Two days before baby girl Dee arrived this August, the World Health Organization announced it had logged over 182,000 cases of lab-confirmed “pandemic influenza H1N1.” We were blessed with a big, strong, and healthy newborn, but that didn’t erase our worries.
In the months since she’s been a part of our family, I have noticed something. Everywhere I go, I see sick people.
The baby’s wonderful doctor warned us at her first-week checkup to keep her away from crowds and stores for as long as we could. No one knows how deadly this year’s annual flu virus or the “pandemic” swine flu would prove to be. So some worry is understandable.
But the degree to which I have become a highly tuned sickness sensor has been surprising. I hear coughs in the mall from a store away, and veer the car-seat-stroller to relative safety. In the classes I teach at the University, the students seem sicker than ever before.
One student approached the lectern at the beginning of class a while ago, sniffling and coughing and looking frankly peaked. “Professor…” the student began, “…would you mind if I didn’t sit in my assigned seat today? I’m sick, and I don’t want to get people infected.” After I indicated my tolerance for the temporary relocation, the student gathered up her laptop and textbooks and took a seat in the front row. Three feet from my lectern. Three feet from me. Breathing, coughing, and generally being sick at me. “Aren’t I people?” I asked plaintively.
Getting home from work, where baby has been resting comfortably in a climate-controlled and hopefully allergen-free environment, has now become an exercise in de-germification. I feel like an astronaut on some SyFy channel space opera (isn’t it spelled SciFi?).
I enter the home, beginning the air-lock decompression process. Shoes, off. Sock, shirt, trousers, into the hamper and behind a closed closet door. Tie and belt into a closed drawer. Hands scrubbed for forty seconds under water so hot it boils the skin; face, the same; antibacterial mouthwash and toothbrush vigorously employed. Only then, after having cast aside the germs of the day, am I ready to savor that special joy that comes from picking up the newborn and having all of the cares of the workaday world melt away with a single farty-smile or burp.
Baby Dee’s mom and I had thought we would be more germ-friendly than we have turned out to be. Our baby’s grandmother is a micro-biologist, who should know better, in that she should understand that children need some exposure to germs to become healthy and happy adults. But Grandma also grew up in a rather dirty and rather crowded North African city, where personal hygiene is a few centuries behind what one comes to expect from a “Dial” soap commercial.
So Grandma developed what we think of as a bad habit with her own children, giving them baths several times a day to make sure that the dirt of their youth was washed away. My wife’s current discomfort during allergy season is a not-so-subtle indication that her mother’s cleaning zest may have had some unintended consequences. During her pregnancy, my wife mentioned to her mother on several occasions that she would be prohibited from bathing her soon-to-arrive grandchild more than once a day. “Babies need to eat dirt,” I recall arguing, “in order to grow up healthy and happy.”
The baby has managed to avoid a thrice-daily bathing obligation, but I can’t say the same for her dad.
Geoffrey Rapp is the father of baby girl “Dee” Rapp, born August 23, 2009. He is a professor at the University of Toledo College of Law. His writing has appeared in the Washington Post, The Hartford Courant, and on cnn.com. Contact him at c/o https://firstname.lastname@example.org