Have the Duggars stopped “counting”?

A preview hints at a new "season of life"

Topics: Michelle Duggar, Jim Bob Duggar, TLC, 19 Kids & Counting, Reality television,

Have the Duggars stopped "counting"?In this Aug. 2, 2007 photo, Michelle Duggar is surrounded by her then only 17 children, and husband Jim Bob. (Credit: AP/Beth Hall)

Maybe it’s something about hitting a nice round number. Maybe they just want to get the highest possible score at the game of baby-making. Or, quite likely, they just truly want to know what their God desires of them. Whatever the reason, Michelle and Jim Bob Duggar, the reality TV couple who gained fame for their talent for reproduction, are at it again. But this time, their fervor is tempered with a different kind of experience.

In a preview clip for a new episode of their TLC series “19 Kids & Counting” unveiled Tuesday on the “Today” show, the couple are shown visiting a Little Rock OB-GYN who specializes in high risk pregnancies. As the 47 year-old Michelle explains, “We would love more children if God saw fit to give us more, I just want to make sure that I am ready to catch a baby if that would happen.” She says that “My real goal in visiting with Doctor Wendel… is to find out where I am in my life hormonally speaking, as well as the ability to carry a baby and give birth if that’s possible at this point. I want to find out from a medical standpoint from someone I trust.”

The Duggars are no doubt keenly aware of the increasing difficulties that trying to expand their brood pose with every passing year. In 2009, their daughter Josie was delivered via an emergency caesarian section, five weeks premature. Two years later, soon after declaring they were expecting again, they announced that they had lost another daughter in the second trimester. But they’ve remained seemingly undaunted. Last fall, while actively campaigning against “the baby holocaust” known as abortion, they announced that they were “trying at this point” for another child. And in a conversation with The Stir this March, Michelle affirmed she is still doing her wifely duty, recalling the friend who gave her the youthful marital advice that “You need to realize that you are the only one who can meet that need for your husband. Anybody can iron his shirts, anyone can fix him lunch or he can get lunch out if he can afford it. Anybody can do those other things for him, but only you can meet that intimate need he has in his life. It might not at that moment be a need for you, but it is for him. Don’t forget that.”

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Months later, however, the couple’s determination seems more tempered. Michelle and Jim Bob are now in the longest span of their adult lives without a pregnancy. They are grandparents. And as Michelle tells the doctor – who explains their likelihood of conceiving at this point is “less than about 5%,” “I just want to make sure that if I am in that season of life where we’re not able to have any more, I’m fine I’m happy with that.”

The Duggars, who have said that when they first wed they “thought we would have maybe two or three children,” have evolved into America’s overachievers of fecundity. Because they have put themselves and their large family in the public eye, they have permitted themselves to be something of a freak show, an opportunity for drive-by judgments about their lifestyle, their choices and their go-getter approach to breeding. They have challenged our ideas about what reproductive autonomy and choice look like. Yet they have pressed on, undeterred by their critics or even health crises and miscarriages. But the latest glimpse into Michelle’s attitudes shows that she has of late been coming to terms with realities of time and biology. And it’s often a bittersweet moment in the life of parents when they close that door, when they pack up the crib and close “Goodnight Moon” for the last time. It’s a profound identity shift, and I imagine when you’ve spent twenty years either pregnant or post-partum, it’s exponentially moreso. The couple have spent the past two decades – and in particular their more recent years on television – making the idea of raising a battalion of children fun and happy. Easy, almost. It turns out the harder thing for them may be facing what happens when they’re finished having babies, when the scorecard is final and they’re not “& counting” any more.

Mary Elizabeth Williams
Mary Elizabeth Williams is a staff writer for Salon and the author of "Gimme Shelter: My Three Years Searching for the American Dream." Follow her on Twitter: @embeedub.

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