Thursday, July 16, 2009

The meaning of bad dreams

Last night, for the first time in a while, I had a nightmare in which one of my children was in trouble and I couldn't get to him to help.

When my boys were very small, I had a recurring dream in which one of them was underwater, drowning, and no matter how hard I tried, I couldn't reach him. I would wake up crying, screaming sometimes, heart racing, and there was no way I could get back to sleep.

I talked to a few friends and even a therapist about the dreams. The friends were sympathetic. The therapist told me the dreams expressed my feelings of inadequacy as a mother, my worry that I would not be able to protect them from the evils of the world as they grew.

I, on the other hand, was pretty sure that the dreams were about drowning. And, coincidentally, they went away the day that my younger son learned to swim.

Last night's dream was similar - W, now a feisty and extremely independent seven and a half, went missing at the beach, and despite my frantic shouts I heard nothing. When I did hear him crying (still in the dream - he slept peacefully all night, unlike his mother), he was stuck on some kind of rusted steel beams, caught by a thread on his jacket, and trying not to fall into a big ditch behind him. In the dream, just as I got close enough to see the panic on his face, he slipped into the hole and disappeared.

And I woke up crying, heart racing, unable to settle down for a good long while.

While my earlier dreams were, I think, truly about my fear that the kids would drown before they learned to swim (southern California is full of swimming pools and oceans, you know), this time I thought again of the therapist's comments.

At camp this week, W had a run-in with a slightly older and much tougher boy who reacted to an accidental backpack-tromping with fists and rage. It all ended fine - a counselor stepped in, W wasn't really hurt, my sensible husband talked with the camp director. But the rage I felt was overwhelming. How could this child have tried to hurt my baby? What consequences would the boy suffer? And, most of all, how could I not have been there to make him feel safe and protected?

W, as I think I've mentioned, is not the kind of kid who likes to talk about things gone wrong in his life. I got no details directly from him until a full 24 hours after the incident, and even then they were sketchy. So here I was, home from work at last, having missed the whole thing, and all I wanted to do was comfort him. And he wanted no part of that, no part of me.

How I felt: useless. Dismissed. Inadequate. Absent.

How he handled the whole thing: stoically. Bravely. Maturely. Capably.

What I needed to do: Get over it.

But the dream - there, I guess, is where those useless-dismissed-inadequate-absent feelings bubbled up after I shoved them down and away.

What kinds of dreams do you have about your kids?