Parenting As a Reformed Germaphobe

Growing up, I never worried much about germs. Thanks to the many pets we owned over the years, my childhood home was basically a deluxe buffet of microbes for my immune system. At any given time, there was a bird squawking from its perch, a bunny in the side yard trying to chew the wiring under the house, and a cat or dog roaming the premises in search of something to eat, chase, or both. For a short time, we also had a vocal brood of chickens and a disgusting but lovable bearded dragon lizard that my brother named Bud.

It seems unfathomable now, but I don’t recall my parents ever telling us to wash our hands after handling the pets or instructing us not to touch the countertop if my dad was making his famous hamburgers. There was simply no fretting over foodborne illnesses, or worries about contracting salmonella from the lizard, the chickens, or the various rodents who lived comfortably alongside us. My mom did not even blink an eye when, on occasion, the chickens would amble through the open front door and hop up to the piano. Perhaps she felt they had musical ambitions.

Becoming a mom changed me on so many levels, but one part I never expected was the way it transformed me into a germaphobe. I can remember distinctly when this process began. In the middle of my first pregnancy, the 2009 swine flu scare was hitting the news. Suddenly, I became much more deliberate about washing my hands and keeping my distance from people who coughed or sniffled. I binged on Google searches, scouring the Internet for anything I could find about the latest health threats. By the time my daughter arrived, I was laser-focused on creating the cleanest possible environment to protect her.

In 1984, with one of our many bunnies

I was careful to limit my firstborn’s exposure to germs. I loaded up on hand sanitizer, wiped down restaurant tables and shopping carts, and eschewed play places or other establishments that didn’t appear to employ space age sterilization techniques. For a while, my strategy seemed to be effective.

Then during my next pregnancy, I developed an autoimmune disease that caused complications for my second daughter and me. Fortunately, my daughter was healthy, but she needed to spend some time in the neonatal intensive care unit. Eventually, I started to think more about my quest to sanitize the world. Maybe it wasn’t necessary or even helpful.

In their 2017 book “Dirt is Good: The Advantage of Germs for Your Child’s Developing Immune System,” Jack Gilbert and Rob Knight suggest exposing kids to a natural environment as much as possible: “Let your kids experience as much microbial diversity as you can find. Get them outside, let them interact with animals, allow them to play in the dirt, rivers, streams, ocean. Don’t sterilize everything they are going to touch or put into their mouth.”

I began to realize that protecting my children from all germs had some drawbacks. According to the “hygiene hypothesis,” our overly clean modern lifestyles reduce our natural exposure to microbes, leading to weaker immune systems. Some research studies point to the fact that children who grow up in microbe-rich environments – such as farms – are less likely to develop allergies and asthma. What’s not clear is how long these benefits last outside of those settings. After all, I grew up in what could have qualified as a mini zoo, and I still later developed an autoimmune disease.

While I can’t change my DNA – or my children’s – I’m trying to adopt a more balanced approach when it comes to germs. Today I think of myself as a reformed germaphobe: I’m still reasonably vigilant about cleanliness and hygiene but also allow for natural exposure to the different microbes in our environment.

That means I no longer wipe down grocery cart handles or tables. We limit our use of hand sanitizer and antibacterial products because plain old soap and water do the job better, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; plus, they don’t kill off beneficial microbes. We have two guinea pigs at home and make it a point to pet every friendly dog we meet. We play outside in the dirt and catch pill bugs and I try not to freak out when my kids slurp muddy water from random gardening buckets. We take probiotics in an effort to cultivate good bacteria in our guts.

I still worry about germs sometimes, especially during cold and flu season. But I’m trying to make peace with the fact that I can’t control everything. It’s a work in progress.

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