Why I Don’t Make My Kids Wash Their Hands

Why I Don’t Make My Kids Wash Their Hands January 25, 2012

 I was going to write about the mantilla yesterday, but spent alllllll morning in Ave Maria’s blessed Urgent Care facility. I am eternally, eternally grateful to the urgent care on Annunciation Circle. (Yes, the street names drip with Catholicism. It causes me both glee and the wigs. And perversely makes me want to put up a faux street sign with Sola Scriptura Blvd. on it, just to see what would happen.) If Ave Maria did not have said urgent care, I would have spent all day with a screaming Liam, a grumpy Charlotte, and a whiny Sienna in Naples, with an hour commute both ways. As it was, we still spent a good three hours there, but still. I got a diagnosis.

It was not what I expected. I expected strep, because the throats were so sore that popsicles and jello were the only thing being eaten in Chez Alexander over the weekend. Then I expected chicken pox, because Liam erupted in, well, pox yesterday morning. (He is very far behind on his vaccines. I blame 1) the crazy granola train I hopped on briefly last year and 2) our recent lack of insurance).

They have neither. They have hand, foot and mouth disease.

Obviously I need to frame this for our house

The cleanliness of my children has always been somewhat of a sore spot between the Ogre and I and…the rest of the world. The Ogre maintains that children need to be filthy and eat rocks and dirt and make and ingest mud pies in order to be healthy. I’m pretty sure this hypothesis was formed after a certain episode of House, MD. I agree, in theory, and up to a certain point. For example, I insist that they wash their hands after using the bathroom. And if they’ve actually been playing in mud and dirt, usually I have them wash their hands before eating. But not always.  I also try not to isolate them too much from other sick kids. I always give other mothers fair warning if my kids are sick, but unless the child in question has had a stomach flu, I usually don’t say, “let’s wait for a better day.” Mostly, this is because if we wait for a better day our kids will never, ever see each other. Children are sick! All the time! They are constantly dripping some sort of goo from their noses, they’re always sneezing in each others faces, they cough and then shake hands, or, like my kids, they spit into their hands and then shake. (It’s an important bond of trust, as evidenced by Newsies.) Children are foul. They are walking petri dishes of cold, flu, virus, and bacteria. There is no stopping the spread of illnesses by admonishing children to “cough into their elbows”. (Have you actually tried this? It is a very odd and unnatural thing to do.) Because they’ll cough into their elbows, and then five minutes later they’ll lick another child’s face. As my favorite confessor once told me, children are savages. They neither know nor understand the rules of society. Trying to explain to a three-year-old why it’s disgusting to sneeze into her food and then eat it is an exercise in futility. This is why it is so frustrating to spend all of one’s time among children. They are, for lack of a more descriptive word, yucky. But I’ve read enough articles over the last few years to convince me that sick children now will pay off in healthier adults later. So I let them get dirty, and shake spit hands, and sneeze wherever they damn well please. (Within reason, okay.)  I’m no stranger to inexplicable rashes, bites, or dirt-filled scrapes. But this was new. Hand, foot and mouth disease was on the periphery of my radar.

I asked the PA, “Is that the one that kids get from playing with poop?”

He didn’t answer, he just looked at me. Then Sienna said, “Because Liam plays with his poop all the time,” after which the PA hastily excused himself to “get some paperwork on it” and ignored my cries of “No! No he doesn’t! I swear he doesn’t!” which followed him down the hallway. 

My parents raised us to be much cleaner. We washed our hands after playing outside, before eating, and after going to the grocery store. We had baths every night. My sister played in the sandbox with socks on her hands. (That’s because she’s weird, not because my mom was obsessive about cleanliness.) As a result, my mother never had to deal with hand, foot and mouth disease. Which she told me yesterday, while also trying to reassure me that she’s sure my children will be healthier in the end for all the poop they’ve gotten into.

I was not reassured. I felt horrible. I felt like the worst mother in the world. I felt that, at last, that my gross neglect of my children’s cleanliness, regardless of what motivated it (because it’s motivated at least equally by laziness as it is by ideology) had come around to bite me in the ass. Or them, more properly speaking, seeing as how their bums are the ones that are actually suffering at the moment. I felt that my dues would finally have to be paid, and the worst part is that everyone would be able to witness my poor, dirty children and the suffering my non-cleanliness had inflicted upon them, because giant spots around their mouths and on their hands and feet are not exactly easy to conceal. I began to concoct elaborate scenarios in my mind in which the other neighborhood children also developed hand, foot and mouth disease, and the mothers in the neighborhood whispered behind their hands as we passed, “they’re the ones that started it. Those poor, dirty kids at the end of the block. Their mother must let them just get filthy!” And I wouldn’t be able to respond because actually I do just let them get filthy. And then we would be exiled, chased out of Ave Maria with sticks and rocks like carriers of the plague were chased out of villages during the Black Death.

So I came home from the urgent care disgraced. And there, waiting for me, was a facebook message from my next-door neighbor. “So what’s the verdict? Strep?”

I dithered for a little while, wondering if broad mental reservation could somehow be applied to this situation or if I would have to go to confession if I flat-out lied, and then just sucked it up and answered honestly, while virtually hanging my head in shame. (Virtual actions are connoted by asterisks, in case you didn’t know. Like this: *hangs head in shame*)

And instead of repulsion, or worse, silence, she said, “Oh, that’s been going around since November. Now you’re a real Ave Maria mom! Congrats!”

I feel that my very existence has somehow come to mean more since moving to Ave Maria. Even if we don’t settle here, I will always know that somewhere out there, in a sun-baked swamp, other mothers let their children get dirty enough to contract some filthy-yet-mild childhood illness and pass it along to the whole neighborhood, and nobody judges them. It’s mothering the way it was meant to be, snot, spit and all.

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