Written by 8:40 am Parenting

Confessions of a Germphobe Mom

When Little Dot was a baby, we placed a bottle of hand sanitiser right next to the front door. I had deliberately chosen a huge neon green bottle so that no one could possibly miss it. That was the point: every single person entering my humble abode was required to sanitise their hands before coming into contact with my precious bundle.

Let me just put it out there once and for all: I am a germphobe. Although I had grown up rough and tumble in one of Singapore’s last kampongs, somewhere en route to becoming an adult, I had become obsessed with the idea of cleanliness.
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Sitting and lying on the bare floor without a laundered rug makes me queasy. I assiduously line the seat of every public toilet I visited with toilet paper (still do). I carry a bottle of hand sanitiser in my bag and whip it out before and after every meal.

Hence, the idea of my baby crawling on the floor was enough to turn my stomach into knots. How many times do I have to vacuum and mop my floor every day? What if she starts licking the furniture? Will I have to sanitise every single toy she has? These were just some of my daily nightmares as new Mom.

But the inevitable happened: when she was seven months old, Little Dot started to crawl. Any joy I felt quickly turned into horror.

The first day she found her mobility, Little Dot promptly zoomed in on the vacuum cleaner, opened the compartment of the dust bin, and gleefully dirt-painted her face while rummaging through the filth.

The following days saw her picking up stray pieces of rice grains and cheese and having a picnic right on the dining room floor. A few weeks later, she ate the Power button off our DVD remote. (That didn’t upset her but it did wonders for my appetite.)

Slowly, I became more adept at anticipating her every move. “No!” I would squeal even before she raised a dirty book to her lips. I thought I had it all under control. A few weeks passed without incident.

Then, our friends announced that they were visiting us with their baby boy.

“Hooray!” I said to my husband. “We’re going to have a play date in our house!” Although I had been bringing Little Dot to various play dates and storytelling sessions in the library, this was the first time we were actually hosting another baby in our home.

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I cleaned the apartment assiduously and even bought a play yard so that the babies could sit in it while the adults enjoyed their lunch. The date was a success but the next day I received a heart-stopping text message from my friend.

Her baby had been admitted into the hospital for high fever and diagnosed with Hand Foot and Mouth Disease (HFMD). “Please wash all the toys he has touched and chewed on. I am really sorry!” she wrote.

My husband and I swung into action. Donning our biohazard gear, we wiped the entire house with bleach, dumped all of Little Dot’s clothes and soft toys into the washing machine, mopped the floor, and almost burned our carpet with repeated steaming.

Alas, it was too late. Little Dot succumbed to HFMD, and rare as it was, I caught it from her shortly after.

Walking around with blisters on my sole, I was confronted with two options: one, confine Little Dot forever to our sterile apartment and thereby further compromising her immune system; or two, overcome my irrational fear and release her into the real world of dirt and diseases.

Perhaps it was the high fever I was running, but I decided that the dirt and diseases option was ultimately more attractive. There was little I could do to minimise her exposure to germs, I had to admit, short of shackling her to her crib. I had to learn to let go.

A few months later — after Little Dot had experienced her first crawl across the grass and sampled her first taste of wood chip and sand — I came across an article in The New Yorker, entitled “Germs Are Us”, by Michael Specter.

Specter’s writing and a cartoon of a baby being blanked by a menacing cloud of germs jumped out at me. “We inherit every one of our genes,” he wrote, “but we leave the womb without a single microbe. As we pass through our mother’s birth canal, we begin to attract entire colonies of bacteria. By the time a child can crawl, he has been blanketed by an enormous, unseen cloud of microorganisms—a hundred trillion or more.”

How naïve I had been, thinking I could have kept my baby germ free with my fastidious spraying and wiping. Even if I could have cleaned my entire apartment with Dettol ten times over, I was already too late in the game.

Gwen Lee is the author of the children’s book Little Cloud Wants Snow! available at all good bookstores and on Amazon.com.

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