These days, the Duggars are the most well known family to have participated in the Advanced Training Institute (ATI). For those not familiar with ATI or the Quiverfull movement, the prospect of a family having 19 (going on 20) children is just mind boggling. Yet for those of us who grew up in ATI, having many children seems quite normal. Or, at least it used to.
I was finishing my sophomore year in public high school when my family enrolled in ATI. I had been to one Basic Seminar and didn’t care for it, but I was in for complete culture shock when my family attended our first Knoxville (ATI’s yearly conference) a few months later. I had never in my life seen so many families who had so many children–often in matching patterns (this was before the days where navy blue and white was mandatory Knoxville dress).
I soon learned why. ATI families had a lot of children because that was “God’s best.” I learned that birth control was self-centered, if not utter defiance against the Lordship of Jesus Christ. We were exhorted to “love children as Jesus loved children” and at the end of that week, they paraded a bunch of mothers and their reversal babies up on stage, to a thunderous standing ovation from a multitude of faces streaked with tears of gratefulness. I wasn’t sure what a reversal baby was, so my mom explained that these mothers had their tubes tied (or in some cases, the dads had vasectomies) but had undergone operations to “reverse” that procedure and have more babies.
I thought that was cool. I had a slew of younger cousins who were a lot of fun. I guess in some respects, having a reversal sibling was kind of like the ATI version of Paris Hilton carrying a Chihuahua in her purse. All the cool kids in ATI had one. Some had several. Admittedly, I was a little bit disappointed when my mom said there’d be no point in her having a reversal surgery since she was undergoing the change. Oh well.
The more time I spent in ATI and away from “normal” people, the more normal having a lot of children seemed. As I thought about marriage down the road, I thought about it in terms of having a lot of children. At some point, a wife who was willing to have a lot of children quickly rose to my “wife-picking-criteria” list. And my parents were thrilled that my brother ran around bragging that some day he and his wife would have at least a dozen kids.
Fast-forward some years: Having left ATI very disillusioned, I nevertheless found myself engaged to a young woman whom I had met while serving at the Indianapolis Training Center. We met with my pastor for pre-marital counseling. My pastor, who had probably never heard of Bill Gothard, the Basic Seminar, or ATI, asked us to sit down and answer some questions together. They were tough, but necessary questions dealing with all sorts of things like finances, sexual activity, gender roles and expectations. Not surprising, there was also a question about family planning. My fiancée Katie (now my wife) and I talked and concluded that we wanted “as many children as God saw fit to give us, whenever He wanted to give them to us.” Of all the IBLP-influenced beliefs and standards we’d jettisoned since leaving, for some strange reason we continued to cling to the mindset that God was opposed to any sort of family planning and wanted everyone to have a very large family.
We soon married, and took absolutely no precautions to avoid pregnancy. Fast forward a few more years, and if you’ve read my other articles, you’ll know that we found ourselves wrestling with years of infertility. The words we’d proudly announced to my pastor “as many kids as God sees fit to give us as soon as He wants to give them to us” haunted us. Maybe that was no kids? Could it really be?
Eventually, after 7 years of marriage, for no explainable reason, Katie finally conceived. By that time I was 33 years old. Much, much older than I ever anticipated I’d be when my first child was born. And while we had no particular number of children in mind, we wondered how many we’d be able to have before our bodies “aged out of the system.” Our son was born and the first few nights were a lot of fun. I didn’t mind that he cried all night long. We had waited so long. However as those nights turned into weeks, and then into months, I was left with two thoughts: I am exhausted. And, why had we wanted this so badly? Parenting was much harder than I assumed it would be, though we loved our son with all our hearts.
Perhaps because we assumed we would continue to have fertility struggles, and perhaps because, on some level, we were still uneasy with the concept of using birth control, we took no precautions. So when our son was four months old, and we were utterly exhausted, we found out we were expecting again. Katie cried, but I’m not sure they were tears of joy.
Eventually, we grew excited about having a second child and even more-so when we learned this one was a girl. We gave each other pep talks about all of the storms we’d weathered together in 8 years of marriage. We would survive this. When our daughter was born, the first few nights were a lot of fun. We didn’t mind that she cried all night long. We’d waited so many years to have a family (rather than just a baby) and here we were. However, unlike our son who learned to sleep through the night after a few months, it took nearly a year for our daughter to master this concept. To complicate things, I was in the process of completing my MBA when she was born, and she had some worrisome health issues that required concentrated attention.
For a number of months, I told Katie that I was done. I didn’t want any more children. I begged her to give me her blessing to get a vasectomy. I no longer cared what my ATI friends would think. I didn’t care whether our parents would be unhappy with the number of grandchildren we’d provided to them. I just wanted to sleep; no I needed to sleep and the thought of more children sounded like a death sentence. We were both totally stressed out and easily angered with one another and sometimes with our children. As a compromise, we utilized birth control. Eventually, our daughter began sleeping through the night and as she did, life began to feel a little more normal. My impulse to prevent conception of any more children quieted down. We began to talk about whether we were up for trying again. Sixteen months after our daughter was born, we learned we were expecting again.
At some point along the way we started watching the Duggars’ show, “19 Kids and Counting.” While Katie found them fascinating, I was irritated. By this point in time my children were toddlers and I was doing everything I could to invest in their lives. I thought about what it would be like to have 19 children and I thought if I were to provide each one of my children just one half hour of my time each day that was reserved for them, that would be 9.5 hours! Who has 9.5 hours? I certainly don’t. And that’s when I began to SERIOUSLY question all that I had been taught about family planning.
Bill Gothard likes to use the verses from Psalm 127:4-5 “Like arrows in the hands of a warrior are sons born in one's youth. Blessed is the man whose quiver is full of them. They will not be put to shame when they contend with their enemies in the gate” to teach that God’s best is to have a lot of children. He also resorts to reading into several Biblical accounts as a basis for encouraging large families:
-Jacob had 12 sons and 1 daughter. If he hadn’t had all the children God intended for him to have, we wouldn’t have most of the New Testament since Paul was a descendant of Benjamin who was Jacob’s 12th son.
-Jesse had 8 sons, but if he didn’t have all the children God intended him to have, we would not have had a significant portion of the Old Testament, since Psalms were primarily written by David (Jesse’s 8th son) while Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Solomon were written by Solomon, David’s son.
There were probably a few more examples, but those are the ones I remember. As I began to critically examine the logic of these statements, I began to have my doubts. For starters, there is quite a bit of reading into these passages. For example, how many wives did Jesse have? Since David and Solomon both had many, it’s possible he had a few and if so, each wife probably had a few children to care for, and not necessarily one wife with eight children. We know that Jacob had a number of wives. While Leah had 7 children, each of his other wives only had 2. If we want to read into things, Moses’s parents only had 3 children. Maybe they stopped after that? What about James and John? Maybe their parents only had 2 sons? Perhaps Jonah or Daniel were each an only child? The reality is we don’t know the answer to any of these questions. All we can do is speculate, and in my experience when you speculate, you typically bring your own preferences/opinions/presuppositions into the mix.
And then, there is the issue of the biggest proponent of all of these large families. Bill Gothard has no children himself. Sure, it’s easy to be an armchair referee, but I have to wonder whether he’d be so gung-ho about the issue if he had endured nearly 2 years of sleeplessness like I had.
So what about the full quiver? I think the best summary of the issue I ever heard was from an acquaintance who said he’d rather have a quiver with a few well-crafted, functional arrows, then a bunch of shoddy ones, incapable of hitting any mark.
So where does that leave us? By all means, each one should be convinced in his own mind (Romans 14:5). For me, I think that I can love children like Jesus loves children without needing them all to be MY children!