My two sons are in the chicken run. The five-year-old Heir, still in his school uniform, is covered in flecks of straw. He has his arms wrapped round Grace, a bundle of huffy orange feathers who is emitting resigned clucks. The Spare, dressed in just his wellies and a pair of pants, is crouching down and poking his finger into something that may or may not be chicken poo. In his other hand is clutched a fresh egg that he has just collected from the nesting box.
In the month since we got our five hens, this has become a regular sight. For the boys it was love at first sight and although the feeling isn’t entirely mutual, the hens are surprisingly tolerant and three of them sometimes allow themselves to be picked up and carried about in exchange for handfuls of corn.
Five years ago the very idea of this scene would have filled me with panic. I wouldn’t have seen two happy and confident little boys interacting with their beloved pets, I would just have been worrying about the possibility that the hens were carrying some contagious, life-threatening disease. That’s because, as a new mother, I spent an inordinate amount of time obsessing about hygiene. Whilst, of course, it is important to keep the newest of babies away from unnecessary germs, and to sterilise if using bottles in the early days and particularly when using formula, I took it to a whole new level. My paranoia extended to begging would-be visitors to keep away if they had even the hint of cough or cold, and waiting in the car at the doctor’s surgery until my appointment so the baby wouldn’t be exposed to nasties from other waiting patients (yes, really).
I remember watching in fascinated horror as a friend reached out, picked up a plastic toy and passed it to her baby, who immediately put it to his mouth. She didn’t know when it had last been washed and – worst of all – we had just seen another child chewing it. The Heir, then just a few months old, was grabbing for a similar toy but before he could touch it I snatched it away, thoroughly cleaning it with a baby wipe before passing it back to him. (No, we weren’t playing in a landfill site, although given my level of anxiety you would be forgiven for thinking it. We were at a local playgroup with dozens of other mothers enjoying maternity leave with their babies and toddlers. You could tell the new mums from the second and third timers – just watch for the baby wipes.)
Then came the day of revelation. The Heir, a few months old, just weaned and already fairly mobile, was grubbing about in our bedroom. After a few moments he emerged from behind the laundry basket with something stuck to his lip. Closer inspection revealed this to be a spider’s leg. A hasty finger sweep of the inside of his mouth found two further legs, but I never discovered the remaining five or the body. I can only assume that he swallowed them. That spider was the first non-organic, non-lovingly-home-cooked thing that my precious little boy had ever eaten. But it did him no harm and for me realisation dawned – it was time to relax my germ offensive.
Refusing to expose my infant son to potential germs was not only time-consuming but also doing his health no favours in the long-term. The idea (supported by the continual exposure of parents to adverts for cleaning sprays that eliminate 99.9 per cent of germs, wipes for every occasion and countless other allegedly essential hygiene products) that we need to eradicate all germs for the wellbeing of our children is at best erroneous, at worst actively harmful. If your children are never exposed to germs, how can they build up immunity? I did see the irony in my behaviour – I breastfed my baby in order to give his immune system the best possible start in life, yet I was refusing to put him in situations where he could continue to develop this immunity. Perhaps worst of all, my behaviour was getting in the way of him having fun because not only was I spending time cleaning that I could have spent playing with him, but I was preventing him going into situations he would have enjoyed because of my fear of what he might catch.
So I bit the bullet and accepted that a bit of grime and dust wasn’t going to damage him. It took time, but eventually I relaxed to the extent that germs and dirt have long become an accepted part of our everyday life. My hoover remains in semi-retirement and although I did invest in a steam cleaner, it only puts in an appearance when our feet start sticking to the kitchen floor. I ignore best before dates on food and go by the proviso that if it looks fine, smells fine and tastes fine it probably IS fine. By the time the Spare was born, two and half years after his brother, I was one of the chilled out mums at playgroup.
When the Heir started part-time at nursery, for the first few weeks he picked up every bug going. By contrast the Spare, exposed from day one to whatever came home on the hands, clothes and sneezes of his big brother, had already developed a strong immune system and never had this problem.
As my babies grew up into little boys and became more independent, I realised that if I made them wash their hands after every potentially germy situation they may as well stand permanently under a tap. Although basic rules of hygiene are of course essential – as each reached the potty training stage I insisted that hands must be washed after a trip to the loo, likewise before mealtimes – I actually quite like them to be grubby: if they are covered head to toe in good clean dirt it invariably means they have been having fun, as long as they have been jumping in puddles of mud not manure and damming streams rather than sewers.
Although it mostly comes naturally to me now, the relaxed approach it isn’t without its drawbacks – one of my hardest moments of parenting so far was stopping myself from recoiling in disgust when the Heir presented me with the wriggling, crawling results of his latest bug-hunt. But at least I am no longer a Dettol spray vigilante, and my sons are happier and healthier for it.