It wasn’t a completely conscious decision to become a non-vaxing family.
Back when I was an antisocial, unemployed mother, I frequented message boards at sites such as mothering.com and local Yahoo! groups with titles like “Natural Mothering [City/State],” online spaces for mothers who birth at home, breastfeed for years, sleep with their babies, use cloth diapers, and carry their children in slings. I remember being a little bewildered that the taglines for the some of the mothers, a collection of little emoji gifs of a cloth diaper, a breast, and a sling, for example, often included a blinking multicolored NO VAX, or something like this:
Just to be clear, it’s my experience that the focus on the minutiae of parenting styles can be destructive to the relationships between parents and children, and parents and other parents. Back then, though, I was a homebirthing, cloth-diapering, co-sleeping, attachment parenting zealot. But I wasn’t proud of not vaccinating. I didn’t advertise the fact and I wasn’t sure why I should. It wasn’t something I chose according to some specific set of ethics or particular parenting style. It just sort of happened. Mostly from inertia. Which is weird for me.
Among attachment parents, breastfeeding holds nearly mystical status while vaccines are looked upon with, at best, suspicion (despite vaccines having no real relevance in attachment). All of the attachment parents I knew avoided vaccines altogether or placed their children on a delayed, restricted schedule of shots. Apart from classes in epidemiology and immunology, I’d never thought about immunizations in any significant way. So while pregnant with Isaiah, I decided to do some research.
It’s my tendency to become obsessed with a special topic and put in thousands of hours of study until I can craft an informed opinion – but vaccines were the exception. I could not make sense of the rhetoric on either side. I had the constant sense that I was being sold an intensely biased viewpoint, whether the source was the CDC or a midwife. I just couldn’t get clarity on the subject. Even the medical research, usually my haven, was so laden with conflicts of interest that I found it unconvincing in either direction. And though I usually feel comfortable with rigorous science, I couldn’t fully grasp the function, mechanism, or implications of immunization. Very few people really understand how vaccines work; mostly we’re just parroting ideas that are beyond our grasp.
At Isaiah’s 2-month well-child check-up, the doctor yelled in my face for expressing that I wanted to do more research into vaccines before committing to any. He asked me if I wanted my child to die, or to kill someone else. Of course I did not. So he gave my boy a shot. I walked out in tears and did not return.
After that day, I didn’t feel that I could make an informed, unbiased decision, so I did something I’ve never done before in any other situation, with any other issue – nothing. I neither vaccinated nor made the definitive decision not to vaccinate.
Over the years Jeremy and I have revisited our decision to not-vaccinate while not making a decision to not-vaccinate. Each time, we’ve only briefly touched on the topic before jumping away. I haven’t done more research into the topic since that day nine years ago. I haven’t counseled with fellow parents, followed message boards, read books or articles, or spent time on PubMed looking at medical studies. Still, over time I grew in the feeling that my children should be vaccinated. I didn’t decide that vaccines don’t cause autism (I never thought they did). I didn’t bundle support of vaccination into my general skepticism of “natural” parenting methods. I wasn’t convinced by the nasty rage-fueled campaign against “anti-vaxxers.” I was influenced by deep consideration of just three issues:
- Disease rates are increasing, including in California where we live.
- Many people in our immediate community are unvaccinated.
- Some people cannot be vaccinated, and are dependent on their communities for protection.
That’s it. Essentially the scales tipped just barely enough in the direction of supporting public health measures and reducing harm to others to result in my kids sitting on a paper-covered examination table at the rural health clinic.
So that’s done. But here’s what I’ve observed from years of being uncertain about vaccination. Here’s what I want you, the vaccine opponent or supporter, to think about when this topic comes up.
Every time the vaccination issue enters a conversation, a HUGE fight breaks out between those who view vaccines as a literal poison compelled upon parents enslaved by a nanny-state government and those who view vaccines as the engine that has furthered the advance of civilization.
In online discussions it’s completely common for people to say that parents who don’t vaccinate should have their children stolen by the government or that the parents themselves should just be executed.
There is no room in there for the person who isn’t sure if it’s safe to inject their children with formaldehyde, but also doesn’t want to be responsible for a resurgence of polio. Such people are immediately shouted down by “skeptical, pro-science advocates” who basically shit on anyone with a question.
On the other side, anyone tentatively suggesting that vaccines might occasionally prevent disease is shouted down by “skeptical, pro-liberty advocates” who shit on any vaccine supporter for drinking the Kool-aid of the CDC or perhaps even shilling for a drug company.
There are reasons for distrust of vaccines. This movement did not arise from a vacuum. Those reasons include the overwhelmingly suspicious behavior of pharmaceutical companies, the profit-driven, interest-conflicted approach of our health care system, and the rampant lack of honesty and respect for personal privacy, choice, and liberty from the government.
These are all legitimate concerns that can closely zero in to the vaccine issue as the only mandatory drug program in existence.
The issue can have personal implications as well. Maybe that doctor was genuinely concerned that my one unvaccinated two-month-old would be patient zero in a varicella outbreak. But he still should not have shouted in my face. I was sick, weak, exhausted, traumatized, and desperate to do the right thing. I walked out of that clinic feeling bullied and nauseated. And however rational I like to consider myself, that experience had an impact on my future consideration of vaccinations. Whenever I thought about vaccinating I pictured that doctor asking me if I wanted my child to die… of chicken pox. Instead of encouraging me to think of my child dying of chicken pox, I became indignant, frustrated, and resistant to his argument – completely typical human behavior.
Maybe poor bedside manner, massive class-action lawsuits against drug companies, and pervasive conflicts of interest in medical research and government should not reflect on vaccines – but since vaccination is compulsory from both the government and health officials, they do. They inevitably do. And a paternal approach of patting on the head, don’t-worry-I’m-a-doctor just doesn’t work anymore. Transparency, boundaries, civility, reparations, compassion… all are necessary, and sorely lacking.
Most people really do just follow the CDC recommendations without examination because, well, they’re the CDC. We should be able to trust them. But every medical hierarchy is suspect because of the inequities and mistakes of the health care system and our government. The anti-vax movement has not occurred in isolation; it’s a symptom of a greater societal breakdown.
Speaking of societal breakdown, let’s talk about public health for a sec. You might have noticed that people are, well, kinda unhealthy these days. People are living longer but crappier. And to make matters worse, our society is so fixated on this silver bullet mentality. “Nutritionism” is making a mess of people’s diets. When I was growing up, everyone was afraid of fat. I was raised on margarine and fat-free salad dressing. Now the tide has turned and people are afraid of carbs, as if we have no collective memory whatsoever. Nobody knows what really causes chronic disease, because we think there’s a cause.
It’s all the sitting we do. Unless it’s the carbs. Or maybe the stress. Commuting? Poverty? GMOs? Low breastfeeding rates? Pthalates? C’mon, just tell us.
Well, some people think it might be vaccines. Maybe we traded infectious disease, a little thinning of the herd, with chronic disease, which makes every damn one of us sick.
Whenever I have oh-so-carefully brought up the vaccine issue in the past, someone has always rushed to tell me that Wakefield’s claim of autism as vaccine injury has been discredited. Don’t you hate when people assume your motives? I never believed that vaccines caused autism. I never worried all that much about formaldehyde or thimerosal or egg yolk in vaccines. I never even questioned that vaccines are effective, though I may have wondered if their influence might be slightly overstated.
But that chronic disease issue… I never thought that vaccines were the cause, the silver bullet, but I may have harbored a little nugget of fear that they play a role. And it’s the not-knowing that gets ya. It would have helped me so much to be able to explore that idea with someone who had no vested interest in getting me to vaccinate or avoid vaccinating my kids. But it was impossible.
The dominant extremist monologue on both sides of the argument kept me in a state of inertia for a long time. We need a serious return to civil discourse. We need it so badly. In the end, it was my overall move toward moderation, my rejection of that culture of oppositional belief, that drew me closer to vaccination. Because I let go of that silver bullet mentality. I stopped looking for that One True Thing… the thing that could stand in for religion in our ostensibly secular but deeply puritanical culture. I stopped worrying that I might be condemning my kids to a life of chronic, incurable suffering with each specific decision. I stopped thinking in terms of “right” and “wrong” altogether, and started looking at the scale, the spectrum, the collective. The sum. In addition to the slight tipping in favor of the greater good, I also turned very gently in the direction of accepting some risks. Not viewing each individual choice as a cascade of condemning consequences.
I still don’t believe there’s an absolute correct decision in the matter of vaccinating, but that’s not what this post is about anyway.