On December 10, 2007, my twins arrived just over three months early. Their extremely premature birth impacted my life in many ways, including by exacerbating my anxiety about germs to the point that, during my daughters’ 78-day NICU stay, I had repeatedly scrubbed my arms raw with cherry-red “Chlorhexidine” soap. Infection from the germs we carry on our hands were a major threat to preemies with immature immune systems. I feared the common cold, and, even more so, the respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) and the flu.
So, in addition to scrubbing my arms raw, I used hand sanitizer, opened doors with tissues, got my flu shot, and, at least until my children were out of the NICU, I stayed away from anyone who wasn’t family or NICU personnel. Six years later, I’ve relaxed a lot about germs, even though I think about them pretty much every time I touch anything (such as my keyboard right now; did you know that keyboards are dirtier than toilets?).
It’s with this perspective that I’ve been reading Servants: A Downstairs History of Britain from the Nineteenth Century to Modern Times,* in which Lucy Lethbridge describes some of demands Edwardian elites—victims of “a mania for sterilisation”—made of their servants, including “the nightly washing of their employer’s loose change.” During this time, Lethbridge explains, “the home became viewed as a laboratory of the new science of hygiene and health,” a trend resulting from the development of germ theory in the late 19th Century.
As ridiculous as I found the demands people made of their servants, I still identified with some of the sentiments underlying these orders, such as the belief that dust “was impregnated with millions of more or less deadly microbes” and that germs were “disease seeds.” Lethbridge describes families that “traveled with their own portable sterilisers” (well, that sounds familiar!) who took their “own silver, linen, and china as a precaution against infections from tableware in public restaurants” (which I’ve never done, but I’ve thought about it).
These days, I have a much more balanced view of germs—or, at least, I’m trying not to think about how much I want to wash my hands (Right. Now.).
I even look away when, for example, my daughters apply a 5 second rule, bury their noses in our cats’ fur, or lick their fingers.
Yes, I know that the five-second rule is bull (for those who don’t know, it’s the common belief that it’s okay to eat food within five seconds of its falling on the floor). I know that the floor is crawling with all kinds of potentially harmful bacteria.
I also know that our lovable cats have some potentially dangerous bacteria in their mouths (always get treated if you get bitten by a cat!)
Bacteria are everywhere, and trying to avoid them is a futile effort that does nothing but drive me crazy. Plus, as I try to remind myself as often as possible, research suggests that exposure to germs is actually helpful, possibly reducing risks for many conditions, including allergies, asthma, inflammatory bowel disease, and multiple sclerosis.
Dirt, dust, and germs are part of the environment that makes us who we are. As studies of identical twins suggest, different levels of hygiene may result in different health outcomes over the long-term (this is discussed in One and the Same: My Life as an Identical Twin and Everyone’s Struggle to be Singular). While this divergence would probably comfort my identical twins, who refuse to be defined by their genes, it leaves me wanting to figure out ways to make sure that both of my twins and their younger sister get an adequate and equal supply of dirt in their “diets”—all while I’m not looking!
*I am not finished this book. I’ve been too busy to devote much time to non-work-related reading this month (unless it’s a picture book, of course!). I’ll try to post a review next week.
**Image: A picture from their 6th birthday party on the left (we did it in November this year, and the weather was unseasonably warm); a picture of M. at one day old in the NICU (intubated and under ultra violet blue light for jaundice). My sister took both pictures.