It’s the phone call every parent dreads. In my case, it happened while I was sitting in a taxi with my boss and co-worker en route to an awards luncheon. With a serious-sounding principal on the other end of the line, I knew it couldn’t be good. “Your son has lice. Please come to pick him up as soon as possible,” she said gravely.
My colleague, who couldn’t help but overhear in our confined space, inched away slightly. My boss scratched his head subconsciously. “Just go home and get him,” he advised. So I got out at the nearest subway, head hung in shame, and began my reluctant journey into the land of lice.
Of course I’d seen the notice crumpled in his backpack, but I figured surviving daycare, summer camps and preschool without a trace of the pesky pests had made him and his older brother immune. Plus, he hadn’t been scratching at all. I’ve since discovered that it can take weeks for children with lice to feel itchy. I also learned that lice do not discriminate. Nor do you become immune after the first round.
I never set out to be a nit-picking mom, but that’s exactly the role I took on over those next two weeks of lice infestation. For those fortunate enough to have never seen them, nits are tiny yellow or brown lice eggs that attach on the hair shaft near the scalp and hatch within one to two weeks. They need to be picked out manually or with a fine-toothed, preferably metal comb (I picked mine up for $24 at the drugstore!) before they turn into wingless parasitic insects that live off trace amounts of blood from the scalp.
As terrifying as they sound, an adult louse is no bigger then a sesame seed and when I showed one to my son he excitedly exclaimed: “Neato, it’s moving!” That’s the problem, they may be wingless but they move very quickly; within days of treating my youngest with the medicated lotion my pharmacist had recommended, I found them feeding off my older son’s scalp. Suddenly I was not only stripping the beds and bleaching the sheets, I was washing couch covers and carpets, as well as sterilizing every possible item that had come within contact of their grimy boy hands.
In fact, I chucked all their stuffed animals altogether, even Mr. Bear who had been with us since my oldest was an infant. (For the record, lice can’t survive off a human head for more than a day or two so my overzealous cleaning was likely in vain.)
Exhausted from the manual labour, that night I settled down on the cleanest of sheets in what was surely the cleanest house on the block. Only my head was suddenly itchy. I rushed to take a look in the bright lights of the bathroom mirror and let out a blood-curdling scream.
I stayed up into the wee hours that night picking nits out of my shoulder length hair and vowing to get a crewcut. The next morning I made a teary phone call to my mother who talked me out of it and was over that very afternoon to do some nit-picking herself. Fortunately mine was a milder case, but I did pass the critters onto her as well. As for my husband, he may have lucked out with an immunity card after all.
In the two years since this lice fiasco, each of the boys has gotten another case at separate times. Fortunately, I acted quickly enough to prevent the lice from spreading and causing mayhem in the household again. I still gasp in horror when I see my sons exchange hats or roughhouse with their friends on the carpet. But at the same time, I’m a veteran now. I can tackle lice head on. I ain’t afraid of no louse.
Rosalind Stefanac is a Toronto-based writer and mother of two who never leaves home without her nit comb.
Originally published in ParentsCanada magazine, August 2012.