I used to be an anti-vaxxer. There. I said it. Go ahead, judge me, tell me what a horrible mother I am, suggest how people like me shouldn’t be allowed to have children. I’ve heard it all, and while it hurts, I don’t care one bit. But before you rush to judgment, you may want to hear me out.
My first child was born in South Carolina on New Year’s Eve six years ago. I had planned a home birth, but a stalled labor forced me to transfer to the nearest hospital where my daughter finally made her grand entrance into the world after 36 hours of labor. She was beautiful, all 7 pounds 11 ounces of her. My husband and I were “crunchy” parents. We liked to think we were thoughtful, informed people, who had their child’s best interests at heart, and just knew that the mainstream way of raising formula-fed, disposable-diaper-clad, “detached” children wasn’t for us.
Being members of the alternative, attachment parenting community, we did things differently than most other parents. Our daughter was breastfed from day one until she was almost 5 years old (feel free to judge me for this too), she wore adorable cloth diapers, was given organic avocado as her first food, and spent most of her time being worn in a baby carrier cuddled against my chest. We also refused all of her childhood vaccinations. We had done our research after all. Vaccine-preventable diseases were either not as bad as they were made out to be by Big Pharma and mainstream doctors, or the diseases were so incredibly rare in America that taking the risk of injecting our daughter with toxic chemicals to prevent them was simply unnecessary.
Some people in my circle were critical of this decision, of course, but I chalked it up to their unwillingness to challenge the status quo in health care, and turned to my crunchy friends for advice. Not vaccinating was part of the alternative parenting package, it seemed, and even the most well-educated people in my group of friends appeared to have very good reasons to significantly delay or refuse vaccinations for their children.
But as I said, I no longer am an anti-vaxxer. You may wonder what changed my mind. I’ll tell you what didn’t first: being confronted with new evidence that opposed my views didn’t change my mind, and neither did the scorn and derision of people who disagreed with my choice, in real life or online. It was a friend who did it. She was part of the local attachment parenting community and raised her children in ways that were very similar to mine. The only difference? Her children were fully vaccinated, on schedule.
One day, I came across one of her posts on my Facebook News Feed. It read, “I just had my children injected with toxins at the doctor’s office, but it’s okay, I gave them an organic lollipop afterwards.” This took me by surprise, because I had assumed our views on vaccines were roughly the same. Here she was, crunchy granola, attachment mama, speaking with confidence about having her children vaccinated. As I paid more attention to her feed, I noticed that she was frequently posting about vaccines. Every interaction she had on the topic was friendly, non-confrontational and respectful, and yet she thoroughly explained her reasoning for vaccinating and gently challenged any misconceptions she saw in vaccine opponent’s arguments. And so I read articles she posted and followed her links to accurate information from reputable sources.
The fact that her parenting style aligned so closely with mine, coupled with her gentle questioning of faulty anti-vaccine reasoning, made it easier for me to keep an open mind and slowly allowed me to challenge my deeply held beliefs. Today my daughter is fully vaccinated, according to the conventional schedule, and so is my almost 3-year-old son. If it weren’t for the interactions I had with this friend, my kids might still not be vaccinated and instead would rely on the imperfect herd immunity provided by those parents who accept the minuscule risks of inoculation for the greater good.
Knowing that I inadvertently gambled with the life of my daughter and left her unprotected for so much longer than necessary is very difficult to admit, to myself, and especially to others. It takes a lot of courage and humility to admit that I was wrong. I am aware of the cruel things people say to mothers who truly believe they are doing what is in their children’s best interests, and I’d be lying if I told you that I didn’t also have a bit of pride. I don’t like being wrong. But now that I know better, and recognize just how vital it is that children be vaccinated according to schedule, I can’t let my embarrassment stop me from speaking out.
My goal is to help more parents understand the importance of vaccines and to gently correct the misinformation on the safety of the injections I see online and in print. I am well aware of the fact that being presented with opposing evidence can lead to a backfire effect and cause people to become even more deeply entrenched in their faulty beliefs. I also know that insults and shaming accomplish nothing but to alienate people. Vaccines are important, and people rightfully feel very passionate about them.
As someone who once stood firmly on the other side of this issue, I can tell you this: If you truly care about getting children vaccinated, save your insults, no matter how angry you are. Don’t question someone’s fitness to be a parent. Don’t throw facts at people. Such approaches only cause anti-vaxxers to shut you out and will actually make it less likely for them to get their kids vaccinated.
Instead, relate to them. Find out why someone is opposed to vaccines or follows a delayed schedule, and resist the assumption that every anti-vaxxer is only concerned about autism. Model the behavior you want to see by listening, asking questions, and making an honest effort to understand the other side. Do what is in your power to prevent putting people on the defensive, and then gently help them explore the validity of their claims. It worked for me, and my children are protected now.
And most importantly, if you, like me, used to be a crunchy anti-vaxxer, but changed your mind, be honest about it, even if it’s difficult. Every time someone has the courage to admit they were wrong on this contentious topic, it becomes just a little bit easier for the next questioning anti-vaccine parent to do the same.
This post originally appeared on Medium.