There it was. On the floor. The dirty, dirty Port Authority floor. The floor that hundreds of thousands of NYC commuters trample on every day with their germ-infested shoes.
It was my baby's pacifier. And not just any pacifier, mind you. It was the one and only pacifier that my oddly particular baby would use. It was irreplaceable. And my baby was screaming.
What's a germaphobic parent to do?
I come from a family of Catholic hand-washers, and I believe fully in the pursuit of cleanliness and its proximity to Godliness. But sometimes — just maybe — I have taken things a little too far. I avoid touching subway poles at all costs, like any sane person would. But if I have to hold the subway pole, I hold it with my left hand, so as to leave my right hand clean for things like using my phone or unwrapping a piece of gum. Even then, I can feel the subway germs infecting my left hand. Honest to goodness, it almost feels like my germy hand is physically heavier than my clean one. I run to a bathroom to wash my hands (with soap and water, never Purell) the second I'm above ground.
I never share drinks or food, which made me the butt of many jokes in high school, especially when my friends sat around at Perkins for hours to take advantage of their free refills. These so-called friends told me that one time when I got up to go to the Perkins restroom, they all drank out of my glass. This incident occurred in 1995. They told me in 2015, hoping I would laugh about it. But I didn't laugh.
Cut to the birth of my first scrumptious baby girl. Said friends expected me, the germaphobe, to balk at diapers or spit up. Not so. I mean, it's gross and all, but none of the baby stuff made me lose my appetite. Maybe because the baby literally just came out of me; she still seemed generally clean and new.
Toddlers, however, are a whoooooole different ball game.
My daughter loves exploring all sorts of things. Things like old gum stuck to the underside of a park bench. And used paper cups that she fishes out of the garbage. Once upon a time, she went on a binge to determine which of her sneaker bottoms tasted better. She has laid down on a subway floor with her cheek on a layer of awfulness I can't even begin to describe. She pooped in the tub every night for weeks. And when I had the audacity to take my eyes off her to tie my shoe in a Cheesecake Factory, I looked up to find her licking the mirror behind the booth from side to shiny side.
Witnessing each of these events gives me an almost physical pain. But that pain is dulled slightly by my knowledge that all of the above things can happen in the space of 15 minutes. I realized fairly early on in my parenting career that I simply can't freak out about every single violation because they occur with aggravating frequency.
Luckily, I can limit the violations in my home. Or so I thought.
I dutifully washed my daughter's hands the second we came in from outside so that she would be clean when we sat down to eat, which is the most important time for hands to be clean, I thought. I'd plop her down in front of finger foods that I so carefully and lovingly prepared from my designated "Toddler Food" Pinterest board. I crosschecked each organic, non-GMO ingredient to make sure it was developmentally, nutritionally, and allergenically appropriate. And then my toddler would proceed to throw each and every morsel on the floor, which I hadn't properly cleaned in an embarrassingly long time.
The first time this happened, I was understandably disappointed. I picked up the food and put it in the garbage. I would never eat food off the floor myself, so of course I wouldn't feed floor food to my precious angel. I gave her prepackaged organic puree instead.
The 15th time this happened, it broke me.
I picked up the floor food and held it in front of my own mouth. My hand was shaking. But I closed my eyes and shoved it in. I chewed and swallowed as fast as possible. I opened my eyes and looked down at my hands to see if the germs made them turn green or grow warts or break out in a rash.
But I was fine. I let out the breath I didn't know I had been holding and locked eyes with my baby. She blinked, almost as if to acknowledge the momentous event that had just taken place.
When I woke up the following day, there were no signs of illness, but I did have a new sense of determination. When my daughter dropped food on the floor at lunchtime, I bent down and put it right back on her tray. She stared at it. She had never seen food reappear before, so she was quite curious. Every fiber in my being was itching to snatch the food back and toss it in the trash, but I sat on my hands and forced myself to be still.
She ate the floor food. Yet she survived. And so did I.
Two years and a second baby later, can I say that I've been cured of my germaphobia? Absolutely not. I still force my kids to wash their hands the second we come inside. I still don't share drinks or food with anyone outside of my little family. And I certainly avoid touching subway poles at all costs.
But somewhere amid the dream feeds, the night terrors, the teething, and the whole exhausting Groundhog's Day carousel that is parenting, I eased up a bit. I used to have the energy to care. Now I'm just trying to survive until bedtime.