The orthodontist’s office brings out the best in no one. Actually, that’s a lie; my kid’s orthodontist’s assistants shine brighter than a thousand suns. I’m not really talking about them, though.
I’m talking about the patients and their families. Oh, those teens and pre-teens and tweens (those last two might be the same thing, no? I’d look into it in service of precision, but since doing so might force me to crawl out from under my denial that I’m the mother of one of them, I’m choosing to whistle as I walk away from the redundancy), those awkward, pained creatures with their pimples, their straggly hair, their sullen countenances. Maybe they’re not that bad in real life, but I’m telling you, in that tidy four-chair treatment room, that’s all I see. It is obvious that this is one of the few activities not worth getting to skip school for.
And oh, those parents, silent as they watch and wait. They look harassed. They look poor, even those well-turned-out ones who carry expensive bags and wear nice shoes. Or maybe I’m just projecting. Even though I know how insanely fortunate we are to be able to afford orthodontia for our older child, the amounts we’re paying must keep us teetering on the brink of insolvency, right? They must.
My daughter and I, we’re also at our worst, though we’re not like the others. I’m certain we’re the worst of the worst in our uniqueness.
L is naturally anxious and naturally curious, and in the orthodontist’s office the two combine in a maelstrom that keeps her talking, questioning, moving. She’s telling them that she thinks her wire is working just fine, that they don’t need to tighten it or change it, she’s asking, when, again, will the braces come off, and are they sure they know how to make the glue release? How will they do it? Will it taste bad? Are they sure? She’s lying on her belly on the chair, she’s reaching over to the tray with the instruments, she’s getting up and walking to the mirrors over the sink because she can’t get a good view in the handheld one. She’s taking off her shoes (or glaring at me because I told her to keep them on), she’s crying because she’s afraid it will hurt, she’s taking forever to choose the color of the new bands that will go on her brackets, she’s demanding to know why the orthodontist wants to keep hurting her. She’s being horrible.
Or at least that’s the way I see it. And that is why I am the absolute worst of all. I am tenser than the wire in my child’s mouth. I am poised on the edge of my chair, ready to pounce. I tell her to hush, I tell her to lie still, to keep her hands to herself, to put the mirror down. I tell her she’s asked that question before, that the orthodontist and his assistants know what they’re doing, that she doesn’t have to know the answer to every single question. I placate her with the iPad while she’s waiting, then take it back so that it doesn’t get in the way while she’s being examined. Enough, I say, enough. Just chill out, relax, so things can be over quicker. Just. Stop.
And I do this other thing, this thing that I loathe myself for even as I’m doing it, this thing that I do over and over again. I make eye contact with whatever orthodontist’s assistant is working on L (the orthodontist is usually too busy to look at anything other than his patients’ mouths), and I roll my eyes. I roll my eyes to say I know she’s a handful; yeah, she sure is a chatty one; gosh, it’s hard to be patient with her sometimes; Uch, I wish she’d just control herself better. I roll my eyes to acknowledge that she’s the loudest kid in the room and that I’m embarrassed. Most shamefully, I roll my eyes to show that am above this nonsense. I ask their forgiveness for my child, the nuisance.
The orthodontist’s assistants, bless them, smile at me in return. Their smiles are uniformly white and perfect, and they are genuine. I don’t think they’re smiling out of forbearance (of which they have plenty; anyone who remains pleasant with a scowling teen wearing headphones during his examination and grunting monosyllabic replies to questions like How’s the retainer feeling? is a saint in my book), and I don’t think they’re smiling because I’m her mother and that’s the polite thing to do.
I think they’re smiling because my kid is cute. Or at least quirky, but in an appealing way. My eye-roll is annoyed, and their smiles are understanding. Yup, they’re telling me. She’s a talker, and a hell of a fidget. Sure, we’d rather she’d hold off with the questions until our fingers are out of her mouth, but no biggie. We’ve got time to give her answers. This is, like, less than a tenth of a percent of our month. And really, no one else in here is bothered. They don’t notice, or they’re amused. And duh, lady, she’s scared! We’re poking and prodding and pulling and pushing—do you not remember those cheek expanders? You don’t have to have A Clockwork Orange as a reference to be terrified by them. This stuff we’re doing hurts, sometimes. We get it. No judgment. It’s okay.
It’s okay. It’s okay. That’s what I murmured to her—my sweet, whip-smart, inquisitive, loving girl, who excels at goofiness like no one I’ve ever met—to soothe her when she was a newborn. It’s what I’ve taught her to tell herself when her worries start to take over. It’s clearly something I need to remember next time we’re in that office, so that I can try to tamp down the worst in myself. It’s okay, because she’s my girl. Turn up your music, exercise that saintly patience, count the money we’re paying you, whatever it takes. She’s my girl, I’m her mom, and we will get through this orthodontia. (With as little eye-rolling as humanly possible from now on, I promise.)