Nit-picking a sticky wicket

I have fond memories of my children’s head lice. Their extermination led to many cozy, peaceful days of family grooming and blanket boiling, searching through my children’s ultra-fine baby hair while they watched loops of “Wee Sing in Sillyville.” Maybe I’m glorifying history a bit, but the lice definitely created many golden, if itchy, family moments.

Nostalgia aside, though, there are two memories of lice that I’m positive I’m not making up. One is that it took many, many long hours to pick out and kill every one of those sticky little nits. The other is that it was close, personal work. The infested child must sit still on your lap while you comb and finger-crawl through her head, hair by hair. It’s an intimate, meditative task best performed by someone who loves the infested head.

That’s why I was shocked to hear from a friend whose son’s private school had a recent head-lice outbreak that you can now hire professional nit-pickers to de-louse your children!

I heard this news when my parents were in town for a visit. They live in Michigan, and have a hilly sprawl of deciduous trees whose leaves they raked themselves until this year. They aren’t the kind of people who hire workers to do what they can do themselves. So when my gardener showed up to blow my six or eight pine needles into my flower beds, I know my parents thought it extravagantly self-indulgent.


In fact, I realized, they probably felt about my gardener the way I would feel about professional nit-pickers.

We were on Day 5 of their visit, so I’d already been reduced to the emotional age of 11. I therefore felt very defensive about my gardener. After all, he depended on us for his income, and although my politically correct zero-scaping may not currently need mowing, it used to when it was lawn.

Since my mom is virtually blind and neither of my parents hears well, it’s entirely possible that neither of them really even noticed Jose, especially since with so little to do, he’s here and gone in a blink. But because of the nit-picking, I was sensitive.

I began to wonder if my children would one day see nothing wrong with nit-pickers as I see nothing wrong with gardeners. Would they hire nit-pickers to de-louse my grandchildren’s hair?


When I text-messaged my daughter, a college student enthralled with anthropology, about the de-lousers, she wrote back calling it the “ultimate separation from our roots.”

She said that in anthropology circles, primate grooming is considered a form of gossip that includes, one presumes, the latest about who got lice from whom.

According to her, as our communities got too big for us to groom everyone, we were forced to invent language so we could verbally groom one pal while physically grooming another. Something like how I was texting with her while posting about the existence of professional nit-pickers on Facebook.

But to the extent I was trolling for mom-points, I was disappointed. My daughter said that all she remembered about our long-ago, marathon nit sessions was that the shampoo stank and that I tried to bribe her with cute hats to let me shave her head.

Facebook reactions were mixed. One of my FB friends wondered what rich, private school kids were doing with head lice in the first place. As if in the old days lice were more discreet and only infested the heads of the poor.

Another FB friend said that if she could hire someone to come over and clean out her kitty’s ear mites she absolutely would. Point taken. Blood-sucking parasites are not universally appealing.

When I told another friend about the nit-pickers, she mused that maybe she was tired of flossing her own teeth.

OK, I can see that I won’t necessarily get a huge groundswell of Hallmark-esque head lice sentiment among my family members or Facebook friends, but still, I feel it worth noting that the picking of nits has now too passed into the realm of things we job out, and that’s infinitely more profound, in its tiny way, than simply having our leaves blown away by strangers.


Amy Goldman Koss is the author, most recently, of the teen novel “Side Effects.”