When I picked up my phone at 10 o’clock on a Monday night, I heard a familiar voice whisper, “Julie, help. . . . I think we have lice.”
“Hang on,” I reassured my friend, a mother of three. “I’ll be right over.” I threw a coat over my pajamas and grabbed my metal lice comb. Just as I was getting into the car, she called back. “False alarm. I think it’s just dandruff.”
“Really? Are you sure? Do you want me to come — ”
“No,” she interrupted. “It’s fine. Sorry to bother you.”
I hung up with the suspicion that she’d suddenly gotten cold feet, not wanting to divulge that her family had lice. Sure enough, when I saw her the next day, there was no mention of our exchange. The message was clear: Forget the conversation ever happened.
But I recognize lice shame when I see it — the urge to crawl into a hole and disappear rather than admit that your kid’s head is infested. I’d experienced it myself just weeks before, when my 7-year-old daughter got off the school bus madly scratching her head. You worry that people will think your kids are dirty — that they’ll cancel play dates and shoot you nasty looks for infecting their precious children. So you wallow in your own private bubble, madly Googling home remedies while flashing back to that day when the school nurse called your mom to come take you home for a case of lice.
Turns out, getting lice today is nothing like in the old days. Kids are no longer even pulled from school, per the recommendation of the American Academy of Pediatrics, which has deemed lice “a nuisance, not a serious disease.” The truth is most kids get lice at some point — if they don’t, “they’re just lucky,” as my daughter’s school nurse told me. It has nothing to do with personal hygiene or cleanliness in the home, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Yet all that is cold comfort when you have lice to deal with. Apparently these new Super Lice, as they’re dubbed, can be resistant to the insecticide in popular over-the-counter treatments, according to a study published in the Journal of Medical Entomology earlier this year.
So what’s a beleaguered parent to do (after hyperventilating into a paper bag)? I could set aside a half-hour or so every night for the next two weeks to comb through my daughter’s hair and pull out the bugs and their eggs, which the school nurse told me is the most reliable method. Or I could call the Lice Aunties, a nit and lice removal company in Newton, which would take care of the problem for $200.
As a harried, part-time working mother of three, I chose the latter — though not before my husband went at my daughter’s head with a metal comb like a man possessed. He did such a thorough job that the Lice Aunties only ended up charging us $40. It felt like a bargain compared with the $1,000 my friend spent for her family of five this summer.
Even once the lice are gone, the work isn’t over. We also spent countless hours more laundering hats, jackets, bedding, backpacks, bike helmets, stuffed animals, car-seat covers — you name it, we washed it. When you stop to think about all the time, effort, and money — an estimated $1 billion annually — spent by parents of school-age kids who get lice (6 million to 12 million infestations a year), it’s staggering. A tiny gray bug is bringing us to our knees.
Well, I’m not ready to raise the white flag. Instead, I’m calling for parents to throw off the yoke of shame. If we all agree that lice is no bigger deal than, say, a common cold, we could save ourselves a lot of angst — and stop the bugs from taking over.
To do this, we must be willing to openly discuss the subject and, most important, spread the word so parents can start checking their kids before there’s a full-blown infestation. “If you catch lice early,” says Julie Weiman, owner of Lice Aunties, “it’s really easy to take care of.” All you need is a good comb, conditioner, and an education as to what you’re looking for. “You can cut it off at the pass,” she says.
So in this spirit of full disclosure, I called the school nurse, who immediately sent a letter to all the second-grade classes warning them of possible exposure (without identifying Patient Zero). Then I called the parents of each of my daughter’s friends. Sure, some of those conversations were awkward, but in the end, everyone I talked with appreciated the heads-up. If I had gotten a call when my daughter was first exposed that would have added hours back to my life — and spared me a wrinkle or two.
In the end, we all get through it with a sense of humor. Perhaps we should take the lead of one Boston-area woman, who posted social-media photos of herself and her three kids relaxing on their couch in shower caps. Her caption says it all: “Friday Night Lice.”
Julie Suratt is a writer in Wayland. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.