Michelle Duggar: A Closer Look At The 19 Kids And Counting Star

Since the Duggar family first came into the public eye in 2004 with the debut of their reality show "14 Kids and Counting," viewers haven't been able to look away — the spectacle of a family of 14 kids (with five more to come in the years to follow) and their unconventional, faith-centered lifestyle has been a source of inspiration for some viewers and morbid fascination for others. And central to viewers' fascination is the family's matriarch, Michelle Duggar. Fans and hate-watchers alike marvel at how anyone could pop out so many babies with such ease and keep track of her ever-expanding brood without losing her mind.

But being a TV supermom and vocal proponent of her faith wasn't something Michelle Duggar had ever planned for. Indeed, her early life had as many plot twists as her family's adventures, both on- and off-screen. And along with her many happy moments of family togetherness, Michelle Duggar also experienced profound personal loss as well as public controversy. In short, her life is much more complicated — and interesting — than her cheery public persona suggests.

Michelle Duggar wasn't raised as a Christian

A central feature of the Duggar family's public brand is their evangelical Christian faith. Indeed, the Duggars make no secret of their wish for their shows and public platform to be a form of missionary work. As they note on their website, "our desire has been to make Christ known and for others to see that the Bible truly is the 'owner's manual' for life."

But while Jim Bob Duggar was raised in a practicing Christian family, Michelle Duggar was not — according to the Duggar family website, her family did not attend church at all. But when she was 15, a slumber-party conversation with a friend about the End Times and the afterlife piqued her interest, and her friend invited her to a religious revival the next day. The tenets of Christianity and its offer of unconditional forgiveness to followers instantly resonated with her. At the end of the service, when the pastor invited anyone wanting to commit to Jesus to come to the front, young Michelle Ruark didn't waste a second, and immediately raced down the aisle to start her next phase of life.

She struggled with bulimia in her teens

Before she married, Michelle Duggar was in most ways an ordinary teenage girl — per People, she was a cheerleader and member of her school's gymnastics team, and per The Star, photos from that time of her life show she wasn't shy about wearing the skimpy miniskirt that went with her cheerleader's uniform. So to a casual observer, she appeared to be one of the cool kids — confident, attractive, and well-liked by her peers.

But inside, she was struggling: Like many teenage girls, she felt insecure about her weight. "I would look around and compare myself to my friends, saying, 'oh my, she's so small,'" she told People. Desperate to lose weight, she became bulimic, hiding her secret from even her closest friends and family. She credits her courtship with Jim Bob Duggar for saving her. "You can't keep secrets from the man you want to share your life with," she told People. "I shared this struggle with him and he said he would help me and help keep me accountable."

Her first meeting with Jim Bob Duggar was forgettable

To hear Jim Bob Duggar tell the tale, his first meeting with his future wife, Michelle Ruark, was love at first sight — when he and a fellow high school student stepped into her home as part of his church outreach, he knew he'd found his person. According to the Duggar family website, he was so smitten that he was terrified to speak, and just sat silently as his friend chatted with her. Upon leaving her house, he silently prayed that she'd come into his life again.

While this meeting was a watershed moment for Duggar, it was just another evening for his future wife, who barely noticed him. And while the two occasionally crossed paths at church, Duggar was too shy to re-introduce himself, and she apparently had no interest in introducing herself to him. But little did she know that the quiet, skinny guy she barely remembered would soon reshape the direction of her life.

A job with Jim Duggar's mother brought the pair together

Michelle and Jim Bob Duggar's inauspicious first meeting may have been their only contact had it not been for an odd twist of fate: Seeking extra income for their family, Jim Bob Duggar's mother started managing a frozen yogurt shop, and he would often pick her up after work. On one such trip, his mother mentioned that a fellow high school student named Michelle Ruark had applied for a job at the shop and asked her son if he knew her. As the Duggar family website recounts, this was just the lucky break he'd been waiting for. "Yes, I know her!" he replied. "And you need to hire her!"

Jim Bob's mother took his advice, and he made a point of making regular appearances at the shop, either to pick up his mother or to "help" with maintenance. Finally, he worked up the nerve to ask Michelle Ruark out, and to his joy and relief, she said yes. Following their first date, a junior-senior banquet at Jim's school, they returned to her house and talked for four hours — and both knew it was the start of something life-changing.

Michelle Duggar was only 17 when she married Jim Bob

While they were only high schoolers when they met, Jim Bob and Michelle Ruark knew their relationship was serious. Per the Duggar family website, just as Jim Bob Duggar had prayed to be reunited with her after their first meeting, Ruark gave a silent prayer of thanks and hope after their first date: "Lord, if this isn't the one you have for me, I can't imagine anyone better!"

But another twist of fate was soon to test the young couple's resolve. About halfway into Michelle's senior year of high school, her father announced he had accepted a job offer in North Carolina, meaning the family would be moving as soon as she graduated. Jim Bob knew that if was to hold on to her, he'd have to act fast. He bought a $350 ring and tearfully asked her father for his daughter's hand in marriage. He had a job and a real estate license, he explained, and was ready to be a supportive husband. The couple married in July 1984, just after Jim Bob's 19th birthday and two months before Michelle turned 18.

She planned her own wedding

A lot of young women dream of extravagant fairytale weddings, flipping through bridal magazines for dress and décor ideas. But even at 17, an age when many give little thought to budgeting and long-term planning, Michelle Duggar approached her wedding with an eye for cost-effectiveness and practicality rather than glamour.

The Duggars' wedding, per the family's webpage, was a simple, homespun affair. Michelle chose to make most of the decorations herself — and revealed her practical bent by constructing a bouquet of artificial flowers so she could later use them to decorate the couple's new home. The ceremony took place in the hallway of the couple's church, since the main part of the building was still under construction. Michelle also chose to wear her mother-in-law's wedding dress — a gesture that not only spared the young couple a significant expense, but also further tied their families together.

Michelle Duggar didn't plan to have a large family

When Michelle and Jim Bob Duggar married, they didn't aim to have a large family — per their website, their original plan was to have just two or three kids. And like many newly married couples, they opted to postpone parenthood until they felt they were ready for it. So for the first three years of their marriage, Michelle used birth control pills. Once they were ready to start their family, she stopped taking the pill and their oldest son, Joshua, was born.

As much as the Duggars loved being Josh's parents, they didn't feel ready for another child yet, so Michelle Duggar went back on the pill — and got pregnant anyway. But sadly, Michelle miscarried early in her pregnancy. Her doctor's comment that her pregnancy had failed because she'd been using the pill hit her hard — she interpreted this to mean that her choice to use the pill had killed her child. This was a turning point for the Duggars: From that moment, they decided to stop using contraception and let God decide how many children they would have.

Her religious beliefs put her at odds with her sister

For the Duggars, faith and family are at the heart of everything they do, including their shows and their brand. But as Michelle Duggar found out, faith and family don't always go together. While she converted to Christianity in high school (per the Duggar family's website), she did not grow up in a religious family. Over time, religion's growing role in her life — and her increasingly conservative religious beliefs — began to concern her family, according to the Daily Mail.

In particular, Michelle Duggar's interpretation of her faith was problematic for her older sister, Evelyn Ruark. An out lesbian in a committed relationship, Evelyn and her partner, Sharon Callahan, became alarmed by Duggar's commitment to Quiverfull, a Christian movement that emphasizes procreation and traditional lifestyles, as well as by her vocal homophobia. "We are worried about them," Callahan told The National Enquirer (per the Daily Mail). 'We have often thought that Quiverfull is a cult. It appears to be brainwashing to me."

Michelle Duggar's parenting practices have raised eyebrows

If you believe the old saying "practice makes perfect," Michelle Duggar must be an exemplary mother — after raising 19 children who appear to be (mostly) happy and healthy, she must know a thing or two about effective parenting. And she has leveraged her life experience to position herself as an expert. In 2003, she authored an article in Parents magazine entitled "Count Our Blessings," in which she shared her tips for keeping her large family organized and happy. (The article has since been taken down, but is described in detail here.)

But not everyone has been on board with her unconventional techniques. Michelle's strangely strict dress code for her daughters (long, loose dresses with no pants, shorts, or swimsuits, even when swimming or working outdoors, per Cafe Mom) — along with her infamous "buddy system," in which older children were each responsible for washing, dressing, and monitoring a younger sibling — have been attacked as not only sexist and out of touch, but downright irresponsible. As the YouTube channel Gabs with Abigail pointed out in a reaction video to the Parents article, the oldest Duggar daughters were between 10 and 14 at the time the article was written, but were charged with most of the care of their younger siblings — a problematically large responsibility for kids still young enough to require care themselves.

When her son Josh Duggar was on trial, she pleaded for leniency

For years, Michelle Duggar and the rest of her family aimed to project a wholesome image of family togetherness. But their carefully cultivated façade came crashing down in 2016, when In Touch broke the news that Josh Duggar, the oldest of the family's 19 children, was revealed to have been under investigation for sexual abuse of underaged girls, including his sisters. (The investigation, which started in late 2004, was never completed and was ultimately dropped after the three-year statute of limitations on the alleged crimes expired). But that was only the start of his troubles. In 2021, he was arrested for possession of child pornography (per Yahoo! News).

While all of this was devastating for the Duggar family brand — "19 Kids and Counting" was abruptly canceled when Josh's past actions came to light, per ABC News – Michelle continued to stand by her eldest son. And she wasn't afraid to make her support public: Per People, she wrote a letter to the judge presiding over her son's child pornography trial, praising his character and begging for leniency. "Joshua has a tender heart and he is compassionate toward others," she wrote, asking that he be "reunited with his wife and family in a timely manner."

Michelle's defense of her disgraced son divided her family and fans

Unconditional love is supposed to be one of the hallmarks of motherhood, but for many longtime watchers of the Duggar family, Michelle Duggar's continued vocal defense of her son Josh — who (per People) had not only escaped charges of sexually abusing minors, but had also confessed to adultery and was facing charges of child pornography possession — was a bridge too far. For many, supporting a grown child who has made a few mistakes is one thing, but supporting one who has sexually abused helpless children — including his own sisters — was another. Commenters on an Instagram post by withoutacrystalball featuring a letter in Josh Duggar's defense co-authored by Michelle Duggar and Josh Duggar's wife, Anna, expressed outrage. "Not one mention of these poor children that were victimized," one commenter wrote.

And while Michelle Duggar continued to stand by her son, others in the Duggar family had finally had enough. In a joint statement, Jill Duggar Dillard and her husband, Derick Dillard, thanked local law enforcement for their due diligence on the case. "We are thankful for the hard work of law enforcement, including investigators, forensic analysts, prosecutors, and all others involved who save kids and hold accountable those responsible for their abuse," they wrote on their website. "Nobody is above the law. It applies equally to everybody, no matter your wealth, status, associations, gender, race, or any other factor."