Saturday, August 18, 2012

Confessions of a Mildly Detached Mother: Immunizations

In this blog series, I examine the conventions of "attachment" parenting (which I wholeheartedly embraced before my child's birth), and detail how I have fallen short of those ideals. I don't mind being imperfect. If child rearing is a competition, I forfeit.

I thought I was supposed to be vehemently opposed to immunizations. I've known several thoughtful, intelligent, "attached" parents who refused or delayed their kids' vaccinations. And when I first started thinking about this stuff a few years ago, Andrew Wakefield's research connecting autism with vaccines was still relevant.

Since Wakefield's fall from grace, I haven't found much evidence that getting vaccinated is more dangerous than not getting vaccinated. That's not to say I'm especially well read on the subject. Honestly, I've forgotten most of what I have read. My ego wishes this were a more informative post, full of helpful links and specific arguments about each type of vaccine. But that would misrepresent the actual amount of time I spent thinking about this issue.

Here's how the decision went down - When baby was born, we refused the Hepatitis B shot they gave at the hospital because we wanted more time to mull over vaccines. In fact, I purposely avoided selecting a pediatrician in advance because I didn't want anyone pressuring us before we were ready to decide. But we couldn't leave the hospital without a pediatric check-up, so we requested any doctor who happened to be making rounds.

We were told we'd be meeting with Dr. C--. While waiting for him to visit our room, the baby started fussing so I began feeding her. That’s when the doctor arrived. He was nebbish and quite awkward. In a movie about my kid’s birth, he’d be played by Buck Henry. When he saw me, he gasped. "Oh my god, you're nursing!" and scurried away. He returned a half hour later. After examining the baby, he couldn't figure out how to rewrap her diaper. “I’m so sorry!’ he flustered. As is standard procedure, he asked us to bring her by his office for a one-week checkup. I grudgingly agreed. I didn’t want this to be a long-term relationship, but I could deal with one appointment, just to be sure baby was okay.

Fast forward to the one week appointment - Dan and I were sitting in stony silence, waiting for Dr. C. We'd just had our first big parents' fight. I felt cranky and tired. Meeting with Buck Henry guy was the last thing I wanted to do. The door opened, I braced myself, and then a completely different dude walked into the room. He bore the bear-like look and calm, funny demeanor of my cousin J, which is to say that I liked him immediately.

He checked the baby’s vitals and was pleased to see that she'd actually gained on her birth weight. We discussed the Hep B shot we'd skipped at the hospital. He was cool about it, but clearly explained the vaccination schedule he would follow if we were to continue seeing him. I said I needed more time to think it over. I was trying very hard to be politely firm and internally critical of this new doctor. But then he glanced at Dan, who was calming the baby by gently vibrating her in his arms, and said, "Hey. You're a pro." Shucks. What a kind thing to say.

Dan finally asked, "Excuse me, but what is your name?"

"Um... I'm Dr. C--"

"Oh, we thought the man we met in the hospital was Dr. C--," Dan said, offering a description of our nebbish friend.

"That sounds like my colleague, Dr. H--. Hmm, I guess he likes to impersonate me." Dan and I shared a much-needed chuckle. Before leaving the room, the doctor wished us well and said I was welcome to stay and nurse the baby as long as I wanted. He waved a hand toward the window, which faced some autumn gold-drenched trees. "Enjoy the bucolic view," he added, throwing around my favorite adjective like it was nothing.

My ego wishes I could say that I went straight home and immediately began my immunization research. In reality, Dan and I made up, then got Steak 'n' Shake burgers and took the baby to the park. The fact-finding mission actually commenced about two days before she was due for the first round of shots. Still determined to be distrustful, I specifically sought solid, anti-vaccine literature. Unfortunately, most of what I found was anecdotal, tin foil hat-y and terribly written. The best arguments were along the lines of, "I don't know, it sure is creepy how many shots kids get these days...Is this really necessary?...Weird..." I think that's a reasonable sentiment, and I think it's wise to question medical wisdom that so greatly benefits the pharmaceutical industry. (Medicine that is ideally consumed by everyone? What a windfall!) Still, I never came across any specific information that really frightened me. A tiny percentage of patients have suffered horrible side effects, but they seem outnumbered by unvaccinated kids who've contracted serious illnesses.

By that point, we'd already met with Dr. C again at the one month visit. He said so many nice things like, "Hey, girl! I love your name," to the baby, and, "A+ job, you guys," to us. That's also when I noticed his magical ability to hone in on my deepest, unspoken concerns. "Are you worried about not being on a schedule yet? Don't. Right now, it's just about meeting her needs. You can't spoil her. Just get through the days. Now, if by ten weeks you two haven't gone on a date yet, I'm going to start bugging you. By twelve weeks, mom should be starting to get her life back." No schedule okay? Date night? Me have life?! Prior to that moment, I couldn't conceive of any of those things ever being true. And suddenly, there was this huge ass carrot of hope dangling in the distance. I felt so relieved. I hadn't anticipated getting a free therapy session with the purchase of a well visit.

I always knew that if I wanted a pediatrician, I’d have to get my kid vaccinated. Once I realized that we’d lucked into an awesome pediatrician, and that I wasn't really scared of the risks, the vaccine decision was simple. I didn't even bother looking into the delayed schedule option. At the two month appointment, I had some lingering concerns about the rota-virus shot. The doctor allayed those concerns. And that was that. Baby had her first set of immunizations that day. I admit, it was awful. Listening to her scream as I watched the nurse stick her three times, I wondered, "Is this the real reason parents refuse this stuff?" Seemed like a perfectly good reason to me at that moment. But I'd be lying if I didn't also admit to loving those extra long naps that followed.

Please don't read this as a pro-vaccine or anti-anti-immunization screed. I'm not saying that the refusers are wrong. And that's beside the fact that another parent's choice is none of my business. I have just one bit of advice for anyone who is struggling with this decision: don't freak out about it. Whatever you decide, take comfort In the overwhelming odds that your kid will be just fine. Both sides of the argument speak to tiny percentages. You're a new parent. Your challenges are many. Do the tiny percentages really deserve that much of your limited mental power?