As a kid, my mom always taught me that I was extremely lucky to have the advantages I had and to be grateful for them. I don’t know if she ever mentioned the word privilege, but she certainly communicated the concept. (For folks not familiar with privilege and the issues associated with it, John Scalzi’s Lowest Difficulty Setting and Being Poor, as well as this comic on intersectionality are a good introduction.) While a stupid mistake I made two years ago hit me over the head with my privelege at the time, a total accident recently did the same thing, reminding me of how fragile financial and social stability really is.
A few weeks ago, Chris started complaining about a toothache. Finally, it got so bad that as much as he hates going to the dentist, he called and was able to get in on the same day. Our church pastor had previously mentioned he was willing to look after Sprout, so Chris was able to rely on him for childcare. As it turned out, it was very fortunate that Chris didn’t bring Sprout to the appointment. While Sprout was watching cartoons and playing with our pastor’s mutt, Chris was undergoing an emergency root canal! The infection was so bad that the dentist said he had to get the surgery that day.
Of course, that appointment wasn’t the end of it – it never is with dentistry. As Chris needed a check-up appointment the next Thursday, I took time off for childcare duties and then worked from home the rest of the day. Chris then needed a second follow-up to fit the crown. As I had just taken time off work, was going to be out of the office at the end of the week, and the appointment was on extremely short notice, I really didn’t want to call in. Unfortunately, our pastor, along with everyone else from church who possibly could have looked after the kid, was traveling. Fortunately, my Mom was kind enough to travel all of the way down from upstate New York to D.C. Even though she’s retired (congrats, Mom!), it’s quite a haul to make on short notice.
Fortunately, everything went well. Mom got to see Sprout walking all over the place, they had some Nana-Sprout alone time, we cleaned out the guest bedroom, I didn’t take off work and Chris was able to get his crown put in. Even if my mom hadn’t driven down, I probably could have called in sick and it would have been fine.
But this happy ending (or as happy as a root canal can be), depended on a number of social and economic privileges Chris and I take for granted. If just one of these was missing, we could have had Very Big Problems. For example:
– If our pastor wasn’t able to take care of Sprout the first time, Chris wouldn’t have been able to get the root canal. By the time he found out he needed it, I wouldn’t have been able to come home before the oral surgeon closed for the day. If he didn’t get the root canal, it’s likely the infection would spread to other parts of his mouth or even beyond, which can be deadly.
– If we didn’t have dental insurance, Chris also couldn’t have had the root canal, with all of the attendant medical issues. Even with insurance, it’s likely that if we were tight on money he wouldn’t have been able to get it. Our insurance only covered a third of it (dental insurance is the worst, except compared to not having it), leaving us with a $1300 bill. In other circumstances, he would have had to choose between falling behind on a bill or him not getting the procedure.
– If he had the root canal, we might not have been able to afford the crown, which was another $500. Without the crown, the canal would be exposed, making it more likely to become reinfected or be vulnerable to other damage.
– Even if we had all of the money set, there was the issue of childcare for both of the follow-up appointments. Luckily, I have a job where I can take a few hours leave on relatively short notice and my mom is awesome. But if I had a service job, taking that time off would have meant that I’d miss a day or two of pay at best or at worst, be fired.
When everything is going well, it’s easy to be frustrated by “First World Problems” like “filled up on bread, didn’t leave any room for tiramisu” to quote Weird Al. In contrast, times of crisis – even minor ones – are when I really understand how lucky I am and how little I really had to do with that. For us, Chris’s dental problems were expensive and painful, but ultimately annoying. But as Scalzi says, “Being poor is hoping the toothache goes away.” I support universal health and childcare for everyone because if just a few things had been different, we could have ended up with life-changing consequences.