I Was an Anti-Vaxxer—Until My 13-Year-Old Daughter Asked Me to Vaccinate Her

Getting the flu shot is now a family outing.

Melissa Wilcox and her daughter; courtesy of Melissa Wilcox; illustration by Mother Jones; Getty

Facts matter: Sign up for the free Mother Jones Daily newsletter. Support our nonprofit reporting. Subscribe to our print magazine.

Earlier this year, we asked Mother Jones readers about their vaccination secrets, following the story of 18-year-old Ethan Lindenberger, who recently got vaccinated against his mother’s wishes. Melissa Wilcox, a mother of two in Tacoma, Washington, responded with a story about how she got her daughter vaccinated without telling her daughter’s biological father. Exploring how growing up in rural Montana influenced her beliefs, Melissa also details how her views have evolved. Mother Jones spoke to her over the course of two phone interviews. This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

My parents had a good decade of time between the first batch of kids and the second. During that time, my father caught on to different conspiracies: It started with these religious circles, back in the mid-’70s—“the world’s going to end,” Satanic Panic—and it kept going from there. It’s also why they started homeschooling us.

I remember when we weren’t allowed to watch TV anymore, and that happened when I was maybe five or six. We used to watch The Jetsons and The Flintstones on Saturday mornings, and then all of a sudden it wasn’t okay anymore. I wasn’t allowed to play with Barbies. I remember this book that said Satanists were behind these children’s television shows and they were using these cartoons to talk to your kids. It was an odd cocktail of bad ideas.

My older brother and I were vaccinated normally, as was the law in the ’80s. When the second batch of kids were born, my parents decided to not get them vaccinated. I was about eight and then eleven when my younger sisters were born, so I really didn’t think much about it until my later teens in the ’90s.

When I had my daughter, I decided not to vaccinate her. And my ex-husband—her father—was of the same mind. So it was like, “Yeah, we won’t do this, because the government is trying to kill our children.”

I left my now ex-husband, and I was a single mom for a while. I naturally continued to think in line with how I was brought up, and I was leaning on my dad for help. Your parents, you look up to them, they’re superheroes—until you realize they’re people too. As I entered adulthood, I began to realize that my parents weren’t thinking critically, and that led me to question myself a lot, which was—and is—terrifying. I started to question the things I believed in. I’d start to think, well, I’ll call Mom and Dad. They’ll know what to do. And then I’d realize: Can I talk to them about this problem? If not them, then who? It took time to work that out.

My parents were never actually that insane. We lived in rural Montana. There were people with bunkers and food stored for the “end of times.” For a while we raised animals, had a huge garden—and my parents were self-employed. It’s a very independent mindset, but it also feels as if you know everyone.

Out of all that independence comes a very beautiful community. When someone is in need, someone else pops out of the woodwork to help. And yet, as trusting of each other as everyone is, there’s an underlying fear of trusting the government. It’s this mindset that if you can teach yourself, that’s the best thing you can do. You don’t depend on others to educate you. That’s how I fell into that type of thinking.

When my daughter was in sixth grade, she read a textbook about the history of modern medicine. She devoured it. She would tell me about all these vaccines and how they came up with penicillin, how they did this and that. As my daughter was reading about vaccines, she would chat with her stepdad. He showed her where he got the smallpox vaccine—during his time in the military—and told her about all the others he’s had to get.

One day she asked if she was vaccinated, and I said, “No, you’re not. Do you want to be?” And she was just like, “Yes.” After the conversation she had with my husband, my daughter had her mind set: “If Dad can do it, so can I.” So I made an appointment with the pediatrician. It was basically her first visit to this doctor. We sat down with the pediatrician, and my daughter explained that she’d read about vaccinations and wanted to get immunized. The pediatrician was a bit surprised but impressed with my daughter and her conviction. The pediatrician asked my daughter if she’d like three shots now and three more in a few weeks. My daughter turns to her and goes, “Nope. Give them all to me now.” The pediatrician and I were just like, all right, here we go!

The nurse comes in with the shots. My daughter is this petite 13-year-old, and the nurse goes right ahead and starts vaccinating my kid. Done.

We didn’t tell her biological father, and he still doesn’t know. I let my daughter make her own decisions, and she wanted this. Now I take her every August to get our flu shot at Target. We get a $5 gift card for doing it.

For most people who have trouble believing in the science of vaccinations, it’s an emotional reasoning, which is incredibly difficult to change. Facts don’t always win. If people don’t want to believe it, they’re not going to believe it.

There’s certain people I can talk to about this in my family, like my younger sister who got herself and her kids vaccinated. My other sister, I think she’s still on the fence. She’s starting to think for herself, starting to part from what our parents think. In California they have a medical exemption, and that’s where my other sister lives. In order to keep her kids in school unvaccinated, she goes to a naturopath—talk about a loophole. [Editor’s note: This is a fairly common practice in California, where parents can only opt out of vaccines for medical reasons.]

For me, I came around for many reasons. My now husband, friends—they talked to me and conversed with me. I can only speak from my own experience, but it’s those conversations with people I respect and adore—and living outside the bunker, end-of-the-world thinking—that changed my mind.

My advice to others is don’t be afraid to look at information that you might not agree with. The mind and the heart are never something that should be set in stone.

Mother Jones wants to hear from you. Do you have a similar story about vaccinations to share? Are you a parent who vaccinated your child without telling your partner? Or are you a young person who’s gotten vaccinated without your parents’ knowledge or permission? Let us know in the form below, send an email to talk@motherjones.com, or leave us a voicemail at (510) 519-MOJO. We understand this is a sensitive issue and will respect your privacy.

This article has been updated.

REAL QUICK, REAL URGENT

Minority rule, corruption, disinformation, attacks on those who dare tell the truth: There is a direct line from what's happening in Russia and Ukraine to what's happening here at home. And that's what MoJo's Monika Bauerlein writes about in "Their Fight Is Our Fight" to unpack the information war we find ourselves in and share a few examples to show why the power of independent, reader-supported journalism is such a threat to authoritarians.

Corrupt leaders the world over can (and will) try to shut down the truth, but when the truth has millions of people on its side, you can't keep it down for good. And there's no more powerful or urgent argument for your support of Mother Jones' journalism right now than that. We need to raise about $450,000 to hit our online fundraising budget in these next few months, so please read more from Monika and pitch in if you can.

payment methods

REAL QUICK, REAL URGENT

Minority rule, corruption, disinformation, attacks on those who dare tell the truth: There is a direct line from what's happening in Russia and Ukraine to what's happening here at home. And that's what MoJo's Monika Bauerlein writes about in "Their Fight Is Our Fight" to unpack the information war we find ourselves in and share a few examples to show why the power of independent, reader-supported journalism is such a threat to authoritarians.

Corrupt leaders the world over can (and will) try to shut down the truth, but when the truth has millions of people on its side, you can't keep it down for good. And there's no more powerful or urgent argument for your support of Mother Jones' journalism right now than that. We need to raise about $450,000 to hit our online fundraising budget in these next few months, so please read more from Monika and pitch in if you can.

payment methods

We Recommend

Latest

Sign up for our free newsletter

Subscribe to the Mother Jones Daily to have our top stories delivered directly to your inbox.

Get our award-winning magazine

Save big on a full year of investigations, ideas, and insights.

Subscribe

Support our journalism

Help Mother Jones' reporters dig deep with a tax-deductible donation.

Donate