Nothing prepared me for my first encounter with a live louse—not the big cockroach battalions invading the shared kitchens of my student days, not the fleas leaping from cat to carpet, not even the "lice alert" notice from my daughter's school.
One morning while I was tethering my 6-year-old's willful hair into braids, I noticed a dark fleck scurrying among her tresses. I had never seen a head louse before, but I knew this tiny insect could be nothing else. There is something so repulsive about tiny parasites vampirizing innocent children that my heart started racing.
I fished the school notice from the wastebasket. "Search your child's hair carefully," I read. "If nits are present, immediately apply an over-the-counter anti-lice shampoo." With extended fingertips, I carefully lifted small strands of Ella's hair and discovered a tiny ecosystem on her scalp. Sesame-seed-sized pearly nits—the dreaded louse eggs—were glued firmly to the roots of hair shafts, and a live louse was seeking refuge behind a softly rounded curl. The evidence of parasites feasting, mating, and defecating on my daughter's head stirred powerful feelings inside me, triggering a primordial fear that nature could hold our civilization hostage.
My mind crawled with images I hadn't known it held: locust swarms devouring plantations, leeches sucking a man's lifeblood until he resembles a shriveled balloon, termites chewing through age-old roof beams. I realized that insects could decide at any time to invade the spaces we inhabit.
To dispel my irrational fears, I gathered facts. I learned that of the more than 3,000 species of biting and sucking lice, only three are partial to human blood. "It only takes one nit to infest an entire classroom," claims a prevailing myth. But lice are not that powerful. They can't hop, jump, or fly, but must climb up to the human scalp. Still, as a species, lice are astonishingly fecund. Each female lays eggs three to five times each day—more than 100 eggs in her 30-day life. And they are bonded to human hair shafts with a substance that puts superglue to shame.
One good thing: Lice are democratic. Anyone can get them, regardless of social standing, education, housing, good behavior, or cleanliness. Yet one study found that more than half of all Americans would be embarrassed by head lice in the family. It's probably closer to 100 percent; hairdressers tell me that parents always cringe when they're told their beloved youngster's scalp is crawling. One father even confessed to me that buying anti-lice shampoo was almost as discomfiting as buying condoms as a teenager.
Meanwhile, public health officials point to a new pediculosis (the formal name for a lice attack) "epidemic." Because most cases are diagnosed and treated by parents, few reliable statistics are available. Children ages 5 to 12 are particularly vulnerable, since they often put their heads together during play. As a result, thousands of parents are learning the power of a fine-tooth comb. It's how you delouse. Endlessly.
Deborah Altschuler, founder and president of the National Pediculosis Association (NPA), says today's epidemic is a matter of louse laxity. Our grandparents were practically always on lice alert, using whatever folk remedies were available. My mother vividly remembers the tiny raindrop sound of lice hitting the newspaper beneath her head as my great-aunt carefully combed her hair every Saturday night.
During the 1940s and 1950s, the fear of communicable diseases had in fact pushed hygiene to the forefront of the public health agenda. Children knew about germs and were taught how to wash their hands. But in the late 1960s, Altschuler says, young people began rebelling against their parents' ways and congregating and living in groups. Hygiene habits relaxed, casual intimacy boomed, and head lice began roaming free.
Today, children come together in groups—such as day care—earlier and more frequently. Yet they receive little instruction in basic hygiene. According to Altschuler, that means we're missing a golden opportunity: "When they are teenagers, the issue is herpes or AIDS. Why not prepare them for these facts of life? Why not model good lifetime habits of hygiene, beginning with head lice?" she suggests.
The day I stared at the nits in my daughter's hair I registered the typical stirrings of shame and realized that I, too, had internalized the social stigma. Rushing forward in a blind counter-attack, I shampooed all three of my daughters with an over-the-counter product that made our eyes burn and our noses sting. I wish now that I hadn't. The NPA fields an average of about 50 calls every day from parents and health professionals reporting that treatment-resistant lice have survived bombardment with these shampoos, such as Nix and RID. "These are very strong pesticides," warns Altschuler.
Today, after three full pediculosis bouts, I have come to accept that head lice, like temper tantrums and sleep deprivation, are part of living with children. Like my grandmother, I have even developed a sense of humor about the little bloodsuckers. She claims to have made money selling live lice to other youngsters who wanted to be sent home for the day. All they had to do, she chuckled, was place the critters in their hair and scratch their heads in front of the teacher.
I have even come to enjoy nitpicking. My daughter and I call it primate time, as we huddle together like mountain gorillas on the deck, a long-haired head resting on my knee. We gather the requisite utensils: a small water-filled bowl (for nits and lice), a tiny-toothed comb, a magnifying glass, a few treats (these sessions easily take an hour). I tell her she has a little zoo on top of her head. I talk about nitwits and nitpickers, and I don't correct her when she adds knitting needles to our word game.
Before long, her resentment at having to sit still dissolves into relaxation, and she starts talking. She relates confusing things she has experienced and unburdens herself of hurts she has collected. She does not expect insightful comments from me, just my attention. Eventually, of course, she gets impatient. And so do I. But we cannot take leave of each other until the job is finished, so we persevere in this closeness.
In fairy tales, combing hair is a metaphor for setting things straight. Delousing my daughters gives me an opportunity to smooth the wrinkles in their lives.
When we have finished, I dump the nit-filled water down the drain, squelching my irrational fear that the eggs will somehow hatch in the drainpipe and gang up on us. She scampers off. And as I begin the huge task of delousing the house, it occurs to me that head lice might be tiny messengers from the great spirit, who chuckles at our arrogant assumption that nature can be tamed and sterilized. The louse will always prevail. And that is not, I have decided, lousy news after all.
From Mothering (Jan./Feb. 1999). Subscriptions: $18.95/yr. (6 issues) from Box 1690, Santa Fe, NM 87504.