Germaphobia: Today, Six Years Ago, and 100 Years Before That

Then and Now_Misfortune of Knowing WordPress BlogOn 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 is 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.


  1. I suppose they’re right about the dirt levels on keyboards. I know I clean my toilet more often than the keyboard. I don’t know what that says about me but it’s making me reach for the cleaner right now!

  2. seeing those pictures side by side, literally brought a tear to my eye — feeling so privedged to have been there to take both of those photos — how far they (and you) have come!

    1. Awww, thanks! You remember well what they were like back then. Thank you for documenting that time in our lives. We didn’t have the wherewithal to do it.

  3. With such tiny babies I can understand why you would be worried about germs. I do think there is way too much paranoia these days though. Obviously we need to be clean enough to be healthy and not live like we did in the middle ages where plagues broke out and millions died. We also need to be dirty enough that our bodies learn to tolerate a few germs and build up immunity. Living in a sterile bubble, the first time we go outside and encounter a fairly harmless bug like a cold germ, we will die, just like those aliens in War of the Worlds.

    1. I agree that we need exposure to germs. When my husband and I finally put our twins in daycare (after two and a half years at home with a nanny), our girls got a new virus about every two weeks for almost a year! But they survived it, and I think they’re better off as a result. It’s often better to get the immunity while we’re young (for such illnesses as chicken pox, fifths disease, CMV), etc). Thanks for the comment!

  4. Happy birthday to not only your girls but to you and your husband AMB – each of the twins’ birthdays must be extra special for you and a true gift.
    Like Kate I’m most definitely of the school that thinks we need exposure to a certain level of uncleanliness (looking around the apartment maybe I go too far!) But I’m rarely ill and neither were our two children. Different matter in a clinical situation of course.

  5. Happy birthday to your sweet girls. I’m a little obsessive about germs, too, though for tasty things I happily embrace the 5 second rule.

  6. Oh, my goodness, that baby picture! So beautiful.

    I’m comparatively careless about germs, coming from the “it’ll build your immune system” school, majoring in “I hate dusting.” I make the kids wash their hands frequently, but I almost never use Lysol outside of the bathrooms, and I don’t usually carry hand sanitizer. This post makes me very thankful that I can afford to be so casual about it. If my babies had been born as young as yours were, I’d say things would have gone the same way, raw arms and all.

    1. Thank you! I hate dusting, too! When my girls were small, we vacuumed and dusted everyday. These days–with a third child added to the mix–there’s just no time for it. I’m trying not to think about how germy it is!

  7. You really were blessed in so many ways. As for the “germs”, it certainly is a never ending battle. I got my first ever flu shot this year because I was more afraid of the egg grown virus, but then decided to give it a try.

  8. Everything in moderation, including dealing with a germy environment. When I come home from anywhere, I immediately wash my hands. I tend to get lazy about this in summer when there are less colds and flu around. Any germs inside my apartment belong to me and are therefore not a threat. 🙂

    I’ve worked at home the last couple years except for a brief part time stint at a small office with four to five other employees. I fought off colds and had more days of feeling ill during those short three months than I expected, despite diligent hand-washing. While at home though? Nada. I haven’t had any illnesses. I get my flu shot, stay aware and away from people (heh), and so far, so good.

    1. Yes, everything in moderation! It’s hard for me to stick with it, though. I was that kid in the dorms who regularly used Lysol spray on the door handles–and that was BEFORE I had premature babies. 🙂 These days, I just try not to think about germs as much.

    1. Thank you! Yes, it has been quite a journey. In the beginning, we had to take it day by day. Now, it’s hard to even believe they were so premature. We are very lucky.

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