By Allison McDowell Enstrom
Special to MSN TV
Last Tuesday, the Duggar family was finally able to take baby No. 19 home from the hospital -- four months after her birthday! The Duggar family expected little Josie to arrive around March 18. Instead, the TLC television clan watched (along with everyone else who watches "19 Kids and Counting") as this teeny tiny baby was born on Dec. 14, more than three months early. Josie was given her bill of good health last week and sent packing! Now the show must go on.
I find the Duggar phenomenon totally off-putting (including the hokey plan to give every child a name that starts with the letter J). So many children, a televised wedding, a new grandbaby, another televised special on Josie's birth -- all of this in the name of what? This deeply Christian family would probably answer, "God." That might be satisfactory enough if it was a more private affair, one not broadcast on national television. It's one thing to have an unusually large family. It's another to put that family and all its trappings into a fishbowl and then invite millions of viewers to gawk and critique and criticize. "19 Kids and Counting" (previously called "18 ..." and "17 ...") isn't the Duggars' first foray into television entertainment. They started with Discovery way back when the family was comparatively small with just 14 kids. Clearly, it's reached freak show status or TLC wouldn't be documenting the trials, chaos, and certainly cooperation and love of this ginormous family.
Back to Josie, though: For a parent, experiencing the harrowing birth of a premie is an absolute nightmare. It requires so much strength and hope and emotion and hard work. I know; I have some experience walking in Jim Bob and Michelle Duggar's shoes, and I'm thoroughly baffled, even offended, by their public reaction and interaction with the media since Josie's birth. I'm not sure that being offended by their lifestyle choice is totally reasonable, but it's definitely what I feel. When I heard she was so early, I felt sad knowing what a long, tough road she has ahead. But within days the media were asking if the couple was going to have more babies. (Who really asks that right after a seriously medically challenging delivery? If someone had asked me that, they would have gotten punched in the mouth!) The Duggars' response didn't exactly defuse the media, though. They could have deflected the ensuing criticism by saying something to the effect of, "Our newborn is fighting for her life. We're not in a position to think about that at the moment." Instead, they went on to give People an interview saying they're fully open to having more children. The article included photos of them looking as happy as can be while holding little Josie in the hospital with her feeding tube taped to the side of her face. TLC video crews were also on hand to document it all from birth up to now. It actually seems kind of twisted to me.
My own premie arrived three months early, too, and weighed just two ounces more than Josie Duggar. Our neonatal nurses wouldn't even turn the lights on in our daughter's room because it was too much stimulation for her delicate eyes. We were also only allowed two people at a time to visit her because of the risk of the introduction of germs. Something that might cause a cold for a term baby could be lethal for a premie. In the early days after her birth, we wore hospital gowns and face masks. I cannot imagine having a television crew just feet away from my premie, with cameras, lights, gear, and boom mikes that have been all over creation. I was astounded when I saw the People photos and TLC video, knowing what went into taking them and what kind of stress that could cause for baby Josie.
There are certainly reasons to commend this family. Apparently the Duggars live debt-free, which is a lot more than can be said of the typical American family of four. They save money by making their own laundry detergent and soap in huge batches (her recipe is posted on the family Web site), buying in bulk, shopping at thrift stores, cutting their own hair, doing hair perms at home (people still do perms?!), and heating the entire huge house from a wood stove. They're masters of being frugal, and that alone is probably teaching the kids to be more responsible consumers and better stewards of the Earth. Jim Bob's and Michelle's organizational skills have to border on obsessive in order to keep the troops moving, and they do it with alacrity that I envy, running just my little family of four! In that respect, I marvel at them.
The reality of having so many kids, though, is that one mom and dad just couldn't possibly do it all. At some point, the older kids have to be stand-in or part-time parents to the younger ones. Maybe Jim Bob and Michelle, themselves, inadvertently admitted that when they said on their Web site that one of their goals in parenting a large family is making sure they have individual conversations with each child at least -- wait for it -- once a week! Can you imagine how loved a kid must feel getting penciled in to talk to Dad on Wednesdays at 2:35? It sounds more like a parent/teacher conference than parent/child relationship. (Better not be late!) The family also has Operational Definitions of Character Qualities they expect of their kids. I think I had one of those at the mega-company I used to work for. The kids are also paired off in a buddy system so an older child can mentor and help a younger one.
But, bringing Josie home from the hospital isn't going to be like it was for the typical babies of the bunch. She'll require so much more care, and people have to be so much more careful of her. There are four times the doctors appointments for a premie, there are additional vaccinations (for things like life-threatening RSV), there's the ever-present fear of any little germ. Life with a premie is complicated. But, then again, so is life with 18 kids; the Duggars don't tend to shy away from "complicated."
I will trust this family has a better future in store than its TLC predecessor, "Jon & Kate Plus 8." I suppose these families are selling a product, which happens to be their families. It's just too bad there are so many kids in the middle who may actually pay the biggest price. Meanwhile, I'm hoping that Josie's homecoming will go smoothly and she'll remain in good health and then get tossed into the Duggar mix as just another healthy, typically developing kid. Bring on the next one: 19 and counting!
Allison McDowell Enstrom is a freelance writer who lives outside Seattle. She has a ten year background as a television news producer and executive producer. She's now a full-time mom of two children.
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