Facing the Dentist

Any time I see a dentist appointment on my calendar, I’m tempted to cancel it. “Oh, that’s not a good time for us,” I think, before logic kicks in and I remind myself: there’s never a good time for the dentist.

Smoke needed two cavities filled earlier this week, and I prepared us both for the appointment by pretending no preparation was necessary. “So, we’re going to the dentist on Monday,” I mentioned a couple of times offhandedly.

“I hope they don’t floss my teeth!” Smoke replied. His most recent memory was of a check-up, where apparently the flossing irritated him.

“Don’t worry,” I told him. “I don’t think they’ll floss you.” I didn’t urge him to reach further back into his memory, to the times when they’ve drilled into his teeth. Sugar-bugs, they call them at the pediatric dentist’s office. As if Smoke doesn’t already know the word cavities. As if calling it something cute will make his visit to the dentist any better.


 I can’t imagine what it would feel like to have your mouth worked on as a small child. In part, this is because I didn’t have cavities until I was in my twenties. But also, I just can’t fathom how any child under ten can summon the composure to have his mouth fucked with for nearly an hour, to be prodded with metal instruments, to have rubber spacers stuck between his teeth, to have his gums coated with cloying flavored gels, to have a stinky latex barrier spread over his mouth and clamped into place. How can he stand, without the patience that comes with maturity, that feeling of the tired jaw, the raw and bleeding gums, the massive gloved fingers pushing at your cheek, the sound of the drill and that burning-hair-burning-tooth smell?

My own dentist has invested tens of thousands of dollars on personal entertainment systems for their patients. Every time I go in for fillings, the assistant offers me a set of goggles and earbuds that will play a movie that only I can see. I always say “Yes, please. Distract me,” even though I’ll miss two-thirds of the dialogue because I can’t hear over the drills. When all the work is over, I stumble out of there swollen-lipped, numb-mouthed, and groggy. It’s a strange feeling to have a movie projected a quarter inch from your eyeballs while someone drills into your teeth.

But Smoke didn’t even have this option. He had a little gas to calm him, delivered through strawberry scented nasal hood. And I had to watch. As the assistant stretched the latex dam over his mouth, she warned Smoke that he wouldn’t be able to talk. “So you can just raise your hand up if something hurts or if there’s a problem.”

“Okay,” he said just before she fastened the dam in place. He lay there, plank-like, wearing goggles and a bib, the nasal hood covering his nose.

nasal hood

We waited for the anesthetic to take effect, and for the dentist to be ready. I poked around on my phone for a minute, and then put it away, reminding myself to be present. This wasn’t my dental appointment to check out of.

When the dentist arrived with the drill, the assistant reminded him “breathe through your nose.” My attention wandered to the pictures on the wall; unicorns, gnomes, and wizards. My eyes wandered and kept wandering, failing to take in that Smoke’s left hand was raised. Was he trying to get their attention, I wondered, or was he just doing that with his hand? I couldn’t hear anything above the buzzing, but I heard the assistant tell him, “just a minute.” She gently patted his hand down.

Moments later the hand came up again. Both times he held it at a right angle. She patted it down. Up it came again. His arm rested, but the hand rose in a clear gesture: Stop.

Once the dentist had finished his drilling, they removed the metal clamps and drew back the barrier. “What is it you wanted to tell us?” they asked him.

“I’m having trouble breathing through my nose,” Smoke said.

“You’re doing a good job,” they reassured him, and closed the dam again.

I sat there silently, feeling betrayed on his behalf. I got it, I really did. They did this job all day, every day. They knew when a kid was in pain or truly struggling to breathe. They knew that Smoke was a talker, raising his hand to fill them in on every concern, and they knew that if they unclamped the dam every time he lifted his hand, they wouldn’t be able to finish anything. It was in everyone’s interest to keep going. I agreed. I wanted them to keep going. I wanted them to finish.

And yet: they had given him that option. Your hand, they had said, is your voice. And then they had ignored him. I don’t mean to be dramatic, but this strikes me as dishonest and unfair.

As the assistant applied the fillings and sanded off the edges, Smoke’s hand rose again and again, his feeble reminder that he was uncomfortable and waiting to be heard. “Hold his hand, Mom,” she instructed me during the last few minutes.

I held his hand until he was finished, unsure if this made me a comforter or a collaborator.

In the car on the way home, I told him, “I saw that you were raising your hand and I saw that they were ignoring you.”

Sometimes as a parent, I’m not always sure if and when and how I should rescue my kid. But Plan B is always this: I tell him what I saw and what I didn’t like.


  1. I really appreciate your struggle over what was happening- and I love that you validated his experience for him. and I hope your dentist’s office reads this post and is more mindful of kids’ experiences in the future in terms of making promises and keeping them.

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