I came late to parenthood. While it was something I had always desired, it didn’t happen until my mid-30s, after I had completed my paediatric training.
People have asked me over the years if it was harder to become a parent after understanding intimately all the ways a child’s body could falter or fail, with injury and illness lurking around every corner.
Love and fear, it always seemed to me, were the two halves of every parent’s heart – love in its most intense and all-encompassing form, married to an equally intense fear that something terrible could happen at any moment. It mattered little to me that I had my children after I had become a paediatric emergency physician: I knew these two truths existed in every parent, regardless of age or stage in life.
What I did worry about was what it meant to become a parent, how it would change me and whether that change would be for the worse.
Once, when I was in my paediatric emergency fellowship, I was called into the room of a patient I hadn’t yet met because the child had started seizing. As I ran into the room, I was met by an immediate barrage of insults from the patient’s father. A litany of vile invectives was hurled my way, ending with: “Do you even know what you’re doing? Do you even have children?”
I understood, of course, that this was the father’s stress reaction, that he was blinded by the intense love and fear he had for his child in that moment. However hurtful and off-putting it was, I had to prioritise care of her at that moment.
Later, I reflected on his question. The standard answer given is that it doesn’t matter, it shouldn’t matter whether a doctor has children to be an expert in their care and advocacy. This is true. Some of the best paediatricians I know are not parents. And yet, it is also true that I became a better paediatrician after I became a parent.
This is not because I can now advise a parent on what kind of swaddle to buy or which vitamin drop is most palatable, but because I can bear witness to a parent’s confusion and worry for their child and feel the reflections of those same feelings in my own parenting journey. I am a better paediatrician because parenthood, I hope, has made me a better person.
Yet while parental love can be expansive and capacious for some, causing them to think and act in ways more compassionate and understanding than in their pre-parenting days, that love can be a force of destruction for others.
That’s all the more starkly obvious during this moment in the Covid-19 pandemic. Young children across the US – and the wider world – have gone back to schools before they’re eligible for the coronavirus vaccine, and many of them have gone into school systems that have de-emphasised the science on masking in favour of parental preference. I keep wondering why, as a society, we have allowed parental feelings to outweigh the good of the public.
While paediatricians are adept at researching and strategising ways to help vaccine-hesitant parents understand the benefits of protecting their children against vaccine-preventable illnesses, the furore around masking in the US has revealed a whole different paradigm. In this world, school boards, parent-teacher associations, and local and state governments have given an equivalent platform to “anti-mask” parents as they have to scientists and healthcare workers on the frontlines. A false narrative is set up, asking us to consider the “two sides” of this debate before we decide on policies.
This is the weaponisation of parenthood: where parental preference (based largely on fear) outranks other, more pressing priorities (such as the health of teachers and staff, of more vulnerable students or their family members, of the public).
It’s true some children may find masks irritate their faces, fog up their glasses or cause headaches, and that accommodations should be made for children with hearing disabilities who rely on lip-reading or those with other intellectual disabilities.
Enforcing masking in very young children is challenging indeed, but the majority of school-age children have no difficulty complying with mask mandates, and the arguments against them (that they provoke anxiety, promote mouth-breathing disorders, obstruct language development or increase inhaled Co2 levels) have never been proved to be caused by masking in any significant way. The benefits of masking, however, have been proved repeatedly.
As the authorisation for use of coronavirus vaccines for younger children looms, so does the question about how much weight we should give to parental preference. If we are ever going to find our way out of this pandemic, most of our populations must be vaccinated, and that includes our children.
As a paediatrician, I continue to discuss the benefits of vaccination with all my patients and families who are willing to engage, and as a parent I plan to vaccinate my kids as soon as they are eligible, while continuing to advocate for masking in their schools.
When I think back to that child having a seizure and her irate father, I remember how our conversation went after his child had stabilised. When we finally had a calm moment, we talked.
“You are the expert on your child when she is healthy and well,” I said. “And I am an expert in protecting your child’s health in an emergency and preventing her from getting sick. We need to use our expertise together to best care for her – to make sure she recovers and lives a healthy life. Let’s commit to that together.”
I can only hope, as a society, that we can commit to holding each other accountable to the ways in which we protect the most vulnerable among us. (© Washington Post)
Sabreen Akhter is a paediatric emergency physician who practises in Seattle