Can a Mother Worry Too Much?

A new study from Northwestern came out that says: mothers with new babies worry a lot, perhaps to the point of being obsessive-compulsive. One of the things they worry too much about are germs. The study reports that the amount of worrying “surprised” the researchers.

When I read this, it didn’t exactly make me text all my friends: “You’ve got to read this!” The joke about driving your newborn home from the hospital with your hazards flashing – it’s not so far off. For six years I have been scanning the horizon for dangers that could hurt my little loves. At the same time, this process of caring for them has made me realize, I was already a worrywart before I had children. (Although if you’re single and have a good job, it’s usually called neurotic, which is kind of stylish.) I have considered a public service campaign asking anxious people to reconsider putting their heart in an eggshell and rolling it down a hill. If you thought you were anxious before

Still, having stumbled down this parenthood path for a few years now, I have realized that not all mothers worry like I do.

Last summer on a beautiful afternoon, my children and I were at a neighbor’s house. The kids played while my friend and I chatted in the kitchen. She was finishing up a chicken dish for dinner. The raw chicken breasts had lain on her cutting board. She’d sliced them with her knives. She’d held them in her hands.

First I’ll tell you how the germ warrior would have cleaned up. When I prep a raw bird I’m like those science specials on PBS where you can track the progress of the germs with infrared light. In my mind, I can see all the places I have touched with my raw chicken hands. The faucet handle, the salt shaker (even though I held it upside down with my wrists so I wouldn’t get raw chicken juice on it). I have noted the chicken juice that dripped out in the fridge when I took out the chicken. I note the path from the fridge to the counter, in case there were more drips.

At clean up time, I wash my hands with the hottest water I can stand. First I use soap out of habit. Then Bon Ami cleanser (not dangerous to humans or animals) under my fingernails. Then soap to get off the cleanser. I spray the counter with Seventh Generation disinfectant, made out of thyme, because as much as I worry about the raw chicken issue, I am still worried about the bleach issue, which I keep meaning to research. For now I stick to Bon Ami and clean the counter twice. I dry with a cloth rag, which I carry to the basement and drop directly in the washing machine so it doesn’t contaminate anything else in the laundry pile, (in case we have an emergency measure where due to a lack of clean clothes we have to fish the least stinky socks out of the pile and wear them to school, which if they had raw chicken juice on them could make a classmate ill. I kid you NOT in point three of a second my brain comes up with this.)

A quick disinfecting of the faucet handle and the salt shaker, and the shelf in the fridge where the chicken defrosted. And boiling water to pour in the sink, to sort of wrap things up.

I am aware that if I add one more step to this process I’m in danger of being labeled with something.

Now, here is what my neighbor did when she was done with the raw chicken: she put it in the oven. She washed her hands. She sprayed a Clorox product across the counter, wiped with a paper towel, and threw it away. Her son trotted in for help getting the wrapper off his Tootsie Pop and she touched it.

I found this all fascinating.

I knew we were different. I got my kids flu shots, she skipped them. I locked the doors when we went next door to visit, she drove to the grocery store and left her first-floor windows open. We once compared notes on how we had handled a certain rough-looking man who was going door-to-door down our street – selling something or collecting signatures, I forget. At my house, I’d mouthed no through the window and waved him off. He next went to her house, where she saw him through the window and quickly prayed, asking God if it was safe to answer the door. She believed that God said it was. I forget what happened, but she lived to tell about it. I would guess my neighbor was not one of the eleven percent in a study of new mothers who worry about germs.

The God she believed in was daily, hourly, helping her make decisions. I think it’s fair to say that she felt that her children’s health and protection were in God’s hands. And that her job was to keep up the connection with God, so that he would help her make the right decisions. And perhaps most importantly, that God was stronger than germs.

A lifelong Episcopalian, I have never found this comfort–my own failing, not my denomination’s. There have been nights when I tried asking God to protect my children from the latest virus. It could be lack of practice, but it doesn’t sit right. I feel like a phony. Or like someone waving a lucky rabbit’s foot over my baby’s cradle.

Or maybe I’m just more of a DIY-er. God put me down here, on the ground, to live this life, to raise these babies. Is it fair to expect hints the whole way through? Didn’t God bless me with cleanser and sponges, with doctors and scientists and access to information, a brain to digest it, and with arms and legs to get the work done? The work of protecting my children from an early and untimely death. Am I really going to trust this important work to a prayer – a whispered “please” wafting through the air?

On the other hand, wouldn’t my children benefit from a mother who had more faith in God, and thus, in life? A parent’s worry can be a burden. Already my son knows when we come home from somewhere that we walk inside and wash our hands. But yesterday coming home, he said he was going to wash his hands twice. Washing your hands once is good enough, I told him, trying to nip obsession in the bud. He’s only six. What about when he’s seven? If I had to choose, I’d rather they had faith like my neighbor’s. Wouldn’t I?

At church each Sunday, about halfway through the service, the liturgy calls for us to exchange peace with one another, turning to those around us in the pews and shaking hands and saying, Peace be with you. I say it to my children. I teach them to shake hands and say the same. I do want God’s peace to be with them and in them and in the people around them. I want them to stick out their chubby little hands and feel that connection. Even if they don’t realize it, I hope they feel closer to God, a little stronger. Safe. I hope it every single week.

And when we sit back down, I sanitize their hands.


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