When I decided to go to school to become a dentist, a big reason for me was the flexible lifestyle it offered, especially because I could work part-time while raising kids. My future children were always a big part of my life plan, but I hadn't really grasped what it would be like to be a mom in hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt thanks to school loans by the time my dental schooling was over. (CareerIgniter.com noted that the American Dental Education Association put dental students down as graduating with a student loan debt of more than $241,000 on average.)
In order to enroll in dental school, I borrowed money, mostly as federal student loans — subsidized and unsubsidized as well as grad plus — under the impression that I’d be able to pay them all back fairly easily once I graduated, got a job, and got on my feet. I know now that thinking this way was extremely naive. I thought dentists made enough to cover the education costs. I had this vague ideology about dentists being rich, making a comfortable six figures annually. (According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, general dentists averaged $161,750 per year as of May 2011.) I thought that because the cost of education was so high, the salary I'd earn would match. Unsurprisingly, I couldn't have been more wrong. Turns out, not every dentist makes that kind of money. It also turns out that this especially wasn’t true for me. The way I want to practice dentistry (I specialize in prevention and dental disease) and the fact that I want time at home with my kids means struggling to pay back my loans prevents me from being the kind of mom I hoped to be, and it's devastating.
When my son was born back in 2013, I decided to only take eight weeks off from work because my loans were so expensive. Fortunately, my husband and I were able to squeeze our budget and make it work since I’d without pay during this time. (As an associate dentist working as an independent contractor, I get no paid vacation, sick, or any other type of medical leave.) Looking back, I remember, in my postpartum emotional roller-coaster, crying and obsessing over having to go back to work. It was almost pathological at times. How could I leave this little love of my life? The thought of leaving him was unthinkable. I started to wish I’d been born and raised in a more caring society, like Sweden or Norway — somewhere less dog-eat-dog and individualistic. I naively imagined that someone out there would care for my plight. I wrote letters to Warren Buffett and the Gates Foundation, forgetting that oh, I don’t know, maybe they were trying to solve bigger problems than my own?
The interest I accrued during my leave was added to the lump sum of the loan, and I’m paying for the “time off” in a big way. My federal loan interest is set at 6.55 percent, and I currently owe over $140,000.
Because I’d really connected to the attachment parenting philosophy while I was carrying my son, I thought I could use some of those basic ideals to help ease the transition back to work. However, this didn't really help me feel better about my transition back to work. Leaders in attachment parenting say that work and attachment parenting don't have to be mutually exclusive, but the message that leaving your young child to go back to work isn't good definitely felt implied. According to AttachmentParenting.org, attachment "parents should "explore a variety of economic and work arrangement options to permit your child to be cared for by one or both parents at all times." Because my husband and I couldn't do that, I already felt like we'd somehow failed our baby. The attachment mom in me was telling me how horrible I was for leaving him to go work, but the realist in me was much more concerned with how we'd afford to survive if I didn't.
Unfortunately, the day I dreaded eventually came and I very reluctantly handed my little one over to the sitter to go back to work. Doing so broke my heart. I cried in the car on the way to work. I felt forced back to work too early because of the financial pressure of my loans and the need to provide for my family.
When I got pregnant again a couple of years later, I knew I wanted more time with my daughter, so I took almost four months off, putting my loans in forbearance. This was a smart decision for me emotionally, but not a good financial one. The interest I accrued during my leave was added to the lump sum of the loan, and I’m paying for the “time off” in a big way. My federal loan interest is set at 6.55 percent, and I currently owe over $140,000.
I feel inadequate at the office; inadequate at home. I spend too much time working on the business and not enough time with my children, and I hate that I’m one of those people who all too often always has her phone in her hands.
Because I'm breastfeeding and have to pump every few hours, I realized fairly quickly that I’d never have the time to do that and work in a big office. So I decided it was time to start working on my own practice while also continuing to work as an associate with a friend. But launching a practice with zero patients and a philosophy based on prevention and reversing dental disease aren’t the fastest ways to build income in dentistry. In this speciality, I'm paid on a commission basis and prevention procedures are often low to no cost. Though it doesn’t yield the same big paycheck I thought, I do it because it's the kind of care I would want as a patient. To be able to stop the cycle of cavities is the best gift I can give, and I find it very fulfilling even if it doesn't pay the loans off.
My loans hang like a dark shadow over me, causing me to fray at the seams. There’s a feeling of inadequacy that sinks low into my stomach. I feel inadequate at the office; inadequate at home. I spend too much time working on the business and not enough time with my children, and I hate that I’m one of those people who all too often always has her phone in her hands. Even worse, when my son asks me the same thing over and over because I’m distracted by my thoughts or by Facebook marketing, it makes me feel like a bad mom. Another part of the problem is the guilt I feel for not being able to do other things with that enormous monthly check. Visit my husband’s family in Poland? Sorry, we can’t swing it. Even though it would be so good for the kids, it’s just not in the budget for now. College, anyone? If it keeps up at the rate it’s going, I'll still be paying off my own loans by the time my kids are enrolled.
I know that, all things considered, I'm fortunate to still love my job. Honestly, if I didn't have the loans, I'd still want to be a part-time dentist, focusing even more time on the parts of my work (like prevention and disease) I love most, even if they do earn me very little money. I'm fully aware that there are women and moms struggling to make it paycheck to paycheck without the burden of their loans weighing on them, and I know I'm lucky to have the work, privilege, and support I do. But that doesn't mean I'm not struggling in my own way.
Years ago, I had a picture in my mind of the kind of mom I wanted to be for my kids. My loans make it impossible to make that dream come true.