Theoretical People

This morning I baked 97 sugar cookies, and they are sitting on my counter, nakedly waiting for a layer of pink buttercream and an assortment of heart sprinkles. Twenty-eight of them are circles, cut out from a plastic cup, and the rest are hearts; this is due to one of my children being desperate to bring cookies to his Valentine’s Day class, but way too cool for them to be heart-shaped, deemed by him to be “lame”. This does not stop him from wanting pink buttercream and heart-shaped sprinkles, however, and it hasn’t stopped him from eating three of the naked heart-shaped cookies.

Sunday morning I checked the online school messages, and was startled to discover that there is a bake sale at the school this week for Division Two children, and that donations were much needed. I spent a chunk of the day baking monster cookies filled with mini-eggs, and brownies covered with melted chocolate chips and sprinkles, just so the boys would be able to contribute. The sacrifices we make for our kids! Or, in my case, the enormous amount of dishwashing.

I’ve been thinking a lot about this lately – not baking, but sacrifices and decisions we make for our children. There’s a lot of buzz right now about disease resurgences, and vaccinations, and in my mind these things are not up for debate at all. There are clear facts, and there are clear outcomes, and there are also lots of grey areas that are not debatable, exactly, but that incite a great deal of anger.

It’s funny; we leave the hospital with our newborns in their car seats, or maybe the midwife leaves our house with her giant collapsible birthing tub, whatever, but here we are with our firstborn babies, that we know virtually nothing about. We’re suddenly the experts, and we try to go with maternal instinct, and we read every single child rearing book there is, from What to Expect to Babywise to The Baby Whisperer to The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding, and they all have different viewpoints and every little thing seems so important and so difficult. We’re expected to just make monumental decisions about what’s best for our babies, and we do this, trusting in research and reading and instincts. We all do the best we can, but sometimes things are cloudy and we’re not sure what that “best” is.

And nothing gets us, as parents, upset like the thought that we are NOT doing the best, that we are NOT making the best decisions, and maybe this is why the vaccination discussion – not debate – is so heated. We make a decision, and our kids are depending on us to make the best decision for them. Nothing makes a parent feel worse than the implication that we did the wrong thing. I gave up breastfeeding much earlier than I had initially planned, and although it felt like the right decision at the time, I have always questioned it, all these years later. But if you were to say to me, oh, maybe you could have done better if you only did x, or maybe you could have breastfed longer if you had this kind of support, well, I would be furious. I would probably cry with anger and sadness and frustration. But the decision was made, the milk factory was closed, and all these years later, it doesn’t really matter to anyone except me.

So I can imagine how someone might feel if, say, they declined the MMR vaccine for their child who later, on a sweet trip to Disneyland, ended up with the measles. And if that case of measles happened to be one that had complications, well. I can imagine how that parent might feel.

Personally, I very much dislike when my children get sick, even when it’s just a cold I find it to be a pain. At the very least, it’s inconvenient: kids have to miss school and activities, we go through a lot of tissues, and then we are fine. I do everything in my power to keep them healthy: we take vitamins and eat healthy foods, we drink lots of water and get proper rest, we wash our hands all the time, but occasionally we still get sick. If there is a way for me to opt out of them getting really sick, then I am going to take that option.

When I was a kid my mother took me to chicken pox parties, which is what people did back then. I never did get the chicken pox until I was nineteen years old, and when you are nineteen years old, the chicken pox is certainly no picnic. It’s pretty terrible to get a so-called childhood disease when you are an adult. It was just before Christmas final exams in my second year of university, and I have never been so sick in my life, before or since. The memory of that meant that when I was pregnant, almost ten years later, and I found out there was a vaccine for chicken pox, I didn’t even have to think twice.

Jake got the chicken pox vaccine at the same time that he got the MMR vaccine, at age one. A week after that he developed a mild case of the sniffles, and after that he had a mild vaccine reaction that I had been warned about, fever and rash. The combination was a bit much for him and he developed a double ear infection. Neither child had had an ear infection prior to this, and as I rocked him and walked with him and listened to him scream and scream and scream, I realized that I was out of my element. I didn’t know what to do. I took him to the emergency room at three in the morning, absolutely exhausted, and got the diagnosis at five in the morning: ear infection. The doctor gave him an antibiotic and a shot of codeine, and told me that I would be able to go home and get some rest. At that, I burst into hysterical sobbing because I had a two year old at home, and he would be awake for the day in short order, and god, I was tired.

In the end, Jake was fine, but I wouldn’t want to relive that. You can imagine I was pretty nervous to take him for his boosters prior to kindergarten, but I did it anyway. He did not have a reaction, he was fine.

One year I got the flu shot. The year prior, when the boys were 2 and 3, we all had the flu. It took me several weeks to get over it, and taking care of small children while having the flu was overwhelmingly awful. I got the flu shot, and I remember clearly the feeling of my entire arm slowly going numb, right down to my middle finger and up, up, up past my shoulder and into my ear and neck. I casually mentioned this to the nurse and the look of horror on her face is etched in my brain. I never got another flu shot; the kids and I take some homeopathic flu protocol in the fall, we wash our hands, we take our vitamins, and we haven’t had the flu since then. Clearly, I’m fine. But sometimes people aren’t fine when they get vaccines, and I think that glossing over that is not okay. We cannot dismiss the fact that even with the miracle that is modern medicine, sometimes things go wrong.

The thing about the vaccine discussion is that I know people whose children have had vaccine-related injuries, but I know even more people who have had issues with the diseases themselves. I know people who had polio, people whose family members lost their hearing due to measles, people who almost died or did die from pertussis. I know people whose children had seizures from chicken pox complications, and I know people whose children are growing up with health issues directly related to side effects from what is often dismissed as “normal childhood diseases”. All of those people – the ones harmed by the disease and the ones harmed by the vaccine itself – are of great importance to someone.

My friend Swistle recently wrote about her son, who has Crohn’s disease. Because of his Crohn’s, he needs to be on medication that suppresses his immune system; this allows him to thrive and grow, but it also means, obviously, that his immune system cannot fight off viruses. Swistle wrote about other people’s children being theoretical, but that those children are not theoretical to their families and friends, and that idea has stuck in my head. Some people can contract “normal childhood diseases” and end up just fine, but some people cannot. There were 122,000 measles deaths worldwide in 2012, and it’s perhaps easy to say well, those are mostly in developing countries, who knows what would happen if there was clean water and sanitation, but the fact is those people all had families. They are not theoretical people, they are actual people. They are actual people who died from a disease that is preventable.

My children are blessedly healthy. But there are many people who are not; people like Swistle’s son, people like my father-in-law who is undergoing cancer treatment, people like my friend’s daughter who has many health issues. And these people might not be important in your life, but they are important in someone’s life. We are part of a society, and the kind of society I want to be in is one that thinks about other people, one that thinks that other people matter, if not to you personally, then to someone. The kind of society I want to live in is one that recognizes that while 122,000 deaths from measles worldwide might seem minor as a percentage of the whole, people are not theoretical numbers, and each and every death means something to someone else. Each and every child that gets ill matters to someone. No one is theoretical.


  1. I really liked this.

  2. Hear, hear.

  3. smoothermother says

    well said.

  4. Lovely and sad and thoughtful and true.

  5. Perfect.

    On another note, I had a dream last night that I drove to your house to buy a 12-passenger van from you. Once I arrived, I realized I should have flown because I couldn’t figure out how to get both vehicles home. Interpret THAT.

  6. Very true.
    And on a lighter note, it’s funny how the heart-shaped cookie is unacceptable but the heart-shaped sprinkle, why that’s fine, of course.

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