Saturday, August 31, 2013

Once Upon a Time We Got Head Lice the First Week of School

photo credit.
The great thing about living in the greater Chicago area is that we pretty much don't know anyone and therefore I can write freely about the critters who have taken up residence in my daughters' hair without fear of people crossing the street to stay away from us. Okay, we know a few people here, but our extended family members are already involved, guilty by association, and doing chemical rinses on their own hair. And my sweet neighbor whose children were at my house playing with my children a few days ago, not only didn't freak out when I called to break the news, she brought over dinner for my family, so I'm assuming that means she will still be my friend, despite our cooties.

Fact: Parents in Colorado don't really worry about lice. It happens once in a blue moon, so I hear, but it was never on my parenting radar. I know people can get lice in Colorado, but the climate is so dry I suspect those rare instances are largely imported from other places, like Illinois for example.

Fact: Parents in the greater Chicago area- along with every other state that is afflicted with humidity- worry greatly about lice. Lice are in abundance. Lice are an omnipresent part of the community.

Fact: This is information that would have been useful BEFORE we moved to Chicago.

In fairness to the great state of Illinois, our lice are not local. They were gifted to us, compliments of the girls' bunk room mattresses and linens at our family reunion in North Carolina last week. We don't feel completely special though because our daughters weren't singled out by the lice. Several other little girls from various families at the reunion were also elected as suitable hosts, therefore ensuring the trip is one that will never, ever be forgotten. It is its own kind of souvenir.

I'm possibly not the best suited mother to deal with vermin. It was suggested to me last night that I'm perhaps "going overboard" with the sanitation efforts I've put into effect. By all means, tell me which step would you like me to cut out, I snapped. Which part of getting the lice off our children and out of our house has taken it too far? On occasion they are quick learners, my husband and children. My family is now giving me a wide berth, stepping softly, and meekly handing over every article of clothing as it comes off their person so that it can immediately be tossed into scalding hot water in the washing machine.

It's not an insignificant detail that this was our first week of school, and that my children have been crying and carrying on like wild animals in their general distress over the whole, "we are new and everything feels weird" element in their life. And that was before the lice made themselves known. The phone call came late Thursday evening from an afflicted family member who was at the beach with us, and immediately the sirens began to blare. My kids were already asleep and Jeremy used a flash light to inspect their scalps. Standing in the darkened bedroom the swoop of the flashlight revealed slow crawling amid their hair follicles. I wanted to throw up. I wanted to shave their heads and douse them in kerosene, and then burn the house down. But instead I ravaged the lice department at Target, and within an hour my entire family was awakened, stripped, and subject to violent scalp scrubbing with the chemical shampoo.

We had to chase one of our daughters around the bathroom like a chicken avoiding slaughter. Jeremy caught her and held her down to apply the shampoo. When I got in the shower with the girls to help them rinse, I suddenly hesitated, overcome by cowardice. I don't want to put my hands in their hair, I thought. I'm going to throw up. Fortunately my maternal instincts showed up, bursting out of me like Old Faithful. I grabbed the first child's head and raked my fingers through her hair and scalp like I was exorcising the devil himself. Get off my child, I ordered through clenched teeth. The girls sobbed, shoulders shaking, as if it were the worst thing that has happened to them. Perhaps I could have been more graceful in this process. But I sincerely hope I don't have another chance to prove myself.

The official school district policy on lice is that if you have done the chemical shampoo, you should send your child to school. Those who haven't had much to do with lice are probably cringing at that. I certainly was. Those who have seen or dealt with lice as part of their normal routine are saying, Yep. Send em' to school. There's nothing else you can do. Since it was Friday I ordinarily would have let them stay home and enjoy the long, Labor Day weekend to disinfect and feel better. But we had already missed the first three days of school while we were at our lice Paradise reunion in North Carolina last week. I'll tie your hair back in a bun, I finally said, but you need to go to school. You have tests today. 

Everyone assured me that lice are a standard complaint around these parts. But when we arrived and the secretary demanded why we were late, I stammered, We had some, um, nits in their hair last night. So we were up until two a.m. shampooing and combing them out. The secretary took two steps back, total revulsion written on her face. Clearly, she wanted to throw up and then throw us out. But she composed herself after a moment. You need to wait in the nurse's office. I'll go find her, because she will need to inspect your girls' hair before they can come back to school. 

She left us to wait and my girls fell apart. Sobbing, they pleaded for me to take them home. We all felt like dirty, infected fugitives waiting for judgement. I don't want to have to do this again on Tuesday morning after the long weekend, I insisted. So, let's get the inspection over with and THEN we'll go home. You are right. This is awful. This is humiliating. I'm so sorry girls. But I promise it's going to be okay. I put my arms around my girls as they stood crying against me in a tight group hug.

When the nurse arrived everything suddenly improved. Hey, hey she soothed them, squatting down in front of my girls. I don't have to inspect your hair. This is NOT a big deal. This happens all the time (I shuddered as she said that). You were right to come to school. As long as you did the chemical rinse, you're good to go. No one needs to know, not even your teacher. There's no sense missing school over something as silly as lice. 

Hmm. Something as silly as lice. 

Only, it doesn't feel silly or casual or funny because it's disgusting. It's also new territory for us, and it couldn't have been more poorly timed. But I felt overwhelmed by the kindness and gentle care shown by the Mother Hubbard nurse. She clucked and comforted all of us until I felt like crying. We are brand new. I explained. We've only been here four days. We didn't want to start off like this with the school....I trailed off. My eyes filled. Everything is going to be fine, she assured me. No one has to know. Now let's get these girls back to class. 

Later they told me how they stood alone at recess, afraid to mingle with the other children. I think that was a respectful and good decision, but it hurt my heart to listen to their tearful accounts of the day, how they stayed away from everyone as much as possible. Madeleine told me she wishes she could take her head off and get a new one. Kate told me she loves her cousins so much she even avoided them on the playground, afraid for their health and safety. I'm not afraid of you, I told my girls as I tucked them in last night. I leaned down and kissed the top of each girl's head. I had to force myself, I'm not going to lie. But sometimes you have to love your children anyway. That's how it is when they behave badly. That's how it is when they turn eight and start to get mangy, with buck teeth and a keen disinterest in hygiene. And that's how it is when they have lice.

And we never again used unfamiliar bed linens, shared hair brushes, pillows, or hats with anyone, we dedicated to use tea tree shampoo for the rest of our days, and we never, ever had head lice again.

The End 


  1. One of my children got lice twice in six months, and we have since identified the offending friend and halted all social interactions with her. But i won't lie, I'm still traumatized by the experiences and can't quite bring myself to snuggle close to my own poor daughter. She doesn't realize, but I'm still afraid to get close to that head of hair...I hope this fades away!

    1. It's the worst feeling ever to cringe at your child's hug! Crossing fingers that this doesn't happen again!

  2. Make sure they don't put their jackets in a community cupboard either. Hang in there! We've never had lice but had a fun time with bed bugs picked up at a hotel. Those suckers were traumatizing and expensive to deal with.

  3. Will add to my ever growing list of ways I will bug-proof my life! Thanks!

  4. I got teary even before you mentioned you did at the school nurse who saved the day. I want to be that someday so it touched me. I will admit, boys are MUCH easier to treat for head lice, especially in the summer, especially at summer camp. Having no hair is an adventure, and it's over in about a week! I was surprised to hear the girls go to school with their cousins. Who is there?

    1. My older sister Carolyn lives down the street from us with her three boys. Congratulations, by the way. I'm so so happy for you!


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