I Risked the Health of My Kids To Avoid Confronting My Wife

I’m in dubious company. It’s not uncommon for dads taking their kids to a pediatrician's appointment to defer to their spouse on needle-related issues.

Kelsey Wroten
Kelsey Wroten

I was never particularly comfortable with our children’s vaccination schedules. Not because I was worried they were getting too much too early, but because my wife and our pediatrician had compromised on an augmented, slow vaccination schedule. By choice, I wasn’t a vocal part of the conversation. Not because I don’t have opinions on the subject. I am staunchly pro-science and pro-vaccination. But I am also pro-peaceful marriage and at least the kids were getting their shots. It was a calculated risk and one I’m not particularly proud of taking.

“When a parent says ‘I don’t want to give them all at once,’ my response to them is always, ‘Well, which life threatening disease would you like your child exposed to for a longer period of time?’” American Academy of Pediatrics Fellow Dr. Jesse Hackell told me after the fact, as I related the story of my children’s vaccination. He implied that he likely would have barred us from his Pomona, New York clinic for failing to take actions. He–and an increasing number of other doctors–make a habit of “firing” anti-vax patients.

None of this made me feel better.

The one thing that Hackell told me that did make me feel a bit better, was that I’m far from alone. I’m in dubious company. It’s not uncommon for dads taking their kids to a pediatrician’s appointment to defer to their spouse on needle-related issues. “By and large the father bringing the kid in for a well-check, they’re sort of clueless,” says Hackell. “You can tell this sort of stuff was either not discussed in advance or the mother said ‘when you take them I don’t want to do this thing.’”

For me, vaccination was something that I didn’t really discuss with my wife. It didn’t happen when we were planning to have kids. And it didn’t happen when she was pregnant. The only time the discussion came up was when we were faced with the first round of shots. I had assumed my wife to be someone who, like me, was driven by empirical evidence. Skeptical? Sure, but still on the side of science. However, I’d discounted the power of emotion.

My wife is the youngest of four sisters. Her three older siblings all had two children each, years before we got into the game of making babies. Of the six kids that came into the family before our boys, only two would be considered “neural typical.” Three have been diagnosed as having an autism spectrum disorder. The fourth shows mild signs.

Her family history was one thing, but I believe my wife could have rebuffed ideas that vaccines were linked to autism if not for the experience of her closest sister, a pediatric nurse. After birth, one of her boys had been developing normally, even to the point where he were showing very good communications skills. However, he experienced a significant regression apparently hours after receiving a vaccine. The other was not born neuro-typical, but suffered consistent high fevers correlated with the administration of vaccines.

Dr. Hackell would be quick to point out that the developmental issues would likely have occurred regardless of the vaccination. That’s my feeling too. But my wife, who is very close to her sisters, had a front row seat for all of the pain, confusion and struggle that came with the developmental problems and the years of therapy that followed. For her, the cost/benefit analysis was not so cut and dried. For her there was too much that was unknown.

I may have been able to convince her otherwise if I’d started the discussion earlier. But those are strong emotions to battle. I get that and I love my wife. Still, my delay added another layer of actual real risk to our kids lives.

“This is not pillow talk about what we’re going to do about vaccines tomorrow,” Hackell says. “I think there’s plenty of other things on the agenda. Vaccines are not a common discussion until they’re presented with what needs to happen in time.”

In Hackell’s mind, a difference of opinion in the use of vaccines should be a non-starter. It should rate up there with whether or not a couple even plans to have kids in terms of choosing a potential life partner. “This is a matter of science and I know I couldn’t be married to someone who doesn’t share my scientific approach to things,” he says. “It should be a fundamental area of agreement before they get married.”

I feel that’s a very easy way to view the world. My wife’s vaccination views would not have kept me from marrying her, even if we had discussed it prior to tying the knot. Maybe that says more about me than anything else.

What I do know is that had we talked about it prior to getting married or having kids, I could have gathered the evidence. I could have broached the subject again and again. Hackell suggests that whether the conversation happens before or after the marriage it needs to happen

“The problem is where it puts us a pediatrician’s,” he says. “Just like divorce, I don’t want to mediate situations between the parents. I’m here to serve the kid.”

My wife and I have talked about vaccine’s since, when news reports pop up about preventable outbreaks. But she hasn’t changed her mind. After all, the boys are caught up and they neither died of smallpox or developed autism. She thinks we chose the right path. I’m delighted by where we ended up, but I’m not so sure. I think I was cowardly and irresponsible.

I’m relieved my boys are fine and, frankly, that neither of them is autistic. I’m happy that my wife is happy. But I can’t deny that I risked my children’s health to keep the peace. I can only hope that the experience inoculated me against making that mistake again.