On Vaccinations and the Basic Irrationality of Parenthood

Norman Rockwell doctor

I grew up in the kind of die-hard liberal family that believed in a lot of things—the importance of higher education, a strong middle class, road trips during school vacations, lugging stacks of library books home on Saturdays—but perhaps there was no stronger belief than the one in the powers of modern medicine, and the (at times untapped) potential for good in the government. This was due in no small part to the fact that my father’s father worked for a time with the Kennedy administration, developing and launching the Peace Corps, before spending the rest of his career as an academic still involved with government work; and my mother’s father was a doctor during his decades-long career. And so, needless to say perhaps, but I was vaccinated on schedule as a child, and, prior to having children myself, was as pro-vaccine as it gets. And if I’d needed any sort of reminder about the effects of living in a pre-vaccine society, I only needed to think of Christine, a young woman with whom our family was friends, who was congenitally deaf because her mother had contracted rubella while pregnant. The idea that we as a society no longer need fear the utter callousness of these once common plagues was a powerful thing to me as a child, one which only became more so as I devoured books set in pre-vaccine times, during which huge swathes of the population would be felled by smallpox, while countless others remained in bed, convalescing after whooping cough. That will never be me, I thought. That will never be my kids. When it came to the marvels of modern medicine, I was a born- and raised-believer.

For the first time in decades, the United States is experiencing an outbreak of measles, a highly contagious disease once thought to be eradicated nationwide. And many of the parents who are most vocal about their refusal to vaccinate their children—either on the recommended schedule, or at all—come from some of the most affluent, educated places in America. Their defenses for their actions (or inaction) vary, with some parents claiming that their children are too special to have “toxins” introduced into their young bodies (the special snowflake defense, if you will), while others spout long-debunked “scientific” research about the link between vaccines and autism (the Jenny McCarthy defense). Whatever the reason, because these parents fail to vaccinate their children—thus not only risking their children acquire potentially fatal diseases, but also risking the spread of those same diseases to children with compromised immune systems—they are acting irrationally, and with only the basest level of self-interest.

So why do I find myself having some twinges of, if not sympathy, at least recognition for what some of these parents (not the Jenny McCarthy-ones) are saying? Simply put, it’s because parenting is, at its very heart, an irrational and self-interested pursuit.

It wasn’t until I was pregnant with my first child that I ever cared that much about what I was putting into my body. The years leading up to that pregnancy were filled with days and nights (mostly nights) of smoking and drinking and snorting and swallowing all sorts of stuff that I knew was bad for me. Food was a thing I forgot to even consider most of the time, and when I did, it was usually only to reject it. That changed, in effect, overnight. Gone were the cigarettes, the alcohol, the long stretches—days in a row—of eating nothing except handfuls of microwave popcorn. I started cooking. I took vitamins. I drank water, even though I couldn’t think of anything I’d rather drink less. And even though this was long before juicing was a popular thing to do, I would make weekly trips to the Liquiteria on Second Avenue, and choke down some liquid kale. Because while I had never cared all that much about hurting myself, I was going to do whatever it took to make sure I didn’t hurt that baby.

And, of course, this was only a feeling that intensified after he was born. A mother’s love is many things, but rational is not at the top of the list. Oh, sure, there are elements of a mother’s love that make a certain kind of sense: Anyone who has spent nine months literally giving their body over to the creation of something new is logically going to want to protect the end result of all that effort. But there was nothing all that logical when it came down to it about some of the ways I wanted to protect my baby. I mean, for days after he was born, I didn’t even want to sleep. I could almost convince myself that it was because I was watching him breathe, watching that little chest move up and down, that he was able to keep doing so. As it turns out, just like when someone you love dies, when someone you love is born, there is a lot of magical thinking that goes on. It isn’t rational, but it is real.

So when it came time for my son to get his first round of vaccinations, there was a part of me, sharp and clear as anything I’d ever felt, that wanted to opt out. It felt anti-intuitive to expose this perfectly healthy baby—who was lucky enough to live in just about as perfectly safe a place and time as this world has ever known—to something that could potentially harm him. And hadn’t I just spent months and months protecting him—before he was even born—from anything dangerous entering his system? Didn’t I already know that I was never going to expose him to the hormone- and antibiotic-filled dairy and meat products that our government had been pushing on Americans for decades? Couldn’t I see for myself that pharmacy lobbyists were so deeply embedded in Washington and that drug company freebies were everywhere in my pediatrician’s office (from Big Pharma logo-sporting pens to notepads to calendars) that it was impossible to definitively separate what was being honestly prescribed from what was being coercively prescribed? Well, kind of; yes!

I wasn’t the child anymore who blindly trusted the advice of authority figures; I was a newly minted authority figure of my own. And I was skeptical of institutions and people that had, for decades, blithely lied about public safety issues for political reasons (and continue to do so; see: the recent overreaction to Ebola quarantining). No, I didn’t give a damn what Jenny McCarthy had to say (does anyone?), but I did fear that I was making a choice that could potentially hurt my child.

And yet, despite all the conflicting things I felt and thought, when it came time to vaccinate my child—both my children—I did it. I did it because I could recognize that just because my love for my child might be irrational, the decisions I made regarding his well-being (not to mention the well-being of countless other children) had to be based in reason, not fear. I did it because while, like most parents, I am prone to bouts of thinking my children are the most special beings that have ever walked the earth, I am also able to coolly assess that whatever, uh, “specialness” they possess won’t really matter much if they wind up with encephalitis from the measles. I did it because there are too many other children and adults who can’t be vaccinated because of compromised immune systems, and to allow my fears to dictate their chances of survival would be one of the most despicable things imaginable. I did it even though I recognize the fears that other parents have, and I have empathy for those parents while still being grateful that vaccines are mandated for most children, thus preventing many people (though clearly not all) from making the wrong choice for not just their child, but for all children.

But perhaps most importantly, I vaccinated my child not in spite of my irrational love, but because of it. It is the most irrational—if common—thing in the world to want to protect those you love from danger of any kind, and because of vaccinations, we actually have the ability to do that in a way that parents of other generations didn’t, but would have gladly done if only they had the chance. They didn’t, but we do. And we’d be the worst kind of fools to squander that gift.

Follow Kristin Iversen on twitter @kmiversen


  1. I got measles as a 5-year-old kindergarten student at P.S. 244 sometime during the 1956-57 school year. It is one of my clearest memories from childhood, lying in bed (my parents were told the “dark room” treatment some people followed wasn’t necessary), feeling sicker than I ever had in my whole life, and for the first time thinking that I could die and in fact not caring much because I felt so awful. Nearly 60 years later, I can still remember the weird taste in my mouth (it might have been from medications which would leave me with the side effects of permanently stained teeth). A lot of kids got it that year. I only wish I had been able to get a vaccine.

    I remember getting all my polio shots and the diphtheria-pertussis-tetanus shot at my pediatrician’s office across from the Brooklyn Museum. The idea of anyone not getting an available vaccine would have sounded crazy to everyone back in those days. I am grateful I missed the polio epidemic. We go the Salk shots and then later the Sabin liquid which we’d line up in school to either get it in our mouths in a dropper or given in sugar cubes.

    I got mumps my junior year in Midwood High School and chicken pox my senior year in Brooklyn College. Since I have my diary entries for the latter illness ( http://thoughtcatalog.com/richard-grayson/2014/06/a-21-year-olds-diary-entries-from-late-april-1973/ ), I can see it wasn’t that horrible, but it was definitely unpleasant and I wouldn’t want anyone else to go through that if they didn’t have to. Also, next year, when I turn 65, I need to get a shingles vaccine so I can avoid the problems with that illness that I’ve seen my father and aunt got in their 70s.

    The Times has a letter today from a Vietnamese-American who got polio in 1979 when she was in a Southeast Asian refugee camp. Really, the stupid people of the “natural, groovy” left and the antigovernment right and the just plain stupid autism-phobic parents need to be forced to make the right decision. They should be put in prison if they don’t comply.


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