I used to think of myself as a person with great teeth—I was 21 before I had my first cavity—but pregnancy changed all that. Ever since my son’s birth, my teeth have been falling apart. Literally. In spite of endless brushing and flossing, my teeth are decaying so rapidly that sometimes a chunk of tooth will just break off. It’s demoralizing (not to mention painful, inconvenient and really, really expensive).
I’ve spent the past month and a half bouncing in and out of dental offices. So far it’s been two trips to see my regular dentist, three trips to the endodontist and a brief appointment with an oral surgeon.
But one recent visit really irked me.
“They tell you kids cost a lot of money, but no one told me about this side of it,” I joked recently while forking over a cool thousand dollars for my latest root canal. “Pregnancy really messed up my teeth and they haven’t been the same since.”
“Aww, you poor thing,” the receptionist replied. “But it’s all worth it, isn’t it? Considering what you got out of it.”
“It was worth it, wasn’t it?” has become part of our lexicon when discussing pregnancy, childbirth and postpartum issues. I’ve certainly used it when describing my own experiences—I can’t even count the number of times when I’ve reflexively finished the story of my c-section with “but it was all worth it.” Saying it felt a bit like knocking on wood, a way of ensuring that I didn’t jinx my child’s existence in this world. After all, what wouldn’t I go through for his sake? Viewed through that lens, almost anything becomes worth it.
Lately, though, the phrase sets off a slow boil inside of me. A dozen or so of my friends have had babies within the past year, and every time one of them even faintly complains about anything related to parenthood, someone else always jumps in to remind them that it’s all worth it in the end. You know, considering. Watching this play out over and over has made me re-evaluate my relationship with the idea of pain and worthiness. For example, no one has ever asked me if my knee surgery was worth it, although frankly it was, since it allowed me to walk again after a bad cycling accident. I don’t feel compelled to refer to the depressive crisis I had last year as being worth it, even though it eventually led to a series of treatments that profoundly changed my mental health for the better. I feel entitled to complain about these things as the frightening and painful events that they were, without the need for any footnotes or addenda. So why aren’t people who have given birth allowed to do the same when talking about the difficulties they’ve endured?
Pregnancy is a complex physical and emotional event that impacts just about every part of the body: internal organs shift and are compressed, joints become painfully loose, hormones alter everything from your appetite to your moods to the thickness of your hair. In my case, pregnancy hormones altered how my body responds to plaque, and acid reflux weakened my enamel, both of which have sped up the process of tooth decay. At first the changes felt manageable—a cavity here and there, no big deal—but over the past few years my dental problems have become much worse without much hope of getting better.
We talk about going back to “normal” after birth, but the truth is that most bodies are profoundly and permanently changed in one way or another by the trauma of pregnancy and birth. And why wouldn’t they be? It’s almost impossible for such huge, rapid changes to happen without any lasting effects. That some of those effects are uncomfortable, painful and downright miserable shouldn’t come as a surprise, and yet it’s still a struggle to speak openly about these things.
Part of the problem is that many of the health issues associated with pregnancy and childbirth are considered to be embarrassing. Things like incontinence, hemorrhoids and vaginal tears are all common in postpartum bodies, and yet there’s such a strong social taboo surrounding them that people will often wait years before even talking to their doctors about these things—if they ever seek help for them at all (fun fact: an examination of Queen Victoria’s body after her death revealed that she had a prolapsed uterus, which she’d apparently been keeping to herself since the birth of her last child 44 years earlier).
But another part of the reason why these things are rarely discussed is because there is this persistent cultural idea that anyone who complains about them is somehow ungrateful. It’s as if these debilitating ailments aren’t ailments at all, but just the price you’re expected to pay for having a child.
At its core, using the phrase “it was worth it” with regards to pregnancy and birth implies that some kind of exchange has been made. But that’s not how it works. Pain, misery and discomfort shouldn’t be treated as the currency we pay for children. If you wouldn’t describe any other health issue as being “worth it,” why you use those words to describe the suffering of someone who has given birth?
My son is the absolute light of my life, and I am so thankful for his presence in this world. But none of that negates the fact that the dental problems I’ve had since his birth have been incredibly painful and debilitating. I should be able to complain about them, full stop, without having to qualify my complaints in any way.
I love my son. I hate what being pregnant did to my teeth. Both of those truths should be able to exist in the world at the same time.
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