Apparently, I am disgusting. Which is not something that I knew about myself.
Over the years, my children have educated me in the many ways that I am embarrassing, overbearing, and woefully ill-informed about things that truly matter. Like Clone Wars. And break dancing.
Only recently, though, have I learned that I am also polluted with a particularly aggressive and especially repugnant strain of cootie. For which, naturally, there is no antidote.
It’s the only way to explain why my children—who spent the first years of their lives gleefully gnawing on my fingers—now recoil when I offer them a bite from my fork, insist on fresh straws when I proffer my milkshake, and wipe off their cheeks (oh, no, they di’nt!) after I kiss them.
They don’t see the generosity in these gestures of mine; they see germs. Like I’m spewing deadly pathogens. Like I have a rare strain of parental Ebola that could seriously tweak their weekend plans.
A swipe of my ChapStick? Er, no thanks. A slurp of my ice cream cone? Um, I’ll pass.
I see. Fine, then. But the irony is rich: For nine months, these squeamish imps subsisted on my personal nutrients. At birth, they passed through my body—in no hurry, I might add. As infants, they drank from my breasts. And considering that they have both (breakfast-spoiler alert) spit up in my hair, peed on my shirt, and vomited in my hands (sorry, you were warned), it’s hard not to find their germo-mom-ophobia insulting.
“Ingrates,” agrees my friend Leslie Turnbull. She remembers the first day her own son refused to sip from her water bottle.
“He said it ‘had my taste,’ in a voice that implied he’d rather imbibe swamp scum than something that bore the maternal taint,” she says. “It’s not like he’s that picky about personal hygiene, either. His room smells like goat sometimes, and he and his equally stinky friends swig out of common bottles at water polo games. Apparently it’s just me he can’t swallow.”
To be sure, there are sound reasons for avoiding contact with other people’s germs. “Stomach viruses and strep throat are more easily spread thru saliva,” says area pediatrician Dan Brennan, “and when they come in contact with the mouth, nostrils, or eyes, they’re more likely to transmit.”
But there’s a worse sickness making the rounds in my family: pure, preposterous paranoia.
“We all have bacteria that live on us and inside of us and that don’t make us sick,” Dr. Brennan explains, “and if you live in the same house, chances are you all share a lot of those on a day-to-day basis.”
Anecdotal evidence would suggest that I am, in fact, significantly less germy than my children. I bathe more frequently. I brush my teeth more thoroughly. I even floss regularly (shut up, I do). Yet they dread my spittle more sincerely than they flinch at asparagus, more fervently than they cringe at cottage cheese.
Most humiliating of all: I seem to be even grosser than their dad, who has tickly, crumb-collecting facial hair and lacks a healthy fear of salsa bars at hole-in-the-wall taco huts.
So I have to assume there’s some developmental reason for my children’s daily cootie-dodge. Just as our kids slowly peel themselves off of us emotionally, perhaps they must methodically, even subconsciously, erect physical boundaries. Maybe defining Mommy as “other”—and even “ick-transmitter”—is a crucial psychological step toward self-reliance, a taste of independence that will one day allow my boys to gulp from the great fountain of adulthood.
But what do you want to bet they bring their own straws?