The other day Jo asked me to write about what it’s like to be her husband, what with all the stuff she believes and does when it comes to germs and such. So here it is. I’ll just start by saying I love her with all my heart, but there are unique…challenges…that come with that.
When we first met, I was among the majority of people who, while obviously familiar with the concept of germs, didn’t give crap about it. I’d wash my hands after using the bathroom, but aside from that I was a veritable libertine. I wore my shoes in the house. I didn’t always wash before eating. [Ed. Note: Jo, here. I also want to alert you that he didn't even have handsoap in the gee-dee kitchen and that this was nearly a deal-breaker. But my first gift to him was kitchen handsoap. That was love, baby.]
I’d get a cold once in a while, but figured it was just the cost of doing business in a fallen world. Whatever.
She gently suggested early on (not necessarily saying it outright, but often through friendly glances of disapproval, hard to explain) that if we were going to be a “thing” then I’d need to take some modest steps to make her feel comfortable at my place, and set the ground rules for visiting her place. Shoes off and washing hands when entering the ancestral manse were kind of the basics that were required. They were no big deal, and they were reasonable requests once I considered the implications of NOT doing those things.
So STOP RIGHT THERE and reread that last sentence, because it basically tells the entire story of Jo. Allow me to 'splain:
First off, I didn’t care about germs because I hadn’t ever cared about germs. I hadn’t thought about it, so I didn’t understand the implications. I was in a state of Rumsfeldian Unknown Unknowns. This is the blissful state most people live in, but which fills Jo with anxiety and, at times, contempt. Her anxiety and preoccupation gives her deep insight into a subject that most other people either never learned or simply ignore. In my mind, I didn’t know what I didn’t know, and I was OK with that. In her mind, for example, seeing someone leave the public restroom without washing their hands is an action bordering on moral depravity. In my mind, catching a cold is to be expected in the course of human events. In her mind, my catching a cold might be a sign of personal failure.
Using her "Acid Test" friends as an example, they were blissfully ignorant about germs and their potential effects. But Jo feels that everybody should be as knowledgeable and fearful about this stuff as she is, and when they aren’t she disapproves. She saw failure to respect hygiene. She didn’t consider that what was going on was just what was NORMAL at her friends’ house (however horrifying). They weren’t trying to make anybody sick, they weren’t (in their minds) being sloppy. They just didn’t consider it unusual. But what was normal for them made Jo cry all the way home. I, for one, enjoyed the meal. I think I had the shits for a while, though.
Another example: Last year my sister made a birthday cake for my nephew. We knew that she had made it while she had a cold. Despite that, I attended the party and had a piece of the cake. Jo stayed home, being very pregnant. [Ed. Note: Jo here, again. I stayed home because I was terrified of catching my sister-in-law's (and her kids') cold.]
A few days later, I caught that cold. Therefore, it wasn’t just bad luck that I caught a cold; according to Jo, it was a moral failure on my part to attend the party and not refuse the cake. (Note that while I likely did catch the cold from attending the party and eating the cake, the possibility that I could have caught that cold from a different source, like from work or a restaurant, wasn’t even an argument worth considering.) From Jo’s point of view, the act of eating that birthday cake was a direct assault on her personal (pregnant) health, and nothing would be able to convince her otherwise.
Secondly, the tricky part about this disorder (if that’s what it is) is that she can make the argument that she’s RIGHT. This isn’t like somebody who has an irrational fear of going outside, or heights, or pickles or whatever. Is it over the top to take a Lysol wipe to the restaurant table when compared to how the rest of the world behaves? Yes. Does doing so potentially make it safer to eat there? Yes.
I don’t know what the percentage decrease in the likelihood of catching something is when she does it, but there probably is one. So she does it. The irrational part comes in because the numbers don’t matter to her. If there’s a one in a billion chance that we’ve wiped the MRSA off the table that otherwise would have caused our kid to have her arm amputated, it’s all worthwhile. That’s an extreme example of course, but it illustrates what I’m getting at. Yes, she lives at the kooky fringe of societal norms, but she’s only trying to make us safer. So it’s hard to tell her to drop the effing bleach.
So back to life. It started out pretty reasonable. She’s always been hyper-conscious about germs, but she kept it contained. If she needed something done a certain way, she’d do it, and had modest expectations for other people. I figured she was just doing what she felt she needed to do to feel comfortable, so I didn’t pay much attention. I’ve always done what I can within what sounded reasonable to help out.
And I’ve come to appreciate the idea of what she’s doing. I like the idea that our house is kind of a haven from the public viral melting pot. I can lay on the carpet and be confident that nobody’s traipsed in any Walmart public bathroom dregs. I know that whatever we make at home is going to be cooked correctly. I know that all of our fruits and veggies are clean. We agree on the Hygiene Hypothesis stuff, and we agree that we don’t want our kids to be sick and that we can put it a little extra effort to prevent it. We have a nice, comfy home.
And it’s not like she’s terrified of being unclean. She’s A-OK with dirt. She’s willing to play in the dirt with the kids and the kids get filthy from playing outside and she has absolutely no problem with it. She’s not even really afraid of Maya being adventurous and getting scrapes and bruises. She’s not that kind of helicopter mom. Her anxieties and fears are wrapped up in germs and viruses. So it’s not like she’s limiting childhood or family fun time. The complications we deal with really revolve around eating and licking stuff that could have come from somebody’s ass or nostrils. If that’s not a factor, things are pretty normal.
By God, she'll have a frosting fight and love every minute of it.
Having said that, I really noticed a ratcheting up of the anxiety after we had our first kid, though. That was when she started getting really anxious about taking the baby to other people’s places. She couldn’t control the environment as well as she could at home. And when people would visit, she started getting nervous about them touching stuff (especially the baby's toys) if they hadn’t washed hands, of if they had washed hands but then sneezed or touched their cell phone or camera, etc. After people would leave, she’d whip out the Lysol and assault doorknobs and baby toys and remotes that they’d touched, and replace any hand towels they’d dried their hands with. It made me sad, because it meant she’d been on edge the whole time they were there, watching what they were touching and tracking their movements and committing them to memory and not enjoying the company of visitors. And after the pregnancies, it hasn’t gone away. And now that I’m aware of these feelings she has, it’s stressful for me to go visit family or have visitors over or generally do stuff as a family, because I know how anxious she gets.
And there are new things popping up every so often. New procedures to be followed. New things that occur to her that could be risky in some way. News stories about outbreaks make me feel dread, not because I’m afraid of us getting sick, but because I’m afraid of HER getting afraid of us getting sick. And they worst part about actually getting a cold these days sick isn’t feeling sick. It’s knowing (without her actually having to say it) that she thinks it should have been prevented somehow in the first place, and that it’s because of my own damn failure to wash effectively or something that got me sick.
In a nutshell, living with Jo I've learned to become much more vigilant about germs and illnesses. I can see what she sees, I understand her reasons and her thought processes, but she definitely feels the intense anxiety on a much deeper level than I do. I see her points, I see those germs, but I don't have the fear.
But this is just the way life is in this household, and we deal with it. Our physical health is better for it, but it's at the expense of Jo's
Thank you, dear husband. Even though life with me can be tough, and sometimes I ask you if you washed your feet well today or if you cleaned the top of that soup can before opening it, I'm glad you think I'm worth it. :)