Unless it’s in his garden, my Chinese-American husband doesn’t notice dirt. I’m the one who notices when there’s pet hair piling up and hauls out the vacuum—usually every few days. I like my house neat, especially if we have company coming over.
But once our high maintenance, non-napping Baby D arrived, the vacuum disappeared into the hall closet, sometimes for weeks.
We soon had two dozen dust bunnies to go with our two dogs and two cats. Dishes piled up in the sink. Andy, who was in charge of hungry Baby D’s supplemental bottles, washed dishes in order to wash bottles. Suddenly, my once-messy husband cared about clean sinks, clean bottles, and clean pacifiers.
Baby D did not care about pacifiers – clean or dirty. He didn’t want to suck, he wanted to chew.
Once Baby D figured out how to move, he put everything in his mouth. He didn’t care if it was alive or dead. People fingers. Dog tails. Cat tails. House plants. Dust bunnies.
After he chewed Andy’s thumb into an opposable bruise on one airline flight, we discovered that the bulb of an oral medicine dropper made an awesome, soothing chew toy.
Unfortunately, Baby D dropped his dropper constantly. Andy, worrying over the amount of dirt the dropped dropper was collecting, attached the dropper to Baby D’s shirt with a pacifier clip.
Despite its proximity, Baby D often eschewed his medicine dropper in favor of other items. He especially enjoyed munching on toys at the YMCA, where we attended Mommy & Me classes or he went into Childwatch while I worked out (or just got a shower).
Once Baby D’s back teeth started coming in, though, the medicine dropper didn’t satisfy him. I spent several exhausting days with a fussy, angry toddler. Andy arrived home one night to find Baby D raiding Woofie’s dog bowl on our patio.
“Ahhh! Honey!” Andy yelled. “Baby D has dog kibble in his mouth!”
“Yep,” I told him. “He likes to put it between his back teeth.”
“But…it’s dog food! And he took it right from the bowl! Which has dog drool! Gross!”
“I. Don’t. Care. The kid is finally quiet. He can eat all the dog drool he wants.”
“But he’ll get sick!”
“No, he won’t. Woofie and Fey are fine. Think of them as, like, taste-testers for our little tyrant, okay?”
Andy was unconvinced. He tried to pry the kibble out of Baby D’s mouth. Baby D bit him. When Andy finally did extract the kibble, Baby D raided the dog bowl again and howled when it was empty. Andy finally gave in and let Baby D happily chew a piece.
I got a lot of dark looks and barely audible mumblings about how I was potentially poisoning our child.
Baby D did get sick, but that wasn’t unusual. He got various colds, like any kid. I didn’t really worry until he was diagnosed with hand, foot, and mouth disease. Poor guy had such bad blisters on his hands and feet that he looked like he’d been attacked by fire ants. For a day, the kid screamed every time he tried to swallow solid food (he had blisters in his mouth and throat).
Andy, of course, was convinced it was the dog kibble.
When Baby D was well enough to return to Childwatch, we discovered that the YMCA had been the source of the outbreak. The kid rooms had been sterilized, but the staff warned me that my child might get infected if I left him there.
I handed Baby D over immediately. “He’s already had it. And I haven’t had a shower in two days.”
I did wonder, as I washed my hair, if perhaps I was a little too blasé about dirt. Hand, foot, and mouth had been pretty horrible. Did Andy have a point? I did a little research.
Turns out, Andy did not have a point. Not in the long run. Human immune systems evolved with dirt—and lots of it. We have search and destroy cells called neutrophils. When these neutrophils can’t find legit problematic cells to attack, they go stir-crazy (i.e., become inflammatory ) and attack things like pollen. This attack triggers everything from allergies to eczema.
Seeding your child’s microbiome with dirt is also critical for the proper development of their endocrine system and their neurodevelopment. Kids who grow up with outdoor dogs and cats (especially more than one) are up to 44% less likely to have allergies and asthma.
I happily pointed all this out to my husband as soon as possible.
“So I should just let him eat dog kibble?” he asked. “It still seems wrong.”
“Dude. How many pets did you grow up with?”
“I grew up with 5 different dogs, countless cats, 4 guinea pigs, 3 rabbits, hamsters, gerbils, and turtles. Family legend even has it that I ate one dog’s food when I was a baby.”
“Why would you tell this to a guy who has kissed your mouth?!”
“Now. Which one of us has asthma?”
“It’s only infection-induced asthma! It’s not every day!” Andy argued.
“True. But which one of us gets more infections and has to be on antibiotics at least once a year?”
Andy glared at me, but eventually conceded that—stomach flu aside—I had the healthier immune system. He gradually quit trying to police everything that went into Baby D’s mouth. Even dog kibble.
In fact, Andy may have relaxed a little too much. Once, when I returned from an event and asked Andy how his day with Baby D was, he told me it was fine.
Only hours later did he finally say, “You know, I know we’re supposed to let him eat whatever, but he did kinda gross me out today.”
“Really? What did he put in his mouth?”
I shrugged. “That’s no big deal.”
“Well, yeah. But it was after the cat had puked it up.”
“Ahhhhh! Disgusting! WHY would you let him eat that?!”
Turns out, even us microbe-pushing moms have a limit.