The first time I saw the Duggars on TV, it was over 10 years ago when I was in high school. A special came on called something like “14 Children and Pregnant Again,” and given my love for (a) anything to do with large families (I was an only child for a few years) and (b) weird religious subcultures, I was instantly hooked.
As the years went on, I kind of joined my own weird religious subculture, becoming an Orthodox Jew, and continued to watch the Duggars’ show. I loved watching their children grow up and get married, and found it interesting to compare their lifestyle choices to my own. They married young and had boundaries in their courtships (check), they wore strange-looking swimwear to the beach (check), they had baby after baby each year all with the same initial names (um, no check–on many levels).
I knew, of course, that the Duggars weren’t perfect, but I assumed their imperfections had to do with not sharing the last cookie in the cookie jar, or perhaps even browsing the Internet unsupervised(!). So when the rumors first started spreading that the oldest son, Josh Duggar, had molested several girls when he was a teenager (including his SISTERS), I assumed that some celebrity journalists had just been putting too much vodka in their screwdrivers.
When the Duggars directly confirmed the story, I was absolutely shocked. A flock of sheep clad in flamenco dresses bleating past my kitchen windows could not have stunned me more. As a Duggar fan, I’m floored. As a religious person, I’m ashamed for them. And as a Jew–I’m wondering what exactly there is to learn from all this.
The Duggars never came out and said, “We’re doing it right, and you all have it wrong.” But they did have some very specific ideas on how to live and how to run a family: from no kissing before marriage, to taking on absolutely no debt–not even a mortgage. And although these elements were deemphasized in the show, the Duggars also believe that wives should be obedient and consistently sexually available to their husbands, and that spanking and other forms of strict discipline are necessary in order to “train up” a child responsibly. My own life and values differ from these significantly, but sometimes the lure of the perfect family still drew me in.
Although I’m a happy working mother, I often felt a twinge after watching the show, that maybe, in the hustle and bustle of work, commuting, and meal planning, I was depriving my family of that easy, wholesome environment I saw on TV. Every once in a while, I fantasized about doing life “Duggar-style”–staying home, burning the birth control, and spending my days focused on one thing and one thing only: family. As a busy working wife and mom juggling a number of priorities, the simplicity and clarity of that mission appealed to me.
After a few minutes, I would remember that, oh yeah, I loved my job, and having a place to get up and go to every morning (not to mention being able to eat a meal start to finish, and the joy of solo bathroom trips). But I worried that all of these reasons focused on me, and that I was doing a disservice to my children in the process.
But what the Duggar scandal can teach us is that there is no perfect way. You can do everything right, whatever right means to you–modest dress, organic vegetables–but it doesn’t mean your children will turn into the people you want them to be, or that your family will look just like the vision you have in mind. It is the essential sacrifice we make as parents: we give, and love, and invest, and in exchange, we are given absolutely no guarantees. There is no perfect way, so we just have to do our best to find a way, a way that works for us, that makes us happy to wake up in the morning and lay our heads down at night. Accepting imperfection also extends to others–if we can accept that our way is not the only one, or the perfect one, then it opens the door for us to allow others to do things differently, rather than negatively judging everyone who has made a different choice.
Thinking about this situation, I feel sad for everyone involved: sad for the victims, for their earlier trauma and current loss of privacy. Sad for Anna, Josh’s sweet-faced young wife, who went from evangelical royalty to persona non-grata in the space of a few hours. Sad even for Josh–for what might have made him do this, and what his life might look like going forward.
I feel sad–also wistful–for the many nights I settled in with a cup of hot tea and a fresh episode, thinking I was watching the happiest family in America.