A (Contagious) Case of the Human Condition: How a Mother of Preschool Kids Outsmarts the Mighty Microbe

Preschool kids with hands on mouths & shoes. Photo by BF Newhall

Child care: Fingers, mouths, noses, shoes -- any microbes here? Ya think? Photo by BF Newhall

By Barbara Falconer Newhall, The Oakland Tribune, May 31, 1989

I believe in microbes. Microbes are like God. You can’t hear them, taste them, smell them or see them with the naked eye.

But you know they’re there. Closer to you than your jugular vein.

Lately, I’ve had more experiences with microbes than with God, so I’m a little more certain of their existence. Microbes, we have learned first-hand at our house, can cause earaches, headaches, sinus aches, muscle aches, stomachaches, toothaches and temper tantrums.

Microbes can transform a perfectly reasonable person into a madwoman unfit for human society. She bellows at her children. She bellows at her husband.

At work, she groans at the stack of unanswered phone messages. At home, she blows her top at the plastic spoon melted onto the dishwasher heating element.

Nothing wrong with that.

Flu virus -- the real thing -- photographed by the CDC.

Yes, the flu virus exists -- an actual photograph of the real thing from the CDC.

Unless, of course, everyone else in the house is also sick. Instead of shrugging off the madwoman’s pyrotechnics and gently leading her to bed – they bellow back.

What happens next verges on child abuse. Or spousal abuse, depending mostly upon proximity.

Which is why, one day earlier this spring, I found myself pressing an elevator button with my elbow rather than my forefinger.

It was a ridiculous thing to do, of course. An uptight, paranoid thing to do. But I was on my way to lunch. I planned to use my fingers to eat my bacon and avocado on rye.

Surely there was at least one pneumococcus bacterium lurking on that elevator button, at least one flu virus waiting to make its home in my upper respiratory tract. A Type B Victoria most likely.

Some folks, I notice, are fearless. They press elevator buttons. They trade bites at Paloma. They kiss.

They kiss friends, neighbors, near-strangers. They kiss in broad daylight and on the mouth. They seem unaware that, according to Alameda County health statistics, 89 different rhinovirus types and one subtype are on the loose in the Eastbay.

I kiss my children. Sometimes I kiss my husband. But, outside of that, I don’t do much kissing anymore.

If I shake hands, I long to do like the pediatrician swabbing for strep – wash my hands before and after.

In my youth – which, looking back, I see ended the day baby Peter arrived in our house – I didn’t worry much about microbes.

I gulped vitamin C daily and got my heart rate up to 120 beats per minute three times a week and let it go at that.

Elevator buttons didn’t worry me. I pressed them with impunity. Door knobs and telephone receivers were simply door knobs and telephone receivers. They were not habitats of the adenovirus.

If an old friend wanted to kiss, I kissed. What the heck.

In those days before kids, I was not often sick. When I was, I went directly to bed like a sensible person and stayed there until I was well. But things are different for the working mother of small children. If she sleeps at all, it is during the night. Days and evenings she is on duty.

As for the children of working mothers, they go to child care. When they are sick, Mom thinks twice before staying home with them. She does not want to be Mommy Tracked.

Kindergarten girls playing a hand game. Photo by BF Newhall

A kindergarten favorite -- hand games. Photo by BF Newhall

So, every once in a while, she finds herself sending the sore throat and the green runnies off to day care. She hopes the provider thinks it’s allergies.

There, her children trade baseball cards and microbes with the children of other working mothers.

Zachary gets the Mark McGwire and the respiratory syncytial virus. Caleb gets Candy Maldonado and the klebsiella bacterium.

Zach’s mother, as a result, assumes that at any given moment, summer or winter, she is incubating something grisly. Parainfluenza, staph, strep.

And so, when one of the legion of fearless folks who like to kiss puts out a hand and offers a gentlemanly kiss, it is not simply her own health that concerns her.

She grasps the proferred hand and deftly turns her head. The kiss lands safely on her cheek, not her lips. She holds her breath.

Now, if her courtly friend will just remember to wash his hands before dinner, he’ll never know how close he came.

Reprinted by permission of  The Oakland Tribune

I still have my old elbow-the-elevator-button habit, but now that the Centers for Disease Control are recommending that we sneeze and cough — not into our hands — but into the inside of our elbows, I’m wondering if I’ll have to give it up.  — BFN

If you liked this story, you might like to read “A Terrible Kid Who Became the Apple of His Grandma’s Eye.”



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