So I sat there watching the 10 o’clock news just steaming last night as the latest revelation was delivered from god on high, excuse me, the patriarchal medical establishment: children’s cold medicines don’t work and sometimes they kill children. So, at long last, they have been pulled from the shelves of the drug- and grocery stores throughout the land. The “latest” is that parents should let children’s colds run their course and should rely on natural remedies, i.e., vaporizors, lots of liquids.
What a news flash.
For 35 years, over the course of raising 11 children, I have steadfastly rejected over-the-counter and prescription drugs for my children, along with the doctors who prescribe these toxic and (for the most part) useless substances. I have steadfastly urged, in writing, in articles, in my magazine, that other mothers do likewise. I realized very early on in my motherhood journey that the reasons doctors prescribe pills and drops and liquids for children is, parents think doctors possess magical healing substances which cure all and every malady. I never understood this expectation and never trusted doctors who enable it, because they know better, which tells me, worst case, they are dishonest, slightly better case, they trust what their teachers have taught them, suspending disbelief when faced with clear evidence to the contrary. The principles of feminist self-help when it comes to health care run deep in me, the most basic of which is that it is not going to work to put one’s faith and trust in the advice of a patriarchal medical establishment, particularly if you are a woman, and particularly if you are a mother.
When my kids developed colds or flu over the years, I did what I knew worked, ignoring, for the most part, whatever medical fads might be in vogue at the time. If my kids were croupy, having a hard time clearing their lungs, had hacking, dry coughs and couldn’t sleep, I wrapped both of us in a towel or blanket, went into the bathroom, shut the door and turned on the shower full blast until the room was full of steam, their croup had subsided, their lungs had cleared and they could breathe again. If they were coughing productively but so much that they couldn’t sleep, I propped them up on pillows because drainage, including of the sinuses, follows gravity. If my kids were feverish, I washed them down with damp cloths, gave them a cool cloth for their forehead, brought on the popsicles and ice water, to be sipped slowly through a straw or by spoon. If the fever hung on for too long and I began to fear they might get dehydrated, or if they were in pain with headache or body aches, I gave them children’s aspirin. (Aspirin is the one over-the-counter remedy I use and know to be effective, forget Tylenol, and don’t even talk to me about Reyes syndrome. The minuscule chance of children developing Reyes syndrome from taking a couple of orange St. Joseph’s for Children doesn’t hold a candle so far as health risks go to Tylenol’s toxicity to the human liver.) I watched my kids closely and could usually tell when they were coming down with something, often because of what they were craving, which I provided in abundance. When they suddenly wanted to eat orange after orange after orange, for example, that was a very good sign to me that they were fighting off a cold or flu. So I provided them with all of the oranges they could eat. I have watched as my toddlers in their high chairs ate three, four oranges at one sitting. For nourishment, in addition to the juice and popsicles, I provided Old Maid’s Tea (freshly-brewed hot tea with honey and fresh lemon juice, sipped from a spoon) and, yep, you got it, homemade chicken soup which included dark leafy greens like spinach and a little extra pepper to clear their nasal passages.
I breastfed my children until they weaned themselves (between 18 months and seven years of age, yes, that’s right, seven years of age). When they began showing an interest in solid food (by reaching for it or bobbing their heads around when they saw it), I offered them whatever they showed an interest in, including fresh salad, fresh and cooked vegetables of all kinds. The evidence is all anecdotal, but all of my children raised this way love all vegetables and salads, to include broccoli and spinach. They ask for broccoli and spinach and salad. They consider it a treat and turn their noses up at junk food and fast food.
Finally, my children were taught to wash their hands after using the restroom, when their hands were dirty, after touching or playing with animals or children or adults. This is the simplest thing in the world, to teach, to practice and to model, and I am convinced that it is often this practice that makes the difference between a child who picks up every cold going around and a child who is rarely sick. I also taught them, or they taught themselves and each other, not to touch doorknobs, faucets, or toilet seats in public restrooms. Don’t use your hands. Use your foot (with the shoe on it), your elbow, or cover your hand with your sleeve or a paper towel. Knowledge of how disease is transmitted via germs and how handwashing prevents it ended the epidemic of childbed fever and could end all sorts of other epidemics, as well.
And, of course, I stayed away from doctors’ offices where all of the sick children were coughing and hacking away, exuding great streams of drool while teething, and chewing on the toys together!
Occasionally over the years I succumbed to the temptation to buy cold medicines for my kids when I was feeling like a bad mom for some reason, as when someone suggested that every good mother parked herself and her kids at doctors’ offices with regularity, that’s the mark of a good mother, you know, when the child sneezes, oh my god, call the pediatrician! When the ears ache, get in line for tubes in the ears! (Another discredited “remedy” for childhood earaches which subjected children to unnecessary, costly and dangerous surgeries and pain and which never resolved the earaches.) When the child coughs, demand antibiotics! Teach your children young to line up, stick out their arms and let experts in funny clothes stick needles in them, no crying, buck up, be a big boy, be a big girl, it’s just a little stick! Suspend all disbelief in patriarchal medicine when your constantly-examined-and-evaluated-and-medicated-and-stuck children develop all sorts of sicknesses, allergies, impaired immune systems, and so on.
Anyway, I would occasionally begin to cave and would temporarily buy into all of this malarkey if I felt insecure, usually because some blowhard had given me (or one of my kids) a piece of his mind he could not afford to lose, and I would buy the pricey cold medications. They didn’t work. Of course, one reason they didn’t work is, they tasted so bad, children would not ingest them, and who could blame them? Why would anybody?! This was horrible stuff, thick, green, red, orange liquids which tasted so bad there was no way to disguise it, and if it even made it past the tongue, usually the stomach would say “no way” and it would all come back up.
Well, children will not have to suffer through some parents’ forced ministrations of these patriarchal elixirs any longer, because they are so removed from the shelves. I can only wonder whether this decision might have come in part on the heels of the murder charges against the parents of Rebecca Riley, who died after having taken medicine prescribed for her “bipolar disorder” (diagnosed at age 2) and a variety of cough and cold medications. According to the Consumer Health Association in the article linked above, from 1969 to 2006, at least 45 children died after taking decongestants, and 69 died after taking antihistamines. This is likely just the tip of the iceberg, of course. How many children’s deaths were attributed to complications of cold, flu, or influenza but were actually the result of these medications?
In the ’80s I read Dr. Robert Mendelsohn’s books, bought them in bulk and distributed them to my friends. Mendelsohn had been the chair of the American Academy of Pediatricians, had taught in medical schools, and was, of course, an M.D. His consistent advice was to stay out of doctors’ offices unless you were deathly sick. In his book, How to Raise Healthy Children In Spite of Your Doctor, he advocated against “well child” visits, against all over-the-counter and prescription medications for common illnesses like colds and flu, against tubes in the ears, against circumcision. In his book Male Practice: How Doctors Manipulate Women, he urged women to steer clear of obstetricians and gynecologists and commonly-prescribed tests and evaluations of all kinds. Decades before angioplasty was recognized as ineffective following a heart attack, Mendelsohn was recommending against it and a host of other AMA-recommended procedures in his Confessions of a Medical Heretic. Although I knew that feminist women had written similar books years before, books like Gena Corea’s, The Hidden Malpractice: How American Medicine Treats Women as Patients and Professionals, published in 1977, and Barbara Ehrenreich’s For Her Own Good: Two Centuries of the Experts Advice to Women, first published in 1979, I was glad for Mendelsohn’s work, given that so many people seem only to trust white males with letters after their names. I particularly valued his steadfast insistence that doctors need to listen more to mothers than mothers need to listen to doctors, that mothers are the ones who know when there is something really wrong, and Mendlsohn’s encouragement to mothers to honor our own insights as to our children’s health. Mothers, he said, know when something is really wrong with their children. Usually it is a change in behavior or appearance, Mendelsohn said, that tells a mother her child is ill: strange or unusual crying, listlessness, sleep problems, the look on a child’s face, the glassy eyes, the flushed cheeks. Mendelsohn urged mothers to believe what their eyes and ears were telling them, to have faith in their own observations and judgments about their children’s health.
Well, eight of my 11 children are grown now, with the oldest 35. They are the very picture of health, as are the three still at home with me. It’s been a very long time since any of the three still at home has even had a cold. Each may have had the flu once or twice, and they are 9, 12 and 16. I have steadfastly, as much as possible, avoided the institutions and advice of patriarchal medicine, as I have avoided all dangerous patriarchal institutions, for 35 years now. Most of my kids grew up drinking clean well water from the wells on our property in the country and breathing clean air as well. I refused to subject them to the intrusions and invasions and “sticks” and prods, pills and liquids, patriarchy insists are the mark of “good parenting.” My opinion is, their good health is the result.
But, what’s 35 years and 11 kids’ worth of experience anyway, when people can always turn to 20-something white guys wearing Nehru jackets and stethoscope necklaces for the latest and greatest patriarchal medicine has to offer? It’s not just conservatives either, it’s not just the mainstream, feminists and progressives of all stripes consistently behave as though patriarchal medicine operates with the best interests of women and our children at heart, ignoring all of the evidence to the contrary, as though it makes sense to offer up our blind trust and faithful obeisance.
If anybody wonders why crones and wise women are reticent to offer up their wisdom, their voice of experience, unless someone specifically asks them to — and often, even then — it’s because of this phenomenon I have just described. As women, so often we do not even recognize, let alone honor, our own elders or their lived experiences. Instead we institutionalize them, abuse them, mistreat them, treat them with disrespect, matronize them, ignore and dismiss what they have to say. And so, each generation of women starts from scratch, reinvents the wheel, learns what needs to be learned too late, if at all, and the hard way, laments and boo-hoos that there are no trails to follow. Well, the trails were there, it’s just that men and their apologists came right along after and covered them up. And the next generation of women trusted what the men said, not what the women said, about those trails. So long as this is true, there will be no real or meaningful challenge to the abuses of patriarchal medicine, or for that matter, to any of the abuses of patriarchy.