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Motherhood as a dental hygienist: What to know when you doubt yourself

Nov. 16, 2023
Balancing a demanding clinical career and motherhood can often feel impossible and lonely. One RDH shares her experience and how she's learned to be proud and content in the path she has chosen.

It's 5 a.m. on my first day back after maternity leave. I was up. I tiptoed to her crib, clutching a tiny onesie, to interrupt her rest. I gazed at her delicate profile and contemplated taking the day off. Instead, I changed her diaper and our clothes in the dark, hoping I hadn’t dressed her backwards. I loaded us into the car in a still, twilight portrait of the neighborhood. At daycare, I displayed my gratitude and reluctance to leave her so early, despite the staff’s drafty judgment. I finished the commute and prepared myself for the day. I anticipated the constant urgency, endless patient needs, and intimidating production expectations.

During my appointments I labored thanklessly to motivate noncompliant patients, and daydreamed about a career less emotionally and physically demanding (or at least one that includes bathroom breaks). At the end of the clinical day, I lagged, in a haze of exhaustion, to document relevant appointment details. Periodically and between fragmented thoughts, I calculated what time I’d get to daycare if I “left in five.” As we drove home I again prepared myself, this time for the evening’s constant urgency, endless family needs, and my energy deficit for household productivity.

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Next round of a busy day

Back home, I cranked out only the essential parenting tasks—and mentally shamed myself for doing so. I laid her down on schedule, sacrificing quality time with her I desperately wanted for returning her to the sleep I robbed her of that morning. Finally, I surrendered myself to bed, knowing I’d earned no recognition for today’s successes and that tomorrow wouldn’t likely be easier. Days became weeks and months; my routine remained largely the same. Circumstances did eventually normalize, but I’ll admit: my inner narrative still sometimes revisited doubts and feelings of inadequacy. I’ve not since lucked upon any life-changing solutions; I certainly didn’t become a supermom or devise a formula for breezing through the days.

I have, though, done away with the shame and begun to give myself recognition for daily successes. At work, I even reclassify “noncompliant patients” as oral health mentees, needing inspiration more than instruction. I now correctly identify my workday exhaustion as evidence of true devotion to my patients. Now the urgency, patient demands, and production goals all seem to resolve more smoothly as I enact my role in my patients’ health-care community. I welcome the challenges of being an educator, and I relish the “aha” moments shared between my patients and me. I am renewed in fervor to cultivate trust with my patients and to advocate for oral and systemic health. And I’m proud to have done that.

Slow down and know you're doing your best

At home, I categorize incomplete parenting tasks as “necessary pauses,” and elect to exchange them for sweet family time. If I get behind or fail to meet some needs, I ask for grace and support in improving. Finally, I recognize that the occasional family moments I miss for my career are also seeds sewn into our family’s future, and I optimistically expect a fruitful harvest from those labors. I confidently acknowledge what I am building for her: a stable home, a future secure and full of adventure, a visual example of hard work and its rewards, and most of all: a mother who prizes the moments we do have. And I’m so proud to have done that.

Hygiene mamas: you are absolute gold. Never underestimate your contribution to your children’s lives; never doubt this health-care path you have chosen. You are incredible servants to the patients you help and to the children you adore. You are not unnoticed. Choose joy and contentment with yourselves and your efforts every day. And in case you haven’t heard it lately: keep it up, girls. You’re killing it!

Originally published in 2021 and updated regularly

Michelle MacLean, RDH, is a full-time clinical hygienist in a general practice near Lawrenceville, Georgia. She has created and implemented practice protocols compliant with the 2017 World Workshop on Periodontal Diseases and Conditions. She is also a real estate investor and is in real estate school. She is married with a daughter. She can be reached at [email protected].