On Being 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.

Fast forward a few decades. 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

As you can imagine, I was extremely careful about limiting 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 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.

The hygiene hypothesis refers to the way our overly clean and sterile modern lifestyles reduce our natural exposure to microbes, leading to weaker immune systems. Research studies point to the fact that children who grow up in microbe-rich environments – such as farms – have more robust immune systems and 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 developed an autoimmune disease in adulthood.

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. You might call me 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. 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 are more effective and 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 and drink Kefir smoothies in an effort to cultivate friendly bacteria in our guts.

Will these small changes be enough to make an impact? I hope so. 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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