My sons, 5 years and 10 months, are both teething. The baby is cutting his two front upper teeth and my older son is growing his 6 year molars as well as his two front bottom teeth. They’re both experiencing a significant transition in their development – the older leaping from little boyhood to bigger boyhood and the baby nearing the end of his babyhood.
When Everest, my firstborn, cut his first tooth, I grieved. I’ll never forget the moment I put my finger in his mouth and felt that pointy bud poking through. Becoming a mother is a succession of opportunities to let go, either consciously or otherwise. The letting go begins during pregnancy when life as we’ve known it is irrevocably altered and continues on from there – letting go of the identity of non-mother, letting go of the perfect symbiotic in-utero union that shifts once the baby is born and the umbilical cord is cut, letting go of baby being a baby forever. The letting gos of motherhood and parenthood are endless – endlessly challenging and endlessly joyous.
So when I felt that first tooth, I grieved the end of his newborn stage, the end of his exclusive dependency on my milk, the beginning of his separation. It might sound dramatic, but that’s how I experienced it. The transition really was mine, not his, and I knew that it represented an opportunity to practice letting go so that when the time came to really let go, I would know how.
Now that he’s cutting teeth again, the transition is his. Ever since he turned five he’s been on an accelerated growth spurt on every level: physically, socially, emotionally, and intellectually. It has occurred to me that the year between five and six is a transition year for kids, the turning year where they transform from little ones to bigger little ones. (As I awkwardly write this I realize that our culture lacks the vocabulary to describe this shift in identity. I wonder if cultures that honor the importance of rituals to help kids and adults makes sense of rites of passages have words to describe this shift in identity. Does anyone know?)
The emergence of permanent teeth is the outward symbol of his internal shifts. Some transitions occur on physical and spiritual levels simultaneously: we become mothers through the physical transformations of pregnancy, childbirth and breastfeeding; we move to a new house through the physical ritual of packing boxes. Everest’s big teeth are telling us that he’s growing bigger. He’s beginning the long road toward becoming an adolescent, then an adult.
I was bewildered by the change in his behavior that occurred shortly after his fifth birthday. I wondered where my previously sweet boy went and how this testosterone-inspired wild banshee came to take his place. He’s still sweet (this one is kind to the bone) but he’s different. It was only when I realized that he’s in transition that his behavior started to make some sense. As he tries to assimilate the changes in his physical and emotional bodies, he’s probably feeling pretty out of control inside. He has new hormones coursing through his body, new teeth wrangling into his mouth, new emotions rallying for attention. He’s transforming and growing into a new version of himself, and as anyone who’s been through a conscious transition well knows, transformations don’t happen without confusion, fear, and pain.
There’s also a restlessness that occurs when growing something new – whether a tooth, an identity, a poem, or a baby. I see it in both my sons, manifesting as physical pain and discomfort then translating into frustration and irritability. Asher, our baby, needs to be constantly held and nursed to quell the restlessness, and even then, he’s bouncing all over the place. Everest looks like he’s jumping out of his skin half the time.
Metaphorically, this is exactly what’s happening: he’s become too big for his current “skin” of little boyhood and hasn’t quite grown into his new skin of big boyhood. He’s between identities, restlessly and anxiously trying to find his way through the inherently out-of-control sensations of being in the liminal zone. It’s a place I know well, both from personal experience and from working intimately with people in the throes of transitions over the past twelve years. It’s a hard place to be, not one that humans naturally feeling comfortable dwelling in for long.
Words help. Just as my clients breathe a sigh of relief when I offer them the context for their transition anxiety, so Everest visibly calms when I explain to him what I think is happening inside. Even just saying, “It looks like you’re feeling out of control right now,” names the feeling enough for him to find a piece of ground and, thus, feel some control again.
Transitions are scary places to be. Like the engagement, we don’t think of being five years old as a scary place, but when your whole world is shifting inside, it’s pretty unsettling. So we name it, we talk about it, and we breathe through it, reminding ourselves that, no matter what transition we’re in, the wild ride of it will pass and we’ll find ourselves on solid ground again, stronger and wiser than before.
Sheryl Paul, M.A., pioneered the field of bridal counseling in 1998. She has since counseled thousands of people worldwide through her private practice, her bestselling books, “The Conscious Bride” and “The Conscious Bride’s Wedding Planner,” and her website, www.consciousweddings.com and www.consciousmotherhood.com. She’s regarded as the international expert on transitions and has appeared several times on “The Oprah Winfrey Show”, as well as on “Good Morning America” and other top television, radio, and newspapers around the globe. Phone and Skype sessions available internationally.