I wasn’t originally planning to spend my entire career in public health dentistry. It was a starting off point, a place to get my feet wet after graduation, to hone my clinical skills and continue learning from my colleagues. But a year passed, then two. I found myself becoming entwined with the community, thriving in a role I never meant to fill. I couldn’t walk away. I didn’t want to. Ten years passed.
Strict limitations on dental procedures combined with public fears led to a near complete halt on patient influx. My employment could not be justified and my notice came: “Effective Tuesday, March 31, 2020, you are hereby laid-off.” I typed my last progress notes and went home, lugging my breast pump with me as usual. I dropped it on the entryway table for what I didn’t realize would be the last time. My husband’s business had already transitioned all employees to working from home, which for him was a comedy of answering emails and taking business calls while chasing after our four year old daughter and eleven month old son. I greeted my family and began to face the uncertainty of providing for them during a global pandemic.
We spent those first few days restructuring finances and cutting unnecessary expenses. I filed a claim for unemployment, something I never envisioned I would find myself doing. I commiserated with friends in different reaches of the dental community about how their own clinics and offices were being affected: layoffs, closures, loans, teledentistry, and more unemployment claims.
A few weeks passed and a few more. My husband was able to actually get his work done from home while I adapted to my new role as a stay-at-home-mom, the single most difficult and rewarding job I have ever had the privilege of doing. I assumed the role of home school teacher for my daughter’s virtual learning assignments. I took my babies for long daily walks. We found wild blackberries and honeysuckle growing in our neighborhood. My daughter picked every flower she saw. We spent our days hunting rainbows in the water sprinklers, baking goodies, building forts, riding bikes, and watching sunsets. My skin browned in the sun and I soaked in the days of the longest and most beautiful spring I can remember in south Alabama. I loved my time with my family.
I missed my patients.
May 1st brought a lifting of government mandated business closures as well as dental practice limitations. And a new protocol for the return to dental practice in Alabama allowed many clinics to reopen. But personal protective equipment shortages and skyrocketing prices became the next challenge. My employer struggled for many months to find an adequate supply of isolation gowns that met both recommended quality and affordability prerequisites.
June came, then July. Unemployment benefits were dwindling and I was facing the reality that I may not be able to return to my public health facility. As hope faded, I began regretfully updating my curriculum vitae and composing my cover letter to prepare for a job search. I also started to ponder how I could better utilize my time away from work. I was relishing motherhood and realizing that I had a unique opportunity to allow my experience as a mother to positively influence how I practice dentistry and my contribution to the dental community.
By the time of my layoff, I had been a mother for four years and I had spent all but five months of that time breastfeeding one child or another. I had developed a passion not only for breastfeeding but for helping others with breastfeeding related concerns. The concept of pursuing some level of lactation education had been brewing for some time, and I was feeling the call to implement my niche of both breastfeeding and dental knowledge into something valuable to others. Time was abundant and opportunity knocked.
I registered for the Healthy Children Project, Inc. Certified Lactation Counselor Training Course which was being offered online for the first time due to COVID-19. It was an enlightening course in which I both learned and unlearned a tremendous amount about what I didn’t know and what thought I knew about breastfeeding and human lactation. It is truly unfortunate how little I understood about the dental management of lactating mothers or breastfeeding children prior to gaining personal experience with breastfeeding. It has become apparent to me that there exists an educational gap among dentists when it comes to managing these patients, and the dental specific educational opportunities relating to the topic of breastfeeding are quite scarce. My hope is to change that.
Finally, on August 12, 2020, my former employer reached out to me with an offer of rehire at the proverbial last minute. A wave of relief and excitement overcame me while I also started to mourn the eminent conclusion of my days spent at home with my children.
It had been a blissful chapter in my family life which was afforded by a devastating pandemic: a lotus flower rising out of the mud of disease. But I was able to return to the practice of public health dentistry with my passion for my profession renewed. And with my newly expanded education, I am offering more to my community now than I could previously. Of greatest importance, however, my love for motherhood has been rejuvenated.
The balance between being a parent and being a dentist is a monumental challenge. Each day is a bittersweet choice to provide for my patients and my family, knowing there is a sacrifice that comes along with it. There is an ongoing tug-of-war over my time. But there is also a symbiosis of mutual benefit, my performance in each role enhanced by my experiences in the other. My greatest takeaway from my COVID-19 experience, however, is the reminder that ultimately my job as a parent is the most important one I will ever do. My maternal post-nominal title may not be visible, but believe me it is there, in bold and all caps: the letters M.O.M. preceding my D.M.D. Because I am a dentist, but first, I am a mom.