Perhaps the most dominant “new thing” in my little girl’s life right now is teeth. Or, I should say, her first tooth, of which she is deep in the process of, as they say, cutting.
The Cambridge Idioms Dictionary describes the phrase “cut your teeth” to mean “to get your first experience of a particular type of work and learn the basic skills.” It then notes that this phrase is usually followed by “on…” As in, “I cut my teeth on the local newspaper before getting a job in publishing.” We use the phrase “cutting teeth” to describe the process of learning a new skill. It’s not a bad idiom – it’s an evocative image that reminds us that there is a first time for all things. It doesn’t, however, accurately capture the real experience of cutting one’s first tooth. If it did, the Cambridge Dictionary would read, “to get your first experience of a particular type of work through a great amount of pain, sleeplessness, and without any real help from those around you, who are also suffering.” This idiom would not need to be followed by “on…” because there really isn’t anything that an infant cuts her teeth on. As in, “I cut my teeth on the local newspaper and hated it and I cried every night a deadline was due and my copy editor didn’t help me at all, only told me he knew how I felt and it would be over some day, but it wasn’t over soon enough, and I was grumpy and hateful to everyone around me and I drooled all over my computer and my notebooks and didn’t sleep at all.”
Any day now, my sweet little teether will have her first tooth. It’s almost there – this morning you could see it rising to the surface of her gums like a tiny blister of rock. It’s quite amazing, really, how the human body is designed to develop and that something like a hard white tooth could grow out of something so cellularly different as soft pink gums. But, of course, the moments in which I experience awe over the mysteries of human development are readily dwarfed by the moments in which my baby girl makes me aware that she is in pain. She cries unlike I’ve heard her cry before: deep, throaty screams which require entire seconds of inhalation for fuel. There’s no soothing these cries, there’s only the distant possibility of distracting her from them. Toys, noises, daddy jumping up and down while mimicking a monkey: these distractions succeed only momentarily. And sleep provides no distraction.
The helplessness involved is complete and involves all parties. There is nothing I or her mother can do, besides attempting to distract her and occasionally applying a baby-sized painkiller (which, I’ll add, has only been helpful during the early stages). We can’t explain to her what is happening, nor would it matter much if we could. Because there wouldn’t be anything our little girl could do about it, either. Unlike other painful developmental biological processes – childbirth, for instance – there is no real participation in teething. One can’t learn to push harder or chew more intently in order to make the tooth come in faster. Another failure of the idiom for cutting one’s teeth: it is active, referring to a person who is doing something. But when it comes to really cutting actual baby teeth, it is something that simply happens without any participation. The tooth comes in on its own time, unavoidable but slow, and nothing can speed or impede its progress.
I work in an industry in which we talk about personal growth and transformation as something over which one takes control. If we want to grow as people, in whatever capacity – to become smarter, or to lose weight, or be a better listener, or whatever – then we must do something about it. We make a plan and we devote ourselves to achieving our goals. As adults, we tend to talk about growth as something we can make happen, something we can initiate and control. But as the parent of a young child, I am reminded that there is much growth that takes place in our lives that occurs without any input or direction on our part. Dictated either by biology or fate or God or whatever, there are some types of growth that simply happen. There’s no stopping it and there’s no mitigating the outcome – or the pain involved.
“Growing pains” is another idiom we toss about. “Growing suffering” is more like it. And it really is more like it, isn’t it? There have been plenty of times where I have found myself growing and wanted to stop it. Of course, as kids, we don’t want to grow up (insert plug for a corporate toy store here). But even as an adult, I’ve found plenty of areas where growth was forced upon me. I see this most often when I work with the bereaved, people who are plunged into the depths of loss and without a choice as to what they are experiencing. In this time of the new year, it behooves self-improvement industries to talk about making changes and “growing” into the whatever better person people might imagine themselves to be. But growth kind of happens on its own.
That tooth is coming in, whether we want it to or not. Of course, I do want it to – that’s what is supposed to happen to babies her age. She may not want it to. She might like having a mouth full of soft pink gums, in which food is inserted in various states of liquification. She might not like the idea of having to learn to chew up food on her own, or to have that lovely soft mouth filled with hard things. But of course, we adults know that without teeth she’ll never be able to feed herself the nutrition she’ll need to, well, grow. Not to mention that she’d never learn to speak. But whatever she thinks of this new thing called a tooth, it doesn’t matter. That tooth is coming and she’ll just have to live with it. In this year, I’m sure each of us will experience similar growth. Something tough and painful is coming, and we’ll just have to live with it. There’s no stopping it. But once the tooth is in, well, we might as well learn to use it. Growth, no matter how painful or inconvenient, does usually happen for a reason.