Guest post by Tsara Shelton
Editor’s note: Tsara Shelton is a 42-year-old Canadian living in Teague, Texas, the mom of four sons, ages 23 to 17, and a grandma of one. A few months ago on Facebook she made a confession about her “weird” mom that we found so intriguing, we asked her if she would tell us more. She generously agreed to share this guest post with us.
CONFESSION: My mom (she is an international mental health expert specializing in autism) revealed truths and suggestions to me about vaccines when my own sons were small, but I just assumed she was being her usual weird self. My mom is a leader and world changer, they tend to be weird—I mean, how else are you a world changer than by being different? Plus I figured vaccines had to be safe or they wouldn’t be offered and pushed so rigorously. And, honestly, at first it made me feel like a “mom” to take my boys for their shots. Well, long story short, and after seeing my sons get progressively more vaccines and more challenged, I paid attention to my mom. I’m grateful with all of my heart for folks like Dr. Paul Thomas and Facebook pages like Your Baby, Your Way for being willing to stand up and stand out and do the work of learning and teaching us what they know. It helps me know my mom is less alone. Now I’m about to be a grandma and I insist on being “weird” about it, like my mom. Thoughtful, and aware that my son and his wife have the final say, but not afraid to share with them what I’m learning.
What Having a “Weird” Mom Taught Me About Vaccines and Children’s Health
Oh, my weirdly wonderful mom! She is an endless series of stories I love to tell. My mom grew up the “black sheep” in her family. Her strangeness (eventually mom would be diagnosed as ‘Historically Asperger’s’) was uniquely frustrating, and the abuse my grandparents doled out to all of their kids was particularly harsh for mom. From the earliest age my mom promised herself that she would grow up to have several children, and she would treat them with fairness. My sister and I were lucky recipients of Mom’s love and fairness. However, its intensity was a little much for our small group and – after having to have a hysterectomy – my mom adopted six more children. Four boys and, later, two homeless teenage girls. So there were eventually eight kids altogether: Four older girls and four younger boys. All four of my brothers had multiple brain disorders, and they all also landed in various places on the autism spectrum.
My mom was married for the third time when she adopted my brothers. And though that marriage lasted longer than her first two (nine years), her marriage to my step dad also fell apart. So, in truth, my mom was pretty much always a single mother. A single mother with eight kids.
We moved a lot. My mom was clever that way. We were always interesting to our neighbors and just when we were becoming annoyances, mom found a “great opportunity!” for us, and we’d move. So our most common experience as a family (thanks to mom’s kind deception) was that we were interesting and lived a life of great opportunities. This is just one example of how my mom’s weirdness was wonderful. She rarely considered parenting the way she saw parenting being done by others, and instead parented in the way it would work out for the largest number of her children.
This bothered most schools and professionals to a surprising degree. My mom insisted on finding people who could follow her lead. People who would look at her children–particularly my brothers–and be creatively willing to teach or understand them from where they were, while believing they could learn. And when they couldn’t be creative she wanted them to at least be open to her suggestions. However, systems and schools are not set up for creativity and outliers. So, Mom insisted on looking for ever more “great opportunities!” while creatively teaching us herself.
This is another way my mom was weird: From the moment she met my brothers she saw them as completely capable; albeit, differently so.
So, filled with love and leadership for a strange batch of children, my mom educated herself in uncommon ways. Always willing to look where the clues directed her, Mom blazed her own trails. But it was in those places that my mom unearthed the uncommon answers that helped her uncommon children. All eight of us kids have grown beyond statistics and the possibilities offered to us by professionals. Particularly my four brothers. Three are independent men and my most challenged brother lives with Mom in California.
Mental health expert Lynette Louise aka “The Brain Broad”
My mom–Lynette Louise (aka “The Brain Broad”)–now travels the world as a mental health expert specializing in autism. She is a speaker and an author. She is a comedian and a singer/songwriter. She is a renowned practitioner and consultant. She continues to make waves and invite controversy. Mom’s most important project is her international autism docu-series Fix it in Five with The Brain Broad (which airs on The Autism Channel). Simply put, she brings cameras with her to work and shows audiences why her weirdly wonderful ways work to help grow healthier families, regardless of culture.
We moved, often. We sang, often. We hurt, often. We laughed, oftenest. It was necessary. My brothers were challenged and challenging. My mom had little to no help and when she was offered help in the form of social workers or babysitters they generally took on an adversarial role, looking to see what my mom was doing wrong rather than looking to see how they could simply help.
Later, as an adult, I would discover the unfortunate commonness of this. It was a sad realization, but I felt less like my mom was such a weird mom and more like she was a strong mom, unwilling to bend for the sake of getting along with people who were wrong about her kids.
Unlike my mom, I was excited to vaccinate my kids
I am typically shy and nervous around attention. But my family wouldn’t allow us—or me—to quietly blend into a crowd. When I was young I saw Mom insist on things from schools and neighbors that I knew were unusual. I wanted her to just stop arguing and let people treat my brothers like babies. Or let the school do whatever they wanted to do, even if it was bad for my brothers.
I mean, what made her think she knew so much?
Even as I watched my mom prove over and over again that with her creativity and guidance my brothers were able to do the things schools and doctors said they could never do, I often assumed they would have done those things anyway and Mom had made a big stink out of nothing.
I’m sorry to admit it, and often I knew mom was absolutely right, but I didn’t like confrontation.
When I became a mom of my own I was excited to vaccinate my boys! At first my mom didn’t say much to me about vaccines or vaccine safety. It was only then that she had started to learn about the dangers and I was so happy about doing the “mom” thing and getting my boys their shots that she didn’t interrupt with concerns.
It wasn’t until my second oldest son started having seizures that she brought up the topic of vaccines. I ignored her. Everyone gets vaccinated. It’s no big deal.
But my two youngest sons were born when my mom was learning more and more, and she would share with me the bits and pieces she knew.
She gently suggested that I think about it and that we learn more together, but I was not open to that. I was annoyed with her for the most part. It felt like she was trying to turn me into a weird parent (like her) who second-guessed all the professionals and I didn’t want that.
I wanted normal kids to go to normal school and have normal childhoods with only a dash of different. Just enough to seem fun.
Well, I started to hear my own thoughts and realized they didn’t make sense. It was important for my kids to have their own unique and interesting childhoods, not just be “normal,” or “like everybody else.”
So I started listening more to my mom. But I still couldn’t believe it. Everyone vaccinates and schools even say you have to vaccinate your kids in order for them to attend school, so how on earth can they not be almost entirely safe? People would never allow such a thing! Sure, a bit of risk is involved, I knew that. But being alive includes risk, I assumed we were choosing less risk with vaccines. My mom was just being her weird self.
Embarrassed to ask questions about vaccines
I loved the feeling of taking my boys for their shots, giving them love and attention, having an excuse to snuggle with them more than usual. But as soon as I started asking even the smallest questions I felt embarrassed. Most of the time nurses shrugged and kind of ignored my questions, which I allowed because I wasn’t sure yet myself what I wanted to know. But when my youngest son was born and the nurses told me they were taking him for a vaccination, hours after he was born, I felt myself sweat with nervousness and asked them not to. They were stern and insistent, telling me that it was necessary in that state. I allowed them to take my son.
Later, when he was in elementary school, I was told he would have to get a varicella shot. I was frightened by that one. I had already heard whispers, even in mainstream populations, about the dangers. And as a bit of a hippie chick I couldn’t imagine why we were trying to get rid of chickenpox to begin with.
Sure, it’s not fun to be sick, but also we need to be sick. Indeed, the entire reason I had been originally sold on vaccines as a young mom was that it sounded “all natural” to me. I understood it only as giving us a tiny bit of virus or bacteria, giving ourselves a small dose of sickness in order to recognize that sickness so we could fight it more effectively if we were exposed to it again. Getting sick is healthy. We build strength in not only our own immune systems, but those around us. However, when I brought up with the school nurse my concern about whether the chickenpox vaccine was even necessary, she talked at me like I was a dangerous burden. This I hate to admit, but I gave in. I justified it to myself uncomfortably–everyone is doing it so it can’t be so dangerous, I don’t want the people at the school to treat my son cruelly just because I won’t vaccinate. Now I know better. I know I let myself and my son down terribly.
Did over vaccination make my sons sick?
My oldest son has allergies.
My second oldest son had febrile seizures and Irlen Syndrome.
My third son didn’t speak until he was four years old. He has asthma and allergies, struggles with autism symptoms (stimming, social skill challenges) and obesity.
My youngest son wouldn’t make eye contact as an infant, pulled away from touch, and had meltdowns.
I have no idea how much of this is because of the vaccinations, of course. In fact, with my mom’s history of Asperger’s, we were at a higher risk for autism symptoms. Which, of course, means I wonder ever more about the vaccines. After all, we were high risk. And we were so lucky to have my mom! She encouraged me to play naturally with my boys in ways that helped heal their brains and shift our diet purposefully. Because of my brothers we already knew so much.
My sister has four daughters. She is the most aware and educated of my family members regarding vaccines. She had her two oldest daughters vaccinated based on the CDC schedule but her youngest daughters—twins—are not. There is a big age gap but, so far, her oldest daughters struggle with many more health issues than her younger two and my sister is certain that vaccines play a huge role.
We don’t know what the story of our children would have been had we never vaccinated. And I don’t live with guilt for the vaccines I chose when I was proud to choose them – though I wouldn’t choose most of them now. However, I do truly wish that I had not allowed the vaccines I wasn’t comfortable with. The ones my gut told me to say “no” to. Because that is what I believe it takes to be a strong mom: following your honest instincts and being willing to step up, even when that makes you stand out.
Parents, trust your instincts
The world of advice and experts is filled with people who will tell you what they think and what they’ve learned. But, just like you, they are not always right and they are not done learning.
My best advice to new parents is to listen openly but also always take the time to think about it for yourself. If you’re like me that means spending time alone. I am shy and nervous and believe what most people tell me, at first. And then I think about it. My instincts are surprisingly clever! Even when my words are not. 😉
You can let all of the contradictions frustrate and frighten you or you can let them set you free.
Parenting advice is filled with strong, passionate, opposing views. I suggest listening to snippets of everything and then giving yourself the freedom to decide for yourself.
Tsara Shelton is a writer of musings, a sipper of coffee, and an addict of anything story. Having learned life exploring the edges of society she finds her footing in the world through intentional storytelling—as a mom, wife, daughter, and citizen. She blogs regularly at Autism Answers with Tsara Shelton and is the author of Spinning in Circles and Learning from Myself: A Collection of Stories that Slowly Grow Up