I knew going into my first marriage that the man I was about to call my husband had absolutely zero interest in having children. I wasn’t outright opposed to kids, but it was still a faraway idea. I was just 22 years old; I had a lot of living left to do.
The universe had different ideas.
I got knocked up not quite three months after our little white wedding in suburban Oklahoma. Our daughter was born two days after my 23rd birthday. She was healthy and vibrant and I, for the first time, understood what love is. For all the failings I’ll gleefully point out about my now-ex-husband in private conversation, he was, at least, enthralled with this new creature he’d helped create.
My former husband was also a rabid conspiracy theorist and an anti-vaxxer. This was less than a decade after a British physician, Andrew Wakefield, released a damning paper linking vaccines to autism, and a few years before his findings were ultimately debunked and he was discredited.
I paid no attention to the wild theories being tossed around. But my ex-husband did. He knew about thimerosal and autism. He had done some significant “reading” on governmental regulation and interference. He was quite convinced that vaccines were a sham. It was just another way for the government to get their hands in our pockets and exert undue control over our minds, he explained.
I can’t say I agreed or disagreed. I had never been particularly tech savvy up to that point in my life — I didn’t research much online, still preferring to tackle the card catalog at the library. Until my then-husband started raising a stink about our daughter getting shots, I hadn’t even known it was an issue. I knew I got shots as a girl and really had not considered that there might be another option.
The world of information — and its evil twin, misinformation — was foreign to me. I figured if you found a fact in enough sources, it must be true. My ex-husband had a slew of sources backing up everything he was telling me about the perils of vaccinations. It seemed legit. I was fresh off a surprise pregnancy, coping with what I now know was undiagnosed postpartum depression, regular old depression, and dealing with a weeks-old baby. I didn’t have the energy or wherewithal to ask questions or research anything on my own.
I was exhausted. I was apathetic. I didn’t fight him.
By 2009, what little existed of our relationship had crumbled. I packed up the car and our daughter and moved in with my mom. I was faced with putting my daughter in daycare. I went on welfare to make ends meet and was given a childcare stipend. When I enrolled my daughter at the center of choice, they asked me for a massive amount of paperwork, mostly relating to my federal stipend, income, and identity. One paper caused a bit of a problem. They wanted my daughter’s shot records. She didn’t have any because by her father’s insistence she was never vaccinated.
Here’s the confession: I forged the paper.
I’d already burned up every ounce of vacation and then some offered by my boss in the process of leaving my husband and getting resettled. She had to enter daycare immediately. Not having her shots was going to delay her start by another few days — days I didn’t have and the bills needed paying.
Using an old doctor’s note with my family physician’s signature and a bit of photocopy trickery (plus some clever Googling), I crafted a fairly convincing shot record to get her into daycare. It worked: The daycare took it at face value and said nothing more. This was in the days before my state had moved shot records online. That made it a little easier.
I didn’t think of it again until the night my daughter started coughing a few weeks later. She wouldn’t stop coughing. I sat up with her, stroking her hair, as she whimpered with every fit. It was a deep, chest-rattling cough, her whole body tensing and struggling to stop with every fit. Sometime after midnight, I decided to take her to the emergency room.
We lived 15 minutes from the best children’s hospital in the state. On the way there, an errant thought occurred: whooping cough (pertussis). I knew nothing about the illness other than you could be vaccinated for it. My heart was in my stomach. In the rearview mirror, I looked up at my miserable little girl, exhausted and still coughing. I didn’t know if whooping cough kills three-year-olds nor what signs to look for. I did know that if it was whooping cough, it was my fault.
Once more, luck was on my side. A battery of tests, a nebulizer, and a round of steroids later, it was concluded that my little girl had a hell of a case of croup, not whooping cough. She was feeling better with treatment and we could both breathe again.
As we walked out of the pediatric ER that night, the guilt was gnawing at me. I’d felt the full weight of my daughter’s health on my shoulders. I’d watched as she struggled to breathe, her little lips going a little blue around the edges. I realized I was not doing everything possible to protect this tiny human I was responsible for keeping alive.
I was on the phone the next day, arranging for my daughter to get those shots I’d fobbed off as “not a big deal.” My heart was changed by a near miss. At least, that's what it felt like to me. No, she hadn't actually caught pertussis. But, if there was an illness out there I could safely prevent, it was going to be prevented. Over the coming days, I did my own research.
I looked into Wakefield, the discredited doctor; I found out thimerosal had actually been removed from vaccines. Even so, the ties between thimerosal and autism were nebulous at best. The ingredient had been removed less due dangers it posed and more because people were panicked by misinformation.
I consumed most of the Center for Disease Control’s research, the American Academy of Pediatrics, too. My daughter got every round of every vaccine approved for human use. It was like clockwork if three years late. When she turned 11, she received the meningitis and HPV vaccines as well. My toddler twins are on schedule for full protection.
A 15-minute car ride wondering whether I could have done something, anything, to prevent my child’s misery was enough to convince me. I never want to see her sick. Of course, she has been sick in these intervening years and will be again. But not with things we can vaccinate her for. That fear that I’d failed her as her mother was soul-eating.
Vaccinate all eligible crotch spawn. It's not worth the risk to skip things that could very well save their lives.
For more information on vaccines, be sure to check out tomorrow's episode of The Momma Cusses Podcast. Dr. Savannah Sparks (@rx0rcist) chats with us about vaccine myths, how to talk to fence-sitters, and flu shots.