I’m going to tell you a secret, but you have to promise it won’t leave this page. Because it’s kind of gross, and sure to damage my standing among the more hygienic members of society: I don’t floss. I just don’t. And I’m tired of apologizing for it.
Every six months my dental hygienist — a very sweet woman when she is not wielding pointy tools and preaching bacterial fire and brimstone — reminds me that my slacker approach to oral health is a dangerous game. She threatens me with gum disease and implies that when I fail to root out the evil lurking between my bicuspids, the terrorists have won.
I look appropriately ashamed and vow to dust off the box of mint-flavored string in my medicine cabinet and hunt down the plaque-breeding bastards with everything I’ve got. But we both know I won’t do it. Because — and here’s where dentists may get cranky — I have a life.
It’s not a glamorous life, or even an especially interesting one. But like those of most working moms, it’s busy. It’s full of grocery shopping and laundry folding, homework checking and carpool driving, deadline meeting and invoice tracking. There are birthday cards to be mailed, flu shots to be scheduled, and property taxes to be scrounged up.
I realize that my incisors are untidy, and I accept it with the same exasperated shrug I give to my limp houseplants, unwashed dog, and hard water-stained stemware. The floor of my car is littered with empty water bottles, the wall of my dining room bears a grimy handprint that — no kidding — has been there for two years, and there’s a junk drawer in my bathroom I don’t even want to tell you about. But I’m supposed to fixate on a little tartar?
If I set aside the three nightly minutes it would take to floss my teeth and applied it instead to, say, reading a page of a classic novel, I could have finished The Sun Also Rises this year. I could have done 27,450 sit-ups or purged 5,795 emails from my inbox. My Christmas cards would already be addressed, stamped, and stuffed.
The point is there are so many things we should all be doing but don’t. Saving for retirement. Avoiding the sun. Driving carefully. Driving less. Swearing off trans fats. It’s not that I don’t want to do these things; it’s that I haven’t figured out how to fully commit to them without losing my mind.
A working mom I know confirms that we all make choices. We let things go. If she had more time, she says, “My photo albums would be up to date, shaving would be a daily (not semi-monthly) event, and my ‘to-be-filed’ pile would not be skimming the ceiling.” Notice she didn’t mention flossing. “It seems like taking care of myself is the first thing to go when it comes to balancing work and kids,” says another working mom. “Simple things like flossing and washing my face at the end of the day seem like too much effort.”
Perhaps the lesson is that our lives are over-scheduled. If we can’t find time for basic personal hygiene, we’re probably misprioritizing something. And maybe there’s a smidgen of rebellion in our refusal to do the little things we know we should. There are so few responsibilities we grown-ups can let slide without facing serious consequences: poverty, prison, heart disease.
So if I can haul my kisser into the dentist twice a year while continuing to earn paychecks, maintain friendships, and raise a family, that’ll have to be good enough. Besides, if I can keep a colony of gum-dwelling bacteria alive and happy, it’s more than I can say for my houseplants.
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