After ignoring nagging pain in my teeth for years, I finally went to the dentist recently.
Don’t get me wrong, I’ve had annual cleanings since kids came along, but skipped x-rays and generally dismissed the pain for a long time. I was pregnant, I was nursing, I was pregnant again, I was nursing again… I was busy. I was a mom with little kids. So many excuses. So many reasons to ignore myself.
Those little kids of mine have had dental appointments every six months that I wouldn’t think to skip—and they have nothing wrong with their teeth.
But when it came to taking care of myself in this basic way, there was always something else that seemed more urgent. I know I’m not alone in delayed self-care. It’s one of those mom-things so prevalent that we hardly notice it.
But like they say about justice, “Self-care delayed is self-care denied.”
It turns out that my pain wasn’t caused by a cavity, as I’d assumed. Apparently, I clench my teeth so much that it’s causing general gum sensitivity. Which has built up to the point of acute pain. The two dental assistants—both older women, moms and grandmothers—both said that teeth clenching is a classic mom problem.
As my dentist said, “You can’t really get rid of stress as long as you’re a mom, so we treat the impact.” His own wife, a mother of four, has been wearing a night guard—the main recommendation for treatment—for about twenty years. I can’t stop being a mom. So minimizing the impact mom-stress has on me is pretty much my only choice.
Stress is no joke—we suffer from it, our bodies suffer from it. Our near constant stress builds up in our bodies to the point of physical pain. Pain we often ignore for as long as possible.
In my case, the stress-induced jaw-clenching got so bad that… I finally *had* to deal with it.
I’ve been thinking for a long time about sentences like that one: “It got so bad that…” In my early mom years, I caught myself saying things like that A LOT. And I knew I had heard that voice before… from my own mom.
It got so bad that…
“At six months, my son was up six times a night and my exhaustion got so bad that I was afraid I would drop him trying to carry him down the stairs.”
“Our house was such a mess. It got so bad that you could smell the dishes piled up in the kitchen sink when you opened the front door.”
“We have so much laundry piled up. It got so bad that we were rinsing out dirty underwear in the sink just to get dressed.”
It’s like we can’t justify doing something to make our burdens easier until they reach some kind of terrible climax. Even when we can see the bad thing coming from a mile away, it’s not until it’s right on top of us that we feel like we can justify doing something about it. Unless I’m in tears, unable to cope anymore with some stressful thing, until someone gets hurt or something breaks or I’m so ragged I become physically sick, I feel like I can’t intervene to make it better.
I can’t ask for help unless I have a terrible story to tell first. It’s like I’m afraid that I’ll be judged for taking care of myself before I fall apart. If it’s not clear that I’m about to absolutely collapse, I’d better keep trying, even if some part of me knows where things are headed.
But I know I can’t stay up every night and not suffer. I know my husband and I need to have date nights before we feel like we’re strangers to each other. I know I need time alone before I start to yell at my kids. I don’t need to wait to hear myself yelling before I step back and realize that I need a break.
So, I’ve tried to make it into a kind of mantra. Instead of waiting for something (or someone) to break, I’m trying to make things easier starting at the moment when I realize it’s not sustainable behavior. If I start to hear myself going down the “it got so bad” road, I try to intervene on my own behalf before the bad thing happens. I try not to wait until I have that sentence I could say to everyone that will make it plain to see that I had no other choice than to make my life easier.
Clearly, I have more work to do, because it got so bad that I had sharp jabbing pain in my mouth. I had to go to the dentist. I had to take care of myself. Because it got that bad. Actually, I needed to take care of myself before I let it get that bad.
By the way, the mouthguard really helps. Why did I wait so long?