When she was ten minutes old, the nurse took E. to a table across the delivery room and began squeezing goop into her eyes.
“What’s that?” I asked.
“It prevents infection,” the nurse said. I nodded knowingly--Infection is bad!--and took her word as truth.
But I’ll tell you, Friend, it wasn’t pretty to watch—not the gooping of her eyes or the pinpricking that followed. She’d barely even opened those eyes and already, our welcome committee came bearing no fruit baskets, just pain following the pain she’d already endured. The hospital spared little time arming her against the infections of the world, leading me to wonder: If it’s so dangerous out here, why do we ever leave the womb?
It’s an observation Biss tackles in her new book, On Immunity, noting that since the womb is “sterile, the act of birth itself is the “original inoculation.” Microbes latch on, creating the child’s “ecosystem.”
But often that ecosystem needs help, which is why Biss argues passionately in favor of vaccinations, even if they aren’t always pretty. Of course, vaccinating children isn’t meant to be pretty; it’s meant to keep them safe—a small discomfort endured in the present to spare them a future plight. But this isn’t the view held by all, and the startling growth in the anti-vaccine movement seemed to have served as further impetus for Biss's rebuttal. And it’s a fine rebuttal— scientific and philosophical, historical and literary, too. She calls upon everyone from Achilles to Dracula to try to make sense of her own parental fears; fears quite rational in the modern world.
For all our allegiance to antibacterial soaps and bug sprays and wall socket covers, Biss knows what we all know: “A child cannot be kept from his fate, though this does not stop the gods themselves from trying.”
It hardly stops parents from trying either (see: antibacterial soap, bug spray, wall socket covers). And though our helplessness will always remain (not even Thetis could keep her son, Achilles, invulnerable), our parental transgression only occurs when the trying doesn’t. You know me, Friend, I'm quite the try-er. I’ll gladly rely on everything from wishing wells to four-leaf clovers if I think it might ensure the safety of my offspring. And even if it doesn’t, but it does no harm, I’ll probably rely on it anyway.
Which is to say, I didn’t need Biss’s book to tell me to vaccinate my kid. Didn’t need her to chide me to suck it up and deal with the goop and the pinprick. Sure, this wasn’t the entrance into the world I wanted to give E., but it’s the exit I’m more concerned about. And there are so many exits, Friend, we could all some help in blocking the doors.