Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Head Lice, Critical Mom Style

The first time one of my kids had head lice, it took us a week to figure it out.  Jimmy (not his name) was four at the time, and normally a sound sleeper.  But for several nights in a row I heard him yell out in his sleep:  "Lemme ALONE!  Lemme ALONE!" and then I heard flopping noises, his legs crashing against the wooden frame of the bed, then mumbled imprecations, the worst insults he could think up at that age, then snores--loud ones.
The teachers at his kindergarten had checked all the children for head lice, they said, so I didn't think to look myself.  Until he scratched his head vigorously, and I noticed, when I picked him up from kindergarten, that the teachers were checking little scalps under a light so weak that one would go blind trying to read a book under it.
I should have known better when my daughter, then just four, started scratching several years later, but I was distracted.  She was visiting me in the hospital where I was recuperating from pneumonia and as she regarded me sadly, scratching, she asked, "Mommy, does the doctor you live with now say I can't nurse forever?"  I thought my sudden removal to the hospital and the ban on nursing (too many antibiotics coursing through my veins) had traumatized her.  So I said, "Sit on mommy's lap and I'll brush your hair." And I brushed her hair, thinking to soothe her, and after she'd gone home I brushed my own hair.  With the same hairbrush, alas.  I assumed that the extreme scalp itch I felt within a day or two resulted from the antibiotics--itching, they had told me, could be a side effect.  On my daughter's next visit I brushed her hair again, and happened to look down and see little gray things crawling through her scalp.  I called the nurse, who sent the doctor, who took a look and jumped back, gasping but this time not (as had my son's pediatrician) screaming.

So, pay attention, mothers and teachers:

(1)  Get a really strong flashlight or the kind of lamp that TV cops train on the face of suspects whom they are interrogating.  Train that lamp on your kid's scalp.

(2)  If you see the little gray things crawling along the edge of his hairline, or little white things stuck to hair shafts, do not do what my son's pediatrician did:  jump back shrieking, in a panicked fashion, and yelp, "OH!  These are more than a week old!"

(3) Do not buy that stuff the pediatrician prescribes--the Nix, The Rid, The Quell, and certainly not the stronger stuff.  At least, don't let the chemical carcinogens approach be your first.  Save the big guns for the last resort.

(4)  Mix together olive oil and a bunch of essential oils, better yet "Therapeutic Grade" essential oils.  Go on the net for everybody's home recipe, and you'll find many.  Here's one I like, which includes the kind of comb you'll need: 

Do your own research on essential oils.  Citronella, for example, repells not only mosquitoes but head lice, so if your kid doesn't have head lice YET but everyone in his class does, try a dab of this.  If he tolerates it--mine liked the smell, but some kids won't--you can rub a handful into his scalp.

(5) The basic idea behind  grease-based approaches to head lice remains simple:  cut off the air supply of the lice.  A scalp full of mayonnaise, a plastic bag firmly fixed over the scalp so that the stuff stays on all night (this is the tricky part--you want to keep an airtight plastic wrap or plastic bag around his scalp without asphyxiating him.  If the wrap is too lose, it comes right off the first time he turns over in his sleep.)

(6) I think the olive oil mixed with essential oils is the best bet--it's easier to get out of the hair once the cure is done.  Olive oil smells better than either mayonnaise, or--for the determined--industrial strength vaseline, a substance guaranteed to both asphyxiate and drown lice, if you put enough on.  Even if the plastic wrap falls off, the lice are buried in sludge.  Expect damage to your sheets, either way.  The drawback with vaseline is that it takes forever to get it out of the kid's hair.

(7) The night after the cure, you'll need to get a lice comb--the market simply abounds with fancy lice combs that light up the eggs with neon so they're easy to see, but the cheap one from the drugstore works fine.  Get a bowl, put in half water and half white vinegar, and then just keep combing, just keep combing, just keep combing, just keep combing . . . until you feel like Dory, the attention-deficit fish in Captain Nemo.  That should be about long enough to get rid of 'em without Rid.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Amsterdam and the Critical Mom

We're here on an overcast, cool day, unseasonably cold but still laid back as only Amsterdam can be:  some guy flinging his leg over his windowsill to have a smoke, leaning just far enough out so that one little push would send him crashing to the pavement but he's cool--he pulls back just in time.  Guys in feathers, guys in rubber, a guy in a pink tutu, great tits, and White Rock fairy wings just ahead of us at the hotel registration desk.  My eight-year-old advised me as we strolled the streets surrounded by uninhibited merrymakers, "Mommy, I don't feel quite safe here," and I reassured her that she was with us and once we got to the lovely little Portuguese restaurant near the Central train station, she enjoyed her meal very much.  We'd been standing on a corner so long trying to find something in the Lonely Planet Guide that we just gave up and decided to walk along one of those skinny, windy, twisty streets with bright round little beer ads above every restaurant sign.  And it all worked out.  We spent the afternoon at NEMO, the science and technology museum, being thrilled by bubbles, trick mirrors, chain reactions, the sound of DNA (animals, including spiders, sound harmonious.  HIV sounds dissonant).  There's no music of the spheres in disease, I guess.  It was indeed a curious experience hearing the sound of DNA--worth the price of admission, as was the slanted roof garden which overlooks much of the city.  It's a friendly city and the language is curious and gutteral--not like English, not like German, but more or less understandable to one who speaks both. 
Two of my children thought it might be fun to play their musical instruments and make a little money, so we set them up in front of a long line that we misconstrued as a wait for one of the ferries.  It turned out to be a wait for the Anne Frank house.  As my oldest remarks, "Good thing I wasn't playing the German national anthem."  My youngest was told folks were complaining, and that proved a good opportunity to explain that her cheerful rendition of Eine Kleine Nachtmusik was not appropriate for the very sad story of Anne Frank, which we told her.   But P.S. both kids made more than I make in an hour.
The longer we're in Amsterdam, the more I think of the place as ancestor to a better New York.   Amsterdam is New York with a middle class, New York un-invaded by the ultra wealthy.   Amsterdam has cute little boutiques and gorgeously designed crafts at reasonable prices.  It has museums.  Outside the Zuidas district--"financial mile"--it's pretty much free of skyscrapers, and the red brick traditional, Cuypers-influenced school of architecture brings the Upper West Side to mind.  Plus there's more than an echo of The Strand in Amsterdam's American Book Center ( whose friendly staff and lively selections made me homesick--not as many miles of books, but service with a smile, even though the honest, friendly Dutchman at the front did not ask to see ID when I offered my passport as proof of age in order to get a discount.  "No, I believe you," he said, imagining I would be pleased.  I briefly re-considered Botox treatments, but realized that the amount I had just invested in books was equal to the cost of a single Botox treatment.  We took a tour of the Royal Palace and another of the Rijksmuseum, where among the Rembrandts and the Caravaggios and the Mannerists I sought images of William of Orange, since family legend has it that my ancestors, mercenary soldiers of the same, were granted lands in Pennsylvania after some war . . . now which one was it, because at last count there were more than nine Williams of Orange.  The Dutch Royal family re-numbered them, starting with the first, the second, etc. in the 19th century, because, my fourteen-year-old says, William the twenty-fourth sounds less cool than William the Fourth, and William the Two Hundred and Fiftieth sounds severely un-cool.  He has a point.  In any case my relatives are said to have landed in Pennsylvania sometime in the seventeeth century, where, had they remained, my family might have become Philadelphia Main Line--but oh, now, those tough soldiers marched on to the Carolinas, where we evolved into Southern Gothic.  Another story.
We toured the Royal Palace and a question that had been on my mind --why do the Dutch Royals look so much happier than the English Royals--got an answer: the Dutch have a tradition of abdication.  Queen Beatrix handed over the Queenship to her son Willem, just as her mother Wilhelmina had abdicated in favor of her.  Whereas Elizabeth just goes on forever.  The English, Shaw observed, think they are being moral when they are only uncomfortable.
Amsterdam is a delight--I highly recommend it, especially for anyone who misses New York

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Angelina Jolie's Breasts, Modern Science, and The Critical Mom

Fifty years hence, mothers will be sitting down with daughters and saying, "There was an actress, sometime around 2011, or a year or so later--I can't remember her name--who had her breasts cut off because she thought it would prevent her from getting breast cancer.  And it didn't.  You know, they used to just cut everything out--"
And the daughter's jaw will drop.  She'll say, "Really, Mommy?"
  Journalists applaud Angelina Jolie for her bravery in parting with her breasts.  She appears to be acting in good faith on the advice of her doctors, who have informed her of the likelihood that she will, like her mother, contract breast cancer. Her mother died at 56--my age--from breast cancer, and Jolie herself has a "genetic variant" that her doctors have told her makes her likely to come down with the disease.  Her aunt, at 61, just succumbed as well.  Women with BRCA1 or BRCA2 mutations have a risk of 60-90% or of 87% depending upon which medical authority one asks.  Their children have a fifty percent chance, says the medical opinion of the hour. 
But unless you can act on it immediately and knowingly, such information remains harmful.  A so-called 87% chance might as well come out of my sixth-grade Math textbook, How To Lie With Statistics.  The Spring 2013 issue of Columbia Magazine offers an article on pre-natal genetic testing, asking the question whether genetic markers indicating potential problems in a fetus should be discussed with parents.  Yes and no.
It all depends.  Even things that are true can be proved.  Women worry when they are pregnant.  Why give them more to worry about especially when the squiggle in the genetic material suggesting a possible problem may just be a slightly sloppy hunk of human material meaning absolutely nothing?  They can't really tell whether certain squiggles are pathological or merely idiosyncratic.  Should a mother worry that her fetus might have developmental delays when the geneticists find something unusual?  Should Angelina Jolie really have had her breasts removed just because her mother died of breast cancer and Jolie herself has the "genetic variation?"  
She regards her own mother idealistically:  ‘I will never be as good a mother as she was. She was just grace incarnate. She was the most generous, loving — she’s better than me.’  Meanwhile her mother-in-law, a health advocate, insisted she go get tested.   What if Jolie's decision is a contorted way of mourning her mother?  If Jolie is terrified, then maybe she has a reason to be, but it is she who should evaluate the sources of her terror. Not her doctor. Did her mother breast feed?  Jolie breastfed her twins.  Breastfeeding is one of nature's protections against cancer, but of course it's not foolproof.  Nothing is.  But the hunches of the woman diagnosed with problems or potential problems are more important than the diagnosis.  A pregnant friend dreamed repeatedly that her baby was being strangled.  She told the doctor her dream and he laughed at her.  The child had the cord around his neck.  I told my doctor that my second child was enormous.  With the most sophisticated ultrasound equipment then available, my doctor insisted that he was anything but--"maximum, 3,700 grams," insisted my doctor, who had done his Ph.d in ultrasound.  P.S. My son weighed 4,200 grams (9 1/2 pounds) and was 56 centimeters long (over 22 inches).  At birth, he'd outgrown the baby clothes mailed him by well-meaning friends.  
Now, my doctor knew much more about medicine than I did.  I know nothing.  But I was right.  I had a strong feeling and I did not tell myself "Oh, well, the doctor knows more than I do."  I wonder about Angelina Jolie.  Did terror or her own good sense drive her decision?

Sunday, May 5, 2013

The Critical Mom's Memories

Somehow or other, I've always kept a journal, and I'm glad that even though I was writing almost in my sleep when my children were young, I recorded some doozies.  Samples:

First son, then age three, ran stark naked down the stairs after a bath when he was supposed to remain upstairs, donning his pajamas.  Picture the energetic child laughing maniacally as he escapes the clutches of the middle-aged (at this point 44-year-old; God, how young) mother who yelps ineffectually:

"You come back here!  Come here or I'll grab you!"

"Gwab me!  Gwab me!" yelled the imp, delirious with delight.  "Or I won't like you anymore!"  (Pause.)  Turning to the exhausted Mom at the top of the stairs with a winning smile,  he added, "It's just an expression!"

The same child, the same year, coming home from day care:  "Why does it rain?  Oh, I know, 'cause God is sad, and also it's good for our plants!"

Unsurprisingly, the kid's brother and sister have at least the same energy level.  The brother, same age (three does seem to be a self-assertive time in a person's life):  Mommy leaves the room for a nanosecond; comes back to find the brother has dumped an entire jar of strawberry jam on his 14-month-old sister's head.  She looks exceedingly startled, then appears to reflect and to conclude that this must be part of the normal course of events.  She seemed considerably less sanguine when I left the room for the proverbial nanosecond while she was in the bath, and her brother seized the opportunity to dump half a bottle of shampoo on her head. 

Now, this girl is most logical.  At six, she looked at an ancient and beautiful monastery which we were observing from the window of a home in a traditional Bavarian village, and when I said that for many years monks had lived there, she asked:  "What kind of monks?  Chipmunks?"

Ah, those were the days.  Now it's all about "Why can't I have Grand Theft Auto?" and "But he really is an asshole and I know I'm not supposed to say that but I don't know another word!  Asshole!" or "I don't feel like practicing my recorder today" (with an affecting sob).

It's true.  They are growing up.  And it's still the greatest show on earth.