In today’s #FeministFriday post, I take issue with the idea of anti-vaccine mothers.
In all the squabbling in the past few months about people who’ve been choosing (for the usual, scientifically-illiterate reasons) not to get their children vaccinated against the measles (among other things), one thing has really stood out to me: mothers.
In article after article, it seemed there was a dichotomy: on the pro-vaccine side there were doctors and professionals and parents, male and female, arguing in favour of vaccination. And other the other side there were “mothers.”
“Anti-Vaccine Mothers Speak Out Amid Backlash,” “Mom Defends Anti-Vaccine Movement,” the misnamed “thinking moms revolution” (don’t get me started on the name), –even an article by a “former anti-vaccine mom” is testament to the prevalence of the idea. Anyone can be pro-vaccine, but chances are if you’re against them, you’re a mother. You don’t have to be, god knows mothers don’t have the market cornered entirely. But the prevailing conversation seems to be about “mothers against vaccines”. So I wondered why.
And my theory is that it has to do with expertise.
A doctor or public health professional is likely to be an expert in a lot of ways, most of them to do with medicine. When they’re interviewed by the press, they can be reliably expected to talk about medicine in a fairly authoritative way. It’s like in court where you can call an “expert witness” — in the court of public opinion, a doctor is an expert witness on vaccination. But there’s another kind of expertise at stake in the vaccination conversation, and that’s parental expertise.
And who’s most likely to have that?
In some parts of the world, there’s something called parental leave, but in America (in the few instances you can get it, that is) it’s only maternity leave. In the US there are zero weeks of federally mandated paid maternity leave, but even in countries like Canada, which offers 50 weeks at 55% of a mother’s usual salary, only offers 35 weeks to the father on the same terms. Mothers are our society’s be-all and end-all in expertise at taking care of children. Which gets awkward when things like the anti-vaccine movement start.
See, it was a doctor, Andrew Wakefield, on whose dubious expertise the anti-vaccine movement started (though he denies all liability for it). But once the options were out there — to believe it’s bad for your children or not — it was the primary caregivers who made the final decisions. And as the societally-approved primary caregivers were (and are) mothers, especially in America, it becomes up to them to defend the movement universally derided by medical professionals.
What does this do to mothers? I would argue that leaving mothers holding the flag for such an anti-scientific movement does a lot of harm, and both reinforces and is reinforced by the poor treatment of parenting as an occupation (and it is an occupation — with the costs of full-time childcare in this country, it makes little sense for most people with a middle-class income and below to try to have two incomes, at least until children are old enough for full-day schooling). If parenting is “women’s work” it is thereby devalued, and since it doesn’t pay, it devalues all work done by women.
But I don’t know how we’d fix it, either. There are some anti-vaccine fathers out there — like this guy — but I’m not sure equality in vaccine denialism is what we want either. There’s small reporting differences that can be made — the “Anti-Vaccine Mothers Speak Out” article above is here published under the title “Anti-vaccination parents explain their perspectives: ‘We are not anti-science'” — which is nice, even if the article is still about three anti-vaccine mothers.
Perhaps the only way to change this kind of thing is to keep on changing the societal understanding of child-rearing as solely a mother’s job. I’m not really sure how we’re going to do that one, but the emergence of “dad blogs” can’t be a bad sign: Night of the Living Dad is a great example of a skeptic, sarcastic, dad-blog. Check out his “Why We Didn’t Vaccinate Our Child” post if you want a good example:
Andromeda Strain is a crystalline agent that causes instant death from coagulation and deterioration of one’s circulatory system. In its most recently discovered forms, it has been harmless, but it evolves so quickly that it could easily become fatal again. We chose not to vaccinate our son against the Andromeda Strain because it’s a fictional disease, so it’s very unlikely that he would contract it. Even if it were real, his incessant crying would likely raise the level of CO2 in his blood sufficiently to make it inhospitable for the agent to take hold. However, if it were a real pathogen, and it were common in the U.S., and there were a vaccine for it, of course we would vaccinate our child. We’re not monsters.
On top of that, I guess I can just urge my readers, if they are a heterosexual couple* who have kids or are going to, to seriously consider two things: one, if one of you is going to stay home and take care of the sprog, give the father equal consideration; and two, get your kids vaccinated. Just do.
*married women obviously can’t be stay-at-home dads, and married men, well, one of you is going to have to be I guess?
Richard Ford Burley is a doctoral candidate in English at Boston College, where he’s writing about remix culture and the processes that generate texts in the Middle Ages and on the internet. He was recently saved from a promising career as a hikikomori by a brilliant renaissance woman who swept him off his feet, and now he lives with her and their completely mental cat in Brighton.