Four years ago, Judith Warner made the argument that “hyper-parenting” in the U.S. has caused plenty of mothers to lose all semblance of balance in Perfect Madness: Motherhood in the Age of Anxiety. While the book received its fair share of criticism (for example, see the thoughtful analysis of Warner’s book on The Mothers Movement Online), I recently confronted the bubbling up and spiraling out of my own anxiety–slightly irrational but nonetheless all-consuming–which found its source in the shadowy threat of the H1N1 virus.
A few weeks ago, I was totally caught up in H1N1 anxiety. No doubt some of it had to do with media stories about cases of mortality; the rest of it was wrapped up in having young children. I was managing to control my anxiety surrounding my youngest son, who’s in nursery school, but couldn’t manage to quell the fears about my oldest daughter. J. is in elementary school and has asthma plus multiple food allergies, including to egg; this means she can’t get flu shots. We had plans to travel to see their grandparents for Thanksgiving on two planes. Given our past history of taking her to hospitals for various asthma- and sickness-related issues, both my husband and I were nervous about the whole plan.
What to do? Forego the trip to see aging grandparents because of our generalized anxiety about the possibilities of the kids catching H1N1 (from which plenty of kids have recovered)? Grit our teeth and try our best to get a grip on the anxiety and fear we knew were being influenced by media hype? Silence our concerns about a relatively new vaccine and do everything we could to find out if it was possible for both of our kids to get vaccinated?
In the end, we settled on choice #3. This wasn’t hard for my youngest one, but proved more time- and labor- intensive for my oldest. We finally managed to score a dose of the vaccine from the pediatrician, which we transported to the allergist–where we sat, all morning, watching Sponge Bob in the waiting room while the doctor skin-tested her for reactions to the vaccine and eventually administered the dose in two stages.
So, what does this have to do with global motherhood? For one, our little family drama was set into play by globalization, which not only affects the pathways of pandemic viruses and the constant flow of information about them, but also the fact that we were living two plane flights away from my parents. At the same time, our experience represents parenting from a position of privilege: we had health insurance, access to the vaccine, and the ability to take a whole day off from work in order to vaccinate our daughter. It reminded me how many U.S. families don’t have the resources to access preventative care, or even to navigate relatively minor medical issues.
Subsequent phone conversations with friends in other states made me realize how this global scenario was at the same time very local. My friend in Boston? Couldn’t get the vaccine for her two kids but didn’t seem overly worried about it. The pregnant friend of friends in Atlanta who wanted the vaccine? Wanted it but couldn’t get it. Those same friends in Atlanta? Had one child who got sick with H1N1, recovered, and subsequently got the vaccine with the rest of the family. These geographical differences are exacerbated when we look at other countries, where H1N1 has sometimes not even registered on the radar. In many countries, it’s diseases such as pneumonia, diarrhea, malaria, and HIV/AIDS that threaten children on a daily basis. (Here’s a link to UNICEF’s The State of the World’s Children 2009 report.)
Parenting in the time of H1N1: for those of us with some degree of resources, it highlights how caring for children often boils down to managing risks. Does the risk of a relatively new vaccine outweigh the potential risks of contracting a virus? Or is it the other way around? (For that matter, how risky is a plane flight to visit grandparents? The car trip to the airport? The list goes on and on.) Thoughtful parents perceive and weigh risks in different ways. There don’t seem to be right or wrong answers, except in hindsight, which can be kind or cruel. We can never know in the moment.
Families without resources have fewer choices, less ability to take control of these anxiety-ridden situations. I suspect it’s far more stressful not to have choices, to care for small children when you can’t take control and you can’t battle fate with much more than prayers and crossed fingers. Even if “control” is anything but.