Parents are grinding our teeth so much lately that dentists have noticed. Why? | Sophie Brickman
Dreams about your teeth falling out, among the most horrifying and universal we have, probably indicate a fear of losing control or power in a given situation – at least according to Carl Jung and centuries of dream interpreters. I’m not sure if this means that adding teeth to one’s household can be viewed as a sign of resilience and order, but it’s something I’ve been telling myself, however apocryphally, in the wee hours of the morning when I’m rocking my miserable, teething baby to sleep in a dark room, or plying my kindergartner with various chewy implements to scratch the itch of her six-year-old molars coming through.
“Mama, look, I can see a little nub there,” she says at bath time, opening her mouth comically wide and tilting her head at the mirror, her younger sister helpfully shining a small flashlight up her nostril.
These days, our household’s dental growth curve mirrors that of a blue chip stock, steady and constant, and our collective oral fixation is paramount. For some reason, my two older daughters never went through normal teething pains – the low-grade fevers, the fussiness, the need for cowboy bib accessory garments that soak up drool and transform our children into miniature Buffalo Bills. But the baby is doing everything textbook, which has sent me online, and to my doctor, seeking remedies: frozen fruit in little mesh bags, tingly gels, rubber toys with knobbly bits. He prefers to double fist – a rubber banana in one hand, a Martian with protruding ears in the other – and chews with the same desperation as Jared Leto in Requiem for a Dream, awaiting his next fix.
“Look, a TOOF!” my pre-schooler shouts triumphantly, as each new one pokes through the baby’s gums.
As my children are gaining teeth, going through a rite of passage that symbolically, and practically, gives them independence, I am losing mine – or at the very least winnowing them down. Nightly, I clench or grind, occasionally waking from a lost-tooth dream, probably spurred on by my horrendous pre-bed habit of scrolling through my newsfeed and feeling utterly powerless, and the constant, shape-shifting anxiety that has become the norm for pandemic-era parents.
Grinding and clenching, I learned, has been linked to lost-tooth dreams – those who grind are more likely to have them, suggesting that your unconscious incorporates dental irritation into your dreams, and not necessarily the opposite, that grinding is a symbolic manifestation of anxiety. My grinding and clenching fluctuates according to my general stress level. I was both alarmed and comforted to learn that many of my friends also suffer from bruxism, or the condition of gnashing, clenching or grinding your teeth, either while awake or asleep.
“I’ve been clenching so much I went to the dentist and I now need orthodonture,” one told me. “Like I’m in seventh grade.”
Another was certain she had a cavity. Nope, just grinding. A third came back from a routine dental visit with a mouth guard to wear at night. And an executive at a national dental care company told me that while the normal prevalence of bruxism is 10% for adults, it’s now up to 30% for their patients.
“Huge grinding uptick,” affirms my friend’s father, who’s been practicing dentistry in Miami for four decades. “Lots of broken teeth. Parents of schoolchildren are very stressed dentally, too.” It’s Covid-related, yes, but also Covid-parenting-related.
“Gain a child, lose a tooth” – while not entirely founded, the saying does have some, erm, teeth to it. We parents may not be spitting out teeth left and right, but there does seem to be some sort of poeticism to all of this, including pre-pandemic data that points to a real link between motherhood and dental problems. One study found that the risk of periodontal disease and untreated cavities in mothers rose with their number of children. There are many more potential links.
Parents are doomed to a life of relinquishing control – try as you might, you can’t dictate when your children go to sleep, if they experience pain, how quickly they grow up. Throw in a pandemic and an unstable world, and it’s a wonder we’re not all gumming down mashed banana.
It’s something, this odd connection between teeth and parenthood, that, even 86 years ago, wasn’t lost on Jung.
“The lost tooth also can mean that one loses a certain conception of things, a hitherto valid opinion or attitude,” he wrote in a letter about the symbolism of teeth in dreams. “For instance pregnancy can have such an effect that one loses one’s grip on the psychic continuity as the physiological condition takes the lead over the mind.”
Have I lost my grip on my psychic continuity? Judging from my late-night Amazon binge-buying of baby teething toys as I grind away, I’d wager a conservative yes.
So, what is to be done? For those of us who don’t want to get fitted for a night guard, says the Miami dentist, the key appears to be to finding ways to decrease stress, “with massage and exercises relaxing the muscles around the head and neck”.
With this very pleasant directive in mind, I’ve been winding down my days by turning my phone off and pulverizing my neck with an electronic massager. The last few nights, I’ve awoken not from a bad, gumless dream, but by the cries of the baby, working through his next tooth. As I rock, and shush, and soothe, it dawns on me that all the salves I’m giving him – from the lullabies to the chew toys – will never control the underlying issue: that he’s growing up, and I can’t do a thing to stop it.