Duggar said, “you guys are going to have your own family. Make sure your words are accurate.”
They joined hands for prayer. Joshua thanked the Lord for Scripture and their family.
The Duggars aren’t unusual simply because they have so many children. They also live a frugal existence that permits Mr. Duggar to spend most of his days, right now, with his older sons, putting the finishing touches on their new home. Mrs. Duggar is a stay-at-home mom who takes the lead in home-schooling the children.
Greeting the media has become commonplace since the birth of the Duggars’ 16th child. They don’t have a precise budget, Mr. Duggar said, but it takes about $5,000 a month to operate their household. They live off the rental income from commercial property they own debt-free.
They have no house or car payments and no credit cards. They purchase their clothes at a thrift store that benefits the homeless in northwest Arkansas. They eat out occasionally but take advantage of the dollar menus at fast-food restaurants or the 49-cent children’s meals at AQ (“Arkansas Quality”) Chicken, a local favorite once frequented by former President Bill Clinton. The three older girls give the boys haircuts.
It’s the fruit of a financial freedom seminar Mr. Duggar attended years ago.
“We haven’t had an overabundance,” he said, “but God’s always met our needs.”
For example, when the family moves into its new home, TLC television will be there to film a program akin to the home-makeover reality shows. Sponsors are donating food for the pantry and appliances, such as washers and dryers. Then, Discovery Health is sending the Duggars on a trip west to Disneyland and a dude ranch.
Though thrilled with the help and the trip, the couple’s oldest daughter, 15-year-old Jana, said her family isn’t welcoming the cameras because of the freebies or because the spotlight is coveted.
“We’re able to share with others about Christ and what he’s done in our lives,” she said, stressing the family’s primary message: “Children are a blessing and not a burden.”
In the Duggars’ temporary home, there was no Christmas tree or garland, no wrapped presents. It’s not a protest against holiday commercialism. It’s a practical matter: They must vacate their rented home by mid-January. Their new home must be inhabitable. And every extra dime they have is being poured into the new house.
“I told the kids the house is going to be our Christmas,” Mr. Duggar said. “We didn’t want them to think Christmas is just about gifts you’re going to receive.”
The Duggars may be swimming against society’s tide with such a large family, but it’s clear children – lots and lots of children – are at the core of their social network. They are members of a home church that numbers about 100. They are active in a home-schooling network. Their friends all seem to have lots of children; one family has nine, another six.
And there almost seems to have evolved an unofficial, loose-knit network of large families that home-school their children and attend in-home churches. Some even have volunteered time to help the Duggars complete their home by mid-January.
For example, a St. Louis family with six children recently traveled to Springdale for the weekend to help the Duggars paint the interior of the two-story, white home with green metal roof. And they planned to return to help stain cabinets throughout the house.
Joshua, the Duggars’ oldest son, finished high school at age 16. He passed the state’s test for a general equivalency diploma, or GED. He is considering applying to a California law school that permits distance learning. His goal: to enter politics.
His political interest was stoked during the two terms his father served in the Arkansas House. The Duggar family relocated to Little Rock during the sessions – and young Joshua often went to the Capitol with his father, where reporters dubbed him “the governor.”
Mr. Duggar said he sensed God encouraging him to run for the U.S. Senate in 2003, but he lost. He now believes God’s purpose was fulfilled, he said, in a most unexpected way: When he and Michelle went to vote, with 14 children in tow, an Associated Press photographer was present. The family photo appeared the next day in The New York Times.
Mrs. Duggar was contacted by Parents magazine to write a story on parenting. Discovery Health Channel then arranged to shoot the documentaries. There were more children and reporters to chronicle the new arrivals.
“This is an opportunity to share and hopefully encourage other families, not only here in America, but around the world,” Mr. Duggar said.
“A lot of people are amazed to see that you have 16 healthy, beautiful children that are intelligent and all work together as a team. A lot of people are struggling with one or two.”
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