In 2007, Jenny McCarthy went on Oprah and gave an interview in which she blamed vaccines for making her son autistic. She wasn't the first person to make this connection - it began in the 1990s with a doctor named Andrew Wakefield who first starting publishing articles claiming a link between vaccines and the disease. Despite the revelation that Dr. Wakefield had falsified his data and been paid off to make his claims, the rumors ran rampant, and the vaccination scare exploded, spurred on by Ms. McCarthy's campaign and others in the movement to stop or at least change vaccinations. (An interesting timeline of events can be found here.) Suddenly droves of mothers were questioning their doctors and refusing to have their children vaccinated, especially with the MMR vaccination.
Up to this point, diseases like measles had all but been eliminated in the this country. Chicken pox and mumps were well on their way to suffering the same fate as smallpox and polio. However, suddenly everyone was panicked. Mothers took to the blogworld to rant against professional medicine. You could not get on any social network site without being bombarded with angry posts about vaccinations. As the panic spread, so did the diseases, and now we are facing an increase in these almost eradicated illnesses in numbers we have not seen in decades. What's more, every study done anywhere is disproving any link between vaccinations and autism. As quickly as the panic spread, the backlash against Jenny McCarthy and others in her crusade has become just as fierce. You now cannot get on any social networking site without people trashing Ms. McCarthy as an ignorant blonde villain. The same people who wanted to follow her anywhere two years ago are now using language to describe her that would get my children's mouths washed out with soap.
I had my babies in 2006, 2007, and 2010. (That sentence exhausts me just typing it.) I therefore was having to make vaccination decisions right in the thick of all this mess. At the time, the Mommy Media World was doing what it does best - trying to make me and every other mother out there feel guilty and inadequate as a mom in order to sell more magazines and get more hits on websites. It felt like if I decided to vaccinate my children, I was physically opening their minds and pumping them full of autism myself.
And then, as quickly as it all began, it ended. And here we are.
So...why did it happen in the first place? Why did we listen to Jenny McCarthy and others, and why do we vilify them now?
Because we ARE Jenny McCarthy. We ARE moms trying to make the best decisions for our children. And we ARE struggling with that monster that faces every parent of every race and creed:
We are afraid.
Parenting is scary. It is tremendously frightening. There is the ever constant fear, somewhere in the background of your mind, that Something Bad is going to happen to your child. Disease. Accident. Fire. Kidnapping. SIDS. Rape. Murder. I am all too familiar with this fear. The fear is ever present because, the truth is, there are no guarantees. I don't know what's going to happen today, or even tomorrow. My oldest was the same age as the kids who were killed at Sandy Hook. That was a bad weekend for me. When Hailey Owens was kidnapped right off her own street a few months back, I had to resist the urge to lock my daughter in her room until she was 25. My youngest son has a friend his age who developed an infection in his leg and nearly died several times. Parenting is a frightening venture. Anything could happen to your child at any time - and sometimes does.
We deal with another fear as parents. It's not just the fear that something will happen to your child. It's the fear that something will happen and it will be your fault. What if I could have prevented it? What if I caused it? What if some decision I make causes my child to die? What if I choose to vaccinate my kid and he shows signs of autism? What if I slide down the slide at the park with my toddler on my lap and she breaks her leg? What if I spray sunscreen on my son and he inhales chemicals and stops breathing? What if I give my kid peanut butter for the first time and she swells up and chokes? WHAT IF I KILL MY OWN KID SOMEHOW?!
The culture we live in feeds this. As I said earlier, parenting magazines and websites are absolutely banking on this fear and guilt thing we have going on. I quit reading parenting magazines sometime around my middle child's second birthday. I was tired of reading them and walking away feeling like a bad parent. The other day I picked up a magazine while waiting in the doctor's office. 10 minutes later, I had found five articles aimed at making me feel like everything I was doing was wrong, and I put the thing down. Social media also feeds this frenzy. We post articles supporting our own opinions. We go on rants behind the safety of a screen name. We are very, very vocal in a digital way about how we think parenting ought to go, often because we are so unsure of our own jobs as parents that we feel the need to make ourselves feel better by rallying others to our cause. Parents these days are absolutely bombarded with stats, studies, warnings, recalls, opinion pieces, and "experts" that weigh in on everything from vaccinations to car seats to discipline methods. We are challenged on a daily basis that we might not be doing things right - usually from someone who is trying to reassure themselves that what they are doing is ok.
And so here comes Jenny McCarthy with her fame and influence telling us all that vaccinations are hurting our children. And we all start to panic and play the "what if?" game. We turn to the fear that comes with being a parent and we listen to someone who is also afraid. Then comes the blogs and the studies and the rants and the social media explosion. And then the dust settles and we all feel pretty silly...and take that shame out on another parent. Nobody made anyone listen to Ms. McCarthy or anyone else. Nobody makes us read the articles. Nobody is pointing any guns or other weaponry at our heads and saying "don't vaccinate your kid OR ELSE." We fell for it, same as Jenny McCarthy did. We gave in to our fear and fell for it.
And we have no one to blame but ourselves.
So where do we go from here?
One, we have to stop being afraid. We have to stop living in fear for our children and ourselves. I personally do not know how parents who do not have a faith in God get out of bed in the morning. If I did not have that Place to take my fear and give it up on a daily - sometimes hourly - basis, I wouldn't be able to function. We have to stop living in fear. Take that fear to the cross every day and lay it down. Christ died to take away that and a million other fears. Take Him up on the offer.
The other thing we have to stop doing is vilifying each other as parents. Whether it's someone famous like Jenny McCarthy or your next door neighbor who lets their kids drink pop, quit making villains out of parents. You know what? Overall, we're doing a good job. So we need to quit hollering at each other in an attempt to make ourselves feel better and instead support one another. If someone preaches something you don't agree with, just don't agree with them. In peace. The parenting community needs to stop tearing each other down and start holding each other up. The world IS a scary place. We need each other.
As for Jenny McCarthy...I do not know her and probably never will. But she's a mom trying to do what she thinks is best for her kid. So let's cut her some slack and show some grace. Tomorrow it could be me that turns out to be wrong about everything I know. Or it could be you.
So let's have some respect for that, shall we?