Raised Quiverfull: Melissa’s Story

A post in the Raised Quiverfull series.

Part 1: Introductory Questions

Please introduce yourself before we get started. Are you married or unmarried? Are you in school, holding down a job, or staying home? Do you have children? What religious beliefs or lack thereof do you ascribe to today? Provide whatever additional information you like.

I am Melissa, mid-twenties, married, working in the evenings and staying at home with my 4 pre-school aged children during the day. I am hoping to go to school for the first time this year, and I have no idea what to focus on, it is all so interesting to me. Currently, I am agnostic, we attend a Unitarian church here and there when we feel up to it. I grew up the oldest of 11 children in a Quiverfull/Patriarchal homeschooling family.

How did your parents first come under the influence of Christian Patriarchy/Quiverfull teachings? What leaders did they follow and what publications did they receive?

I am not 100% sure. My Dad always leaned that way I think, but before I was around 8 years old or so, we went to church and the girls were allowed to wear pants if they wanted. When I was 5 my parents decided to homeschool me, and I think some of the homeschool curriculums available in 1990 may have influenced them as well. At around age 8 some things started to change, my dad told us that all the girls would have to dress modestly from now on, because it wouldn’t be fair for him to “spring that on us when we hit our teens” and we might as well get used to it now. When I was 10 we quit going to church and began “homechurching”.  I remember my dad subscribed to “Patriarch Magazine” and “Quit You Like Men” magazines. My mother started to get “Gentle Spirit” and eventually “Above Rubies.” I remember books like “Into the Garden” and “Me? Obey? Him?” on our bookshelves, along with Reb Bradley’s child training tips, “Shepherding a child’s heart,” and eventually “To Train Up a Child.”

In what ways was your family a “typical” Christian Patriarchy/Quiverfull family? In what ways was it “atypical”?

We were typical in the religious views of the movement, the clothes we wore, the gender roles, the discipline procedures, the beliefs in gender roles and spiritual hierarchy in the family, etc. We were atypical in that we were never wholehearted followers of any one group or leader. I remember my Dad criticizing ATI as an organization that was too focused on outward appearances instead of the heart. He usually had something he did not like about each of the big preachers/leaders popular in the homeschool patriarchy movement, but despite this we did purchase products and books from many of them, including Vision Forum. I read almost everything we had around, and I feel that most of what my dad taught was very similar to these leaders, so I am still somewhat confused as to why we never fully subscribed to any of them.

Part 2: Living the Life

What sort of a church did your family go to while you were growing up? Were the other families who attended the church also involved in the Christian Patriarchy/Quiverfull movement?

When I was young, we attended several churches. Usually small, preferably led by an older pastor, and sometimes leaning pentacostal. The women were usually dressed modestly, no loud music. After age 10 we moved again and got more conservative. After that we tried out a couple of churches but nothing was ever approved by my dad, eventually we stopped looking. When I was 18 we started to consistently attend a very conservative church full of very large patriarchal homeschooling families.

In many ways, every Christian Patriarchy/Quiverfull couple has a different dynamic. What sort of a dynamic did your parents have? Was one more sold on the Christian Patriarchy/Quiverfull ideology than the other? Or, if you grew up in a broken family, how did this affect your experience?

In my memory, my dad was always very sure of “God’s will” and was serious about teaching it to each of us children. When I was elementary school aged, my parents fought some, I know that they had some disagreements about child-rearing and gender roles. When I was middle school aged and up through my teens, my mother began reading books on submission and taking it very seriously. After that I do not really remember my parents ever disagreeing. Sometimes my mom would say things about how before she knew her role as a woman their marriage had been very troubled and now it was better. When things were difficult, she would say something about how she could not change Dad, only God could do that, and he would if we were faithful. She always backed up whatever Dad was teaching or commanding.

How often did you, your siblings, and your parents read the Bible? Were you guided by your parents or pastors in how to interpret the Bible, especially certain passages, or were you generally free to form your own ideas about what the Bible said?

We usually read the bible as a family in the evening, my Dad would read aloud and interpret it for us. We had the bible on tape, sometimes we listened to it at bedtime. We each received a King James Bible of our own at around age 8 or so, and we were expected to read it privately and consistently. Sometimes we did bible reading and memory as part of homeschooling.

What role did race play in the Christian Patriarchy/Quiverfull community in which you grew up? Were there any black or hispanic families? Were they treated differently?

I do not remember knowing anyone who was black. I met a few mixed white/Hispanic families in the community. I don’t think race was a huge issue in my family in particular, my dad had attended many black gospel churches as a child, and had a sort of nostalgic affection for black spirituality. We were around people in the homeschool movement who felt that the confederacy should have won the civil war and that the loss of that war had led to a major downslide in Christianity in America. I was never 100% clear on what my parents’ position was in that regard.

Part 3: A Gendered Childhood

How many siblings did you grow up with? Did responsibilities in your family differ by gender, with the girls having certain chores and the boys having others? Explain.

When I left home there were nine of us, and two children were born after I was married and living elsewhere. My dad felt that both boys and girls should know how to do basic care around the house. He often said that as the head of the house he was ultimately responsible for everything that went on there. So he felt that the boys should know how to clean up the house and do laundry in case they had to step in and help their wives someday. So I would say that the young children had very similar chore expectations regardless of gender. As we got older the girls were expected to start cooking meals, I do not remember the boys being required to do this, but that could be because none of them were old enough when I left home. Girls were also expected to do more childcare than the boys. I do know that my Dad was uncomfortable with his daughters doing “men’s work” such as errands outside of the house or mowing the lawn.

If you were an older daughter, do you feel that you were expected to play “mother” for your younger siblings? Explain.

Yes. My mother was often pregnant or caring for a new baby and was tired. We had a buddy system, where the older child was responsible for bathing, dressing, feeding and possibly educating the younger child. Discipline authority was designated to older children, including authority to spank disobedient children.

In what ways were boys and girls in your family expected to dress or act differently from each other? Were there certain things it was appropriate for girls to do but not boys, and vice versa?

My brothers got in big trouble for fighting with their sisters, they were supposed to be respectful to all women at all times. We had to wait for one of our brothers to open the door for us or help us into the car or carry something heavy for us, he usually got in trouble if he forgot. Girls were required to dress modestly, long dresses and skirts. Girls were not supposed to laugh or talk loudly, and we were strongly discouraged or banned from participation in sports or aerobics.

In what ways were boys and girls in your family raised differently vocationally (i.e., the boys pushed toward careers and the girls pushed toward homemaking)? How did this play out as you came of age (apprenticeship, college, staying home, etc.)?

Boys were strongly encouraged to get into a business of their own. Being an entrepreneur was definitely seen as the best career. My parents did not think that college was that important (my Dad called a degree a “piece of paper”), they often talked about apprenticeship for the boys with some excitement. For girls, college was not needed at all. It would only put ideas of a career in our head and distract us from our true calling as a wife and mother. My parents ranged from strongly discouraging to outright banning further education for girls. We were expected to learn how to be a submissive and fruitful wife by practicing serving our father and pleasing him. Studying any topic that they felt wouldn’t fit well with a future of childbearing was discouraged or banned. For example, music was something you could do even while very pregnant or caring for a small baby, sports was not. Therefore music was encouraged, and sports were not.

Part 4: Homeschooling

Why and when did your parents originally decide to homeschool? Did their reasons for homeschooling change over time?

Originally, I remember my Dad talking about choosing homeschooling because he had hated being in school. He had always felt as if he had been held back and had never fit in well with the other kids. My parents saw an article about homeschooling in the newspaper and decided to try it. As time went on there were more reasons, such as protecting us from the disbelief and propaganda in the schools, and keeping us girls safe from unsupervised interactions with men/boys. I remember them talking about how we would waste so much time in school, learning stuff that we would never need for life, whereas if we were at home we could learn about caring for children and cooking and cleaning, all things my mom had felt inexperienced in when she started her family.

Briefly describe your experience being homeschooled, including the amount of interaction you had with other homeschoolers or non-homeschoolers (socialization) and what sorts of textbooks or homeschool program your family used (academics).

Early on we had a consistent schedule each day, I usually did handwriting reading and math, I remember enjoying different school projects we tried. When I was aged 7-9 we periodically attended a homeschool co-op where we participated in an arts and music program, we were also part of a conservative homeschoool girls club called “Keepers at Home” which I enjoyed. As there were more and more children involved, things got less consistent. The older kids were expected to cover much of their work on there own in independent study. We did not have much interaction outside the home when I was in my teens. I don’t remember having a consistent curriculum. My mom tried many different ones, and sometimes we would start and stop different programs in one year.

What do you see as the pros and cons of having been homeschooled? Do you feel that your homeschool experience prepared you well socially? Academically?

I really loved the early years of getting my schoolwork done in the morning hours and then spending hours outdoors. I feel that homeschooling can give the freedom to explore topics that each child finds interesting. I feel that there are gaps in my education academically — I had very little science and history and no biology or geography. At some point education can be limited by the parent’s limitations. I have also found that many of the things I was taught were inaccurate, such as being told that we never went to the moon,  I actually did not hear that there were multiple moon landings until recently, and even then I was sure that was a lie until I looked it up for myself.  Socially I feel like I was very limited, I still have a difficult time make friends today, or maybe more accurately I have a hard time believing that anyone actually wants to be my friend. There are many experiences that I haven’t had, so sometimes conversation can be awkward, because my upbringing was so different.

Do you perceive of your academic or social abilities differently today than you did when you were being homeschooled?

At the time I felt that homeschooling was superior academically, but I felt that I was not smart enough to capitalize on that. I struggled to stick with my self-taught subjects in high school and though I had many interests I did not get to explore many of them. I felt like this was my fault for not pushing myself harder somehow. Socially, I felt very lonely growing up, but I protested to anyone who would listen that homeschoolers were perfectly socialized! I went to violin lessons after all, and I could interact with other people just fine!

Do you plan to homeschool/are you homeschooling your children? Why or why not? If you do plan to homeschool, in what ways will you/do you do it differently from your parents?

At this point, no. Our oldest child is going to Kindergarten this fall. Both my spouse and I feel that homeschooling puts a huge amount of control into the parent’s hands, we both want more community and input and interaction for our kids. I want my children to have a variety of experiences and idea they encounter. I am still nervous about putting my kids in school, because I have literally no experience in that area, so I wonder how I will be able to help them with any problems they may encounter. I still toy with the idea of taking them all out for a year of traveling someday when they are older.

Part 5: Purity

What were you taught about physical purity, emotional purity, and courtship and dating? How was sex education handled?

Sex education was sparse. My mom sat me down before the birth of my 5th sibling and explained to me that sex was something very special that happened when you were married and you loved each other very much” and that a seed from man and a egg from the woman meet up inside the woman’s body and that when the baby grew big enough it came out through the mothers vagina. She showed me a sketch of a baby being born, and about a month later I attended my siblings birth. I was almost 11 years old at the time, and that was the first and last time we ever really spoke of sex. I was there for several more of my mother’s births, but I remember I did not understand how the seed from the man got into the woman in the first place. I figured it happened magically in the night when you slept in the same bed after being married. There was so much talk about NOT having sex and staying pure before marriage, that I started to wonder if my “sex happens while you sleep” idea was correct. If sex was such a big deal, there had to be more too it.

But despite combing the bookshelves at our house and looking it up in the dictionary I could not figure out what sex was. I did not have access to the internet, but finally at the age of almost 17 I managed to find a book on sex and pregnancy at the library. I spent as long as a could in the corner reading frantically with the book stuck inside of a large history book in case anyone saw me, there was no way I could check the book out. It was here that I finally learned what sex was. After 18 I was allowed to use the internet, but I knew anything I looked up on the computer would be see by my dad, so I did not look anything up until right before I got married at age 20, when I did a search for “hymen” to try and determine where exactly mine was and how much losing my virginity was going to hurt. After I was married, I learned much more thanks to finally being able to check out books on my own and search the internet as needed.

From a young age, I was told that I was going to grow up and marry a good Christian man and have children. Women who didn’t get married were considered sad and unfulfilled. And women who married and did not have children so they could have a career were ungodly. I was told that we needed to be careful to find a man who would be willing and able to support me completely so that I could stay at home and have and homeschool our many children, any man who would not be willing or able  to do this was considered selfish and lazy. But I didn’t have to worry about it at all, my Dad always reassured me, because he would protect me from the losers, and any guy who was interested in me had to get past him first.

Dating was not an option, it was just practicing for divorce and a chance for young guys to use young girls for sex. We were never allowed to be alone with men or boys, or even speak on the phone for any length of time. I was taught that my body had power to tempt men, and it was my job to prevent that by dressing modestly as possible. My Dad talked about the dangers of flirting and leading men on by making eye contact, laughing or walking immodestly by moving our hips too much. If any young man even looked at me or walked past me I considered it a proposition of sorts, a sign that he might be interested in me romantically. It made me nervous to be around men, and I often felt guilty for feeling interest for anyone, because that could risk giving away small pieces of my heart and getting too emotionally entangled.

Getting married young was considered a good thing, we were not allowed to even consider romantic relationships at all until we were old enough to be married, which my dad said was at least age 17. We were rarely around other Christian families in our churchless days, and I often worried during my teens that I would never meet any eligible young men, my Dad reassured me that men would be “lining up at the door” when I was old enough. I remember being encouraged by the book “Waiting for her Isaac” because the girl in it lived in a more remote location and had similar worries about meeting someone.

Did you participate in a parent-guided courtship? If so, what was your experience? If not, why not?

Yes. My spouse had to ask permission to court me and get approved my father. We were not allowed to be alone without a sibling or adult chaperone. We avoided all physical contact until my father gave permission for us to hold hands. I was very self-conscious about being an example of purity for my siblings. Neither I or my spouse had ever been intimate with anyone else, and my father had told me that we should not kiss until our wedding day. This appealed to me romantically, and so I kept the rule for some time. We were allowed to be alone on walks outside or in an adjoining room after we were engaged. Eventually we did kiss shortly before the wedding, although we felt ashamed of  the minimal physical contact we had during our engagement.

How do you feel about purity and courtship teachings today? Have you rejected some parts of it and kept other parts of it? How do you plan to handle these issues with your own children?

I don’t agree with most of it. I feel that some of the approaches from courtship can be helpful in finding a long term romantic partner or a spouse, such as being honest about expectations and beliefs and desires up front before making commitments. But the purity teachings were very detrimental, making it difficult to talk about many things and causing sexual hang-ups and body image problems.  I do not plan on teaching my girls that their bodies cause sin, or that all emotional and physical interaction with men is sinful. My hope for my kids is that they can be open and honest about themselves and their likes and dislikes, and know that they are always worthy of love and respect. I hope that my kids will feel safe to talk with me about all these questions and issues without fear of judgment or shame.

Do you feel that the purity and courtship teachings you were raised with still have lasting impact on your life today? If so, how?

Yes. I still feel instinctively suspicious of men. Sometimes I don’t even realize that I am still feeling that way, but a good example would be when I was at a LGBTQ resource center I found myself thinking “I can relax here because all these guys are gay” and then felt surprised that I had just thought that! I also still have a hard time believing that it is okay for me to desire sexual pleasure, I sometimes still find myself feeling guilty for wanting sex, or feeling like my partners needs should come before mine and having hard time expressing my own desires. I also have to overcome guilt for sometimes needing to say no to sex, because I was taught to believe that it was my duty to always be sexually available, and that not being sexually available risked losing that partnership.

Part 6: Questioning

How were you first exposed to “mainstream” American culture? What were your first impressions?

After marriage I listened to regular and Christian radio which I had not been allowed to do before. I watched movies and TV that had not been allowed before. I went to some seminary classes with my spouse, and learned about church history and theology which was more broad than the Mennonite curriculum we had used. I felt like I did not know as much as I thought I had, and also frustrated that so many people did not know God the way I did.

What first made you question the beliefs you were raised with? Was this initial questioning a frightening or liberating experience?

After I was married I was still very much in the Quiverfull patriarchy mindset. I got “Above Rubies” magazine and participated in the online forum, I got “No Greater Joy” magazine as well. One of the big instances that made me start to question was when (a year and a half after I was married) my younger adult sister ran away from home like I had always wanted too. I went to pick her up against my parent’s wishes, which was pretty much the first time I had done anything to disobey them. This made me start to question if everything I had been taught was really the correct understanding of things.

The Above Rubies forum turned out to be quite triggering, I participated for 2 years, early on as a full supporter/encourager of the Quiverfull mindset and punitive punishment methods and homeschooling and courtship. But as time went on, I would find myself more and more agitated by the entries from women participating there and began arguing for more balance and moderation in the doctrines of submission and discipline methods. Eventually I was getting stressed out by the forum almost every day, so I left it.

An interest in the Catholic Church played a part in my movement out of fundamentalism as well. The idea of having an actual authority in the families life other than the father as the head of the house was appealing to me. I also liked the idea of having set doctrines that were the same for everyone, instead of the head of the house being free to interpret and enforce the bible anyway he saw fit.

Over a year after the initial interest in the Catholic Church and leaving the Above Rubies forum, my spouse came out to me as Transgendered and that kept me asking question about faith and the assumptions I had grown up with. Most of this process was very frightening and exhausting, I fought it pretty hard because I really wanted to believe that everything I believed was true, it felt like my life had been a waste if it was not true. But in the last year my feelings have been more of relief and peace.

What did you struggle with most when you were in the midst of questioning and/or leaving Christian Patriarchy/Quiverfull ideology? What was the hardest part?

I think the absolute hardest was trying to find my value apart from being a baby producer. I had only ever seen my worth in my fertility, so contemplating that I was capable of valuable thought or activity other than having children for God’s kingdom was the hardest to move past.

Among those you grew up around who were also raised with Christian Patriarchy/Quiverfull ideology, what proportion has remained in the movement and what proportion has left?

Many of the family friends are still heavily involved. So far all of my adult siblings have questioned a lot and are on their own journeys out of the mindset. I did not have that many personal friends, but the few I did have are still in the mindset.

Part 7: Relating to Family

How did your parents and siblings respond to you questioning/rejecting their beliefs? How did those you grew up with respond?

My parents have been resigned in many ways, their beliefs have changed some over time and they regret some of the things they believed and taught, feeling that they were damaging. They are still very Christian though, and I think it hurts them that I am not. My Mom tells me that if I knew God the way she does than I would not feel the way I do. My adult siblings all have questions of their own, so we have varying degrees of camaraderie. My younger siblings and I do not talk about faith, so I am not aware of their knowledge or perspective. Many of the acquaintances I knew while still in the movement have expressed anger, sadness and feelings of betrayal over my doubts and questions.

What is your relationship with your parents and siblings like today? What is your relationship with those you grew up with who remained in the movement like?

I am very close with several of my adult siblings. For younger siblings I feel like more of an Aunt figure that they see occasionally. I know that my parents love me and wish I still believed, but our relationship is somewhat strained. I think perhaps my Dad has a hard time relating to someone he is not allowed to lead? And my Mom is unhappy that I do not run my choices by them to get their perspective before I make decisions. I talk with my Mom periodically and try to relate as much as we can, but it hard to confide in her or have a very close relationship.

For those who are no longer Christian, are you “out” to your parents or siblings? If so, how did you do it and how did they respond?

Yes, I have been open about my journey out of Christianity. I mostly hinted at it for over a year, and then said right out that I wasn’t sure I believed there was a God anymore. My family took it pretty calmly, although in recent months they found my blog and haven’t been that happy about it.

Have any of your siblings (or perhaps even parents) left Quiverfull/Christian Patriarchy ideology? How do you approach the relationships with siblings who have not?

All of my adult siblings have moved out of the Quiverfull/Christian Patriarchy, and my parents have moved in that direction as well. I am not sure of my Dad’s positions, but I have seen my mom change some of her beliefs on submission and birth control, and get involved in a more mainstream evangelical church.

Part 8: Adjusting

Do you still feel as though you are “different” or that your past experiences emotionally isolate you from society?

Yes. I definitely feel different. I can hardly mention anything from my childhood without getting strange looks, whether it is number of siblings or the fact that I wasn’t allowed to go to college. I don’t have movies or songs I liked at different stages of my life, I didn’t go to school. I didn’t date, I didn’t have friends. Much of what people talk about doesn’t apply to me.

Since most of the world doesn’t understand Quiverfull/Christian Patriarchy culture, do you feel this creates barriers in friendships or in romantic relationships? Do people have a hard time understanding you and your past?

Most people don’t know what I am talking about. Just the usual questions you exchange when meeting someone (how many siblings do you have, what did you major in, how did you and your spouse meet) is enough to make it clear that I have an odd history. I usually try to keep my past somewhat vague in the average friend/ acquaintance relationship, so I don’t put anyone off by confusing descriptions.

What do you think is the biggest way being raised in a family influenced by Christian Patriarchy/Quiverfull ideas has influenced who you are today?

Wow, that is a hard one. I think the biggest way it affects me right now is just how much self-doubt I have. I really have a hard time believing that as a woman I am actually smart enough to succeed in school or hold down a job. While I feel as if I have made huge strides in my confidence and self-assertion in my relationships with my spouse and my children, I still sometimes  feel as though I will never be good at anything except having babies and cooking a really good meal.

How did you perceive your childhood at the time compared to how do you see it now?

I had happy times and sad times. I loved playing with my siblings and participating in family life. I was also often sad and depressed. Then I attributed my feelings of sadness and restlessness to my lack of peace and contentment in Christ. I was sure that if I was just Godlier, more diligent or more obedient, then I would be happy. I now realize that nothing I could have done would have changed the way my family functioned at that time, and that I have the power to change my circumstances now in a way that I did not have then.

Do you sometimes wish to go “back”?

Never. I sometimes miss being able to see my siblings as much as I was able to then, and I still wish that I could somehow please my parents. But I have no wish to go back to living with my parents as a child.

Part 9: Helping Others

What advice do you have for other young adults currently questioning or leaving Christian Patriarchy/Quiverfull ideology?

Know that it’s OK. You are a valuable person with many things to contribute to this world and the people in your life. Don’t be afraid to ask for help from a counselor or therapist. Try out new things and let yourself figure out who you are and what you like. No one has it all figured out, so hang in there. Life gets a whole lot better.

What was most helpful to you when you were questioning and/or leaving the Christian Patriarchy/Quiverfull movement?

Reading perspectives of other people who left Christian patriarchy or other extreme beliefs, talking and talking about my questions and fears, learning how to care for myself instead of always putting myself last, reading other translations of the bible than the one I grew up with and reading about other faith traditions as well. Going to counseling.

What helps you the most today?

Self-care, Healthy loving relationships that I can count on, Persistence in trying new things and learning to say yes to things I am interested in and no to the things that drain me. One thing that continues to help me is reminding myself that I can take my time, in fundamentalism there is usually this huge push to commit. It’s as if you have someone yelling “Hurry! You either believe in God or you don’t, make your choice!” It’s OK to ask questions, it’s OK not to know. It’s OK  to have a journey instead of a destination.

What suggestions do you have for those who might to help friends or relatives who grew up/are growing up in families influenced by the Christian Patriarchy/Quiverfull movement?

Be patient. Don’t tell them unequivocally that the teachings they believe are wrong or bad, just gently share alternative perspectives that have helped you. Be sure to remind them that they have value and worth regardless of what they believe.


Melissa blogs at Permission to Live.

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