There are rumors going around, and have been for a few months now, that Jana Duggar is pushing for more independence. I don’t know whether these rumors are true, though I hope they are. But as someone raised in a similar family and home environment, I want to talk for a moment about the context that is Jana’s reality.
There’s this thing you have to understand about Jana. Those children she cares for? Those may be her siblings, but they are also her children. Think about the way parents sometimes find themselves stuck in unhappy marriages because they want out but afraid they won’t get custody. Now imagine they can’t even apply for custody, because that’s Jana’s situation. Would you leave your children? Or would you stay?
I know what it is like to be an oldest child in an oversized family. I know what it is like to be put in a position of authority over my younger siblings, and to be expected to participate in raising them. I know what it is like to wake a little sibling in the morning, dress her and brush her teeth, and then put her to bed at night, every day for years. Michelle and Jim Bob aren’t shy about the position they’ve put Jana in. They’re upfront about their “buddy system” and the role the older siblings play in raising, caring for, and nurturing their younger siblings. The result is a relationship that’s more parent-child than sibling-sibling.
I’ve heard so many stories from daughters who have grown up in families like this who leave and then find their siblings held hostage, their emotional connection leveraged to break their rebellion and bring them home. Some states have laws ensuring that grandparents have access to their grandchildren, but no state has a law granting adult children access to their minor siblings.
I have seen letters written by little siblings to their grown up siblings who have left, asking them where they went and why and when they will be coming home. It is their parents who are keeping them separate, denying their adult siblings access and making all sorts of unreasonable conditions that involve sacrifices too big to make. But the younger ones may not know that, and that only adds to the weight the absent older sibling feels. I know of cases where parents have turned younger siblings against their older siblings, spinning wild tales of worldliness, selfishness, abandonment, and ungodly behavior.
Imagine that leaving home that you would never see your siblings again. Imagine that those siblings were your children. Would you leave them? Or would you stay?
I’ve often heard people suggest that because the older girls stayed in the home after turning 18 they must have been happy and content where they were, and that the family really was all it seemed. This ignores the entire context within which these girls had to make their decisions. It ignores the fact that leaving could cost them their siblings, and the fact that money for college doesn’t grow on trees. The Duggars don’t believe in daughters going to college. Going to college would have been an act of rebellion. Think about what that would have cost the girls! Everything.
Oh, but you didn’t see that pointed out on TLC? Instead, the show made it look like the girls wanted to stay? As though they had a choice? Well guess what else! TLC spent a decade hiding Josh Dugger’s sexual abuse of young children. Do you honestly think they could have not known about that? And what about the fact that TLC spent a decade successfully concealing the fact that Michelle and Jim Bob discipline their children with a rod? The days when you might have claimed that TLC portrayed the whole of what was going on in that home have passed.
Lest you think I’m exaggerating, I should note that I grew up in a much less strict household than the Duggers—I was expected to attend college, for example—and I still knew that I was risking my access to my siblings when I began to form my own beliefs and ideas independently from my parents. The tension was so palpable that I felt I had to chose between my family and my freedom. It was one of the most difficult decisions I have ever faced.
And if you still think I’m exaggerating, it’s probably relevant that the childrearing guru the Duggars continue to promote teaches that parents are to cut a rebellious older child off from all access with his or her minor siblings.
If you are dealing with an older sibling that has younger siblings still living at home then you will have to cut off ALL communication between the rebellious young adult and the other children. That means ALL forms of communication. Phone calls, e-mails, letters and even eye contact!
Jana is in a tight spot. She can either make the break completely and risk losing contact with her siblings, or find a way to move her parents slowly and incrementally, convincing them to give her more independence. Perhaps she may choose a Christian college because she thinks her parents would be more likely to get there to send. Perhaps she may mention when asking for a car that she’ll be able to help ferry the younger children around. In either case, she’s negotiating for her very freedom.
I’m tired of people treating Jana and the other Duggar children as spectacles for public consumption. This isn’t some scripted fictional TV drama we’re talking about here. It’s their lives. Please remember that.