I sat in the waiting room of the local orthodontist’s office, and I was nervous. Our pediatric dentist had given the green light to get a timeline for our younger daughter Charlotte’s impending orthodontic work. Based on this news, I booked 2 appointments. One was with an orthodontist about 40 minutes from our house who specializes in holistic methods of orthodontics, namely ALF or a lightwire device to gently expand the palate and move the teeth into proper alignment. We weren’t able to been seen by that doctor for several months. I also called the traditional orthodontist and made a standard initial consultation appointment, set up for just a few days later. This is where I sat tapping my foot with anxiety as my mind raced with fears and concerns.
I was nervous because I needed to explain to someone that I was meeting for the first time Charlotte’s entire health history and more importantly my concerns about the pain and discomfort a traditional type of orthodontics would cause her, and I wasn’t sure how it was going to go over. While I looked like a typical, local 40-something mom, I knew my questions and concerns were not typical. I had a bit of Tiger Mom in me at the thought of stepping foot into anything mainstream medical, and I came armed to discuss several topics: how orthodontics would cause Charlotte more pain and discomfort than a typical 8-year-old based on her oral motor deficiencies and sensitive nervous system, the use of conventional orthodontics versus ALF based on her specific needs, the negative impact of any kind of palate expansion to her neurological development, and ultimately how important it was to me that her WHOLE HEALTH be considered as we make a plan to straighten her teeth.
I blurted out as much of this as I could in the first minute of our consultation. While I tried to keep my cool and appear educated and calm, I heard myself blurt out…”I guess what I’m trying to say….is that we’re not your typical patient.” I sat frozen for a moment until the doctor smiled and responded with “Well, I am not your typical orthodontist.” He nodded as if to say: Challenge Accepted. He then asked Charlotte to get up from the fancy dental chair she was wiggling around in and stand up straight in front of him. He proceeded to check the alignment of her head, neck, and shoulders. He had her open her mouth and bite down. He asked about her inwardly rotated knees and heels and showed a bit of concern that the lower part of her body didn’t seem in proper alignment. I agreed completely with his concerns and confessed that I didn’t have much of a plan for dealing with those pesky knees and feet other than strengthening the muscles through plenty of exercise.
Based on his examination, his recommendation was to visit an osteopath to check her full body alignment and make a plan for her heels, knees, and hips in order to ensure that her teeth and jaw were being fully supported by a strong and stable frame. He said there was no reason to change anything in the mouth if it was only going to move out of place without a body to support it. He encouraged us to see the ALF orthodontist and we booked an appointment to come back in 6 months to discuss all that we had learned. Brilliant! I could not have been more pleasantly surprised with how this appointment went.
A week later we made the hour drive to see the osteopath, an alternative medicine doctor that emphasizes the physical manipulation of the body’s muscle tissue and bones. Right up my alley! I love learning about the human body and secretly, this was an appointment that I had always wanted for Charlotte, but could never justify the cost. I was confidently calm chatting about Charlotte’s health history in this environment–a second story office surrounded by pine trees and cool ocean air coming in through the open sliding glass door developing a trust with this alternative medicine doctor who resembled an ambling Santa Claus.
He listened carefully to me and then laid her face-up on a flat table and quietly and methodically felt each of her bones and muscles in a way that was more like a massage than an examination. His conclusion was that she was a perfectly healthy and strong child. (He may have even said beautiful child too, warming my heart). He wasn’t at all concerned about her knees and feet and said that all of the exercise she was doing would bring them into proper alignment as she grew.
With a calm heart and mind, I utilized his attention and expertise to ask him some questions that had been rolling around in my mind about Charlotte’s development. “How do I make her stronger in her environment? How do I make it so that other kids don’t hurt her feelings so much? How do I make it hurt less when she gets hit by the soccer ball? In short, how do I toughen her up?”
He nailed it with his simple response, “Keep raising her set point. When things get easy for her, make it a bit tougher. Force her to adapt.” I nodded and shook my head at the same time. I knew that. I could’ve told myself that. That’s what we’ve been doing that all along with Charlotte, and I’ve experienced that first hand in my own body. He must have been reading my mind when he glanced and Charlotte and said, “Based on what you’ve told me, it looks like you’ve done a beautiful job so far.”
I loved how this appointment went, and I came home thinking about this idea of a set point. It brings out a humanness in us–forcing us to adapt to our own uniquely challenging environment. We all want to be better on some level and the belief that it’s possible is what creates our unspoken human connection. I see it in my gym everyday when my friends and I push ourselves to be measurably stronger or faster than we were just a few months ago. I see my older daughter Dana asking to dance in the classes with older and more experienced dancers as a way to push herself to the next level.
Why would it be any different with Charlotte? Why wouldn’t I naturally raise the bar for her? And while it feels so healthy, it’s so much more complex. I spent the first few years of Charlotte’s diagnosis making her world very comfortable. I protected her from failure and discomfort because she didn’t handle it well. And truthfully, when she didn’t handle it well, I saw it as a failure on my part as her parent. It’s not always pretty–tantrums and tensions, fears and frustrations day after day. And it was so easy to back the set point down, to control the child’s environment to make it safe and predictable as to protect my own sensitive self from the fear of failure.
But I didn’t back the set point down. Somehow we fought through the failure and the fears and landed here where we are today. Charlotte’s life is now full of challenging and rewarding situations that she handles herself, for the most part. She’s learned to sew and recently participated in a fashion show, proudly modeling the clothes she’s made. After just one season of playing rec soccer, she tried out and made a club soccer team. With two games under her belt so far, she’s played in the 80 degree heat and the cold rain. More important than the win or loss is that she has withstood the elements, learned to be on a team, and survived the challenges that she faced in her environment.
A few weeks ago, she sat with her elementary school principal and a yard duty and discussed a bullying situation that she was on the short end of. I wasn’t there to hear it for myself, but according to the principal her exact words were matter-of-factly, “I am sensitive and I get my feelings hurt easily. That’s why I’m so upset.” The issue was quickly resolved between Charlotte and the other girls as it was easy for the adults to navigate a solution based on the information Charlotte had given them.
More than anything, the appointment with the osteopath was part validation and part inspiration. Health is not an easy road to travel. There’s no magic pill or formula and there is never one person who will have all of the answers. Our desire to be better, more capable human beings comes from a place deep within us. Once again, I’m reminded that being Charlotte’s parent has forced me to face big fears, learn deeply about myself, and feel the amazing rewards that life has to offer. Ultimately, raising her set point is also raising mine.