Parents love their kids. That doesn’t make them experts on masks and vaccines.


I came late to parenthood. While it was something I had always desired for my life, it didn’t happen until my mid-30s, after I had completed my pediatric training. People have asked me over the years whether it was harder to become a parent after understanding intimately all the ways a child’s body could falter or fail – during pregnancy, during those precarious newborn days, during all the rest of their lives through adulthood, 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 pediatric 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 pediatric emergency fellowship, I was called into the room of a patient I had not yet met because the child had started seizing. As I ran into the room, trying quickly to get a handle of the situation to determine whether her movements were in fact a seizure, I was met by an immediate barrage of insults from the patient’s father. Before even being able to complete my quick assessment and start ordering medications, 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, and that I was the outlet where he could unburden those feelings. And however hurtful and off-putting it was, I had to prioritize care of her at that moment.

Later, I reflected on his question – it’s one that is asked of young pediatric physicians almost universally at some point in their training. The standard answer given is that it doesn’t matter, it shouldn’t matter whether a doctor has children to be an expert in the care and advocacy of children. This is true. Some of the best pediatricians I know are not parents. And yet, it is also true that I became a better pediatrician 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. Because I can lean into a parent’s spoken and unspoken fears and understand deeply that the root of those fears is love, that they’re driven by the same feelings I have for my own children. Because I have lived many of those same challenges, it has broadened my capacity for empathy. I am a better pediatrician 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 that are 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 country 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-emphasized the science on masking in favor of parental preference. I keep wondering why, as a society, we have allowed parental feelings to outweigh the good of the general public.

Historically, exceedingly few examples of public health mandates have invited as much parental involvement as the question of masking in schools has. With the exception of vaccination (whether to vaccinate one’s child at all or put them on a spaced-out or delayed regimen), no questions in recent history approach the level of debate we are still having about masking.

While pediatricians are adept at researching and strategizing ways to help vaccine-hesitant parents understand the benefits of protecting their children against vaccine-preventable illnesses, the furor around masking 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 health-care workers on the front lines. And a false narrative is set up asking us to consider the “two sides” of this debate before we decide on policies.

This is the weaponization 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 general public).

Yes, it’s true some children may find that 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. And yes, 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 proven to be caused by masking in any significant way. The benefits of masking, however, have been proven repeatedly.

As the authorization for use of coronavirus vaccines for younger children looms, so does the question about how much weight we should give to parental preference, especially when it’s largely based on fear. If we are ever going to find our way out of this pandemic, most of our population must be vaccinated, and that includes our children. As a pediatrician, I commit to continuing to discuss the benefits of vaccination to 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 stopped seizing and things had stabilized. When we finally had a calm moment, we talked. “You are the expert on your child when she is healthy and well,” I told him. “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 our most vulnerable, our very young and our very old, and to using every strategy at our disposal to minimize what is already an inconceivable amount of loss.

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Dr. Sabreen Akhter, Photo Twitter @dakhterakhter

Sabreen Akhter is a pediatric emergency physician who practices in Seattle.




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