Having a Premature Baby Turned Me Into a Lunatic

(Please wash your hands before reading this post.)

I always tried to avoid touching anything on the subway.

Poles, seats, turnstiles. Just so you know where I’m coming from. It’s not like I was eating food off the ground before my son was born. But I didn’t carry hand sanitizer with me, I shook people’s hands without thinking much about it, I touched doorknobs and took food samples at farmer’s markets and didn’t make any special effort to remember whether or not I touched my cell phone before or after I touched anything else. Yes, I washed my hands before I ate, and after I went to the bathroom — and, no, I didn’t want a bite of your sandwich or a sip of your drink. But I was firmly on the not-crazy side of the line.

I am no longer on the not-crazy side of the line.

My son was born last fall at 28 weeks and 2 days gestation, 12 weeks early. 2 pounds, 14 ounces. The seven weeks he spent in the NICU were the hardest weeks of my life, my wife’s life — and, we hoped, my son’s life — until the five days he spent back in the hospital after being home for 3 weeks and then catching something, from somewhere. Maybe the doctor’s office, maybe the bus we took him on to get to the doctor’s office because he was still too small to fit in a car seat, maybe just from being out in the world, in the winter, although he wasn’t out in the world except when we took him to the doctor, because they had already sufficiently scared us about exposing him to anything.

When he was initially in the NICU, we came home each night to sleep, trusting that our baby was in good hands in the hospital. Once we’d had him home for almost a month, we couldn’t imagine how we had left him alone overnight. When he was back in the hospital, we couldn’t leave his side, even for a moment. We had started to relax, just a little, before he got sick. Not that we had taken him anywhere or even let anyone else near him, but we had started to imagine a future where we would be able to treat him like a normal baby. Let him meet other babies. Invite people over to visit without interrogating them about whether they’d been sick in the past month, ensuring they were fully vaccinated, and watching them like a hawk to make sure they didn’t touch anything at all before washing their hands, or anything at all after washing their hands.

The idea that we had possibly exposed him to illness — that we hadn’t done absolutely everything within our control to keep him safe — broke us. Of course there would always be things we couldn’t control, but there was someone coughing in the eye doctor’s waiting room two days before he ended up back in the hospital. I had taken the subway, possibly exposing myself, and then him, to who-knows-what. And we had taken him on the bus. The bus! (Which did seem like the only option, since he didn’t seem safe in a car seat, but, in retrospect, we should have just gone to an eye doctor within walking distance instead of the one our insurance plan covered, and paid out-of-pocket.)

We recently moved to the suburbs, but for 6 months after our son got out of the hospital, we were still in Manhattan, and I didn’t take the subway again. I didn’t go anywhere I couldn’t walk, because I was (and am) so afraid he will get sick again and I will have a reason to blame myself. We wheeled our son in his stroller over three miles each way to some of his doctor’s appointments. (He falls asleep. Even in winter.)

Last week, I yelled at a waitress. She said our son was so adorable and she just had to hold him. “No!” I snapped. My wife was more polite. “His diaper’s dirty,” she said, apologetically. “How could a stranger think that we would want her to hold him?” we asked each other. “And especially after she was touching plates that people had eaten from.”

There are legitimate reasons to be cautious. Premature babies are at higher risk of illness for the first two years of life. Because he was premature, he’s given special shots every month during flu season to boost his immunity — not even covered by insurance for full-term babies, only preemies. We are not as insane as we sometimes feel. Or at least I hope we’re not.

Then again: I have attempted to master the art of looking like I am absolutely using both of my hands to hold my son so that someone who wants to shake my hand thinks I can’t instead of thinking I’m rude. It doesn’t always work. Some people are very persistent about wanting to shake hands. I don’t know why.

The line between normal and crazy isn’t always clear to me anymore. The medical assistant at our son’s new pediatrician told us we were the first people who ever asked her if she washed her hands. See, making sure someone in a doctor’s office washed their hands doesn’t seem crazy to me. But I’m no longer a sensible judge of such things.

We went to Costco and bought what for anyone else would be a lifetime supply of Clorox wipes. For us it will probably last a month. If we touch our phones when we are outside, we Clorox wipe them when we get home. I made the cable guy wash his hands before he touched our cable box. I wiped down our kitchen counter after I accidentally put a piece of mail on it.

We had a housewarming party. Outside, in our backyard. Two days before, I e-mailed everyone who was coming, asking them not to come if they had a cold, or felt any symptoms of anything at all. What I wanted to say was please don’t come if you’ve ever had a cold, because I’m still really scared.

We had a friend over, with her 3-year-old. The 3-year-old touched our son’s fabric chair. He wasn’t sick. We put the chair fabric in the washing machine after he left. We’ve also designated the toy he touched as our stranger toy now. It’s on a high shelf, to be offered for other people to touch, but not our son. Fortunately, our son didn’t like the toy anyway.

Five more things that make me angry now that I am insane:

  1. Website forms that require information I need to get from something in my wallet, because my wallet isn’t clean since I touch it when I’m outside. So I need to use one hand to get the card, the other to type the information, and then I have to wash my hands, because I don’t want to make my computer keyboard dirty.
  2. Elevators. Very hard to push a button with your elbow.
  3. Shopping carts. It is really challenging to keep a baby from touching a shopping cart if you are carrying him in a Bjorn and his hands are at the same level as the cart handle. And obviously shopping carts are not clean, because other people touch them, and other people all have Ebola.
  4. Doctors, because people wait in waiting rooms, and some of them are sick, and shouldn’t doctors make housecalls for babies instead of having them come to a place where sick people go? Also, when they come make these housecalls, shouldn’t they put on some kind of sterile gown to cover the clothing that was near sick people? Also, shouldn’t there be special doctors who only see well people, so that the well people don’t get sick?
  5. People who think it’s okay to touch a baby’s hands, since it’s not like babies ever put their hands in their mouth. I LIKE YOU, FRIEND, AND I PROMISE IT’S NOTHING PERSONAL, BUT PLEASE KEEP YOUR HANDS AWAY FROM MY BABY. And also please bring your own hand towel when you visit.

Are any of these rational? Surely it’s okay to be annoyed at people who touch your baby’s hands, right? That isn’t insane, is it?

See, I have no perspective anymore, because everything seems like a mortal danger, from nuclear war to touching my wallet. My reactions to both are the same. I scream and want to hide under the bed. Although not actually under the bed, because it is dirty there.