All God’s children

The Quiverfull movement saddles women with a life of submission and near-constant pregnancies. One mother explains how she embraced the extreme Christian lifestyle -- and why she left.

Topics: Family, Religion, Pregnancy,

All God's children

Vyckie Garrison wasn’t sure she wanted to use her real name in this article. Until last year, Garrison (then Vyckie Bennett), a 43-year-old single mother of seven living in Norfolk, Neb., followed a fundamentalist pronatalist theology known as Quiverfull. Shunning all forms of birth control, Quiverfull women accept as many children as God gives them as a demonstration of their radical faith and obedience as well as a means to advance his kingdom: winning the country for Christ by having more children than their adversaries. This self-proclaimed “patriarchy” movement, which likely numbers in the tens of thousands but which is growing exponentially, bases its arguments on Psalm 127: “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 shall not be put to shame when they contend with their enemies in the gate.” Quiverfull women commonly give birth to families of eight, 10 and 12 children, or more.

Unlike TV’s “Big Love” polygamists or traditionally large Catholic and Mormon families, the Quiverfull conviction does not follow from any official church doctrine. It’s a cross-denominational movement among evangelical and fundamentalist Protestants who have adopted some Catholic arguments against contraception and who have spread their ideas through the booming conservative homeschooling community.

Quiverfull has gained exposure through cable TV’s fascination with extraordinarily large families, including the 18-child Duggar family. The Duggars, an Arkansas couple whose husband Jim Bob was a former Arkansas state representative, have appeared on several Discovery Health Channel specials about their immense brood and currently have a TLC reality show, “18 Kids and Counting,” that focuses on the saccharine details of large family life.

But there’s a lot more to the Quiverfull conviction than you see on the Duggars’ folksy show. In 1985, homeschooling leader Mary Pride wrote a foundational text for Quiverfull, “The Way Home: Beyond Feminism, Back to Reality.” The book argued that family planning is a slippery slope, creating a “contraceptive mentality” that leads to abortion, and that feminism is incompatible with Christianity. As an antidote, Pride told Christians to reject women’s liberation in exchange for the principles of submissive wifehood and prolific stay-at-home motherhood. The core ideology was a direct contradiction of Roe v. Wade: Women’s bodies and lives did not belong to them, but to God and his plans for Christian revival.

Since 1985, Quiverfull has been thriving in the Southern and Sunbelt states. Although the conviction of “letting God plan your family” is not an official doctrine in many churches, there are signs of its acceptance in high places; the Rev. Albert Mohler, Theological Seminary president of the 16-million-member Southern Baptist Convention, argued, for example, that deliberate childlessness was “moral rebellion” against God.

While researching my book, “Quiverfull: Inside the Christian Patriarchy Movement,” over the past several years, I spoke with dozens of women who follow the Quiverfull conviction. I also met a handful who had left the movement and now denounce the lifestyle as one of unceasing labor and exhaustion — a near-constant cycle of pregnancy, childbirth and the care of small children — for the women at its center.

Vyckie Garrison is one of those who lost faith in the movement. For years, she was among its lay leadership. She homeschooled her seven children, from her 23-year-old daughter, Angel, to her 6-year-old son, Wesley, and was active in Quiverfull’s popular sterilization reversal ministries. She ran a monthly conservative family newspaper that published some of the movement’s foremost advocates. The Bennetts were even named Nebraska’s “family of the year” in 2003 by the Nebraska Family Council.

“You couldn’t have found a more godly family,” says Garrison, a sharp-witted and frank woman who has updated her look since leaving the movement — cutting her nearly waist-length blond hair and wearing light makeup to highlight an engaging smile.

She may have looked like the perfect Quiverfull wife, but Garrison was struggling to care for her seven children, three of whom have a rare bone disease, while juggling the demands of her husband and coping with difficult pregnancies. Though she preached patriarchy to her readers, practicing it at home required a major suspension of disbelief. Her husband, Warren, had been blinded in a work accident years earlier and had trouble keeping a job. Garrison founded her paper in part to create a sales position for him, to maintain the illusion of his heading their family. But Warren chafed against his dependency and was verbally abusive, Garrison says, browbeating her and the children into frightened compliance.

Garrison hadn’t come to Quiverfull from a fundamentalist background. She grew up in an unstable household, moving frequently around Nevada with her mother and her mother’s series of live-in boyfriends who molested her sister; she was rarely in school long enough to fulfill the potential her high grades indicated. At 16, she married a high school boyfriend in a friend’s disheveled apartment and walked home in her wedding dress from a honeymoon in a nearby motel. They moved to Carson City, subsisting on Job Corps positions and crashing with hard-partying friends. In despair, Garrison found God while listening to a Christian radio station one night. When she began attending a Pentecostal church, a group of older, middle-class women shepherded the teenage Garrison through the basic lessons of biblical womanhood and submission, starting with the admonition that for wives, love is not a feeling but a choice. Garrison looked to her mentors as beacons of propriety, “like Princess Diana,” she says, giving her a glimpse of a better world.

Garrison’s marriage ended, and she became pregnant with her oldest daughter, Angel, during a short-lived rebound affair. She moved to Iowa to be near her mother and met Warren at a church picnic. After getting married, Garrison followed a new pastor’s counsel to homeschool her growing family, which eventually led her to the Quiverfull movement, where homeschooling, Quiverfull and submission are intertwined convictions. As Garrison says, “If you take one, you pretty much have to take it all eventually.”

Accepting every pregnancy as a unilateral blessing meant some radical leaps of faith, however. Put into physical practice, Garrison says the lesson of leaders like Nancy Campbell, editor of the fundamentalist women’s magazine Above Rubies and author of movement books like “Be Fruitful and Multiply,” “was, if pregnancy can kill you, think of the missionaries who go off to foreign lands and put their lives on the line. It’s no different if you’re risking your own body or life.” Indeed, Mary Pride referred to her mothers as “maternal missionaries.”

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Garrison complied. She’d had her first three children by cesarean section, but after coming to the Quiverfull conviction, she was swayed by the movement’s emphasis on natural (even unassisted home) birth. During one delivery, she suffered a partial uterine rupture and “felt like I’d been in a major battle with Satan, and he’d just about left me dead.” The doctor who treated Garrison lectured her for an hour not to conceive again, but she felt that stopping on her own would be rebellion. When she turned to her leaders for inspiration, she received a bleak message: that if she died doing her maternal duty, God would care for her family. For six months, she couldn’t look at the baby without crying.

For much of that time, her oldest daughter, Angel, effectively mothered the newborn — not at all uncommon in the Quiverfull community, where daughters learn early to follow their mothers in domestic service and sacrifice.

The strain began to weigh on Angel as well, though, and Garrison says her daughter began acting out: feigning injuries, bruising her own face and exaggerating stories of trouble at home when Garrison sent her to intern for Nancy Campbell — embellishments Garrison imagines sprang from Angel’s inability to adequately convey her unhappiness to the fundamentalist believers around her. “She knew that something wasn’t right, but she couldn’t articulate it because we were family of the year.”

Desperate, Angel made a clumsy suicide attempt with high doses of Tylenol and Maalox at the age of 21, checking herself into the emergency room after the attempt failed.

The episode shook Garrison, who drove from Norfolk to Nashville to retrieve Angel from a psychiatric ward. She began to see her younger children as joyless and traumatized. Trying to step between the children and Warren, she enraged him with her assertiveness. Her fatigue became overwhelming, and her blood pressure sank.

Garrison began corresponding with an intellectual atheist uncle whose gentle questions helped her acknowledge her mounting crisis of faith. She wrote her uncle: “If, as I kind of suspect, it turns out that I don’t actually believe in a personal God, I know I’m going to be exceedingly pissed — knowing that I’ve done my best with the hand I’ve been dealt and it’s cost me a lot and it’s worn me down — only to discover midway through that the game is rigged and there’s no way I can win.”

Garrison fled to a friend in Kansas City for several weeks, though she eventually returned for her children, ending up in an ugly custody battle that she finally won.

When she told an editor at her paper that she was getting divorced, his first words were “Cheryl Lindsey” — a reference to Cheryl Lindsey Seelhoff, an early Quiverfull leader who left her husband and the movement and was subsequently denounced and run out of business by her homeschooling peers. “I think he was warning me,” Garrison says.

The experience of Garrison’s friend Laura — a mother of 11 who collapsed under the demands of the lifestyle — also helps explain why many unhappy women are afraid to turn their backs on the movement, when they’ll be left with scant financial resources, years without work experience, and a dearth of references from a community that often shuns them. Laura was near suicide when Garrison helped her leave; her husband took physical custody of all 11 children, and her oldest daughter seamlessly assumed Laura’s duties and tended to the younger children, who now view their mother as a backslider deceived by Satan. “She feels so incredibly angry, so ripped off, so used. Her new motto is ‘Fuck God.’”

“Me and Laura both say we hope we don’t end up as atheists,” says Garrison, with a laugh, though she can’t think of herself as anything else. This month, Laura and Garrison began a blog, cheekily named “No Longer Quivering,” to describe their experiences exiting the movement. Currently, Garrison is attending a relatively liberal Salvation Army church in Norfolk. She doesn’t go for the faith anymore, but for the people, people in “bad shape” who remind Garrison of her childhood friends. She affectionately jokes with the pastor’s wife that she’s glad they “don’t take the Bible seriously.”

For Garrison, taking the Bible seriously is synonymous with the punishing claims of the Quiverfull movement. But having lost her faith in the Bible-proofed patriarchy principles she was taught, Garrison is unable to accept any of it anymore. “I don’t think you can get equality out of the Bible. You can’t get away from hierarchy, strictly defined roles for gender, authoritarianism, submission, dominating.” Many believers might take issue with that, but to devout believers of Quiverfull, patriarchy is simply “the logical conclusion of what Scripture teaches,” Garrison says.

As for herself, Garrison says, “I gave my life to Jesus, and he didn’t do with it what I would have done.” She feels as though she’s in free fall, her “feet planted firmly in midair,” as the evangelical luminary Francis Schaeffer once remarked of non-Christians.

Sometimes it’s exhilarating, but often she wonders when she’ll hit the ground. The chaos and confusion that follow leaving the movement is a powerful deterrent to other women who face losing their children as Laura did, or becoming overwhelmed like Garrison. “The only thing that keeps these mothers going is they have incredible motivation,” says Garrison. “They believe they’re building the kingdom of God.” Though her children are thriving in public school, Garrison struggles to find the energy to mother seven children without the incentive, and threat, that the Quiverfull conviction provides: a promise that obedient Christian wives may, through their meekness, their submission and their posterity, inherit the earth.

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