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Rise and Grind

Last week, after ten months of living in relative harmony with one another, my daughter suddenly and without any warning developed a new habit which made me briefly want to reconsider our life together. A habit so disgusting and terrible to me that I reacted, not in anger, but in astonishment and anxious surprise.

She was sitting in her high chair, waiting impatiently for her lunch. She is always impatient in her high chair, often resorting to a high pitched, insistent yelling which is ear piercing, but which I have gotten quite good at almost not even hearing. I was at the kitchen counter, probably ten feet away. I heard something that sounded like metal gears grinding against one another. We live in an ancient house with ancient sounds all its own, so I ignored it and finished preparing her food.

I walked over to her. She was still yelling and beating her hands on the tray of the chair. I sat down in front of her in my own chair, and put on her bib. She smiled at me, showing me all seven of her beautiful white teeth. And then I heard the noise again, and realized it was coming from her mouth. She was grinding her teeth. Loudly.

“Zelda, no!” I didn’t yell but didn’t quite whisper either. I reached out and touched her cheek. Her smile got wider, and I could see her teeth, jaws clenched, as she ground them against one another maniacally. I dropped the spoon I was holding and put my hands to my ears.

In that moment, blinking in horror at my daughter, I realized that this thing, this teeth grinding, was a sign that I didn’t really know her. I didn’t know what she was capable of. This tic, a seemingly unintentional or at least subconscious behavior, and its capacity to instantly annoy me, in that moment, showed me that we both had a long way to go in getting to know one another. This moment arrives early on in any major relationship: that little thing you don’t notice at first suddenly is so present it’s the Only Thing. But this was different: Zelda and I, we’re never breaking up. We don’t want to; we can’t. We must learn to live together despite whatever annoying habits we both have (and believe me, she’s going to be annoyed by old Mama soon enough).

Now, it’s important to understand that this wouldn’t have been possible a few weeks ago, before Zelda had opposing teeth. But, as soon as she was able, basically, she started grinding her little uppers and lowers together. I watched for signs of anxiety—I used to grind my teeth in my sleep when I was young, too. But she was doing it when awake, and there was no sign that she was doing it from anxiety. In fact, she seemed to think it was quite funny.

Not reacting is a key to getting your child to cease behaviors you don’t like. It doesn’t always work—I’ve been patiently hoping my daughter will stop happily yelling as loudly as she can for sport and attention for months, pretending I don’t hear it and calmly responding to her needs as I can—with no luck. It seems the yelling is just part of her general attitude, or a longer phase than I’d hope. Fine.

So I ignored it, and distracted her, first with food, which worked. Then we went out for the day, strolling around, and the behavior didn’t repeat. That night as I was getting her ready for bed, I heard it again. And then next morning when we were sitting on the floor playing with her books. Grind, grind, grind.

I am terrifically disturbed by certain types of sounds. I was plagued throughout my childhood by the sounds of my younger brother chomping on ice. To this day that sound makes me want to peel my skin off manually. And, until recently, I must admit that the sound of a crying baby—especially in an enclosed space such as the subway or an airplane—made me feel like committing murder. But we’re adaptable, it turns out, and now instead of being horrified, I am simply alarmed and concerned. I’m a patient person, largely, but certain grating noises just make me feel like I’m crumbling internally. Sounds like the grinding of teeth.

The internet was no help. Babies grind their teeth, it turns out. Sometimes, they’re just getting used to having teeth in their mouths. Sometimes, it is anxiety, and rarely it is… pinworms.

Two days into the grind, I called Zelda’s pediatrician. I already knew what they were going to say—it would likely go away on its own, I should try to distract her, blah blah blah. But first I wanted to make sure it wasn’t a sign of something I should be concerned about (it’s not!) and second, I just needed to vent. I was home alone with a baby who was smiling at me while her clenched jaws made a sound—eh eh eh eh eh—over and over. The nurse told me what I knew she would: “it’s okay to ignore her when she does it. You can try giving her other things to chew on, she’ll probably stop relatively soon.”

“Honestly, this is going to sound dumb or terrible,” I said woefully into the phone, “but, the main thing is this: I just want to leave the room when she does it. It drives me crazy, it sounds so, OH MY GOD ZELDA STOP IT sorry she is doing it right now.” “I totally get it, it’s unnerving,” she said. I wondered if she did get it. “Ugh does she even have a kid?” I thought to myself as I hung up the phone. Mine, no longer grinding her pearly whites, sat not one foot from me, chewing on a book.

It’s been about a week. She still does it. Not much—I didn’t even hear it once yesterday. I’m adjusting. I distract her with teething rings and toys. I pretend I don’t notice it just in case noticing would inadvertently encourage this insane behavior that I am just capable of tolerating.

I was prepared for illness and fears, for having to learn how to keep a baby from danger, for having to teach her “yes” and “no.” Nobody warned me that she might grind her little teeth in front of me like a pet cat bringing a live mouse to your front door, thinking it’s a wonderful treat. Who is this stranger with the manners of an animal sitting in front of me?

I’m making more of it than it is, of course. But in those few seconds that I hear the grinding, I am reduced to a pile of dust. A husk of a person, irrational and—not angry—but just horrified and anxious. A pile of dust, like Zelda’s teeth will be, should she continue along this path which she has gleefully, and without regard to her mother’s ears, chosen.

Photo by John Johnson