Our internal night music is often fractured by nightmares about our children. The boys, oblivious in their beds, sleep silently while their father and I lurch back and forth from dreams to wakefulness. My husband dreamed that our youngest son fell down a well. He reached deep to rescue him, and from the musty dark he dragged up a shrunken boy the size of a wet sponge. My latest torment involves my family being rounded up and expelled from the country. It’s a black and white film, we’re on a platform with leather suitcases and a man is shouting at us to leave.
When we took trips in the early years of our parenthood, my sleep was studded with nightmares, the terror of losing or forgetting a child. I dreamed my toddler absconded down Sydney’s Oxford Street as if on mechanical legs and my baby was stolen in Mexico City, his plump ankle slung over his kidnapper’s shoulder. I searched for my boys on the rocky outcrops of Arcadia National Park, but their yellow and grey parkas camouflaged them against lichen and cracks. Their starfish bodies drifted in a full moat at the Tower of London. They were hustled away by trench-coated strangers in Times Square, their tiny arms stretched toward me. I never caught them.
Panting, I propelled myself to the surface of waking, listening for my children’s breathing. Then I hurtled back into another episode. Averting disaster, I replaced endings and added appendices, replaced what-ifs and if-onlys, until settling upon a soothing narrative to guide me from dark waters and back to contented sleep.
Perhaps fearful dreaming provides practice for when we drift on to life’s jagged rocks. At the beginning of family life, I felt bathed in the clear light of hope. There was little inkling that the sky could turn green and the wind rotational. A sea change in my slumber let fear seep in as a safeguard against complacency. It was like a homeopathic tincture, immunizing me before any larger ill befell my children.
The wildness began when I was first with child. My midnight belly appeared to be a leather sculpture with a relief of contorted primate limbs. “But I don’t want a monkey,” my dreaming self implored. “I want a real baby.”
Weeks later, I unzipped my belly and set my fetus down on the sidewalk to race against a rival. They scampered down the street, translucent creatures, like alien babies. I waited at the finish line, bilious and fevered, grasped my unborn child, and zipped him back inside me to safety. I don’t recall who won.
Poring over pregnancy books, I discovered that elevated progesterone levels cause broken REM sleep and increased waking. Pregnant women often dream of non-human progeny. Unzipping bellies are not uncommon.
We, who have had our bodies snatched, need to confront what grows inside the pod. At the library, I checked out 10,000 Dreams Interpreted, which was written a century ago by Gustavus Miller, a Tennessee merchant and author who claimed that mysterious forces moved his hand across the page. He explained my dreams thus:
If a young woman dreams of a monkey, she should insist on an early marriage, as her lover will suspect unfaithfulness.
I did not have an early marriage, but waited until my child was nine months old.
Dreaming of anything moving in your belly indicates humiliation and hard labor.
My baby had a posterior position and clutched his hand to his chin. My labor was hard. Humiliation rides alongside childbirth—the gaze of medical strangers upon your swollen genitalia, failing to secure a diaper on a newborn, your laden breasts leaking when you venture to buy milk from the corner store.
Falling into a well means overwhelming despair will overtake you.
The tiny creature in your house cries for hours—a sharp vibrato then pause, a jagged gasp for breath, followed by another serration, a pause, a gasp, and on. And on. He has come without instructions, and no feeding or diaper changing or singing will stop the crying. Finally, you discover the bump on the floor by a door. If you rock him in his stroller fast back and forth across the bump, the pitch of the howling deepens, the quavering shortens, the gasps lengthen, the noise subsides and he drifts into slumber.
While I was dreaming of my fetus, my fetus was dreaming, too. Sonographs detect REM sleep at around twenty-three weeks gestation. In the first three months, “the first thin slivers of memory track begin streaking across the fetal brain,” writes Dr Thomas Verny in The Secret Life of the Unborn Child. He says that unborn babies are “processing their own thoughts, feelings and life experiences to date, much as the rest of us do in dreams.” What dream within a dream did my water creature have? An in utero somersault, the splash and coolness of his mother’s swim hours earlier, a languid awareness of morning warmth as the sun slid over the skylight above the bed. I wondered if my panicked imaginings seeped into him. Did he dream in color or in black and white? He writhed and flexed, hiccuped and stretched in his sleep. When his father arrived home late, he would suddenly become restless, stirring and rolling inside me when footsteps echoed up the side path and the key clattered in the front door lock.
Mothers have long wondered about the sleepers inside them. Ancient Sumerians wrote about fetal dreams and the inevitable separation of mother and baby, mythologizing them in tales about the great goddess Inanna and her offspring Dumuzi. Cuneiform tablets crafted five thousand years ago tell of heroic battles. In The Origin of Anxiety, Franz Renggli writes that they represent the struggles of pregnancy, birth, infancy, and separation. The pictures and stories helped people adapt to a life of alienation, to understand the trauma of birth and the hidden aspects of human dreams before and after birth.
Broken sleep helps train you for insomnia. My first child was born, as planned, with a midwife in our wooden bungalow, so he was home from the beginning—although it took us a week to realize he was there to stay. We woke instinctively to the feeling of being watched, one summer midnight. The red neon sign on the Hydra bacon factory glowed through the French doors, meeting the moonbeams above the bed. Our newborn stared in the silence, his eyes shining in the light. We imagined him communicating psychically to the mothership: “Two of the big ones have got me, but so far, they’re treating me well.”
Even now, my mother finds it hard to fall asleep without thinking of her grown children. When I was a teen, she’d wait up until I arrived home, pacing at the top of the stairs in her floral nightgown, refilling her water glass and checking the time on the grandfather clock. She lies restless in the dark and has nightmares sometimes. A mother never sleeps well, she says.
When it looked as though the United States would go to war with Iraq, L.A. Weekly mentioned an increase in women dreaming of Armageddon. In their nightmares, they had to protect their children from soldiers, nuclear bombs, gas, from apocalypse. One pediatrician said all his patients were concerned about the affect of the war on their children. A clinical psychologist, Dr Lois Nightingale, noticed an uptick in post partum depression. She likened it to a collective Jungian dream. “Life-and-death situations intensify the fears of mothers, who instinctually feel threatened by war,” she said. “Moms have these fantasies of ways their children could die and they rehearse these possibilities through what-ifs.” These days, Muslim American children are reportedly worried they will be kicked out of the country.
My youngest slept fitfully, electrified by dreams he could never describe. At two o’clock, I’d hear his feet shuffling on the oak floor or a shift in the air next to me, and I would wake up. He would clamber up and over me, wedging his head under mine, his hair pooling damply on the white sheets. As I sucked up his sweet boy-neck scent, his breathing eased and he would plunge, reassured, into dreamless sleep. So would I, knowing he was safe.
Toni Nealie is the author of The Miles Between Me, an essay collection that considers ideas on family, homeland, dispersal and heritage. Her essays have appeared in Guernica, The Prague Revue, The Offing, The Rumpus and Hobart. Her essay “the Displeasure of the Table” was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Originally from New Zealand, she holds an MFA from Columbia College Chicago. She teaches, writes in Chicago, where she is Literary Editor of Newcity.