One of the many recurring dreams I have is one where I’m in a runaway car barreling down a twisty mountain road, my speed gaining with each turn, and I can’t get the brakes to work. I step on the pedal with such force that it pushes me up off the driver’s seat so my leg is fully extended, rigid with tension. But no matter how hard I push, the car flies down the mountain, swiping the edges of the drop offs with each terrifying curve. More than once I’ve woken up to find my right foot pressed against the mattress with astonishing strength.
It doesn’t take a psychologist to tell me that this dream comes to me in times I’m feeling out of control in some area of my life. (Okay, fine, it did — Dr. Google, as a matter of fact — but it’s still a fairly obvious manifestation of personal chaos. The fact that I have had this dream about once a month for the past 15 years or so, however, tells me that perhaps it’s time to see someone other than Dr. Google.)
When I wake up, exhausted and on edge, I try to pinpoint what’s been going on in my life that’s made me spend my night in a real life sequence of Mario Kart.
It’s not always easy.
There’s usually a list.
Dream of When My Youngest is a Baby
Recently, however, the dream has needed no explanation. Because another recurring dream I’ve been having — this one just for the past year or so — is one where my younger daughter is a baby. Her cherubic, smiling face, the feel of her soft skin, the weight of her in my arms: it’s all so real that even in sleep I’m able to blur the lines between dream and reality and am actually aware of how extraordinary it is to be reliving those fleeting, magical moments from so many years ago. And then, in every version of this dream, I suddenly — shockingly — realize that I’ve forgotten to either feed her or change her diaper…for months.
Although I begin to panic, my baby girl seems fine. Sure, she’s been without formula or food and has been living in the same diaper for several months, but look at her! She’s smiling! She’s cooing! She’s ridiculously happy and adorable! The dream usually ends as I start to frantically look for a bottle or a clean diaper, and I wake up feeling more than a little uneasy at my blatant, yet unintentional neglect.
Am I still carrying a bit of residual guilt from letting her big sister feed her Fruity Pebbles out of the box while sitting in front of Playhouse Disney on weekend mornings back in 2003 so I could sleep in? Nah, that was just brilliant parenting.
The dreams’ roots are obvious: my baby is graduating and about to leave the nest, and my subconscious mind is working out — through these repetitive, troubling little plays — the sudden changes that I’m facing. While sure, my daughter hasn’t needed me to feed her or wipe her little fanny for years, these acts of mothering are a metaphor for all I’m on the verge of losing. And just like when I’m in the brakeless car flying down the mountain at breakneck speeds, the precipice is sheer, and it is terrifying.
Regardless of her age, this girl has always been the baby sister in our family. She’s had all of us wrapped around her finger since birth. She came five and a half years after her older sister, and despite of (or because of) her frighteningly premature arrival has ruled our hearts and home with her captivating presence for the past 18 years. She’s the one we all flock to protect, happily and without pause, even when she doesn’t need or want us to.
When her older sister graduated five years ago, I don’t remember having these vivid, frustrating dreams. Maybe it’s because my older daughter (who also arrived over 10 weeks early) was somehow born a tiny adult, almost immediately in control of her emotions and actions, but it’s more likely that it’s simply because it was five years ago and I can’t remember things that happened last month.
Sure, when daughter number one flew the nest I felt a tremendous loss and went through all the mix of expected emotions, but my identity as a mother was still intact. I still had a nestling at home that needed me, after all. My job was not done.
But this time things are different, and my subliminal self is letting me know about it — regularly — in a fun little middle-of-the-night variety show. Because in a few months my nest will be officially empty, and the baby chick I’ve so carefully and assiduously tended to will have spread her wings and flown away. Both girls will be in different states, and my role as a mother will be drastically different. It’s exciting and terrifying all at once. It’s a car that’s careening down a mountain, not stopping no matter how hard the brake pedal is pressed.
But here’s the thing: in my dreams, the car never plunges over the cliff like I’m certain it will. Sure, it’s a terrifying ride, but you know what? I always seem to make it down alive. And that baby who hasn’t been fed or changed in months? She’s not only fine, she’s visibly happy, and clearly hasn’t needed me to be able to thrive. I like to think that the dream baby is telling me through her smiles and coos that she’ll be okay without me…even if she occasionally forgets to eat or take a shower.
So the next time I wake up in a panic and with a cramp in my right calf, it’s those things that I’m going to focus on. And then I’m going to roll over, relish in the fact that I don’t have to get up to take anybody to anything, tell my mind to shut the hell up, and go back to sleep for another hour. Because I can.
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