As we were waiting for my daughter’s swim class to end, a sweet old lady came up to my son’s stroller with a look of adoration in her eyes. Even before seeing him, an abundance of kind thoughts were mapped on her beautifully wrinkled face. Her mind was geared toward feelings of pure joy, befitting for the presence of new life – an event, I must admit, that is only fully savored by those who have lived long enough to understand its splendor. New moms, with their haze of sleeplessness, often miss its subtlety and don’t catch up on this grandeur until they become of the grandmotherly-age themselves.

Babies are almost swallowed whole by the flattery of old women such as these, and my son was no exception. However, as she neared closer to the stroller, her smile delineated from its original beam into something slightly less bright as she exclaimed with confusion, “Isn’t that a sweet baby. What’s its name?”

It?! I took a pause before blinking and then replayed the words in my head. Surely I had been mistaken. Surely I had misunderstood. Did the old woman call my son an “it”? I thought it would be fairly obvious that he was a boy, with his blue and brown striped shirt and pant suit, pieced together ruggedly with a thick and mannish pair of sandals. And not only did his outfit suggest masculinity but his demeanor should have given it away. He sat up strongly, gripping the life out of his favorite toy monkey, gnawing and grunting over it like a wild beast chewing a bone. It? Him? Who did she think she was, mistaking the identity of my baby! I figured I would let her cataracts and her kind smile pass. She was old and didn’t know any better.

Then, a few weeks later, it happened again! At the grocery store checkout line. With a young couple. And they did not get a pass. They gripped their hands in a loving embrace, while peering longingly at my son, and mentioned casually how they were looking so forward to the time when they too would be parents. After their breathy sighs concluded in unison, and the saccharine sweetness of their smiles waned, the woman asked me, “So, how old is it?” How old is what, I thought. The aged cheddar? The Genoa salami? The Triscuits? I was lucky that they were easily distracted by their infatuation and not interested enough in my response to care that I moved ahead in silence. It, indeed!

These particular instances would have been easy enough to write off had they not become my new norm. It seemed, with each passing week, I was finding more and more encounters like these. At restaurants. In waiting rooms. At the post office. In stores. Even at weddings and funerals. Everywhere!

It almost became comical to decipher the ways in which a wide array of people could ask the very same question – all, I might note, in such a colorful and greatly varied manner. Some more polite folks, ever-fearful of a social faux pas, would say things like “What’s the baby’s name?” Sly and crafty, I knew these words were parsed carefully, concealing the fact that they had no clue as to my baby’s gender. Still, other more blunt types, culled from the ever-growing population that is free from the shackles of shame, would just blurt out abrasive phrases like “What the heck did ya have? A ding-dong or a ho-ho?”

Apparently, blue is the new black for girls. And there are no fire-truck or football  appliqués big enough to denote boyishness. Nor even do the words “brother” or “little man” seem to conjure a masculine presence anymore. Clues flow freely to those who care to observe, yet at the end of the day gender judgment boils down to one thing – the hair.

My son, just like my daughter, was born with a thick heap of black hair covering his entire scalp. As a result, he never needed hats. He never felt the cool breeze of air atop his noggin. Instead, his fluffy follicles covered him like a thick shag carpet lining the halls of the Brady Bunch home. As the months started to pass, his mess of hair slowly grew to be more of a mountain. Sweet, wispy strands would protrude and wave in an uncommonly gracious way. It started to grow long in all the wrong places – like a reverse mullet or the hair worn by a student of Rabbinical studies. It was uneven, but in the most perfect ways; accentuating his already obvious (to my prejudiced eyes) cuteness.

I loved his hair. I thought it was beyond adorable. And, in addition to that, I considered it to be the only thing (aside from his entire body) that he brought with him during his transition from womb to world. It was like the last vestige of his past during that time, from that place. After his umbilical cord had been cut, the crusty vernix wiped away and downy lanugo shed, his hair was the only thing that remained. A sweet souvenir. And I cherished it so dearly.

However, as time carried us further along life’s journey, I started to realize how his hair was becoming more of an impediment than an asset –  getting in his eyes, growing cumbersome; a nuisance which distracted his daily tasks. There were times when I would notice him moving along in pursuit of his favorite toy, only to stop, midway, and brush the locks from his face. That was when I realized we were long overdue for the obvious rite of passage. We had reached a new era and were about to turn over that proverbial leaf.

When we finally took him in for his first haircut, it was a lazy Sunday morning. We had no plans for the day. We hadn’t put a lot of forethought into the moment. It was an off-the-cuff suggestion to fill a lull in our weekend. We figured it would be fun. We thought it was more productive than milling the aisles of Target. But, more importantly, it was something that needed to be done.

In and out, the experience took no more than five minutes. There were no lines and little fanfare. Our son, as expected, cried big tears and screamed his way throughout the entire ordeal. This was, as we were told by the stylist, the typical response. But, after all of the wailing and protesting was made, the experience was finished. Behind us. Another of life’s big milestones checked off our list. And now there would be no more confusion – he had undergone his official transition from an “it” to an “he.” From a baby to a boy.

As we were about to leave, I thanked the stylist for her patience and told her how nice it would be that people’s confusion over his gender would finally cease. She chuckled, with a jovial lilt in her tone, and remarked with something that had never dawned on me before. She said, “If a boy is mistaken for a girl, it just means he’s a pretty baby. But if a girl is mistaken to be a boy, then she’s got a long road of hardship ahead of her!” I don’t know if that’s sage advice or just a kind adage from a person seeking a tip, but I took it at face value. And, judging from the face of my sweet little boy, with his newly trimmed sideburns and evenly shorn hair, I would have to agree that she’s right!

Lice, Lice Baby

liceAll right, stop! Collaborate. And listen. Lice were back. They weren’t even kidding. It was only a few weeks into the new school year when, tucked ever so delicately in my daughter’s backpack, there was a note from the school nurse alerting us to this fact. It read matter-of-factly “NOTIFICATION OF HEAD LICE – This letter is to inform you that a student in your child’s class has been found to be carrying head lice. Please take care to insure that this does not spread further by inspecting your child closely for the next two weeks.”

Past these opening lines, I can’t recall what else was said because everything seemed to go blank for a moment. Lice, I cringed. Again?! Already?! What were these kids doing and who was the evil culprit?! I wanted to get to the bottom of this.

My daughter was nonchalantly eating a snack when I unleashed my line of questioning on her. I asked, did she know anything about this epidemic? Was anyone called into the nurse’s office that day or the last? Had any of her classmates complained of itchy heads recently? Had any of her friends hugged or gotten their head near hers lately? What about scarves? Or brushes? Or hair clips? Or headphones? Did she remember that we don’t share personal items?!

To most of my frantic questions, she replied with an irked response of “I don’t know.” This didn’t help my mania. However, after more prodding on my end, she finally asserted that she knew better than to share head-related items with her friends. I took a deep sigh of relief. I felt at ease for a moment and let her resume the tastiness of her treat. I figured she could eat, unwind, and then we would do the old wet-hair comb-out with the trusty nit-comb we used during this last epidemic. There would probably be nothing. It would probably be fine. But, you know, just in case…

Then, when time came, as predictably as though it were a horror novel, all was not fine. There was something. And it was living in my daughter’s hair! Combing through her thick, brown follicles, I found not one…not two…not even three…but eight nits. Eight! No louse, but I knew it wasn’t far behind because eggs of any species don’t just lay themselves. No. There was a momma louse somewhere…and now the battle was on.

Quarantine began. I kept my daughter separated from the rest of the house as my work commenced. This meant that she was sequestered in her bathtub while I roamed around the house like a mad woman. I ripped off her bed sheets. Placed them, along with all recently-worn articles of clothing, into the washing machine for extra-hot laundering. Removed the gazillion stuffed animals in her room and placed them into a tightly closed trash bag. Then removed the trash bag to the balmy garage, just for good measure. I vacuumed her room, my room, the living room, the hall, along with all of our pillows and couch cushions. And I did this, all the while, with my eight-month-old son strapped into the baby sling I wore across my chest.

After the cleaning had taken place, the next step involved a delousing shampoo that we had purchased during the last school year, a remnant of our first encounter with head lice. That memorable occurrence, which happened as many things do – at a very unfortunate time – came about during the first two weeks of my son’s life. He was, thankfully, spared, as were my husband and I; but, my poor daughter quickly learned how it felt to be a “carrier.” And I was quickly schooled in lice-combing techniques.

This time, a mere seven months later, we were in the throes of “Round Two” in the battle of our family versus the lice. While scrubbing the foul-smelling chemicals into her scalp, I started to seriously consider the purchase of a hazmat suit. I also toyed with the idea of removing my daughter from public school. Teaching my children the strict importance of NOT hugging anyone. Ever. Not to mention the idea that we should all, very truly and in a notably utilitarian fashion, just shave our heads. My pretty daughter, with her fondness for all things relating to hair styles and beauty tips, cried when I let that last thought fall from my mouth into her earshot. Yes, the lice were starting to make me crazy! And they were ruining what had started off to be an otherwise wonderful day.

By the time my husband got home, everything was a mess. My daughter was sobbing. My house was turned upside down. And I was frantic – exhausted from all of the cleaning, itchy from psychosomatic worry and anxious for a resolution to this problem. I feared all of the possible outcomes that may result from this situation. That my infant boy would contract it. Or my husband. Or me. And, worse even still, was the thought that what if we all got it and would never, ever be able to get rid of it. I could picture the tiny louse eggs hatching all over the house, multiplying with every passing minute, and consciously hiding under our beds so they could lay in wait, knowing just the right opportunity to attach to our heads.

In retrospect, it’s almost comical how such a small bug, a mere pest, can cause a rather terrible commotion. There is no logic to it. If I were to take a time machine and go back to the earlier, more ignorant and less calm version of myself, I would walk her through the situation with a more scientific approach. Let her know how things really work and why she shouldn’t worry so needlessly.

I would explain to her that head lice, unlike other parasites (such as tapeworms, hookworms, mosquitoes, scabies, body lice, and bedbugs), do not spread pestilence or create bodily harm. Though pesky, they are relatively easy to contain and are not as dreadfully contagious as one would think. They don’t jump, hop or fly. (Fleas have cornered the market on jumping and hopping – mosquitoes have the flying covered.) And they can hardly stand to be away from the scalp of a human for any length of time. As a result, no, they do not live on other surfaces. (Unlike pinworm eggs.) And, no, they do not lay in wait for another human host. (That’s the modus operandi of bedbugs.)

The life of a head louse is very tenuous. Lice need to eat every two to three hours and can only live apart from their host for about two days before they die. As for any eggs they lay, if for some reason they are not on a surface as warm as a human body, they will not hatch at all. (Think of a chicken egg that does not get the warmth of a mother hen.) Of course, if the louse egg does get the warmth it needs, the nymph will hatch – but it then must eat within a very short period of time or else it will die. This is why the mama louse all but glues them onto their host hair shaft.

Another interesting fact about lice: whatever blood-type they originally ate in their first meal is apparently the only type they may continue to eat, unless they are starving. In other words, they can make a change but, in doing so, they will die. Why? Because the different blood-type, or even different Rh factor, causes – wait for it – an explosion in their intestinal tract. Yikes! Take that, bastards!!

So, it seems fair to say that after knowing their lifestyle nuances getting rid of them is not nearly as daunting. However, the number one rule in the process of removal is important: there are NO short-cuts! Use the delousing shampoo of your choosing. Chemical. Non-chemical. Natural. Nuke. Whatever you are comfortable with. Just be sure that each and every nit MUST be removed from the head and the head must be scoured with a nit-comb daily for the next couple of weeks. If it’s too time-consuming and it feels like an impossible feat, just remember that it’s always harder to treat a problem when it’s larger than when it’s smaller. After all, these suckers can lay about 4 eggs per day which means, if you’re not careful, the situation can go from bad to worse almost overnight!

Next, I would reiterate that lice don’t live on surfaces. That means overly laborious cleaning can go out the window. The bed-sheets and clothes, bath towels and hairbrushes of the infested person need to be cleaned – and in very hot water – but, the whole house doesn’t have to be turned upside down. Focus only on the items that the person with lice has come in contact with in the past 24 hours. Vacuuming is a good idea but a person doesn’t need to become crazed about it. And, as for stuffed animals, just bag them up and take them away for a little while. There’s nothing more to it than that. No chemicals or foreign practices needed.

While it’s no walk in the park and definitely highly ranking on the top-ten list of least favorite things in the world, I would also stress the important of weekly (yes, weekly) lice comb-outs…you know, just in case. Even after the infestation is a distant memory, as long as your child is in school it’s important (for mom’s peace of mind, more than anything else) to do these regular checks.

As for special “lice barrier” shampoos and sprays, they don’t work. We were using them religiously after the first encounter and, guess what, they didn’t build any sort of magical force-field that would keep the lice at bay. My recommendation: don’t spend the extra money on shampoo that smells like salad dressing. Instead, just buy a good quality metal nit-comb and keep your eyes open!

Aside from all of that, it behooves any mother to know that contracting lice (especially for little girls) is merely a rite of passage. It is an experience that most people will face at some point or another in their child’s elementary years. Period. And, though it sucks, it could be a lot worse. A LOT! I tried to remind myself of that fact as I combed out my daughter’s hair each day. At least she was healthy, I told myself. At least she didn’t have cancer, or a birth defect, or paralysis. At least this wasn’t anything that would affect her life permanently. And at least this nightmare would one day end.

To keep my mind occupied as I scoured her head for nits each afternoon, I ran through a whole list of “at least’s.” I even started saying them out-loud to my daughter so she could realize that this wasn’t as terrible as it may have seemed. Before I knew it, in the midst of this wretched new past-time of ours, she turned to me and said something truly special: “At least we get to be together.”

It was then that I realized that maybe, just maybe, we could get through any ordeal as long as we did it as a family. With that, I gave her a kiss on the forehead and told her that I loved her. I was so proud of how amazingly mature she had become because of this. Of course, I wanted to follow my words with a hug, but decided we would save that for another day. Once this was a more distant memory. You know…just in case. And following the given two-week quarantine period, that’s just what we did!