By Matthew DavisDecember 12, 2020
In late February, I read an article in The New York Times about the fear and uncertainty pregnant women in China faced because of the coronavirus. When I finished the piece, I felt something visceral, dirty, and sharp, like being stabbed with a rusty knife. I had a great deal of empathy for these women and their husbands, and I was thankful that the United States — as I thought at the time — had the capacity to deal adequately with the virus should it arrive on our shores. Still, these first flickers signaled that my wife’s pregnancy would probably not be like her last.
By mid-March, the flickers had become flames. The last Friday before Washington, DC, shut down, my wife and I walked around our neighborhood to get some exercise and pick up our first son, A., from daycare. I don’t remember now whether we both went into the daycare facility or whether, already cautious, I went in alone; I don’t remember whether we wore masks, though probably not; and I don’t remember thinking that this was the last day our son would ever be in this daycare facility with these teachers and his friends.
What I do remember is that short walk home. It was a beautiful afternoon, the kind that presages spring in the sun’s warmth and the smell of soil and growth. And as we walked, we avoided people and the invisible threat they potentially carried.
The second section of Eula Biss’s 2014 book On Immunity: An Inoculation opens with the author in labor. It’s spring 2009, and following a traumatic delivery, Biss pays scant attention to the early news reports of a new swine flu spreading across the world. Instead, she is focused on her newborn son’s breathing. By the end of summer, she writes, “the novel influenza virus was officially pandemic.” Yet, with all the other threats her baby faced, “I do not remember feeling particularly scared of the flu — it was just one concern among many.” By October, the mothers that Biss socializes with are discussing the merits of flu vaccination, and by late November, after a lengthy wait, her son finally gets vaccinated. Though by that point the flu pandemic had largely subsided, Biss’s interest in vaccination, in inoculation, is just beginning.
If there is any book Americans should read right now, especially American parents, it is this masterful blend of memoir, scientific research, cultural criticism, and pointed moral argument. On Immunity explores the controversy over vaccinations in the United States; yet this description fails to capture the book’s beauty, breadth, nuance, and timeliness. Amid insightful disquisitions on a host of topics, Biss relates her experiences as a first-time mother negotiating a series of health crises her son faced in his early years and her evolving thoughts about immunizations. But what makes this book so vital right now is its discussion of the ideas and issues we have all become conversant with since this awful year began: herd immunity, viral transmission, and our role as citizens in what Biss refers to at different times as immunity’s “public space,” its “garden.”
On Sunday, March 22, my wife went for an afternoon walk and felt what was probably her water breaking. At 29 weeks, she was barely into her third trimester. She called the doctor, left a message, and got dressed for the Zoom wedding of my childhood friend. The doctor called back while we were watching the ceremony. They wanted my wife to come to the hospital — a place that was, at that time, an epicenter of infection, uncertainty, and fear.
Early in On Immunity, Biss, searching for a synonym for “protect,” finds “inoculate.” This word both gives her book its subtitle and acts as a catalyst for her meticulous inquiries: “As I understood it then,” she writes, “this was not a question of whether I would protect [my son] so much as it was a question of whether inoculation was a risk worth taking.” Protection is a given. Inoculation a choice.
On that sunny March Sunday, however, I was — and still am — more interested in the word protect. Protect comes from two Latin roots: pro, “in front,” and tegre, “to cover.” The word’s original Middle English spelling was protegere — “to cover in front.” Earlier that week, while cleaning the basement, we had found a used N95 mask from an old painting project. It was still in good shape, and we celebrated its discovery as if we had found a winning lottery ticket. My wife gripped it as we drove the newly emptied streets to George Washington Hospital. The prospective diagnosis was pretty straightforward. If, indeed, my wife’s water had broken, she would likely be hospitalized for several weeks as doctors attempted to keep our baby in the womb as long as possible. Because children were not allowed in the Labor and Delivery area due to the coronavirus, she would not see A. during that time, and I would thus be a single parent.
Biss spends much of On Immunity pursuing investigations that eventually evolve into argument building. She explores the component parts of various vaccinations, retells the history of immunizations, and offers some of the political and emotional reasons why mothers she speaks with have refused to vaccinate their children. In the book’s final pages, Biss sounds a clarion call of responsibility for mothers and for us as citizens.
Before that, though, there are the chickenpox parties. Before deciding whether to vaccinate her son for the disease, Biss gives the skeptics their due: “Some parents feel that the immunity produced by the chicken pox vaccine is inferior to immunity by natural infection because it does not last as long,” she writes. She tells her father, a doctor who plays a vital role in her medical research, about the rise of chickenpox parties, starting to explain why some people want their children to get the disease. “They’re stupid,” her father interjects.
Reading Biss’s book as the coronavirus raged through the United States, it was easy to draw the parallels. Whether or not reports of coronavirus parties are apocryphal, some political leaders seem intent on sacrificing certain segments of the American population — from senior citizens to teachers — to the virus. Our long-term national health, this thinking goes, requires the sickness and possible death of some.
Despite the prominent roles of her father and husband in the book, Biss is primarily writing for mothers. Her book is dedicated to them, hers in particular, and many of the issues it addresses relate to the experience of being a new mother and of motherhood more generally.
Yet, as I read, I kept circling back to fathers and our role in issues relating to inoculation, immunity, public health, and protection. As I’ve grown as a husband and father, I’ve come to feel like a bridge between two conceptions of masculinity, of the role men play in their families’ lives. My male role models existed on the traditional side of this divide — my father was the provider, the protector, while my mother nourished emotions and kept house. But many of my male friends complicated these roles. Today, my wife makes more money than I do, while I do all the shopping and most of the cooking. If the sink is broken, she’s more likely to fix it. Childcare is evenly split between us, as, I hope, will be our emotional availability.
The role of father has been criticized and reexamined in these pandemic days. Reporting has shown that more mothers are helping with homeschooling, taking steps back in their careers. Other reports have told stories of dads suddenly shocked by all the domestic chores involved in running a household. I don’t doubt these reports’ veracity, but I deeply doubt the underlying narrative. Like many of my friends who are also fathers, my role is more complicated and so harder to define. And yet, when my wife entered the hospital, what I felt was a deep, simple, masculine urge to protect. To fight for my family. To protegere.
Back home, while A. watched TV, I paced, helpless in my inability to act. When a woman’s water breaks at full-term, there is usually a 24-hour window in which doctors would like to see delivery, to prevent the possibility of infection. Trying to keep the baby inside for a month or more, then, would be a Herculean task under any circumstances. With the virus lurking, the risks rose for both my wife and the fetus. If he was born that day, our premature son had a 90 percent chance of surviving, the internet told me. But what sort of life would that be? How would the first months of his existence look in a country ravaged by a new disease that attacks the lungs?
Eventually, my phone rang. The amniotic sac, my wife told me, was still intact and all looked well with the baby. I poured myself a knuckle of bourbon, drank it down, and went with A. to pick up my wife. We were first happy, then relieved, and then, the next day, back in the trenches of protecting ourselves.
One afternoon during naptime, I heard two-year-old A. singing a song in his crib to the tune of “Mary Had a Little Lamb”: “Go away, coronabirus, coronabirus, coronabirus…” Later, he started yelling, “We’re stuck inside the house!” as he ran around naked.
Like most American families, we began to feel more and more confined over the course of the spring. A. and I had been going to our local playground, but the fence encircling the park was soon locked. This left the unenclosed parks, which were teeming with neighborhood life — young people drinking wine on picnic blankets; elderly couples out for a stroll; men doing push-ups on the grass; homeless people loitering on park benches; and families like us with young children. The most heartbreaking part of quarantine was to watch A. walk up to those kids, introduce himself, and ask if they wanted to play. I often had to run interference in order to protect our child — and ourselves — from the virus.
In the Washington, DC, neighborhood in which we live, health protocols were assiduously followed. Young, old; black, white; man, women — masks were de rigueur and social interactions always at a distance, whether it was a run-in with a friend on the street or a hang out on the stoop.
That wasn’t the case in many parts of the country, as the president encouraged citizens to “Liberate!” states with restrictive health orders. Watching this from our living room, it was difficult not to become enraged. With jobs intact, food on our plates, and a roof over our heads, we were more fortunate than many Americans. But we were still making sacrifices. And we were scared. The virus — and how to protect ourselves from it — had become so politicized that wearing a mask became the battle line some Americans drew in the putative fight for their “freedoms.”
In On Immunity, Biss writes, “Some of us assume that what is good for the body politic cannot be good for the body natural — that the interests of these bodies must be at odds.” But, she continues, this has been proven wrong by scientists. “When Harvard researchers recently used game theory to build a mathematical model of vaccination behavior during an influenza epidemic, they found that even ‘a population of self-interested people can defeat an epidemic.’ No altruism required.”
We’ve just entered the vaccination stage, of course. But we are still primarily in the prevention phase. The protection phase. If everyone in the country simply enacted what the word literally means — “cover in front” — then we could lower our transmission rate and create a healthier body politic, both physically and in terms of the mental toll the coronavirus has taken. And yet our citizens have proven incapable of — indeed, unwilling to — protect their own. Not everyone, of course, but more than enough to shatter the ethos of interdependence.
The cover of On Immunity shows the iconic painting by Rubens called Achilles Dipped into the River Styx. The story of Achilles — and Ruben’s painting — is where Biss begins her analysis of immunity. Achilles was the son of a goddess, who learned of a prophecy that her child would die young. To prevent this, she held the boy by his heels and dipped him in the River Styx, whose waters would protect him from harm. But because her thumb covered his heel, this part of his body was not protected. During a battle in later life, the young warrior Achilles is shot through the heel with a poisoned arrow and dies. The story birthed the concept of an Achilles’ heel, a vulnerability in an otherwise strong body.
From the time I was a boy, I had been taught — in school, at home, through the media — about American freedom. Our liberty, so the story goes, is what has given us our strength and our power, our vaunted American exceptionalism. This concept of unbridled freedom, coupled with gross governmental incompetence, has led to over 290,000 dead and 15 million infected from a virus that has harmed more Americans than almost any foreign war our country has fought. Of course, the Civil War, when Americans fought each other over the very idea of freedom, killed almost 750,000.
Just before our second son’s due date, George Floyd was killed. The nationwide protests that ensued felt like a catharsis — millions of Americans, quarantined because of coronavirus, out protesting the murder of innocent Black lives, the crime a symptom of our country’s original and chronic disease. On June 1, after peaceful protestors were forcefully removed from Lafayette Square, President Trump posed with an upside-down Bible. That night, we heard the buzz of helicopters swarming above our roof as the president ordered war machinery to disperse Americans.
“Feeling responsible for everything and also powerless at the same time is […] a good description, I think, of the emotional state induced by citizenship in this country,” Biss writes. She is discussing anthropologist Emily Martin’s description of the body as a complex system existing in relationship with other complex systems, including our communities and our environment. In the weeks before our second son’s birth, I became aware that American freedom is our Achilles’ heel: too much devotion to individual liberty compromises the communities and connections a healthy system — immunological, ecological, or political — requires.
The contractions came in the early afternoon of June 3, and they quickly gained in intensity. The drive to George Washington Hospital took us past the Capitol, its white dome towering in a sunny blue sky. When we hit the National Mall, we saw our first protestors making their way to the White House. Shortly after, we saw our first armored personnel carriers and tanks. Armed DEA agents rerouted us from the most direct path to the hospital, so we continued along Constitution Avenue. Every few minutes, my wife cringed from labor pain, as we passed armed National Guardsmen shading themselves under the cherry and elm trees. I drove as steadily as I could, but it was hard to stay focused. Though our birth plan had now accounted for the pandemic, we had not accounted for a military intervention and curfew.
By the time we made it to triage, my wife was already four centimeters dilated. If labor is a rolling crescendo of waves, my wife was already in throes of a hurricane. She screamed through the now-tattered N95 mask we had been using for three months. In a short time, we were in the delivery room.
Our nurse was a Black woman who had written #BLM on her mask in black felt marker. She told us she was at the White House protest two days earlier with her husband. We had this conversation in one of the delivery’s brief pauses, and I remember thinking that our twin national crises had met in the form of this warm woman with a BLM mask. I stared at it often, as she and I were on opposite sides of the table, each gripping one of my wife’s legs as she pushed.
The more she pushed, the more rapid our son’s heartbeat became. Our doctor wanted to get him out, so we decided on a forceps delivery. As soon as the decision was made, an army of women entered the delivery room. Almost a dozen people were present — doctors, nurses, even our doula, beamed in virtually because of visitor restrictions — and I became conscious that I was the only man in the room. Though I was the father, I felt more like an observer of an ancient ritual, which, of course, I was.
Little H. arrived into the world with barely a peep at 10:14 p.m. on June 3, the birthdate of my wife’s 96-year-old grandmother, then in isolation in her Philadelphia nursing home. Both mama and H. were safe. This community of women had protected them.
“What has been done to us seems to be, among other things, that we have been made fearful,” Biss writes in her book’s final pages.
What will we do with our fear? This strikes me as a central question of both citizenship and motherhood. As mothers, we must somehow square our power with our powerlessness. We can protect our children to some extent. But we cannot make them invulnerable any more than we can make ourselves invulnerable.
I read On Immunity in the weeks after H. was born. It had sat on my shelves for years, but this moment made me pick it up. What I found was a beautifully written piece of literature and a persuasive argument for the necessity of collective action. Though Biss was writing about how a child’s vaccination contributes to the overall health of the community — where freedom and responsibility intersect — her argument deeply resonated in mid-June, as coronavirus cases soared in the United States.
Yet what I also found, in Biss’s direct appeal to mothers, were questions related to my role as a father to two very young boys. How can I protect my children? How can I cover them in front? These are questions I have asked thousands of times during this pandemic. The answers are fairly straightforward: wear a mask, wash hands, limit social interactions. What I am most fearful of, however, is not the possibility of contracting COVID-19. I am most afraid of what has become of our American body politic. How do I protect my boys from a diseased country whose vaunted ethos of freedom has become the greatest impediment to self-care? How do I cover my sons in front when, as an American, I feel threatened from all sides? What is the preventive action to take against the virus of political cynicism?
This is the threat that concerns me most because there is no vaccine. Protecting my sons will require different tools and means. Education. Civil disobedience. Courage. Voting. And most importantly, hope. Having a child is both incredibly selfish and incredibly hopeful. I had two because I wanted to be a father. But I also wanted to pass along life, with all its wonderful, myriad possibilities. Perhaps the most I can do for my sons right now is to repel the virus of political cynicism, to let them grow up in a home full of hope. If millions of diverse Americans protesting for the basic rights of Black lives, for a more equitable America, haven’t lost hope, why should I?
The second night of H.’s life, a storm arrived. Through the windows of our room at George Washington Hospital, we could see the skies darkening over restaurants and shops empty because of the coronavirus and boarded up because of the protests. The sky thundered and rain poured down. From the street, we heard the cries and laughter of protestors stuck in the storm, saw their signs being used as soggy, makeshift umbrellas.
Inside, H. was wrapped in his bassinet, breathing steadily, both beautiful and vulnerable, and deeply worthy of protection.
Matthew Davis is the founding director of the Alan Cheuse International Writers Center. The author of When Things Get Dark: A Mongolian Winter’s Tale (2010), his work has appeared in the The New Yorker, The Atlantic, The Washington Post Magazine, and Guernica, among other places.
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