The Dental Assistant

My parents raised me to be as independent as possible. My dad was adamant that I receive an education and make myself capable of supporting a family on my own. He warned me that I should never plan on depending on a husband to fulfill my needs. So I worked hard, received good grades in high school, and began to save up for a full-time LDS mission and for my college tuition. I knew that I wanted to be a dentist, so I started working in a dental office my senior year of high school. Although I grew up with subtle sexism, the weight of my religion’s cultural double standard between men and women’s aspirations truly struck me within a 24-hour period. It started when I was at work.
I was flossing a patient’s teeth and having a small conversation with him. Typically, my conversations with patients are pretty much the exact same. I bring up the same topics, ask the same questions, and react to their responses in the same manner as I do with every patient, every day. However, I received my mission call to Bulgaria for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints just a few days earlier, so I decided to add some change to my regular conversation.

“I just got my mission call to Bulgaria on Tuesday. I’m really excited,” I said. 

The patient’s eyebrows raised and his eyes expanded.

“Really? I served a mission in Australia. It was extremely difficult but I’m glad that I went. Call me old fashioned, but I don’t think women should be serving missions. They need to be more focused on getting married and being a mother.”

I stared at the man for a moment, not knowing what I was supposed to say next. This wasn’t the first time that members from my religion promoted marriage and motherhood over other aspirations. The subtle sexism was slightly upsetting, but I was at work and needed to respond in a calm, professional manner. I shrugged my shoulders.

“Yeah, but I’ll only be 20 years old when I get home. That’s still pretty young. I will have plenty of time to focus on marriage and motherhood then.” I was grateful that my medical mask was covering my frown. Once I finished polishing the middle-aged man’s teeth, I escorted him out of the clinic and wished him a good day. I turned and saw the receptionist and the dentist looking back at me in shock. In this specific office, gender stereotypes were broken, as our receptionist was a man and the dentist I worked for was a woman. But to me, a male receptionist and a female dentist shouldn’t be seen as a funny abnormality. Careers don’t have gender.

“What a sexist thing to say!” said Dr. Rachel, “You’re still a teenager and you haven’t graduated from college yet! Why on earth should you be focusing on getting married?”
Chad, our receptionist, also chimed in with a, “I would be sick if I heard that my 18 year old daughter was trying to ‘focus on being married’. What does that even mean?”

At that moment, I remembered that I was the only LDS person in the office. Dr. Rachel and Chad aren’t used to the constant conversation about women getting married and having kids like I am. It seemed as though the patient’s sexist comments offended my co-workers more than it did me. I think that’s because I had become somewhat numb to the ideology. I almost responded to Dr. Rachel and Chad by explaining that my religion starts to prepare us for marriage at the age of 12, but I figured that response would only make the situation worse. I had to say something, though.
“Yeah, it’s normal for members of my church to tell me that. I’m used to it.”
For somebody about to leave on a mission, I definitely wasn’t doing a good job at making my religion sound appealing. Dr. Rachel and Chad didn’t seem convinced by my response. If anything, their facial expressions went from shock to complete worry. Although I enjoyed the basic doctrines of my religion, I couldn’t deny the discrimination and double standard that I was experiencing. I turned away from Dr. Rachel before I could ruin my religion’s reputation any further. As I walked to the back of the office, I could feel my numbness melting away and began to experience a wave of emotions. I began to question everything that I had been taught. Does God really want me to focus on getting married and having kids? Is my desire to be an educated, medical professional an attack on the family unit? Am I selfish? Am I being tempted by Satan? How come men don’t receive the same backlash that I do? Am I wrong?

Later that evening, I was meeting with one of my church leaders to prepare me for the temple prior to leaving on my mission. For the sake of privacy, I’ll call him Brother Stevenson. I loved Brother Stevenson and was close friends to a few of his kids. I felt refreshed seeing my leader after an exhausting day and this interview was only getting me more excited about leaving for Bulgaria. I sat down in his office and he began to ask me questions about my personal life.

“Tell me a little bit about yourself. Are you working right now or going to school?”
“I’m currently a dental assistant for an office in Riverton. I’ll go to school after I get home.”

“A dental assistant, huh? Good for you! Do you want to be a dental hygienist?”
“No, I want to be a dentist,” I clarified.
I held onto my skirt and prepared for my Brother Stevenson’s response. I knew where the conversation was headed. My leader smiled and said, “Wow. That is awesome. I have a few friends who went to dental school and they said it was pretty difficult. I imagine it being even more difficult for a woman with kids.”

A woman with kids? I couldn’t tell if my ecclesiastical leader was passive-aggressively discouraging me, or if questioning how I’d be a mom and a dental student was out of a cultural habit. I tried to give Brother Stevenson the benefit of the doubt and assumed that he was raised differently than I was. He probably had happily married parents. His dad probably worked full-time while his mom did all of the parenting, cooking, cleaning, etc. He probably had twice the amount of siblings that I have. His family was probably more traditional than mine.
Thinking about my non-traditional family and divorced parents started to build guilt and shame within my stomach. I was taught that Satan causes divorce. I was taught that my family was “broken” because of Satan. I started to wonder if my desire to be a dentist and my lack of urgency to get married and have children was also from Satan.

As I thought about who I was and what I wanted out of life, everything about me seemed to be against my religion.

I silenced my mind to avoid getting emotional. I shrugged my shoulders and responded with an exhausted,

“Yeah, dental school would be difficult for a woman with kids.”

2 thoughts on “The Dental Assistant

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  1. When I was a member and had high career goals, like Neurologist, Neuropsychologist, or Psychological Researcher (all requiring PhD’s), I used to get a lot of shock from members—and especially members of my family. Everything to them was either a “backup plan” if my husband died, or it was “too difficult” (too difficult for a woman I suppose?), and honestly up to the time I left the church I was just being crushed under all the sexism and how all my goals were seen as only ever a back up plan, and I always felt like I was only ever second to a man because they could be neurologists, neuropsychologists, and researchers; they could follow their dreams with no trouble from anyone, they could be *whatever they wanted to be* and all I could ever be was a stay at home mom. This really hurt me because I didn’t even want to be a mom. I hate sitting still. I *love* working.
    Eventually the suffocating sexism was way too much for me to handle, and among many other things this “broke my shelf” and I decided to leave the church for good. I have never felt so free and like so much weight was just lifted off me. I can finally breathe!
    I know this may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but it sure helped me to realize my full potential without being crushed under everyone’s sexism, including my religion’s. I finally feel like I can be free of all the judgement my past religion hardwired into my brain. I’m free and happy.
    I support everyone in any journey they’re on though, and I support you in your journey to reform the church. I genuinely hope you’re able to accomplish your goals.

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