Raising Voters

As a mother I sometimes parent by fiat, with no negotiation. There are small things–such as We never, ever buy items displayed in the check out line at the grocery store. But most are big things related to how we treat others and the earth. If I were put in charge of the United States, I have another small list of items that mirrors my mom-as-dictator list. Most of these items are civil rights issues. For example: treat all humans equally and, in the case of criminals and drug addicts, work for rehabilitation and not simply punishment (while also recognizing that certain crimes and criminals necessitate life in prison). But also near the top of my list would be compulsory voting as voting is inarguably an essential component, if not the most essential component, of a healthy democracy. Since 1948, the highest turnout of eligible voters in the United States for a national election was 65%. That was in 1976 and since then, the numbers have been under 60% except for 1992 (61%), 2004 (61%) and 2008 (63%). In non-presidential election years, the turnout hovers around 40%–far lower than the turn out rate in most other established democracies. This is in spite of a number of non-profit organizations working tirelessly to increase voter turnout. One such group, Rock the Vote, is a non-partisan organization that for over twenty years has worked to get young people registered and committed to voting. Their current work targets the so-called millennial generation, or millennials, the largest generation in the history of the United States (yep, bigger than the boomers).

Visiting our legislators in DC (and the Smithsonian).
Visiting our legislators in DC (and the Smithsonian).

I do not know who reads this blog, but given that I write largely about family issues, including raising one child who has Down syndrome, I suspect a number of you are parents. So for those of you with young children, let me tell you this: You have far more power to influence your children to vote than any non-profit does, no matter how many cool young celebrities they employee to talk, sing and dance in their commercials. But, like pretty much everything else, you have to model the behavior you wish to see. Yes, I often took my kids with me when I vote on Election Day at our polling station. Due to progressive (read: excellent for democracy) changes recently in Ohio voting regulations, I generally vote at my county’s board of elections in the weeks prior to Election Day. But in many years voting is not an annual one-day event; it is the culmination of weeks, if not months, of work on all our parts. In both local and national elections, my children have gone with me on leaflet drops, canvassing for candidates and Get Out the Vote (GOTV) campaigns. When they were younger, I never asked my kids if they wanted to join me, I just packed them up and brought them along. (Truth be told, as a complete stranger it is easier to get someone to open their door when accompanied by children.)

I know going to the doors of the homes of complete strangers is not something that everyone is comfortable doing. Heck, I’m not comfortable doing it, but I push past my comfort zone and walk up to houses in neighborhoods where I know nobody. Like any positive endeavor that causes a little nervousness—public speaking, asking your boss for a raise, giving a heartfelt apology—the feeling when finished is satisfaction. And when they join in the effort, even passively, that satisfaction is not lost on the children.

In the general election of 2008 Akron Public Schools were closed on election day because many of the polling stations were located in the schools. As a result, my son Hugo, who was 11 years old a the time, was home alone. I worked at my job, my eldest son, Claude, was at the University of Akron and Jules was a second grader at the Waldorf school. “I’m going to the Obama headquarters today,” Hugo told me over breakfast. A few blocks from our house, Hugo walked himself to the headquarters and was promptly put to work rolling posters. I cannot tell you how proud I am that Hugo worked on that historic day for our soon-to-be president, particularly because it was his own idea. And in recent years, as they have become young men, my three oldest boys are civically engaged. Claude regularly works on local campaigns when he is home from college (and grouses with me about our deep dissatisfaction with the leadership in the Ohio Democratic Party, which despite having replaced the chairman after last year’s series of bone-headed mistakes seems to remain same-old, same-old. Shouting out for younger blood and fresh ideas, O, party of ours!). Hugo worked with me on GOTV on Election Day 2012 and we were giddy with the positive reception we received. And Jules travelled with me in the winter of 2014 to Washington D.C. where we met with our senators and representatives to encourage their support for the ABLE Act, which subsequently passed ten months later.

A family that votes together...
A family that votes together…

For most of their lives, I believed that when each of my children turned 18 I would march them straight to the board of elections to register to vote. And with Claude, I did. I plucked him out of school, took him to the BOE, snapped a picture of him with the county worker who helped him with his form, and then took him out for a nicer than usual lunch. Last November, Hugo turned 18 and while I could make many excuses, the fact is I did not prioritize getting Hugo registered. I deeply regret this because next week we have a special election in our county with just one question on the entire ballot: Do you support the levy for our county library system? Yes or no? With the decline in housing prices due to the recession, the funding for our library system has commensurately dropped. Yes, this is a local issue, but supporting library systems is invaluable nationwide. Carl Sagan once said, “Frederick Douglass taught that literacy is the path from slavery to freedom. There are many kinds of slavery and many kinds of freedom. But reading is still the path.” Today, however, libraries also have become de facto public after-school programs for latchkey children nationwide.

imgresWhen Hugo was in middle school, he walked most days down a hill to the adjacent library in a transitional neighborhood (the direction in which it was transitioning was not clear). I had three kids in three schools all far from one another and because he was safe in the library, I picked up Hugo last. Filled with children from 2:30 until they closed at 6 p.m., I saw librarians taking their non-funded mission seriously, providing extra programming, leading book clubs, holding craft events, game days and, once a week, showing a movie. Today, our county library system works with the local food bank to provide nutritious snacks for the kids, some of whom eat their school lunch at 10:30 in the morning. If our levy does not pass next week, this phenomenal public resource will cut its staff in half, from 400 to 200 employees countywide. Hours will also be slashed. They start with the weekend hours, but with such drastic cuts, I imagine after-school hours and programming will also shrink.

With my newly-minted voter
With my newly-minted voter

In our family, we do not passively observe and discuss government. Sure, we talk about what we do and do not like in local, state and federal government. But then we work for the values we hold important, particularly equal rights. Because I have seen too many elections, especially in the spring, decided by just a handful of votes, I deeply regret my inaction. Even though I long ago learned the library levy would be on the May ballot, I failed to have Hugo register in time to be eligible to vote in next week’s election. Instead, he accompanied me to the board of elections earlier this week. I voted; Hugo registered and we had lunch at a restaurant across the street from the main library in downtown Akron. Mea culpa, by complacency, I screwed up.  And so, dear readers, if you have an election next week, please vote (yes, Democrats and Republicans alike, go and vote). Readers who live in Summit County, Ohio, the jobs of two hundred people in our community depend upon your vote. As do all the citizens served by our libraries, including the children who safely work on their homework, play games and read books after school when nothing else is available.


Why My Children Are Now Fully Vaccinated

With winter’s departure, the long-dormant mud in the meadow of the K-8 Waldorf school my youngest sons attend is back. So, too, is whooping cough. Six years ago when there was an outbreak at the school, my son Jules, who was then in the second grade, caught it. A dreamy, lithe child with large eyes, I watched for three months as his body convulsed while he coughed for minutes at a time, leaving his ribs aching and his eyes floating in tears from the exertion. Unlike his two older brothers, I had not vaccinated my son for pertussis, commonly known as whooping cough.

Lately, after several outbreaks of measles in the United States, there has been renewed media attention given to the anti-vaccination movement, much of which would leave any reader thinking that anti-vaxxers are either ignorant of basic science or sociologically indulgent, willing to coast on the high vaccination rates of others. I am neither.

When my first child was born in January of 1994, many societal constructs were being questioned with some Americans opting out of what had seemed inviolate institutions just a generation earlier. While not all practiced equally by the same groups of people, things such as co-habitation before marriage, homeschooling, homebirth, organic and local agriculture were no longer unheard of and, at least in the case of premarital co-habitation, were well on the way to becoming a new norm. It was in this milieu that I gave birth, at home, to my first child. I had medically appropriate prenatal care throughout my pregnancy and after my son was born, the midwives administered a PKU test, pricking his heel and filling dots on a card with his blood to be sent to the local health department to screen for about 40 possible disorders. I also received a Rhogam shot to prevent my negative blood type from creating antibodies lest any future fetus have positive-typed blood. Circumcision is not religiously significant to me but was another previously accepted protocol for all infant boys with many hospitals often performing the procedure as a matter of course. I read all I could on circumcision and found no compelling reason to cut off my infant son’s foreskin.

syringeChoosing whether and when to vaccinate, as well as what vaccines to give my child, was not so simple for me as choosing homebirth or foregoing circumcision. After reading everything I could find, I decided to follow a middle path of my own. Japan, hardly a backwards country, was at the time initiating vaccines for children not at birth, but at the age of two. With the exception of Haemophilus influenza Type b, or Hib (which is most harmful to children under the age of five, but especially babies), I decided I would begin vaccinating my son at the age of one, when his immune system had developed. I believed, with good reason, that as an exclusively breast-fed baby for nearly nine months, he was benefitting from my immunity.

In the 1990s, I was hardly alone in struggling with concerns about vaccinating my child. At the time, many educated parents questioned several important things about vaccines. The vaccine for DPT (diphtheria/pertussis/tetanus), for instance, was often cited as being mixed in dirty solutions. This was confirmed for me when I met with my son’s pediatrician to begin vaccinating him in the winter of 1995. We were living in Boston at the time and she told me that Massachusetts had created its own batch of DPT, available only in that state, to avoid using the tainted batches found in the rest of the country. However, that same pediatrician was incredulous when I insisted upon strictly giving my son the killed polio vaccine because it was possible, albeit a very small risk, to contract polio from the live vaccine. “You have to give the live vaccine in the first dose because it has to go through the gut, which is how the disease enters the body,” she told me. When I mentioned that diphtheria was also contracted through the gut but the vaccine for that disease was not given through the gut, she had no response. I stuck to my guns and four years later, in 1999, the United States abandoned the use of live polio vaccines.

There were also issues with other vaccines in the 1990s. In 1998, the rotavirus vaccine was introduced and recommended by the American Academy of Pediatricians for all infants. It was pulled the next year when several children required surgery for intestinal blockages directly linked to the rotavirus vaccine. It was eventually reintroduced in 2006, which means it took seven years of research to resolve the issues with a vaccine that for one year had been recommended for all infants in the United States.

And then there is the thimerosal controversy. A derivative of mercury, which is highly toxic in certain formulations (but not in elemental liquid mercury), thimerosal was still abundantly used to preserve vaccines in the 1990s. At the same time, autism diagnoses exploded to what felt like epidemic proportions. A diagnosis that was rare, though not unheard of, in my childhood became so common in my early years as a mother that it felt like an inevitably with each pregnancy. So significant was the increase of autism and Asperger’s (which is now seen as part of the spectrum of autism) it seemed implausible to think the increase was simply due to improved methods of diagnosis. Thus, it is not surprising to me as someone who lived and bore children in the 1990s and early 2000s that parents were susceptible to claims that thimerosal in vaccines caused autism. Eventually, in 2011, an article in the British Journal of Medicine thoroughly discredited any connection between thimerosal and autism. But by then my firstborn was seventeen years old and my third son, Jules, had long recovered from his pertussis.

Neither out of stupidity, nor out of entitled indulgence did I vaccinate my children differently. I struggled to find the best way to protect my children from disease and from the risks in vaccinating. Sure, the chances of contracting polio from the live vaccine were very slim, but if it is your child who is the one in a million, the results are no less devastating because 999,999 other children did not contract the disease.

My third son was born in the summer of 2000 and like his brothers I had him immediately vaccinated for Hib. When he was a year old, I began his regular vaccinations. But then we moved and I did not complete the cycle. Today, I struggle to recall why that was and I do not believe I simply had forgotten to complete the booster schedule; there was an element of choice. A choice made in part due to continued distrust of less significant vaccines. I read several articles in non-mainstream publications that cited the inefficacy of the annual flu shot. Then, in November of 2009, The Atlantic published a comprehensive article on the flu vaccine that pretty much agreed, across the board, with the non-mainstream publications.

My oldest son is now twenty-one years old and many of the issues I had with vaccines when he was an infant have been resolved, which may be due in part to the fact that a small percentage of the population began opting out, thereby putting governmental light on their concerns whether real, as in the case of polio and rotavirus, or not, as in the case of thimerosal and autism. But when I watched pertussis debilitate my son Jules for three months in 2009, I had what I call a “Coming to Jesus Meeting” with myself in which recognized the following:

  • None of today’s vaccines come with the risk of developing the disease for which the vaccine is being given such as it was with live polio.
  • Not only has the thimerosal/autism theory been thoroughly debunked, since 2001 thimerosal has been removed or greatly reduced in nearly all vaccines.
  • Furthermore, with cleaner, safer vaccines it is important to consider the collective benefit of herd immunity. I worry about infants who are exposed to the pertussis that is now roaming the halls and playgrounds of my children’s school.

I reviewed my three sons’ vaccination records and had them all brought up-to-date and inoculated for things I had chosen to forego in the past, such as Hepatitis A and B. I went on to have two more children in my forties, both of whom have been fully vaccinated on schedule in part due to the approach of my pediatrician. An M.D. PhD, our pediatrician is never condescending when she talks candidly with me about the latest research on vaccines. My fifth and final child, who is also my only daughter, has Down syndrome. People with Down syndrome can have suppressed immune systems and my pediatrician told me that studies of children with Down syndrome have shown that vaccination not only protects these children from the specific diseases, it also improves their immune systems overall.

Where there is a need, vaccines should be improved and gone are the days when physicians can talk to most patients or the parents of patients in a patriarchal, top-down manner and expect unquestioned obedience. Medical personnel owe it to their patients to give them accurate, up-to-date information without any trace of condescension. For the history of vaccination, inarguably one of the greatest scientific advances in human history, is not uncomplicated. But today, more than ever, the benefits far and away outweigh any risks and I hope that one day soon pertussis, measles and mumps can go the way of small pox, which has been eradicated through vaccination. (The same would be true of polio but extremists in parts of the Middle East have gone so far as to murder health workers in order to prevent the administration of the polio vaccine in their regions.) Because no child should unnecessarily suffer, as my son did, from a disease that is entirely preventable.