One day a few years ago, I got a call from day care. They never call you because your kid learned to juggle. When you get a call, it’s bad. It’s vomit. It’s blood. It’s a broken bone. This particular call introduced me to the colony of insects on my daughter’s scalp. Life is nothing but a string of sharp ironies, so of course I had been working on my debut novel at the time, which followed an entomologist. In my research, I had gradually become obsessed with insects in the way I hadn’t since I crouched with skinned knees to poke at ant hills with a stick in my front yard.
Insects, it also turned out, were becoming obsessed with my family as well.
Like most parents, I feign confidence, but most of the time I am mothering by Google. I picked my daughter up from day care and looked online for my next steps. We made a detour to Walgreens and purchased the required shampoo. I treated my 2-year-old’s scalp in the bathtub while she watched “Daniel Tiger” on the iPad. The non-drama of it felt like a crisis averted.
Here’s a lice fact: They can’t hop or fly. They crawl, and that crawling feeling isn’t in your head but on it. After another phone call from day care a week later, and a horrific string of sleepless nights, I began to suspect the lice was were coming from inside the house. After combing my son, my husband and myself, I found that we all had been colonized.
Google had more advice. It told me to wash the bedding, to vacuum and to isolate the stuffed animals in plastic bag detention for the next few weeks. Loveys — Curious George and a stuffed bunny named Beau — were cleaned and returned.
By nature, I’m a crunchy person. I buy organic produce or grow my own, insist on paraben-free sunscreen, use cloth diapers. But when it comes to insects on my scalp, I insist: Bring on the poison. The only complicating factor was that I was pregnant at the time.
I called my doctors to check whether lice shampoo was okay for pregnancy. Wow, that’s totally embarrassing, the nurse didn’t say, but I could hear it in her voice. The ruling was the shampoo was safe. I treated myself with a sudsy dose of insecticide.
That evening, I started to cramp and, eventually, to bleed.
We already had a babysitter lined up. We were supposed to go to a party, someone’s birthday, but instead went to the ER. I sat in the waiting room, hand on my stomach and heart skittering. I mentally scrolled through the things I couldn’t text as excuses. “Happy birthday, but I’m in the ER!” I wasn’t going to admit this was the first date night we’d had in months and we were spending it at the hospital. I couldn’t bring up lice. I couldn’t imagine that my bleeding might have injured our baby. I was scared.
An ultrasound showed the baby was fine. But I wasn’t fine. Even with all of the precautions, the next week, I got the same call. Three weeks in a row.
The lice were back, but what didn’t return was my confidence in my parenting skills. Entomologists hate when you anthropomorphize insects, but it’s hard not to when they’re living on you. Mama Louse knew how to help her children thrive, and all I knew was I wasn’t good enough to stop her. She and her brood kept coming back, her mothering skills immune to my own.
I learned through trial and error that we had super lice, immune to most treatments. I changed products, upgraded my lice comb and restocked a fresh arsenal of pesticides to apply to the couches and car seats. Dry cleaning for the bedding. Hotter washes for George and Beau, who looked as ragged as I felt. And it was only lice, I told myself.
Another lice fact: Lice are designed to hide on your scalp. They only live about three weeks, but for all of those three weeks, they can blend into their surroundings. On dark-haired people, they often appear darker. On light-haired, lighter. On anyone who is unable to stop imagining they are covered with lice, they appear in every single dandruff flake.
This went on for two months. Eventually the lice decamped — except on me. It felt personal, like I was the boss in a video game they had to gang up against. To treat myself, I used Cetaphil and hair dryers to seal in and suffocate the lice. I set off the smoke alarm twice. I had to move outside, where I’m sure the neighbors thought blow drying my hair at 9 p.m. on the back lawn was completely normal.
The whole thing gave me a respect for insects beyond the metaphorical. You have to give it up for Mama Louse, who can lay six eggs a day and may have a 150 kids in her lifetime. But to be honest, it seems unfairly easy for her. If I could just lay my kids on shelter that doubled as a source of food, it wouldn’t be all that impressive. Like, “Hey kids, here’s your pizza tent. Go nuts.”
Finally, even after I was almost certain the lice were gone, the phantom itching remained. I slicked a bottle of olive oil on my scalp and wrapped it tightly with a shower cap overnight. I smelled like the dumpster outside an Olive Garden, but it did its work. I stopped scratching.
These days, I look back on that time with an aching sense of my own ignorance. What was I so worried about? The stigma of lice? A few itchy skulls? A least my child getting lice meant that she was socializing, normally, with other children. In our house, “If it goes on the hair, we don’t share” has become family gospel since that autumn of lice, and that gospel is repeated with reverence.
What had previously been one of the most challenging few months in my parenting is now overshadowed by the pandemic. Mothering by Google now keeps me up at night, my search entries more and more alarmist: Covid-19 in children, how likely? Covid-19 and in-person learning dangers? Covid-19 and kid death? Things I would ask Google if I could: How much can we know? How much can I let my children see?
Am I failing, and will they forgive me?
Walking in our neighborhood, my daughter, now 5, sees maskless children playing in the yard and looks at them longingly. I grip her hand, pull her to my side. If I spoke, all that would come out is, “You can’t play with them, or you could kill Grandpa.”
I think sometimes about the super lice, which evolved to take on everything a vastly superior intelligence had to throw at them. I hope that this year will give me the strength to bring my brood through the hardest challenge our world has faced in a century and that a vaccine is on the horizon. And maybe a pizza tent. But scientists should definitely focus on that vaccine first.
Rachel Mans McKenny is a writer and mother from the Midwest, recently published in the New York Times, the Rumpus, McSweeney’s and other outlets. Her debut novel, “The Butterfly Effect,” is forthcoming from Alcove Press in December.