Washing My Hands of My Germophobia

Two was never the number that scared me.  Two babies, big deal.  I could handle the kids.  It was the number eight, on its side, that petrified me.  Infinity, the approximate number of pulsing, vacillating microorganisms that would come prepackaged with my bundles of joy.  From the moment my doctor said, “It’s twins,” I knew that a lifetime of running scared from the Monera and Protista kingdoms would have to end.

I hadn’t always been a germophobe — only since the day I learned germs existed.  I was 6 years old, and a girl from down the block was refusing to share her lollipop with me.

The way she explained it, germs were tiny creatures that lived on candy, and if you touched someone else’s, you would die.

It seemed a pretty elaborate story just to get out of sharing a Blow Pop.  Then again, there was an old bearded dude who could fly around the world in a sleigh pulled by reindeer, so what did I know?  That night, no less an authority than my Dad corroborated the facts.  Germs were real, they were invisible and they weren’t just on lollipops.  They were everywhere.

“Just wash your hands,” he assured me.  “You’ll be fine.”

And so I did.  I washed my hands like a surgeon, over and over, whenever I could get to a sink.  On an average day, I was so antiseptic I could’ve tongue-kissed the boy in the bubble without putting him at risk.  I never would have, of course.  Other people were just freight cars full of my microscopic nemeses, to be avoided at all costs.  I dodged my Grandma’s kisses.  I stood outside doors waiting for someone else to open them rather than touch a naked knob myself.  I spent an entire school year avoiding the teacher who liked to reward his students with high fives.  There was no way he disinfected his palms to my satisfaction.

Inevitably, my compulsion took its toll.  In winter, the backs of my hands were worn so thin from constant scrubbing that they would crack and bleed.  Some nights, the pain would be so intense that I would have nightmares about picking shards of glass from my skin, and that’s when I was lucky enough to fall asleep at all.  As a 9-year-old boy, I had the hands of a 90-year-old great-grandma – brittle, weathered and meek.  I lived in fear that one day I’d look down at my fingers and see bone peeking through.

It took years to rein in my phobia to manageable levels.  By my 20s, I could get away with one thorough scouring per bathroom visit.  I could accept pecks on the cheek from close relatives, but afterward, a voice in the back of my head would quietly insist, “Get to a Purell bottle, ASAP.”

And then… fatherhood.  I could never have imagined all the innovative ways two zero-year-olds could concoct for spreading bacteria.  They ate food out of each other’s mouths, pressed their faces into dirty diapers that were left out a second too long, rolled around in puddles of commingled spit up if I wasn’t fast enough to dab at it with a burp cloth.  How were these little humans related to me?  They were filth-ophiles.  When my son would cry, his sister would offer him the pacifier right out of her mouth to calm him down.  I couldn’t imagine discouraging a gesture that was so pure and beautiful, albeit stomach-churning.

I realized quickly that my love for my kids was greater than my fear of germs, so much so that I left my job so I could stay home and raise them full-time.  But making peace with my phobia wasn’t enough.  I had to protect my offspring from it, to avoid passing my crippling anxiety on to these pure little mess-makers who were so naïve about the toxic empire only microscopes could see.  I had to break the curse.

My twins are two years old now, and the worst is behind us… or so I thought.  We have an indoor playroom that we frequent.  It always seemed relatively hygienic as those places go, with hand foam dispensers located throughout the building and toys that get scrubbed down at acceptable intervals.  One day a few weeks ago, a familiar smell invaded the room, and the other parents and I began our silent ritual, a game of “Whose Kid Pooped?”

“Bennett, do you need a diaper change?” I asked.

Bennett barked, “No!” and scurried away guiltily.

That sealed it.  I was today’s lucky winner.

The women’s room at this facility, as at most places that cater to new moms, is a spa-like wonderland.  Because the door is usually left ajar, I can see how clean and inviting it is, with posh seats for breastfeeding and plenty of space in the stalls.  I’d never seen their men’s room, so I had to ask for directions.  I was pointed down a back hallway, past the employee break room, to a corridor bracketed by chipped linoleum at the bottom and browned ceiling tiles on top.  With one kid holding each hand, I kicked a crooked door open with my foot.

This was a bathroom that would’ve frightened me even without the kids.  In the far corners of the room were a toilet, urinal and sink.  The fourth corner was a broken-down changing table that appeared to have been rescued from the curb outside Goodwill.  Something was dripping from the ceiling and puddling over a clogged drainage gate directly in the middle of it all.

This was clearly a converted mop closet, perhaps installed after some other dad complained or some local ordinance was enacted.  “You want a men’s room?  Here’s your men’s room!”  For the germ-fearing like me, it was something out of a Wes Craven movie, with only one dim flickering light bulb between me and total darkness.  But to my kids, it was just another playroom, filled with exciting new toys.  As I fumbled with my diaper bag, they explored.  Sutton dipped her hands in the urinal, while Bennett splashed in the murky reservoir of water on the floor, cackling with glee.

“No!” I shouted.  “Don’t touch anything!”  I grabbed them both and, as my fatherly duties often require, I became PlasticMan.  I lifted Bennett onto the changing table with one arm and pinned Sutton to the wall with my leg.  As I wiped Bennett’s grubby tush, I held him in place with my chin, like a contorted human restraining device.  Was this the right way to handle this?  What message was I sending?

“Wanna get out!” Sutton shouted as she squirmed against me.  I had just enough strength to hold her back.  “Wanna get OUT!!!”

Unable to move his arms around my head, Bennett began playing with his legs instead.  He lifted one up impossibly close to his face as only a kid his age can do.  That’s when I realized he wasn’t just touching his shoe.  He was licking it.  The soles were still wet from the drain water, and he was treating it like apple juice, savoring every drop.  Nauseous, I let my guard down, and Sutton broke free.  She raced for the toilet, as if she might dive in head first.

I didn’t know who to start with.  Sutton frolicked in the toilet like it was a backyard bird bath, and Bennett managed to pull his shoe off and shove it halfway down his throat.

“Stop it!” I shouted, finally.  “Stop!  Everybody stay still!  Right now!”  And as though they sensed there were deeper forces at work, my kids did something very unusual.  They listened to me.

Sutton stepped back from the toilet and returned to my side.  Bennett handed me back his shoe so I could refasten it.  I finished changing his diaper, and I took a deep breath.  I was back in control.  They both looked up at me, quietly awaiting instructions.

“Come on, guys,” I said, as calmly as possible.  “Let’s wash our hands.”

48 comments on “Washing My Hands of My Germophobia

  1. I was Ms. aseptic with my first child….then the 2nd came along and all hell broke loose…

    They( whoever They are) are finding that kids that are too sterile are washing away their normal flora which enables them to help fight off germs.. Kids need a certain amount of germs to fight the really nasty ones……..pick ur germs like u pick ur battles….

    my kids are in college now and survived NYC subways, and ate dirt in the park…….relax little…

  2. As always, hilarious. And true. I think my kids hands were like 90 year old great grandmother’s before they were two and then hubby said, Get a grip.

    My one thought, as I read your latest adventure was, screw that. Use the women’s washroom next time. You’re among parenting peers. If they don’t get it, send them down the long dark hall to look at what you had to face!

    • Awesome! You’re right, I totally should use the women’s room, but I’m too afraid of angry moms. That’s why I love the family restrooms at the mall. They’re usually pretty clean, they always have changing stations (many mens rooms don’t) and they welcome moms and dads alike.

      • Many moons ago, when I was raising my children (although really, are we ever done raising them and vice versa…), there were no family washrooms. My hubby was happy when the diaper stage was over for my son because he always had to change him kind of, sort of standing up in the men’s room (he never had to change our daughter out in public as she was a CAMEL and used like 2 diapers a day….).

      • Kudos to your husband. I might complain when there’s no changing station in a men’s room, but at least people listen to me. I’m sure in the past, men just got laughed at for suggesting something like that. I’ve had to do the floor-of-the-bathroom diaper change, and it’s not fun.

    • Well, I’m relieved to hear my kid isn’t the only one who does that. I constantly struggle with where to draw the line between an acceptable level of messiness and just plain repulsive. Shoe licking is probably a good place to put my foot down.

  3. I’m with charlywalker … kids need to be exposed to some germs in order to build their own immune systems, although your description of that men’s room had me gagging. I have two sister in laws that are anal about disinfecting and sterilizing …their children have been on antibiotics at least once a year since they were a year old. my kids didn’t have their first dose until after their 5th birthday (one of them was 10 before she got them) and they rarely get more than a cold.
    I make sure my kids wash up after playing outside, I stress that they wash them when around other sick kids, and I absolutely enforce handwashing after using the rest room, but my grandma always said, “you’ll eat more than a speck of dirt before you die” 🙂

    • I do agree with letting the kids get a little messy and germy, within reason. I definitely let them get away with far more than I would ever do myself in terms of touching gross things. Early on, I wanted to keep their pacifiers separate, but that lasted about 5 minutes before I realized it would be virtually impossible. They slobber all over the same toys anyway, so what’s the big deal? It’s all about finding the right balance, which I’m still working on.

  4. Funny Story. I agree with the other commenters — USE THE WOMEN’S ROOM next time! And complain to The Indoor Gym Owners! So, I guess only WOMEN are supposed to take their kids to their facility because only WOMEN care for their children? Um, not in 2011. Gay or straight, that is just plain old sexism.


    • Amen, Randi! Maybe I’m overestimating the uneasiness women would feel if a man walked into the woman’s bathroom. I don’t know. I agree in theory, but I think I’m too chicken to use a woman’s bathroom.

      • Ask a friendly mom to scope it out for you; if you’ve run into your next “BFF” enthusiast, as well as being a fellow parent, maybe they’ll help you out so you don’t have to deal with such unsavory conditions.

  5. Hi Jerry, thank you for just another hilarious post. People are right, germs really are not the big monsters you were made believe as a kid, and I’m sorry you still battle with the germophobia. Congrats though to the resolve to try and not pass it on to your kids, that must take strength of character.
    I personally am rather relaxed about the issue and it drives me up the walls to see TV adverts praising products that ‘get rid of 99% of all germs’. That is just what drove the number of allergy victims up so much over the past few decades.
    The child left behind has summarised it nicely: wash hands after toilet and play and before food, with an extra wash when someone ill is around. I mean, you can’t prevent each and every contact anyway, so yeah, draw a line and try to enforce it the best you can but don’t beat yourself up when they happen to cross it on the odd occasion. I think you’re doing great!

    • Thanks, Sandra! I definitely feel like parents are overly paranoid these days – about almost everything, including germs. Germophobia probably did me more harm than good, although I was never sick as a kid. Go figure.

      Don’t get me started on the kooks who refuse to immunize. That’s excessive paranoia at its worst. 🙂

      • Ooohh, immunisation chickens… endless possibilities for a rant!
        Anyway, just wanted to share a little antic that happened yesterday. Be warned though, this is not for the faint-hearted!
        So I take the little monster to our lovely indoor leisure pool once a week. He loves horsing around all the slides, fountains bubble makers and what-nots. Yesterday he discovered a new favourite thing though. He’d hang on to the step ladder in the warm jacuzzi. But instead of climbing out and jumping back in like he used to, he started licking the top rung, sucking up the water drops hanging from it and spouting it into my face. It hurt to interrupt the fun he was having but this was where I put my foot down!
        PS: Don’t be afraid to use women’s bathrooms. You see, we don’t have urinals, so you won’t get to see any private parts. Hum, come to think of it, I’m not so sure about the breastfeeding thing. I personally don’t mind doing it in the middle of a shopping mall if need be but some women might object if they do it in the privacy of a public bathroom (now that sounds funny somehow) and a man walks in. How about knocking and asking whether it’d be alright? I bet no-one who sees you wrestling with two two-year olds would deny you access. Go for it!

  6. This post gave me a hearty morning laugh. Particularly your rendition of “Whose Kid Pooped?” It’s been awhile since I had the good fortune to play (my son is nearly 4), but you took me back there right away.

  7. Wow, you painted quite a picture with that bathroom story. I almost threw up! I feel you when it comes to germs. With my first baby, I was so overprotective about other runny-nosed kids that wanted to stick their faces right in my baby’s that my family members started joking that I should tie a bottle of Purell around her neck. I didn’t think it was such a bad idea. Now that she’s in preschool it’s just hopeless. I make sure she washes her hands as soon as she gets in the house and before she eats and all but she was sick the entire month of November. I’m much less freaked out about the germs with my second one!

    • Yeah, sorry, I know that was pretty graphic. I’ve heard other people say that once kids go to preschool, they’re pretty much sick year round. There’s only so much you can do, and like other people said, it’s probably better for their immune system to get exposed to all that stuff when they’re young.

  8. OMG, I am laughing out loud!! this piece is great. As a mom of 2 and grandma of 2, I can remember MY grandma saying, kids eat a bushel of dirt a year, it just makes them stronger! I also agree with others, use the Womens room!

    • Ha! Thanks. There’s honestly no way I could possibly stop the kids from sticking every gross thing they find into their mouths, so I shrug it off most of the time. I’d never eat something that had been on the ground myself, but if they get away with it once in a while, so be it.

  9. This post had me laughing out loud (and cringing a bit too). My mother used to tell a story about how she was standing over the kitchen stove, boiling my bottles or nipples or something (back in ancient times, parents did things like that) when she looked over and saw me crawling on the ground, licking the floor as I went. That was her “aha” moment about the futility of sanitizing efforts.

    • Thanks, and ditto to your post! Always nice to hear others share my insanity. (I do have OCD, though. Not that I’m a neat freak either, but the washing is only one of the ways it manifests itself.)

  10. I grew up in a third-world country where you couldn’t drink the public water (unless you wanted to die), swam in rivers and lakes that were probably dirty as hell, and played outside most of the time. I’m pretty sure I was exposed to all kinds of germs but it did wonders to my immunity system. I literally get sick annually and its usually because my brother (one of the more sickly people in my family) caught something viral and passes it on to me. I feel like being expose to the outside made my immune system stronger whereas my brother who was indoors most of the time now has a weaker system. We’re a sample size of 2 but still 🙂

  11. Great story! Love it. It reminded me so much of my own “raising my kids” days. If it’s any help, it really is good for them to be exposed to germs while they’re little. My first grandchild is due in March and as soon as the little critter is old enough, I’m planning on rolling him around outside in the dirt for awhile. 🙂

  12. Not a good day, without a good laugh! 😀 I love the way you picture things in your writing, I feel like I’m watching you guys! You always make me smile and/or laugh 🙂 I ate ants when I was young, tasted like lemons! And grass…haha,why do kids have to taste EVERYTHING? (Well, I know why, it’s the way they learn, but still)

  13. Oh where to begin? Just know that
    a) I totally laughed out loud reading this
    b) just tonight the kid let our friend’s dog eat food off his fingers, and then stuck said fingers back in. his. mouth. Gah.

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  15. Kudos to you for managing your germophobia! I’m totally a germophobe since working in the hospital when SARS happened. I have like this paranoia I’ll die of some airborne contaminant. But aside from that, I understand what you mean by the love for kids outweigh this, although I would have to say, this incident was quite extraordinary. Wow. That’s like the ultimate test. And made for a hilarious post, although I’m sure it was not the case at the time of. Thanks for sharing your experience 😀


      • HAHAH.. yeah, I’m permanently super paranoid of germs now. 😀 Happy to be of support! The LGBTQ Youth Group is coming along great. One of the wishes was to meet Lady Gaga’s Assistant. Ah, the wishes, so easy, eh? 😀


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  17. Very funny. I know the pain. I have written several times about dealing with my own germophobia, though clearly not as bad as yours and starting when my kids were born. Just wait until your son starts elementary school. Boys and urinals with no supervision is like being left in a candy store to them. My son, for some reason, has told me many stories about what goes on. It’s not good.

  18. omg, that would be a horrible experience for those of us who do not have germophobia, much less someone who does! Glad you survived it. 🙂 ( In retrospect it’s also a good story/laugh.) Thanks for sharing. 🙂

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