Strolling a main street in my neighborhood, chatting on the phone with my slow-speaking, aging dad, I muttered, embarrassed, “We have… lice.”
“You have lies?” Dad asked in his Texas drawl.
“LICE,” I shouted. “We have LICE!”
A longish-haired hipster passed me, looked back in horror, and touched his hair anxiously as if simply hearing the word might spread the parasite.
It took me back to the late ‘90s, when a gay male friend who had contracted crabs felt obliged to call and inform one of his sexual partners. Unlike when people get STDs, though, when you get head lice, your doctor does not implore you to contact everyone with whom you have come into head-to-head contact to help alleviate the spread. But they should.
Our first cootie encounter
Like losing my virginity and qualifying for my first mortgage, I remember clearly the first time my family got head lice. One of my daughter’s classmates contracted it, and our class parent suggested everyone check their kids. I bought the over-the-counter head lice treatment, Rid, intending to prophylactically treat everyone in the family. And in that process I found a bug. Still moving, fighting for its life. Houston, I thought, we have lice. And then my own scalp started itching.
Imagining that the best way to reduce the spread of head lice was to fess up that you have it, and then avoid contact with others’ heads, I emailed our class list serve. I named names. “We have lice! We are actively treating it. Check your kids tonight!” I emailed the principal, the teachers, the school guidance counselor, anyone we had rustled on the playground with, and playdates within the last 36 hours. More than 100 people had now been informed.
Tackling head lice phobia head on
I’ve gotten pretty comfortable talking about things that make others squeamish. I came out as a lesbian in the ‘90s. I marched in the streets shouting, “We’re here, we’re queer, get used to it!” I traveled to Washington to rally for reproductive rights, holding placards that proclaimed: “DYKES FOR CHOICE.”
For this new cause, I needed only to update my mantra to: “We have lice, we’re treating it, check your own kids!” Fundamental to my previous activism had been my belief that disclosing information, provoking discussion, and removing shame and stigma is key to treating societal problems like sexism and homophobia. And now head lice phobia.
My children are embarrassed by my compulsive need to talk openly about topics others don’t want to broach, but I hope I’m teaching them by example about why it’s important to speak out, even when it doesn't feel comfortable or convenient.
Alone with my kids and my nit comb
“That was quite an email you sent,” remarked one mom, avoiding a hug, the morning after my first disclosure. Would she rather I have stayed silent and let the critters spread? While no one wants to get lice, and treatment is painfully time-consuming, lice are not actually physiologically harmful — just psychologically and socially.
Playdates were canceled. Weekend family dinners disbanded. I was alone with my kids and my nit comb, a social pariah, as people slowly backed away. And yet lice continued to spread at our school and in our classrooms. But no one seemed to want to discuss it, and there didn’t seem to be one gold standard of treatment.
Head lice had become, for me, the herpes of the modern parenting set. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), an estimated 6 to 12 million children in the United States get head lice each year. Still, the CDC says data are “unreliable,” probably in part because of low self-reporting numbers. Many of those millions of families won’t admit when they've contracted it, so it spreads among us, an unwelcome guest in already cramped urban quarters.
I heard from one mom at the YMCA that another had complained about all the families spreading lice in our school: “Lice are totally preventable! Why are these kids coming to school with them?” I stepped off the treadmill and started grandstanding, comparing what she had said to the ‘80s, when people like Senator Jesse Helms wanted to quarantine people with AIDS on an island. A hyperbolic stretch, I know, but the secrecy and victim shaming were familiar.
And so I kept talking about lice. It seemed ridiculous, and ineffective, to stay silent and isolated about something so silly — something that could, in fact, be prevented, but only if more people would let go of some of the shame surrounding it, and disclose it more willingly upon first contraction.
My Norma Rae moment
Perhaps because of inadequate treatments, or resistant mutant super strains, or maybe because the same stubborn buggers kept cycling through our social circle, we got lice again.
And again. And again.
It was traumatic and exhausting, but also continued to give me a mouthpiece for advocacy. I once again informed our school community, neighbors, the clerk at the local Rite Aid transacting my purchases of large bottles of Pantene, and my favorite barista. I stood up at a PTA meeting and came out to 100 peers: “Our family has been battling lice for months…” as I proposed a formal lice check program be funded and implemented. A random mom met us on the subway and remembered, with a chuckle: “You’re the lice mom!”
That PTA meeting became my Norma Rae moment, where Sally Field stands up at the factory holding the “UNION” sign. If people can see my face and associate me with lice (and prevention and education), maybe they’ll feel a little less alone when their child comes home with nits, and feel OK emailing me about treatment options and support.
And it seems to have worked. In the weeks and months after our initial lice outbreaks, I fielded many texts and emails: “OMG, I think Sam has lice. What do I do?”
I’m proud to be the local lice mom
I now have a whole “lice treatment” folder on my laptop. I have the numbers for two professional lice eliminators in my phone, one of whom I hired to do our formal lice checks at school several times a year, and with whom I have a regular text relationship.
I disseminate information, and an offer of a glass of wine, to anyone who asks. Recently my daughter’s teacher approached me. “One of my kid’s parent’s was told her kid has lice, and the parent doesn’t know what to do. Can I have her email you?” Of course, I said.
I’m OK being the go-to lice mom at our school, if it helps us all get to a better place, one nit at a time.