by Rachel Mascord, Australia
Twenty-two years ago I entered dental practice.
Dentistry proved to be a very challenging career for me for many years. My relationship with it degenerated to the point that for years I hated going to work. I woke every morning dreading the day ahead and longed to escape. In trying to deliver perfection constantly…I lost connection to an understanding that true care and tenderness were possible – and an essential part of this field of work.
Moreover, I had no sense that there could be tremendous value in the quality I brought to my work by simply ‘being the real me’.
BEING A WOMAN IN DENTISTRY
I was a fairly bright young woman with a natural tendency to care for others. My self-confidence was very low, so I entered into my dental studies needing that qualification to bring me that confidence. I believed that in getting my degree I would have true value to bring to the world. I falsely thought dentistry would give me a sense of ‘worth’ and ‘importance’.
I did not understand that I already had something valuable and precious to bring to dentistry, something that was already within me before I attended a single lecture. To me, being a woman did not seem to have any special value or contribute anything to the intellect I’d held as being my most precious asset. I did not feel like I was breaking any ground being a woman in the dental profession and could not conceive that being a woman made any difference to the way I would be in dentistry, other than the benefit of having smaller hands!
The study of dentistry required intellectual rigour. The volume of work was overwhelming so there was not much time to learn the required technical skills: it was not an environment that fostered real learning, reflection and understanding, nor did it nurture students in any way. I easily fell into the trap of becoming competitive and hard-edged, all the while suffering acute anxiety that contributed to chronic insomnia and severe gastric reflux – at age 19.
Body posture was ignored in the clinic. Back and neck pain were “normal”. Clinical requirements were stringent and also testing. If we did not achieve enough work there was a real risk of failure and that meant returning for another year to do it all again…
To cope with the stringency we had to develop many skills that prepared us for our working years ahead:
- we became highly organised
- developed the ability to plan ahead
- did as much as possible in short periods of time
But there was a price to pay for this level of intensity:
- it was normal to be anxious
- quality of the work was paramount but what we did to ourselves was not
- our quality of physical, mental and emotional wellbeing was not important
Students who did not cope ‘just weren’t cut out for the rigours of the dental profession’. It was an unforgiving environment that created a certain way of perceiving our patients – they were seen as the source of needed units of work and never as people in need of care.
For me, Exhaustion became Normal
LOSS OF HARMONY – ERRATIC MENSTRUATION
My monthly periods were always chaotic, unpredictable and brought severe pain, fatigue and nausea. At the time I did not understand what I absolutely know to be true now; that the menstrual periods I experienced showed me the way I was living was completely out of balance to my body’s natural harmonious rhythm. My body would never choose constant anxiousness, overwork and self-criticism! This constant striving, pushing and coercing of my body from all the chosen ideals and beliefs made it impossible for my body to be in rhythm and experience a simple cleansing period cycle. In addition, the physical problems of working in dentistry such as “Dentist’s back” and mercury poisoning were mentioned but were seen as just a normal part of the profession.
ABSENCE OF SELF-CARE IN TRAINING
Our teachers neither talked about nor demonstrated in themselves a level of self-care. Their emphasis was focussed on “good workmanship”. What this meant was that the work was outstanding, when measured by strict technical parameters. The state you were in physically, mentally or emotionally when producing that work was of no significance whatsoever. You could be depressed, angry or frustrated, with an aching back, criticising your assistant but none of that mattered if the filling was “good”.
WOMEN ROLE MODELS – FURTHERING EXCLUSION
The women who taught us were ‘hard’ in their physical bodies and harsh in the treatment of female students. With the better-looking male students they would be quite flirty, yet were cold or cool when addressing women. This atmosphere had compounded my lack of trust towards women and I became quite scathing and critical of how bitchy and undermining they (women) could be. I wasn’t able to see that they offered anything different to our male teachers, other than greater harshness and more demands. These were the women who were our role models. In them I saw nothing that reflected a beautiful, tender, womanly way, united with skill and care, so I just learned to dress the part and developed a tough “sexy” efficient walk. I learned to push myself through pain, tiredness, insecurity and a dislike for myself.
In my dental training, it was never overtly stated that as women we were seen as inferior, however the male orientation operated at a subtle level. Disdain was the reaction to an overwhelmed woman expressing with tears, or asking for help. I expressed disdain for them too – how hard had I become within myself? “That time of the month” jokes were directed towards women who were upset or they were mocked for “being emotional”.
WHAT IS A ‘REAL’ WOMAN?
What I came to believe and imbed in myself was that my feminine qualities of innate tenderness and gentleness had no value against my capacity to produce excellent work at a pre-set pace.
Being a woman in this demanding set-up meant that you had to override your body’s natural rhythm… constantly.
The beautiful natural cycle in energy levels that all women experience had no place in dentistry.
It was considered a weakness to give in to that. A real woman got on with it and maintained a constant level of output. Coffee, chocolate, late nights and pursuit of excellence provide the energy to keep going. To be gentle, feminine, or heaven forbid to cry, was tantamount to failure. You could look “sexy”, but gentle or tender? Never! This atmosphere fostered separation, with selfish behaviours and arrogance, or hiding away and just getting on with it, alone.
It truly hurt to live and study this way, but it was the only way we could see.
The fuel that kept me personally going was the burning desire to succeed, to be the smartest, “the best”.
I did not value my physical, emotional or mental wellbeing. I believed that I could care for myself later – when I was ‘rich and successful’….
Discover how I turned this around in Part 2 Bringing Self-Care to Dentistry – 7 Steps to Returning to Love