Literary Mama writing about the many faces of motherhood
The Secret Lives of Dentists

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"Da!" Eli announces when I fetch him after his nap. "Da! Da-daaah!"

"Mama," I answer. "Mama."

I know I shouldn't take it personally - he's just using the one sound he's mastered to identify everything from the dog across the street to his brother Ben and, most appropriately, his dad.

Still, I wouldn't mind a little linguistic love.

"I grew you in my body," I remind him.

He grins and holds his arms up for me to lift him.

"Da-dah!" he answers.

It's not like he's playing favorites. We still nurse, so I might even have an edge right now. Perhaps because Tony and I both work from home, neither boy has ever played favorites with us. We share the big and little chores of parenting as equally as we can with the unintended, often useful, result that our boys can take us for granted. We're unremarkable, like teeth.

I've had parenting and teeth on my mind since watching The Secret Lives of Dentists (Alan Rudolph, 2002). Neither a documentary nor a 50s-era hygiene film, the movie is based on a novella by Jane Smiley. I was looking forward to a well-written narrative about family life, with the bonus of a good-looking cast (Campbell Scott and Hope Davis, the married dentists in question). Of course, when I suggested it to Tony for our weekly rental, I'd forgotten that despite the appearance of suburban normalcy -- a comfortably messy house, station wagon, and charmingly disheveled daughters -- Smiley's story fictionalizes the affair that torpedoed her first marriage.

The movie opens in the dentist's chair, and for some of us that may be as painful to imagine as one's partner embarking on an affair. We move quickly from there to another kind of hell: the chaotic family dinner table. There's David, the father, trying to interest his kids in Brussels sprouts while mom Dana floats around the table singing opera. She's beautiful, ineffectual; her daughters are no more interested in her dramatic song than in the vegetables on their plates.

Like the smartest horror movie, the film doesn't show Dana's affair, only the hazy signs -- her erratic schedule and mood -- that lead David to suspect one. We feel the strain it puts on their marriage as surely as we feel the ache in David's shoulders from carrying Leah, his limpet of a toddler, all day long. ("She's like part of my body," he shrugs, having managed, like the best multi-tasking parent, to pee without putting her down.) The affair manifests itself physically, as the girls and then David all succumb to a stomach bug; we also witness its emotional impact on the daughters, who can't let go of David. The camera focuses tightly on sleeping Leah's hand, clutching David's finger from her crib, then, later, on daughter Stephanie's hand as she grips his. He is their only acting parent, reliable as teeth.

Thankfully, despite the affair and the flu, the movie is bitingly funny, and for that we have Dennis Leary to thank. He plays Slater, a disgruntled patient who haunts David as a projection. He pops up with snarky comments about the "monster" children, the straying wife, and David's seemingly emasculated position. Appearing in the car while David drives carpool, Slater jibes, "So, uh, you're kind of like the mommy. You pick them up and drive them around, it's sweet." Slater voices that segment of American culture that finds any fatherly participation in a family remarkable.

"Why are you so devoted to this?" Slater asks David. Why indeed? Parenting is messy and difficult. Often, like David, we only get vomited on for our efforts. He's used to doing mundane work, whether it's repairing a filling or changing a diaper. Slater calls it mommy-work, but it's maintenance-work, small contributions anyone dependable can make for a family. David, a good dentist and a good parent, does the work hoping to keep the family intact for Dana's return; he knows how to fill a gap.

It's hard to tell, day by day, if we're parenting well. We do our maintenance work, the brushing and flossing of family life, and trust in our everyday efforts to keep the structure healthy. It's remarkable, really, that any family survives under the myriad pressures it faces in this world. Family is unlikely as teeth, but like the hard enamel in our tender mouths, it's tough.

Eli cut a new tooth recently, so we bought him his first toothbrush; it's never too early to get a kid started on the routine maintenance of teeth and family life. And maybe he needed that tooth to say the word I've been waiting for. After naptime on a recent sunny day, he opened his mouth, silently flapped his jaw open and shut a few times, and then finally called me Mama.


Caroline M. Grant served on the editorial board of Literary Mama for over ten years, including five as Editor-in-Chief. She is currently Associate Director of the Sustainable Arts Foundation, which provides grants to writers and artists with children.

She is the co-editor of two anthologies: The Cassoulet Saved Our Marriage: True Tales of Food, Family, and How We Learn to Eat (Roost Books, 2013) and Mama, PhD: Women Write about Motherhood and Academic Life (Rutgers University Press, 2008). Her column, Mama at the Movies, ran on Literary Mama for six years; she has published essays in a number of other journals and anthologies.

She lives in San Francisco with her husband and two sons; she writes about food and family on her blog and at Learning to Eat. Visit her website for more information, including clips from her radio and television events.

Caroline is former editor-in-chief for Literary Mama.


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Caroline, I've gogt to see this movie - thanks for reminding me. That novella by Jane Smiley is one of my very favorite works of hers. I never saw it as a comedy though... well, off to Netflix!
Another tooth, another name.... an interesting juxtaposition!
Hi, Caroline, I've got to put this one on my list- another good essay, looking forward to the next. -Mary Ruth
Hooray for Eli and his first tooth and his first "Mama" to grow out of his mouth! I love the comparison of dental maintenance and family life. We do the work and have faith that it is good enough. Peace, Noël
Hi Caroline -- I saw the movie. I remember finding it quirky and oddly disturbing. It wasn't one of those movies that I left feeling good after seeing. I liked your essay better than the movie. I love the way you weave your own family life into your commentaries. And isn't it nice when they finally master the all important 'Mama.'
Jane Smiley has always been one of my favorites. Will get the vidio, Congrats on Eli's tooth--Mama ane
I agree with above: the essay, for me, is better than even the IDEA of a movie about dentistry and infidelity. And I love the metaphor of maintenance, lack of maintenance, and decay. A lovely essay.
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