Our son lost his first tooth yesterday. It had been loosening for weeks with the new, permanent tooth jutting up behind it. The metaphor wasn’t lost on me: my son was a poignant, walking depiction of the liminal zone as he simultaneously straddled the old identity of little boyhood and the new identity of bigger boyhood.
It seems that this entire year from five to six is a liminal zone for kids as they struggle to wiggle out of the itchy old skin but haven’t quite settled into the new body yet. As I check in with my friends who have kids the same age as Everest, we’re all witnessing the same picture. “They’re like little aliens right now,” my friend Carrie remarked the other day. Everest vacillates between whining like a three year old to engaging in adolescent-level conversations. One minute he hides under a chair and says, “Help me! Help me! I can’t get out!” and the next minute he’s inventing a fertilizing tool out of clay. Carrie said that her daughter was talking in baby talk all weekend, wanted to re-enact her birth, and was crawling. “Crawling! She was crawling around the house!” We feel like we’re on a roller coaster with these emotional states of immaturity/maturity. I can only imagine how our kids are feeling inside.
The truth is that we all regress to childhood or infantile states when we’re in transition. Because transitions initiate the next level of our development, we must shed the current identity in preparation for growing into the next stage. The shedding leaves us feeling vulnerable and insecure, which activates an instinct to return to the safety and familiarity of mother. For my clients in the wedding and motherhood transitions, this manifests as a desire to return home or spend extra time with their mother. We may long to curl up in the fetal position and have someone else tend to our most basic needs. As transitions also activate polarities, when we’re on the threshold of growth, we simultaneously want to curl down into a younger state.
I never thought about teeth so much as this year. As I’ve mentioned, I grieved when Everest’s first tooth poked through his gums as I knew it represented the beginning of the end of his babyhood. But it never occurred to me that I would be in the realm of teeth again at age five. Yet here I am, a year of cavities being filled, baby teeth falling out, and adult teeth coming in.The research I’ve done on the symbolism of teeth yielded fascinating results. It seems that in the world of dreams and the unconscious losing a tooth represents the fear of getting older or a beginning a new phase of life. Furthermore, getting a tooth knocked out is commonly featured in male initiation rites. Teeth represent our youth, and when they fall out, we know that it’s a sign of growing up.
Everest appeared calm about the loss of his tooth, but I was anticipating some fallout soon afterwards. As it occurred at night, just before bedtime, I wondered if his sleep would be affected. Sure enough, in the middle of the night I received a tap on my shoulder from my husband telling me that Everest wanted me. I snuggled up next to him and infused him with my love. I told him that he was safe and that I would be back in a few hours for our morning “snuggle-fest.” I sensed that he needed his mommy’s reassurance on the heels of his first tooth loss, the reassurance that he could still be a little boy and that if he called out for me in the middle of the night, I would come.
This morning, I asked him, “How did you feel when you lost your tooth?” He said he didn’t know. So I offered, “I wonder if you felt a little sad and a little scared. Sometimes it’s scary to grow up but I want you to know that you’ll always be my little boy. Whenever you need to snuggle up with me, just let me know, okay?” “Okay,” he said, and then bounded out of my arms and down the stairs declaring that he needed to go out into the garden to check the drip irrigation system that he and my husband installed for me yesterday. Such a big boy thing to do…