We co-sleep, I nurse my toddler and I might even tandem nurse once babe #2 is here. We skipped rice cereal and purees and went right into whole foods, including egg yolks and organ meat and all manner of green vegetables. I put coconut oil on everything, and we avoid parabens, phthalates, and BPA. We get a good 85% of our food from our CSA, farmers’ markets, and makers we know personally. We cloth diaper, practiced elimination communication, and follow Montessori toilet learning guidelines. We babywear and also use the word babywear, which is insufferable, and I don’t care. I make my own yogurt, vinegar, sauerkraut and reference things like gut flora in my doctors appointments.
And I vaccinate the shit out of my kid.
I’m not a germaphobe— we eschew antibac stuff, especially because our immune systems seem pretty okay. We don’t take antibiotics for every cough or tummy bug (or really any cough or tummy bug). Winnie plays with kids with sniffly noses, drinks from the playground water fountains, and puts way more things than she should in her mouth. I don’t slap away strangers’ hands when they decide they should touch my baby (though I do judge them, and harshly).
If Winnie got measles, mumps, or rubella, she would probably be okay. We have access to good medical care, lots of clean water, and fever reducers. But if Winnie caught one of those easily eradicated diseases and passed it to a pregnant woman, or an immunocompromised child, or an elderly neighbor, it could cause severe complications. I got chicken pox as a kid, and I was totally fine— Winnie likely would be, too. But should a pregnant woman who hadn’t been exposed or a child undergoing chemotherapy contract it, they could die. Without the pneumococcal vaccine, Winnie could contract pneumonia, for which her pediatrician would prescribe an antibiotic, which we’d pick up from our local pharmacy for a $10 copay, and Mike and I would take turns taking off of work without losing our jobs to make sure she rested and got enough fluids. And if, before she had any symptoms— hell, even if she never even got sick, since it’s common for children to carry the bacteria without getting ill— she coughed on a nice lady on the train who happened to be HIV positive or taking steroids for sarcoidosis or immunosuppressants for lupus, that person could die. Die, y’all! Those aren’t fantasy scenarios, either— I know at least one person with each of those circumstances, and even if I didn’t know them, they would still exist. They exist in the innumerable epidemiological studies that lead people like me, who think corporations are evil and that Big Pharma can go scratch, to believe so strongly that not only is the choice to vaccinate a choice I make for my child, it’s a choice I make for and with my community.
For me, vaccines aren’t just a health choice— they are a parenting choice, and one that falls in line with the way I want Winnie to see herself. Getting my child vaccinated tells her that this world isn’t just about her. This world is about service to others, about helping to protect our brothers and sisters and neighbors, and those we have never met. It’s about stepping back to survey our absolutely overwhelming privilege and moral imperative to fight back against diseases that kill others, to work to eradicate them in spite of the minimal risks we might face.
It’s not likely, but Winnie could be allergic to a vaccine. She could be one of the few who develops more severe side effects. And if she were, it wouldn’t change my decision a bit. This isn’t just about my child. Our family doesn’t grow in a vacuum. I don’t shoot every person who looks at me funny because they might pose a risk to me, even though that might keep me safer.
I recommend listening to the full interview with Eula Biss, author of On Immunity: An Inoculation. Biss notes a few things that I’m completely on board with— that she wants her son to have as little contact with the medical establishment as possible (yep!), that the middle ground between information and misinformation isn’t a space we want to pursue, and that there are extra-medical issues at play in our decisions whether to vaccinate or not .
When discussing the demographics of those who don’t vaccinate by choice and those who don’t vaccinate because of their circumstances, Bliss notes that “this relatively privileged population can end up spreading disease to people who haven’t made that choice.” And this drives my decision home even more— we have the absolutely incredible privilege of access to not only immunizations, but the benefit of herd immunity and therefore eradication or near eradication of preventable diseases. We have the privilege of keeping our communities safe, well, whole— and so easily, too! For mothers who move around because of housing insecurity, who can’t afford to take time off of work to take their children to their well visits, for children whose parents can’t or don’t or won’t vaccinate them, I choose to vaccinate my child, and thus do my part, our part, in preventing the transmission of disease. It’s high and mighty and holier-than-though, sure. But we’re pretty broke most of the time, chronically late, never send thank you notes, and generally live beneath rather than on top of a high horse, so let me have this one, okay?
As Biss covers, vaccination isn’t just a medical decision, for anyone— it’s a social, political, cultural, and philosophical decision. That’s something that anti-vaxxers and I have in common, I suppose. There’s more wrapped up here than medical questions, because if all I cared about was the soundness of medical advice I’m receiving, I would vaccinate my kid and shut up about it— not blast my choices here on ye olde internet.
I’m not just making this decision based on the health of my child. I’m making this decision based on what I believe to be my responsibility to my community. I hope you will, too.