No one tells you about the nits

KILLER COMB: There are many treatments for nits in the market, but you'll always need a comb.
KILLER COMB: There are many treatments for nits in the market, but you'll always need a comb.

They tell you about the cracked nipples. Warn of the sleepless nights. Of the necessity of pelvic floor exercises.

Your body, they say with a faraway look in their eyes, is no longer your own. And as for sex... well.

They speak of introducing solids. The terrible twos. Oh, they happily fill your head with horror stories of projectile vomiters and hysterical refluxers.

But what no one bothers to tell you about motherhood, what they overlook completely, are the frickin' nits. About the hours of your life, not to mention the money, lost to their eradication.

Sitting in a dim restaurant the other night with a group of girlfriends, all mothers of school-age children, drinking tall glasses of rufescent sangria and eating salty almonds, the talk turned to head lice. To cooties.

We outdid each other with tales from the trenches. How one child's hair had been so infested her mother went through an entire roll of paper towels wiping the comb clean.

How another had covered her children from their necks down in white sheets, and sprayed them regularly with fly spray while she worked.

Our indignation knew no bounds when one recounted how, during the holidays, her daughter had a friend come over whose head was alive with lice. I couldn't, she said, in good conscience, let her start high school being that girl. A ripple of approval travelled around the table.

Right on, sister! Normally, she said, she takes pleasure in keeping a running total. (My own personal record: 103 eggs; 22 babies; 16 adults.)

But, she said, for the sake of the girl's self-esteem she restrained herself. Another woman at the table said back home in Malaysia it was a class thing. Here though, she pronounced with great solemnity, everyone has them.

It's true. Five years ago my son came home from kindergarten with nits and proceeded to pass them on to his baby sister.

We've had them on average three times a year since. Around my decidedly middle-class neighbourhood, the wellcoiffed mother furiously scratching her head is a common sight. The first time I was forced to ask friends to check my head I knew real shame. Now we do each other's on a regular basis. Last year a friend and I routinely met on a Saturday morning to wage war.

Bundling sobbing children into the bath, we would shampoo them with some toxic mix, plonk them in front of a DVD and painstakingly comb out their hair, rinsing off bugs and eggs into a bowl of hot water.

Every mother I know (and the odd father, but in most households it seems to be a task divided along gender lines) is a nit expert. Some will recommend washing with vinegar or tea tree oil.

Others a particular brand of shampoo. Some will swear by a long-toothed comb. Others a Robi-comb (battery-powered, it shocks and kills lice on contact). Some will claim the road to salvation is plenty of conditioner and a shower cap. Others frying with a pair of hair straighteners.

I have tried them all and the truth is none of them work. Not really. I have battled nits all summer. Held my children down while they kick and scream and I drag the comb through their hair. Waiting in line at the pools or the movies, I have cuddled them to me while surreptitiously running my hand over their scalp. When I'm meant to be reading them a story at night I am distracted by the opportunity for a final check under the superior light of their bedside lamp.

Every so often the media has reports of parents going to the vet, pretending the family dog has fleas, and then dousing their children with the pesticide. I feign shock. But I am, I fear, only one infestation away from resorting to the same desperate measures.

I have horrified, I'm sure, countless childless colleagues with my incessant talk of nits. How on a head of thick, long hair it is not dissimilar to looking for a needle in a haystack. How the secretion that adheres the eggs to the hair strands works better than any super glue. How wily and speedy they are. And how, even once caught, they are extraordinarily tricky to kill. Squashing them does not work. You must break their backs.

Nits are neither new, nor are they unique, but we are, I am convinced, in the throes of an epidemic. It takes diligence and obsessiveness to rid your child of lice. And you can not trust other parents to act accordingly. So the cycle continues. Because all it takes is one tiny egg.

Politicians, heed my call. Put aside your promises of baby bonuses and microeconomic reforms in this election year. Pledge instead to return the nit nurse to the schoolyard. There are votes to be had.

Sunday Magazine