I never was a germaphobe. Had I been one, I would have been doing the “gotta-go, gotta-go, gotta-go” dance all across India. Sure I stock up on disinfecting wipes for those Third World public restroom adventures, and thanks to a moderately germ-phobic mother I have the habit of pulling my sleeve over my hand before reaching for the bathroom door in malls and airports. But I’ll be honest: I don’t wash my hands before every meal, and I’ve never sprayed Lysol on a doorknob.
So when I became a parent, I maintained what I believed was a reasonable, realistic tolerance for germy situations. I drape a blanket over the infant carrier seat in the grocery cart and I wash Elodie’s binky when it falls on the floor. (Although I do make allowances if it falls rubber-side up.) I did not, however, request friends squirt bacteria-killing gel onto their hands before holding my 5-month-old, nor did I wipe down her toys with Clorox disinfecting wipes like they say to do in the commercial. I was a little more squeamish about all those germ-slaying chemicals than I was about a little sniffly nose germ, anyway.
But that was in an ideal world where friends who come over to play don’t end up barfing all over the house. That was in pre-Rotavirus world.
The path by which Elodie contracted this nasty bug reads like a bacterial soap opera, complete with multiple clandestine run-ins with the malicious microbe and one explosive – and not so stealthy – grand finale.
Most parents we’ve talked to who’ve had puking babies in the past two weeks link it back to a giant orgy of drool and grubby fingers, i.e. a birthday party. We weren’t there, but plenty of people we know were. And in fine post-Fourth of July fashion, we played host to barbecues and dinner parties, where all our friends’ kids were thrilled to play with all new toys – toys that inevitably ended up in my daughter’s mouth.
The climax of our contagious virus crisis came at a lobster party early last week, complete with Boston style clam chowder and live lobsters just shipped from the East Coast. And munchkin vomit.
That’s the pesky thing about Rotavirus – you don’t see it coming until it’s all over your floor.
When our poor, sick toddler friend left that night, I did something I had never done before: I disinfected doorknobs. I dug out the Clorox disinfecting wipes, placed under the sink by my mother and never before opened, and wiped down everything in sight – just like they do in the commercial. My nasty chemical squeamishness had been overruled by sick baby anxiety. If I could have gotten my hands on a can of Lysol, I swear I would have assaulted the neighborhood with it.
Alas, I swathed my house in noxious chemicals for naught. Elodie was puking by Sunday. (So much for the theory that breastfed babies don’t get sick!)
Between bouts of sickness and loads of laundry, I berated myself for letting my baby girl get sick. Why do I let people hold her? Why don’t I tell them to please not grab her hands – the first thing they reach for and the first thing she puts in her mouth? Why don’t other parents teach their children to not touch babies? Why do I even bring her out into public?
From now on, I swore to sick baby Elle, I will be that super vigilant germ fighter Mom. Show me the Lysol.
But how could I really follow up on that promise, without locking her in a sterilized – and scary chemical off-gassing – bubble?
I did some Internet research on Rotavirus, and while the thought of that nasty critter setting up shop in her intestines still gave me the heebie-jeebies, learning more about it did make me feel a little less like a terrible mother. Globally, Rotavirus is the most common cause of severe gastroenteritis in early childhood. Almost all children have been infected by the time they reach 5 years of age, and in the U.S. most kids have gotten it by age 2. Rotavirus’s pervasiveness is not much of a surprise, since it is very easily spread even when people try very hard to keep places clean.
So, unless we had spent the Fourth of July week sequestered alone at home, chances were that she would have gotten sick no matter what we did to try to prevent it – bleach wipes and all. But that’s not much comfort to me and especially not to sick baby Elle.
I know I can’t build an impermeable barrier around my daughter. And I’m not going to prevent her from exploring this great big world because she could catch a cold. Or Rotavirus. I am, however, going to be a smarter parent when it comes to keeping my child healthy.
First, no longer will I silently cringe when people say hello by grabbing her little hands. There should be no shame in asking people not to touch the one place on her body that has free and unlimited access to her mouth. Plus, I shouldn’t feel that it’s rude to actually say no when someone who probably hasn’t washed their hands in the last half-hour asks to hold her.
Next, I don’t need to feel like it’s obnoxious to disinfect toys after other babies touch them, or wash Elodie’s hands and face after visiting with friends. And the products I use to kill germs don’t have to be chemical-laden monsters in disguise, either. My good friend Mary just gave me the book Healthy Child Healthy World – Creating a Cleaner, Greener, Safer Home. In it there are lots of suggestions on how to clean greener using simple, safe, effective and inexpensive substances like baking soda, vinegar, hydrogen peroxide, essential oils, and plain old glycerin soap.
Finally, I will commit to being more proactive about keeping Elodie from adding another germy chapter to Telluride’s sick kid drama. When she has a fever, or a cough, or just doesn’t seem well, we’re just going to have to turn down those birthday party and barbecue dinner party invitations.