Like most new parents, we read everything we could. We were voracious.
I had a waterbirth, I nursed (not a drop of formula touched my sons lips). I grew my own food. When it came to vaccinations, Jon and I were uncertain. The research was confusing, and while the medical community was generally unwavering about vaccination, many people were doing delayed schedules, where you didn’t give more than one on a given day. A supposed intention not to overwhelm the baby’s system.
That seemed reasonable…appropriate…safe.
Even though some research suggested some vaccinations were related to Autism, we didn’t think it was plausible. At that time, before revelations discredited research, there were so many weird and loosely scientific theories about Autism. As a Clinical Psychologist, I was surrounded by families doing all kinds of things to prevent or reverse or avoid it; treatments like chelation, dietary changes. I wont list them all.
The point is this: we were not crazy.
We felt like balanced, normal, modern, (now) middle-aged american adults. We felt aware and conscientious, and like many parents were finding our footing. We were blasted like cannons into parenthood and we took it on with passion and seriousness and so, we chose a delayed schedule. We discussed this with our Pediatrician and made that choice.
All was well until the end of January 2007, when Winslow was 1½. We had just returned from a blissful trip to Hawaii where he frolicked naked on the beach, and from my cousins beautiful wedding in New York where we all got rotavirus and gave it to the whole wedding party (I don’t feel so bad anymore, they’re divorced now). Then, in Mid-January, while Jon was at a medical school interview in Iowa, Winslow came down with a fever. I called the doctor numerous times over that 24 hours – he was listless and febrile. “Wait,” she said. Wait.
By the time Jon came home, I was more worried. Shortly after, Winslow began vomiting every ten minutes on the clock. A quick visit to our pediatrician confirmed this was more than a routine illness. By the time we got to the hospital, he was limp and a spinal tap showed Pneumococcal Meningitis. Following the initial work-up, in the throws of concern and fear, our Pediatrician, after reviewing our records, confirmed we had not yet received the Pneumococcal vaccine.
I dropped to my knees. The aching pit of sorrow-filled recognition that opened-up within us…that this may have been preventable - was overwhelming. I remember screaming, “We are not hippies! I don’t understand.”
Winslow was hospitalized for two weeks. There were many days of second-guessing and rationalizing our choices. In between the worry, the visits from friends and family, the many hours of staring at him and not being able to help his body stave off this infection, we researched this new threat (and more importantly, understanding the role our choices played in this drama).
Not every strain is covered by the vaccine. Maybe the strain of bacteria wouldn’t have been covered anyway. Maybe it wouldn’t have mattered…Maybe we would feel less guilty if we knew that piece, if we knew that it was more random than it was appearing.
We almost lost him. In fact, we began to accept that we had been lucky to have 15 months with him and tried to find grace and gratefulness. Winslow survived. He has hearing loss, and that has been its own amazing cool journey and a story for another day. We never followed up with our Pediatrician to determine the microbiology. That seemed like an excuse.
But then there is this, “ANTI-VAXXERS ARE CRAZY!” And that statement? It makes my heart beat fast.
There is so much grey in life. So many opportunities to feel guilt, second-guess, and in hind-sight recognize a different choice would have been “better.” And the child that gets vaccinated, may, later on suffer from some other of life’s unknowns: the accident, the trauma, the shooting, the abuse, the other infections and cancers and unknowns that most of us believe will never happen to them. There are striking, and complicated arguments to be made for our communal and global well-being through vaccination. But it will likely continue to be a parent’s prerogative. Jon and I do not believe that parent’s would knowingly harm their children. We have some faith we all do the best we can, and make the choices we do based on the experience we have and the people we know.
The vast majority of new parents are trying to do their BEST. Maybe they have not all read the studies in medical journals and analyzed and critiqued the arguments (have you? Be honest.). But my default is to not write them off as crazy. There are always extremes, and often, they become powerful voices to shift the center toward something better than the status quo. But calling the extremes, “Crazy,” is counterproductive. It serves no good to have write off the many smart, wonderful people that get lumped in with, “crazy.” You are polarizing further a community who feels they are doing their best. You are making it harder to communicate…To understand…To discuss.
Did we vaccinate our daughter? Yes. Do I think people who don’t vaccinate are stupid? Crazy? No. Do I want you to vaccinate? I wouldn’t dictate my beliefs on anyone. That choice IS up to you, for now. But I am happy to have a conversation about it.
Meredith Larrabee is the mother of two children, one dog, 5 fish, one hamster and a Guinea Pig. She is a Clinical Psychologist in private practice in Asheville, North Carolina; and is married to an OB-Gyn Resident who "caught" his own children at a birth center before entering Medical School.