By Carley Moore
“Where did you get that?” I stared at my ex-husband as he affixed a headlamp to his forehead and our five-year-old daughter wriggled off her shirt and settled into his office chair for what had to be the millionth hour of Angelina Ballerina.
“Duane Reade. Jealous?”
I nodded. I was impressed. Not to be outdone, I offered, “I bought coconut oil and tea tree oil which we can melt together and slather on after we pick. I also brought my hair dryer. I’ve heard they can’t take the heat. Oh, and new hair clips to section off the hair.”
“Mama, is there candy?”
“You can eat whatever you want.” The only way to get a five-year-old to sit still for an hour or two of nitpicking is to stuff them with sugar and cartoons.
M. rummaged around in the brown shopping bag of lice treatment products her dad and I had been toting back and forth between our apartments for the last week, and pulled out a bag of cherry hard candies. She scratched her shoulder and returned to the mouse dance drama that was unfolding in the English town of Chipping Cheddar.
This was our second lice battle. I’d found them crawling around on M.’s head before Christmas and spent a disgusted six hours shampooing and combing the still kicking lice out of her hair on a Saturday night. M.’s dad was out of town and after I was done, I went into my bedroom, shut the door, and cried for a quick minute. I felt exhausted and overwhelmed, like I feared being a single mom would feel in the months before my separation from M.’s dad. This time, the school called her dad, and he called me since it was my day. We agreed to get supplies and meet up later to nitpick. When I arrived at her school, M. had been quarantined in the nurse’s office with at least twenty other kids. Instead of speaking to the school nurse, I was greeted by a lice-removal salesperson, who was charging parents $1000 to comb through a child’s hair and de-louse the apartment. He thrust a flyer into my hand, and turned to one of his employees.
“She’s got live lice, right?”
“Yep,” the young woman didn’t look up from the hair of one of M.’s classmates as she deftly parted it with two small sticks.
M. buried her head into my leg and cried. I wanted to cry again too, but I didn’t. I’d learned that in my five years of being of mom—if you’re a good parent, mostly, you don’t get to cry. Or you do it later, on your own, with a glass of wine or with a friend or for a quick minute in the bedroom while the Backyardigans are dancing the two-step. There was something so galling about the cold practicality of the lice removal salesman when I was hoping for the folksy comfort of a school nurse. Do public schools even have nurses anymore? I haven’t met ours yet.
A week later, I found out from another mom in my daughter’s school that she actually paid over $1300 to have her daughter combed out and nitpicked. Neither M.’s dad or I have that kind of money lying around, and if we did, we’d probably spend it on summer camp or three year’s worth of school clothes or half of a shitty used car. I get that parents need help, and that many of the parents at my daughter’s public school can afford these treatments. Nitpicking and lice removal are big business, especially in cities where infestation is common and there are a lot of middle-class overworked parents. I found several articles about Orthodox Jewish women in Brooklyn who had become professional nitpickers after dealing with their kids’ lice. One has put six of her nine kids through college by nitpicking.
Nitpicking, I’d learned was a very particular kind of hard focused labor. It reminded me of the kind of feminine precision work I’d failed at growing up: needlepoint and quilting. You needed good eyes, and really good light, and you needed to care. “Don’t drop the stitch,” I heard my mother saying gently over the hoop of a sampler I’d botched. “You have to follow the pattern,” my 4-H teacher sighed into the soft light of her Singer. I was too impatient to be much of a seamstress. I refused to use the seam ripper on mistakes, instead insisting that I had my own vision, one that included dropped and crooked stitches. The results were shoddy and embarrassing. I usually stuffed them under my bed or threw them out altogether. As an adult, when I saw a quilting show of the African-American quilters of Gees Bend, Alabama, I understood the difference between improvisation and mistake. Intention. Vision. Belief. My daughter’s kindergarten teacher calls a mistake that turns into something viable, a “beautiful ooops.” As a young girl, I knew only patterns and rules. I wanted to be an artist, to improvise off of a mistake, but I couldn’t make the leap. Mistakes were to be ripped out. They were not a riff to extend.
Staring at my daughter’s teeming, bug-infested head for that first comb out, I knew I had no choice. I had to remove every last bug. It was tedious, precision work that we were too broke to pay anyone else to do. The nits are the size of a grain of sand, and you have to look on almost every hair follicle. My daughter’s hair is fine and long, and as her dad and I have taken to calling it under our breath “louse brown.”
M.’s dad and I have been separated for a year. We are slowly heading towards mediation and a divorce. We are friends, we talk or text most days, and we are co-parenting. M. spends half of her time with each of us. He is an excellent dad, and my dear friend. I miss him a lot.
When you Google the words “nitpicking” and “women” most of what comes up is relationship advice. The top hit is, “Want a Happy Marriage? Don’t Nitpick.” As I learn the true meaning of nitpicking, I think now about the ways in which I nitpicked M.’s dad when we were married, especially in those last two very hard years of our marriage. I suppose we picked at each other, or I picked and he withdrew. We both felt so wronged and so misunderstood!
You’re bossy. You’re very detail oriented. You like to be right. You cross all of your t(s). You can’t let it go. You have to have it perfect. You always get your way. I’ve heard phrases like these from parents, friends, and even-well meaning colleagues. I suppose my ex hurled one or two of these at me too, and I’m sure I deserved it. They are code for nitpicking, ball busting, acting the part of the difficult woman. The nitpicker is a good foil, a scapegoat for larger struggles around relationships both at home and in the workplace. And I admit too that I can be difficult and disappointed and exacting. But I’m also funny and sexy and smart! I may pick nits, but I am no longer that nitpicking wife—maybe I never was.
The last year has been hard on us all. M. is adjusting to living in two apartments, and to the loss of married parents. M’.s dad and I are mourning our marriage and learning how to live as single adults. But I see in our relationship of late, in our shared quest to rid our daughter’s head of vermin and our resistance to getting fleeced out of money we don’t have, some core beliefs about co-parenting that are at the heart of my new favorite parenting book, Co-Parenting 101: Helping Your Kids Thrive in Two Households after Divorce by Deesha Philyaw and Michael D. Thomas. I was drawn to this book because of its tagline, “practical advice from a formerly married couple.” Wow, I thought. They’re divorced and they managed to co-author a book! I’ll buy that! In their introduction, Philyaw and Thomas define successful co-parenting as “any post divorce or post-separation parenting arrangement that (1) fosters continued, healthy relationships for children with both parents and (2) is founded on a genuinely cooperative relationship between the parents.” They urge co-parents or divorcing couples that are considering co-parenting to put the kids first and to remember, “It’s not about you.”
And so for the two weeks, M.’s dad and I have come together to nitpick. We have two metal combs now, and though we can not both fit around the small circumference of our daughter’s head, we keep each other company, we make jokes, and we divide up the sections of her head.
“I’ll do the bottom, if you do the top.” He clicked on his headlamp. M. scratched at her shoulder again until it was red.
I suppose I write this essay as a wish to return nitpicking to its original lice hunting origins. Nitpicking is precision work, often relegated to wives and mothers, but it needn’t be so. M.’s dad is actually better at getting the nits off of her hair than I am. His vision is sharper and he has a firmer pinch.
Carley Moore is a poet, novelist, and sometimes blogger (www.carleymoorewrites.com). Her debut young adult novel, The Stalker Chronicles, was published by Farrar, Straus, and Giroux in 2012.