This is a guest post from Anne Gates, author of Uninvited: A Mom’s Guide to Killing Lice.
I sat on the sofa with one daughter tucked into my arm and the other draped across my lap. It was two days before Christmas, and although I had last-minute preparations to take care of, I’d chosen to set those thoughts aside and snuggle up with my girls for a holiday movie.
I was inwardly congratulating myself on choosing to be present with them when slowly something unusual broke through my steam of consciousness: My daughter kept raising a hand to her head.
I watched her more closely and noticed she wasn’t just pushing hair out of her eyes or biting her nails… She was scratching her head.
Alarm bells sounded in my mind, but I took a breath and assured myself it was nothing. But just to be sure, I invited her into the kitchen to make popcorn with me, and while we were under the warm, bright lights of our kitchen, I took a closer look at her scalp.
Just to be sure, I told myself again.
One close look revealed exactly what I’d been hoping I wouldn’t see: a head teaming with lice.
My heart sunk to the pit of my stomach and me feet were paralyzed with indecision.
I’d never in my life had lice; I had no idea where to start. And on top of that, this didn’t look like an early case of it. This looked like something that had been festering.
How hadn’t I noticed? How many times had I pulled her hair into a ponytail or brushed it after a bath, completely unaware of what was really happening on that scalp?
I felt awash with guilt, and as I looked around at our home—the couch we’d just been sitting on, my other daughter’s head of sandy blond hair, my own hair for that matter—I was completely overwhelmed.
It turns out both my daughters and myself had advanced cases of lice. The degree of our infestation was beyond what I could handle, so I called in a professional to help us pick out the nits and de-lice our home. There were many tears from all three of us.
I felt horrible. So grossed out, so dirty feeling, so guilty that this had likely been going on for a month without my knowledge. The professional tried to put my mind at ease, but that mom guilt was persistent.
After we were finally lice free, I became highly proactive about preventing reoccurrence—only to have all three of us get it again a few months later. This time, I caught it within a week so it wasn’t as severe, but we still hired a pro to help with the combing. Again, I felt guilty and figured I hadn’t been vigilant enough.
Summer break gave us a reprieve, and when the girls went back to school, I again tried everything to prevent it (sprays, braids, etc.). But right before Thanksgiving, my youngest came home with it yet again.
Getting hit with lice three times in ten months lit a fire under me—a desire to share my experience with other moms and relieve some of the stigma associated with this all-too-common childhood ailment.
Lessons from My Family’s Experience with Lice
1. Contracting lice has nothing to do with the cleanliness (or lack thereof) of home or hair.
Lice don’t suddenly spring up because you haven’t vacuumed in three weeks or washed your child’s hair since last Saturday. It is spread by direct contact with a surface (usually a head) already infested with lice.
(And while we’re talking about cleaning, rest assured that cleaning your home is the last thing you need to worry about when you first spot lice nits. The chances of contracting it from furniture are slim. They can’t fly or jump; they crawl from one head to another.)
2. Ninety percent of moms end up with lice when their kids get it.
If you contract lice, know that you are not alone. Consider all the times you’ve held your child’s head against your own. Forehead to forehead when you want to look deeply into your daughter’s eyes… You son’s head against yours when he climbs into your bed after having a nightmare…
You are a hands-on mom who is always there for your kids; there is nothing wrong with that.
3. We can’t control everything, despite our best efforts.
Even the best preventative sprays are not going to work if your child has head-to-head contact with someone who has lice. And unless you know what you’re looking for, it’s hard to diagnose. You could easily be combing and styling your child’s hair every day and not notice it for weeks.
Our experience with lice, although I certainly wouldn’t wish to repeat it, has actually helped accept how many things are outside of my control as a parent. Our children may come home with lice, yes. But they may also be diagnosed with ADHD or a sensory processing disorder or an unexpected, long-term illness. They may make friends that we wouldn’t pick for them. They may (and likely will) make choices we wish we could change.
So much is outside of our control. So let’s appreciate our connections with them more than anything else, and let’s give each other—our fellow parents—a blanket of support.
A Resource for Parents Dealing with Lice
I wrote a book for the mom who finds out her children have lice at 7pm on a random Thursday evening. That panic that you’re feeling? It’s real and universal. I remember spiraling in my kitchen, not knowing what to do, where to start, or what I needed. In the book, I outline the process baby step by baby step.
But for now, leave with this:
Take a deep breath. It’s not your fault. You and your children are not dirty, you couldn’t have controlled this, and you should never stop hugging and loving on those kids.