Care and Feeding

I Want to Keep My Anti-Vaxxer Family Away From My Newborn

I’ve explained why, but they just don’t understand.

A blank vaccine record beside needles and a vial
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Firn/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

Care and Feeding is Slate’s parenting advice column. Have a question for Care and Feeding? Submit it here or post it in the Slate Parenting Facebook group.

Dear Care and Feeding,

My husband and I are expecting our first child and couldn’t be more thrilled. We can’t wait to introduce our baby to both of our families. There’s one catch: My sister’s partner is a staunch anti-vaxxer, and she has convinced my sister to not keep up on her own vaccinations. I love my sister dearly and want both her and her partner to be a part of my baby’s life, but my husband and I don’t feel comfortable knowing that my sister’s partner is unvaccinated for polio, measles, and more. My family seems confused about this stance, and whenever I bring it up, they fall back on saying things like “Well, you can’t control everything!” I know I can’t, but I feel like there’s a large difference between mitigating risk and exposing my unvaccinated child to someone I know is unvaccinated.

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How do I make my family understand that I’m not changing my mind on this, and it might mean not seeing my sister’s partner (and possibly my sister) until our baby is old enough to be vaccinated? How do I make my sister understand that this doesn’t mean I don’t love her, but that I’m looking out for my baby’s health? As a bonus, any tips for convincing my sister to keep up on her vaccinations and get a flu shot? (I’m considering her partner a lost cause.)

—Anti-Anti-Vaxxer

Dear A-A-V,

This is a tricky scenario, and one I’ve never had to consider myself. I thought a pediatrician’s perspective would be helpful, so I consulted (sometime Slate contributor) Dr. Daniel Summers, who believes the bottom line is that no one can tell you how much risk you must accept on their behalf. “Your sister and her partner have decided not to accept the risks they falsely perceive with vaccination,” he said, “but in making that choice, they have decided to increase the risk that they themselves pose to vulnerable people, including newborn infants.”

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Summers noted that many vaccines protect against diseases for which the risk of exposure is likely to be low to nonexistent, unless there is a new outbreak in your area: “The risk of polio, for example, is essentially nil. Thankfully, the responsible behavior of enough people has made the likelihood of exposure to most vaccine-preventable illnesses very limited.” But, he added, “some vaccine-preventable illnesses do crop up from time to time, and hoping you learn about a local outbreak before the baby is accidentally exposed is a risk I would not personally accept.” He mentioned pertussis (whooping cough) in particular, which still leads to frequent outbreaks in the U.S. and can be fatal to newborns (facts you can certainly try sharing with your family members, though it may not change their minds). “It is generally recommended that anyone likely to be in regular contact with a newborn baby should confirm that their protection against pertussis is up-to-date,” he said. “At the very least, your sister and her partner should provide confirmation that their vaccination against pertussis is current. If they cannot or will not do this, they are asking you to assume the risk of exposing your baby to a potentially deadly illness on their behalf.”

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It may take up to 18 months for your child to get through the full vaccination schedule. Your baby will receive their first pertussis vaccination around 2 months, and a second around 4 months. If you do decide you’re comfortable with your sister and her partner visiting once your child is protected from pertussis, but before they’ve had all the rest of their vaccinations, 4 months is a far shorter waiting period than 18 months. (Of course, it is your prerogative to tell them they need to wait longer.)

You obviously care deeply for your family, and I know you’ll make that part of your discussion too; as you yourself put it, this doesn’t mean you don’t love your sister and her partner—you’re just trying to look out for your baby. Try to remember that your relatives’ regrettable decisions have put you in this position, not the other way around. Unfortunately, they may never agree with your (correct, scientifically informed) position on vaccine safety and efficacy. That doesn’t change the fact that your best play here—and really the only one they’ve left you, since you don’t control their beliefs or behavior—is to decide what known risks you’re comfortable with and what your terms are, and communicate those to them. As Summers pointed out, they do have a choice here: “If they don’t like it, a safe and effective vaccine is theirs to receive.”

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Dear Care and Feeding,

I’ve always felt anxious about having people in my “space”: my room when I was a teenager, my apartment when I was a young adult, and now my house where I live with my husband and young child. Primarily, I worry that people are judging my cleanliness or lack of organization, but there are also worries about other things, like there not being enough comfortable seating or that I’m not providing for their wants and needs. For my entire life, I’ve dealt with this mostly by always going to other people’s spaces or meeting people in public. (Having an apartment for a few years with a communal, reservable “party room” meant I got to throw several parties and it was a blast! I still mourn the loss.) I can still remember the fairly small number of times I’ve actually invited not-super-close friends/family over, and the amount of cleaning, discomfort, and planning I felt I had to do to deal with that exhausts me to even think about. It’s not like it was even over after they left, because I continue to feel embarrassed about those visits years after the fact. The three instances in my life I remember of less-close friends just showing up and feeling like I had to invite them in are indelibly marked on my memory.

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A silver lining of this pandemic is no one expects to be able to enter my space. I’ve kind of loved having the excuse, but it’s making me all the more anxious that this will end at some point and the problem will still exist. My child is now old enough to do play dates, and I’m sure at some point our friends would grow weary of us being the people who never invite people over, just accept invitations. What am I going to do for my child’s birthday parties? I’m at a loss for how to deal with my anxiety over this issue. Does everyone feel this way and they’re just better about suppressing it or finding the upside?

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—Happy Homebody

Dear Happy Homebody,

I can certainly relate to feeling a smidge of worry or insecurity over the cleanliness of my home. But to me, the level of anxiety you’re describing here doesn’t sound typical. It also seems as though this particular worry has (in non-pandemic times) caused you real distress, and that you’re worried about its potential future impact on your child. Of course, it’s OK to have birthday parties elsewhere, send your kid to other people’s houses, make different choices than other parents—your place doesn’t have to be the neighborhood hub; your child can still have friends and a social life. However, someday they will be old enough to have friends who might just stop by, so yes, it might be ideal if this worry of yours could become a bit more manageable.

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I also think it’s worth examining whether you may want it to change or improve for you, not just for your child’s sake. From what you’ve written, it sounds like maybe you wish you were less susceptible to this particular fear, which has led you to feel haunted years after casual visits and prevented you from inviting your friends over. I spoke with Jennifer Liu, a licensed mental health counselor, who said that the key question is: How much is your anxiety affecting your daily life? “Let’s say you’re worried about locking your car, so as you’re walking away, you lock it again—that’s pretty normal. But if you leave your house multiple times a day to relock your car, or you stop doing something midway to go check, there’s probably some larger issue to look at,” she said. “It’s also worth asking whether this is really the only area of your life impacted by this kind of thinking, or whether it’s part of a larger pattern that’s affecting you in other spaces and other ways.”

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Liu pointed out that anxiety can be genetic; if you and others in your family experience it, it’s possible your child could also be predisposed to it. Kids learn certain patterns and behaviors from their parents as well. Some amount of anxiety is normal, but if it’s really affecting your relationships, your choices, and how you live your life, then it’s worth seeking help. A counselor/therapist could help you identify unhealthy and/or unhelpful thinking patterns and develop strategies to redirect and better manage situations you find especially stressful; Liu thought cognitive behavioral therapy was one option to consider.

From your letter, it does sound as though you have a high level of anxiety. If that’s the case, know that plenty of other people do too. Getting rid of all anxious feelings and fears is not the goal—it would be impossible, anyway!—but if you do feel that your anxiety is seriously affecting your life and you want to try to find ways to better manage it, know that there’s plenty of help and support out there for you.

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• If you missed Tuesday’s Care and Feeding column, read it here.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

My husband and I have fairly similar upbringings, on different ends of the middle-class spectrum (my family was on the low end, his was on the high). I busted my ass through my late teens/early 20s to put myself through college, get my own apartment, and start my adult life. I am proud of the person that work helped me become, and the strength of character it built. My husbands’ parents paid for his college, got him a used car when he was 16, helped him with his first few apartments, etc.

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Today, we have two teenage children and are fortunate to have become quite comfortable financially. In recent years, I’m noticing more and more differences in terms of how my husband and I want to spend money on our kids. While I intend to pay for their education, I find myself wanting to be more modest in other areas. For example, I think a few Christmas presents is plenty (in addition to the gifts from the grandparents), but my husband feels there must be a pile under the tree for Christmas to be “magic.” I feel that they should chip in toward big items like a car, furniture for their apartments, etc., but my husband thinks we should treat them to the best because “they’re not spoiled.” His reasoning for everything is that “this is how I had it, and I turned out fine.”

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The thing is, I don’t really agree with him on that. He is certainly a great guy and a good husband and father, but after 20 years of marriage, I’ve noticed that he doesn’t have a good work ethic, and that he gets easily discouraged and overwhelmed when his workload gets the least bit heavy. I don’t think he’s ever really worked hard for anything. But that isn’t something you can say to a person without being cruel! I’d love for our kids to know the pride that comes from earning something, from working hard for what you want, from treasuring an item that you longed for. Am I wrong to think that kids should work for things, even if we can afford them ourselves?

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—Nobody Likes a Spoiled Kid

Dear NLaSK,

I admit I am somewhat inclined to empathize with you because I grew up in a paycheck-to-paycheck household and am familiar with the ass-busting you speak of. But, to be fair, whether people thrive on hard work and take great pride in it is not necessarily the product of upbringing alone. There could be plenty of other reasons your husband feels overwhelmed when the workload picks up: Some people have a far easier time focusing than others; some naturally have more ambition or coping skills; some of us are better at treating ourselves like robots. It’s possible that not all of your spouse’s work-related issues can be solely attributed to the fact that his parents bought him a used car and provided a security deposit or two.

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Whatever the cause or case may be, I think there’s probably a fair expanse of middle ground to seek here. A pile of Christmas presents, frankly, seems perfectly acceptable to me; Christmas comes but once a year and all that. It’s OK to treat your children to some generous big-ticket items—you don’t have to deny them stuff you can afford just to make a point (denial isn’t the magical character-building experience some believe it is). But yes, of course it’s also reasonable to want them to work a little, save a little, and chip in for cars, apartments, even college, in my opinion.

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Everyone is different, and I want to be realistic: It won’t be possible for every single teen out there to find and hold down a part-time job while going to school. Nor will they necessarily excel at work or managing money simply because of parenting choices you make. But if your kids are able to work and/or save and plan even a little for some of the things they want, while they are still mostly dependent on you for the things they need, I do think that’s all to the good.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

My wonderful grown daughter and I are very close. But she and her father, my husband, don’t always get along. He’s overbearing and lectures her on everything. He loves her very much and she loves him too, but sometimes it’s difficult for them.

During a casual three-way phone conversation the other day, he mentioned growing up in a home without a bathtub or shower. She was shocked. I realized that we have never spoken in detail to her about my husband’s very abusive father and the way he and his siblings lived in fear and without their basic needs being met. Should we tell her now? She is an empathetic and intelligent person, and part of me thinks that if she knew the extent of her father’s traumatic past, it might help her to understand his controlling tendencies. He is overcompensating for never feeling safe as a child. But another part of me wonders if it’s a good idea. Of course, we would only tell her if my husband agrees.

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—Family Secrets

Dear Family Secrets,

If your husband agrees, the two of you can decide to disclose the harder parts of his history to your daughter. I would offer the information for its own sake, in the interest of honesty and openness and improved understanding. I would not share it with the expectation, tacit or stated outright, that your daughter will then excuse all of her father’s lectures, his overbearing nature, or his need for control.

Regardless of your husband’s history, your child is now an adult in her own right, and of course she expects to be treated like one. I don’t know if your husband has ever talked to a professional about the past abuse at his father’s hands, but if not, you might encourage him to do so—especially if it’s still affecting his parenting and his relationships. What happened to him when he was a child is not his fault. He deserves all the help and support he needs. But he shouldn’t be making those experiences and traumas your daughter’s burden now, whether she is aware of all the details or not.

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—Nicole

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