Before I had a baby, I had breezily assumed I'd be an easygoing parent. I became pregnant for the first time at 42 and figured that my advanced age, as well as two decades of closely observing my friends and family raise their children, would make me the sort of restrained, wise mother I had always admired. In my house, visitors would not be required to don a hazmat suit to avoid spreading germs to the baby. Instead, I would smile fondly as she rolled around on the floor and calmly remark that a little dirt builds up her immune system.
Then I actually gave birth. My daughter, Sylvie, has been the joy of my life. However, I now find that I am wracked with fears, some reasonable (ear infections), some loony (a marauding squirrel is going to attack the baby as we sit on our terrace! Violent news footage on television will imprint on her brain and send her straight to the therapist's couch! Her too-tight jammies will cut off circulation!). at the very top of my list is the fear of germs. I've made myself particularly nuts when I go to a crowded place, close my eyes, and listen to the phlegmy chorus of coughing, hacking, spitting, and sneezing. I do not recommend this self-punishing exercise, because you'll immediately want to hook your baby up to an IV of Purell.
Last month I took Sylvie out for a jaunt in the stroller, and as we left our building I spotted my superintendent dragging trash cans onto the sidewalk for collection.
"Hey, little lady!" he said, leaning into the stroller and wiping his hands on his jeans. "How are you?" as he squatted down and shook Sylvie's hand, my left eye began to twitch uncontrollably. Take it easy, I counseled myself. Take. It. Easy. Just go around the corner so he doesn't see you, whip out an antibacterial wipe, and everything will be okay.
Then he grabbed both of her hands to play pattycake. I couldn't take another second of this. Panicking, I gabbled that we were late for an appointment and speed-walked around the corner. I couldn't get that wipe out fast enough.
My germ phobia reached an apex at our last family gathering. I have four nieces and nephews under the age of 7, two of whom had recently weathered the flu. My two sisters were understanding when I explained that the baby hadn't had her flu shots yet, and I'd just prefer that the kids didn't touch her face or hands.
The children immediately crowded around the baby. "Only touch her feet," I said desperately. At first they obeyed, but soon enough the two youngest couldn't resist. What self-respecting toddler is going to miss an opportunity to test boundaries? They got their chance when I was feeding the baby and my hands were occupied. "Can I close her eyes?" one asked as she stroked the baby's eyelids. "She's like my dolly!" I began to sweat as the other toddler helpfully removed a glob from the baby's nose. Get back! I wanted to holler. Shoo! Later the kids somehow sensed when it was time for me to change her and magically appeared from nowhere to surround us in a chattering pack. As I frantically peeled off the diaper, one nephew gave the baby a cell phone to suck on.
If germs were my overriding paranoia, car travel was a close second, thanks to my husband. He is the author of a book about traffic, and during his research he watched endless footage of car crashes. So as I sit in the backseat (naturally) with the baby, he'll recite fun facts such as, "Did you know that most car accidents happen on sunny Saturdays?" I've tried in vain to tamp down the panic when I see his grim, unblinking eyes in the rearview mirror as he carefully drives in the right-hand lane ten miles under the speed limit.
"You have got to relax," said my mother one day, after I told her that I didn't want my father to feed the baby some ice cream (what would happen if she has milk allergies?). "If you're fretting all the time, you will not enjoy this baby -- and trust me when I tell you that they are only this little for a split second. It goes by so fast, it will break your heart."
Certainly, I had survived my mother's more laissez-faire style of 1970s parenting. Her idea of being protective was to throw her arm across me when we roared to a stop in the car, which would have been slightly more effective if I had been in the backseat or wearing a seat belt. But I have to give her credit: at least she glanced over to make sure the lighted cigarette she was holding didn't set my hair on fire.
Still, my mother was right. There's a fine line between vigilant and nuts, between besotted and berserk. I realized that it was time to let go of my control issues, to be fully present and stop torturing myself with what-ifs. Because it's foolish to think that you can fully protect your hatchlings. I read recently that there are more than 100 different strains of the virus that can cause the common cold. This means that if your child builds up immunity to one, she still has 99 or so to go. (Although a friend of mine points out that if you take your kid to any place that has a ball pit, you can get all 100 viruses at once.)
This baby of mine will soon be a toddler, with all of the wobbly falls and accompanying bruises. There will be blood. And how will she learn about consequences if I'm constantly leaping to shield her? Most important, if I'm always quaking in fear about the imagined dangers lurking around every corner, my child will become neurotic too. My attempts to make her feel secure will have the opposite effect as she views the world as a place filled with danger.
And so I will try instead to focus my energy not on worrying but on fully enjoying this lovely, gurgling, easygoing baby who does comedy bits to make me laugh (who knew a 6-month-old could have a sense of humor?). Her teeth are about to come in, and I see how quickly the time zips by, just as my mother warned me it would. My ultimate goal is to be like my sister Heather. I'm thinking specifically of a family picnic when she refrained from rocketing out of her chair when her toddler son took a nasty tumble. Right after he hit the ground, I noticed that his eyes flicked to his mother to see how she would react. "You're okay, right?" she said to him, at which point my nephew got up, grinned, and rejoined his cousins.
I knew I had made a breakthrough recently when my mother phoned and asked about the baby. I told her that as I spoke, Sylvie was licking the legs of the coffee table.
"Oh, I'm so proud of you, honey," Mom said.
Originally published in the April 2011 issue of Parents magazine.