Today my oldest child, Nadia, got braces. We walked into the teal-walled office and Jill, a woman wearing buttoned up black cardigan, welcomed us with a smile. She invited me to enjoy a coffee from the Keurig machine on the well-stocked coffee cart in the spacious waiting room after showing Nadia the video game console. Why thank you, Jill. Yes, I think I will have a free cup of coffee while my daughter plays video games and I wait to pay you all my dollars to make her teeth straight.
I sat down with my coffee and went over the rest of my day: grocery shopping, preschool pick-up, soccer practices. Then my mind wandered back to my own orthodontic experience, twenty-seven years ago: a small wallpapered waiting room, the big decision over what color bands to get, watching my mom write out Fifty and no/100 on a check in her flawless script at every single visit.
“Nadia?” asked a solidly-built guy in black scrubs. My daughter walked out of the game area and lifted her hand in a half wave/half “I’m here” gesture. With eyes that disappeared when he smiled, he said, “You ready to get braces?” She nodded, looked a me for reassurance, then followed him to the back of the office where I’d meet her in a few minutes—Jill and I had a quick date with some payment plans.
When I was a junior in high school, my math teacher, Mr. Henderson, spent an entire class period for an exercise on compound interest. He’d been a teacher at our school for something like 39 years and explained to us that outside of school, he did some financial investing. He wanted us to understand the exponential impact of time on our investments.
Our supplies: a sheet of paper. A calculator. A pencil.
The math problem: You are 22. You invest $2,000 each year, from age 22 to 28, at a fixed return rate of 8 percent. You invest no more money after age 28. How much money will you have at age 65?
The reason it would take an entire math class: we weren’t using a formula. We would work as a group, but individually show and plot the progress, year by year.
At first, the initial excitement of adding pretend money to our imaginary nest egg was fun. But after a while, somewhere around those 40s ... our calculations started to get tedious.
The line on our graph felt like it was barely changing; it just got longer. Year after year after year, it just felt so … so slow. So repetitive. Does this little increase even matter? How many more years of this do we need to do?
But somewhere in our imaginary late-50s, the barely-north-of horizontal line started to hook up. And, with each passing year, it’s orientation changed to vertical.
Mr. Henderson spread his hands out wide in excitement and brought them back together with a clap! He quickly rubbed them back and forth with a mischievous smile, “This is where it really gets good.” We didn’t need to hear him say it, his chuckle gave it away, This is so fun!
That day, we learned that when you invest $2,000 each year for seven years, given a return rate of 8%, after 37 years (by the time you get to age 65 in our scenario) you’ll have $1 million.
“What you do early matters” he said. “And just think of what you’d have if you kept contributing and gave it time!” The bell rang and we packed up our pencils. Before we started to walk out, he put both his hands up in the air, as if giving us a solemn definitive blessing, “Compound interest!”
Back at home after the appointment, I looked through the pictures I took of Nadia with her big new smile, metal brackets glued to every tooth. I texted one to my dad, stepmom, and siblings. The caption read “Braces!! Such a fun way to spend five grand.“
(Sometime last year, a friend warned me: Get your head around spending $5,000 for braces. I promptly put the information in the same category I’d put “After you give birth, you bleed for 4-6 weeks” and “breastfeeding doesn’t come naturally to everyone.” The category was called Maybe for you, but probably not for me. I’ve since moved those to the category called They were right.)
After I sent the text, gratitude towards my parents overwhelmed me. Not just for braces, but for everything they did for my siblings and me. Growing up, I thought we lived such an average life. We had a house. Two cars. We took a vacation every summer. Went to church every Sunday. And Wednesday. (And sometimes Thursdays.) There were piano lessons. Family dinners. I love yous. I’m sorrys.
Goodness gracious. As a parent, now? Absolutely none of that feels very average. It all feels very significant. And remarkably intentional.
At almost every turn, my husband and I make conscious choices for our family—ones that I now realize my parents also made for my siblings and me, ones that will have impact, long term. And none of it seems very average on this side of it.
From the bedtime stories to family dinners around the table. The I love yous and I’m proud of yous. The discipline. The prayers over their bodies and minds and hearts. The playing play dough. Going over spelling words. Making cookies. Brushing hair. Singing lullabies. The quick kisses before leaving and after arriving home. The planting of one’s parental hind end in uncomfortable bleachers during any number of sporting events. The showing up for recitals or dance or choir performances.
When we’re adding numbers to the family and every month there’s a new milestone to celebrate, it’s exciting. But somewhere along the line, after years and years of daily routines and bedtime rituals, giving and offering, prepping meals and paying for field trips, when the monotony of minivan chauffeur life and needing more milk starts to give you tunnel vision, you might think: Am I doing this right? Are we making a difference? Will any of this add up to something?
I looked at my phone and sent another text, “Also, Dad—thank you for paying for my braces. Pretty much all of my life these days is a big lesson in ‘what I didn’t realize my parents did for me when I was a kid.’”
What we put in while they’re young may not look like much. But it does matter. It just might take 27 years and a set of braces till you really start to see the effects.
P.S. If you enjoyed this essay, don’t miss our podcast episode, Parenting for the Long Haul with Krista Gilbert.