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Reader Question: How Do You Handle Anti-Vax Relatives?

Sometimes, we get letters from our readers looking for specific articles. (We do read all the emails that we get!). Recently, we received this letter on how to deal with anti-vax grandparents:

My husband and I are planning to have kid(s) in about a year or so, and my parents are anti-vaxxers. I’m worried that they could transmit pertussis or measles to our newborn baby. I feel like denying them access to their first grandchild would be really harsh, but I don’t want to take the risk. I would love to get some advice on how we can approach this issue with them when the time comes. I’d greatly appreciate it. Things are already tense between us and our parents after leaving the mormon church. So on top of the vaccination issue we’re also going to have to tell them their grandkids won’t be getting blessed and baptized in the church. It’s a mess.

I feel your pain, I really do. My relatives are all pro-vaccination so I didn’t have that specific issue to deal with, but I do live in an area with anti-vaxxers. In fact, the first year after my daughter was born, before she was able to get the MMR vaccine, I refused to shop at Whole Foods or Trader Joe’s because there is a higher chance that the anti-vaxxers will be there (with their measles) than the local Stop&Shop. (In fact, during that year, there was a break out of measles at my local Trader Joe’s, so I guess it was lucky that I hadn’t gone.)

It’s hard to be strict with people who are trying to visit your baby. You feel like such a jerk every time you have to say, “excuse me, can you please wash your hands? Also, have you been vaccinated and are all your boosters up to date?” But when you compare that to how you would feel if you didn’t say that and something happened, you don’t care. With relatives, and especially grandparents, it’s a different issue.

If I were in your position, I would recommend that you sit down with them (in a public setting so that you can leave if things get weird) and tell them that you’re thinking of having children, and that you must insist that if they want to see their grandchildren they have to get vaccinated. That’s a tough thing to say, but honest conversations always are. The reason I would sit down with them as soon as possible is that the vaccines take some time to work, with multiple rounds of shots and waiting periods. You don’t want to wait until they’re about to hold their grandbaby for the first time to let them know how you feel.

If they are firmly anti-vax, then they probably won’t walk away from this conversation with a change of heart. But, like I said, when it comes to your baby, you have the right to raise them in a safe environment, and the fact is that people who are not vaccinated are much more likely to get sick from vaccine-preventable diseases. Your baby does not have a choice whether he or she is vaccinated, but your parents do.

batman and robin fighting anti-vaxxers

Your baby will get sick a lot in its first year, if he or she goes to daycare or is around other kids on a regular basis, and that is normal. In fact, that is great for building a healthy immune system. But there are diseases like measles that can have devastating effects on unvaccinated babies, and that includes brain damage, deafness, and even death. Measles causes mucus to build up in the throat, and because babies airways are so small, this can cause pneumonia and other breathing issues. And measles is spread by coughing/sneezing and can stick around in the air for 2 hours, which is why it is so highly contagious. If your parents care about their grandchild at all, they will get vaccinated immediately, for his or her sake.

If appealing to their love for their grandchild doesn’t work, see if you can figure out exactly why they are anti-vax. Is it a religious belief–and if so, would talking to their local religious leader help (if that person is pro-vax)? Is it a lack of understanding about science? Is it caused by a fear of toxins? There are plenty of pro-science resources about vaccines online that may allay their concerns. If you can figure out the root cause, then maybe there is some hope for getting them to change their minds. Lecturing is not going to work–they need to think that they have come to this conclusion on their own, even though you have planted the seeds of doubt/skepticism.

If your parents give you some sort of BS about how good nutrition prevents disease, you can let them know that 95% of the native people in the Americas died because of smallpox and other diseases, within 150 years of Columbus’s landing, and they had excellent diets and were in amazing health. Unlike the Europeans, who had shitty diets, but were immune to a lot of diseases because they had survived the diseases of their filthy childhoods.

In the end, you will need to be strict with your parents. I’m not suggesting cutting them off, but if they won’t get vaccinated, then I don’t think it’s out of bounds to let them know that at least for the first year, the closest they will get to your baby is via Skype. (And even during pregnancy you will need to be careful.)

evil vaccines

Now with regards to your other issue, letting them know their grandchild won’t be part of the church, you might want to just wait on that until after this uncomfortable conversation is over with. My husband and I are atheist and we both come from religious families. In fact, we didn’t really have a conversation with our parents about the fact that there would be no baptism and no church, but they’re aware on some level of our nonbeliefs and so they’ve wisely not pushed the issue. Although, my policy has always been that if I’m asked directly about my beliefs or my plans for my child, I will answer directly because I have nothing to be ashamed of. The only thing that makes me feel bad is knowing that people that I love might be sad at the idea of me burning in Hell forever, but oh well.

If you are strongly against a baptism/christening ceremony, then that is perfectly OK. Some secular parents don’t want anything to do with religious ceremonies, but some seek out secular alternatives. Like, instead of having a christening, you can have a party where you introduce the baby to everyone (who is vaccinated). Some parents just send out baby announcements. You can let your parents know that they’re invited (after getting their vaccines) and if they make a big deal about it, then just say, this is how it is. You are an adult and you are the one who makes decisions about your life (and the life of your future child).

This article probably seems a little harsh, and it probably is. In my own life, I’ve had to deal with a lot of boundary issues from people and I’ve learned to pick my battles and to use honesty, tact, and to be a hardass when necessary. When you become a parent, you will receive so much unsolicited advice, and it might be a little overwhelming, but after you have a kid, you will be very tired and I find that a lack of sleep makes me more decisive about issues.

Good luck dealing with your parents and convincing them to get vaccinated! And good luck with your future journey as parents.

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Mary Brock works as an Immunology scientist by day and takes care of a pink-loving princess child by night. She likes cloudy days, crafting, cooking, and Fall weather in New England.

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