Parenting Stories: My Super-Hot Night Guard

I haven’t been sleeping much at night.

It’s not because I’m being kept awake by pottying kids, or fears about the economy, or by that rat that has the run of our attic and somehow keeps evading the carefully set peanut-butter traps.

I’ve been grinding.

No, that’s not teen-speak for a new dance my husband and I are working up for the company holiday party.

I’ve literally been grinding my teeth. I think I’ve been doing this for a while but was afraid to acknowledge it — what’s one more bad habit in a household full of them?

My hidden habit has come to a head, though. A couple weeks ago I went to the dentist (after evading my 6-month checkup for two years, another bad habit). I somehow avoided any cavities but apparently, my teeth are showing obvious signs of secret nighttime clench sessions.

How is it that everything else on my body just gets slacker and looser, but my jawbone gets tighter?

After I opened wide and demonstrated my bite, the dentist examined my mouth and promptly asked me whether A) I am stressed (yes) and B) I experience creaky, crunchy feelings when I move my jaw (yes!).

“You have a very powerful jaw, and a ton of neck tension,” my dentist, a cross between a Ken doll and Justin Bieber, said to me while softly rubbing my mandible. “You should get regular massage.”

Ha. Can you put that in writing please?

Dr. Ken/Bieber said that grinding is apparently common for busy moms and suggested a night guard, something that sounded vaguely threatening and not hot at all. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that the crunchy jaw and daily headaches were probably signs that my clenching habit was out of control and would finally have to be dealt with. I opened my mouth and yielded to the pink goop that would make a mold. Off it went to lab somewhere that churns out dentures for old folks and night guards for mothers like me.

This week I went back to have my new Night Guard 1000 (just kidding, not sure what this thing is called: iGuard3? Protector 2.0? The Quarterback?) fitted.

It’s really not that bad. It’s clear, makes me sound like the Swedish Chef, thrusts my upper lip out like a puffer fish, and is extremely tight and might make me inadvertently drool, but otherwise it’s great. Supposedly I will now be prevented from grinding by this incredibly high-tech plastic crescent.

The most interesting thing I learned is that retainer cases have not changed since I was in junior high.

Yes, just like your junior high retainer, this iGuard3 comes in a horseshoe-shaped plastic case (my new one is purple; my junior high retainer case was red, and therein lies the only difference).

Twenty-three years and there has been no, and I mean absolutely zero, innovation in retainer cases. What is up with that?

Holding this horseshoe-like plastic case with my new mouthpiece immediately transported my back to being 12. This means I was transported back to a time when my defining features were wildly crooked teeth, out-of-control puffy hair, an uncertain expression dotted with pimples, a mouth full of prepubescent hardware, a nightstand piled with glasses, secret diaries and neck gears, and an abiding desire to blend into the background.

Inside, I felt smart and engaged and excited and sophisticated; outside I projected a snarl of emotions and a fear of rejection. I was a little bit angst-ridden and a lot self-conscious.

And while I spent hours of my life between 12 and 13 lying back in the orthodontist’s chair, getting wires and screws tightened, impressions taken, and dental goop slopped and scooped, I had a lot of time to think about my social standing at school (precarious) and study the office’s collection of fashion magazines demonstrating all the ways in which I was simply … not cool.

As a younger kid I was teased for my “four-eyes” and … well, I’m not going to confess it all here. Let’s just say I had my share of garden-variety 1980s schoolyard teasing.

In junior high it was a more sophisticated form of judgment I learned to live with. Exclusion. Subtle stares. And, mostly, the worst of all: Being ignored and passed over by the girls who seemed to have it so together.

Things have changed a lot, and they haven’t. We’re way more aware now about bullying, and about empowering kids to be proud of who they are, no matter who they are.

But bullying can be shifty, and hard to recognize. Kids are still bullied every day for an ever-shifting range of targets: Looking different, being gay, wearing pigtails.

During an editorial meeting this week, a group of us ParentMap editors, all parents, tried to tally the many ways in which kids can feel left out, have trouble making friends, or be made to feel insecure in their social setting. How involved should a parent be if their child has a hard time making friends, we wondered? As parents, do we make sure to teach our children not only to tattle on obvious bullies but also to mind their own subtle exclusions of others?

Yesterday my two daughters, hyper-aware already at ages 5 and 7 of the ills of bullying (and always on the lookout for one) asked:

“What happens if a bully asks to play with you?”

Uh. I could tell this was not one of those hypothetical questions derived from some plot on a crappy cartoon, the likes of which I of course never let them watch. My immediate thought was to run and put my new night guard in so that I could answer “fthftld kugght smufffphwwet” and be done with it.

But dammit, this was obviously one of those “teaching moments.”

“Well,” I started, “sometimes bullies are bullies because they are lonely, or scared, or feeling bad about something. So if a person asks to play with you, then you should welcome them in and give them a chance. Maybe that is just what they need.”

Two sets of big eyes stared silently. There was more here that needed to be said, I could tell.

“And if someone isn’t brave enough to ask you if they can play, but they are hanging around, or nearby, or don’t have anyone to play with, what’s the right thing to do?” I prodded.

“Invite them to join in,” one of my brilliant daughters offered.

Ja! Lesson taught. I wonder if any of those too-cool junior high girls were ever told by their parents, or someone who they modeled their behavior after, to look past the braces and four eyes of girls like me.

Because, of course, it’s what is on the inside, not the outside, that really matters.

I will remind myself of that regularly as I pop open my new-old purple plastic horseshoe case, click in my super-hot night guard, and settle down for a good night’s rest.

me_flowerIn between school drop-offs and coffee binges, Natalie Singer-Velush is ParentMap’s Web Editor. In her former life she wrote for newspapers and once pumped milk in the bathroom of the King County Superior Courthouse while covering a murder trial. She was also once chased by rabid raccoons. Natalie lives in Seattle with her husband, who thinks she’s hot no matter what, and two school-aged daughters, who will definitely be getting braces, retainers and neck gears.

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