Our family, boxes of Nix cream rinse hidden in our suitcases, arrived at our next destination—a lovely inn. It turns out when your head's been colonized for more than a month, your scalp resembles a lice version of New Year's Eve in Times Square. After my daughter and I treated ourselves with insecticide, and combed out cascades of lice for two hours, we all went to dinner in the dining room. At one point, I tossed my hair and a permethrin-drugged louse fell out and staggered on the white tablecloth. "You're one classy lady," my husband said.
I now know what makes someone a good mother. Forget the debates about staying at home or working, being a disciplinarian or a softie. What distinguishes the good mother is this: When your kid gets lice, you get lice, too. Of course, now all those nights spent lying on my daughter's pillow discussing the day's events or walking arm in arm, our heads nestled together seemed less like mother-daughter bonding than a strategy for vermin infestation.
Having proved my good-mother bona fides by contracting lice, I became a metal-spike-wielding harridan in my frenzy to get rid of them. Each evening, my daughter and I stood in the bathroom, hair soaked, as I spent an hour raking the nit comb through her scalp, cursing her luxuriant locks. Then I would turn the spiked comb on myself, yelling, "Drown, you little bugger!" as I washed each bloodsucking louse down the sink. At least with a son you could take him to the barber and have his head shaved. A few months earlier I had remarked to my daughter how cute one of her classmates looked with his crew cut. She had explained, "Mom, it's not a hairdo; it's because of lice."
Lice were all new to me. I grew up in what I now think of as the Time Between Lice. Certainly my great-grandparents were examined for them at Ellis Island, and my daughter and her classmates regularly go to the school nurse for nit checks. But when I was a kid in the '60s, the subject never came up. In the public-health community, there is some controversy as to whether this seeming absence was because lice were considered so shameful back then that nobody talked about them, or because there was more vigilance, resulting in fewer outbreaks.
I understand now why our language is so rich with lice references: lousy, cooties, fine-tooth comb, nit-picker. Most of human history has been very itchy. In Hans Zinsser's classic study on infectious disease, Rats, Lice and History, he quotes an observer describing how, as the body of Thomas à Beckett lay in Canterbury Cathedral, the departing lice that had lived in his layers of vestments "boiled over like water in a simmering cauldron." And lice can be deadly. Nathaniel Philbrick's Mayflower describes how typhus, carried by lice living on European traders, brought an agonizing death to the Indians, their swollen tongues coated with a white fur. Napoleon's retreat from Russia was caused, in part, by louse-borne illness decimating his army. Fortunately for us, the head lice that still afflict us don't cause disease the way body lice do.
Female lice can live about 30 days and, during that time, can lay 100 eggs—known as nits—so I had provided meals to a generation. This Harvard School of Public Health Web site also let me know that, "Only those eggs deposited by inseminated female lice will hatch." Somehow the thought of horny lice having coitus on my scalp did not make me feel sexy. After two weeks of combing, we finally rid ourselves of our pests.
Though lice thrive during wars, I also discovered we live in a time of lice wars. Factions of public health specialists, parents, and school administrators are fighting over how to handle lice. One side says the only way to contain this epidemic is through vigorous enforcement of a "no-nits-left-behind" policy. The other says lice are just a nuisance that don't require a child being excluded from school until clear of them. Among the live-and-let-lice school are both the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Harvard School of Public Health.