The best bad dreams


They don’t tell you that nightmares are one of the sweetest parts of parenting.

My son ran into our bedroom the other day, just as he does every morning. But this time, instead of jumping on our bed, or cuddling up silently, he stood at the doorway. His three foot frame shook, and when I asked him what was the matter, he let out a full body sob.

Head hanging back, arms hanging despondently at his side, he shuffled over. I pulled him into bed with me. 

“What’s wrong, honey? Did you have a bad dream?”

He nodded. It was a few minutes later before he managed to get his troubles out.

“I dreamed I was carrying my rock collection,” he gasped, his voice still shaking. “And then I dropped it, and the rocks fell!” His voice crescendoed into another sob and he lay his head back down.

I bit back a smile. “Oh no, baby, that sounds terrible.” My husband retrieved his bucket of rocks from under his bed to show him they were all still there.

Other bad dreams have been as devastating to him as they were darling to me. We have yet to hit the days of monster-chasing-you-and-you-can’t-run dreams, or the showed-up-to-school-with-no-pants-on dreams. No, I’m still trying to convince him he actually has to wear pants to school.

His first nightmare was about the wind. It blew his pacifier away, he told be between heaving sobs.

The next several centered around Hot Wheels going the drain. “All of my Hot Wheel cars were in the bathtub, Mama,” he cried. “And they went down the drain! And it was NOT A DREAM!” he insisted, head still on his pillow. He knew what my first words of comfort would be.

I would never wish a nightmare on my child, but part of me can’t help but smile at how innocent his biggest fears in life are. But another part of me is glad that his night terrors have largely been replaced by these mere nightmares.

For about two years, my oldest son would regularly wake up in an utter panic. The kind that causes parents to bang their shins on the coffee table rushing to get to the bedroom. We would limp in, ignoring the throbbing pain in our legs, prepared for whatever we might find – an intruder, a spider the size of a dinner plate, a poltergeist. What else could be making him cry so hard?

Nothing. Other than a night terror.

Any attempt to reach him would fail. The books advise you to just “sit there beside them, gently reminding them of your presence, until the episode passes.”

Like most things I’ve read in parenting books, this did not work for our child.

He screamed if we tried to sit quietly beside him, and louder if we interacted, and then again louder still if we did not. Eventually, we figured out that juice was key. Once the sweetness hit his lips, he would snap out of it, content to cuddle and watch late night basketball on the couch with us until his breathing slowed back down.

Midnight juice and TV. We’re good parents.

Occasionally – especially as he got older – this method began to fail.

When hour four of blood curdling screams melted into hour five, we called the pediatrician. Her advice was simple – drive him around in the car and if he doesn’t stop screaming, drive him over to the E.R. My husband somehow wrestled him into a seat while I nursed the other child who was now awake. They drove around for hours, until the sun peaked up over the hills to see if there was anything she could do to help.

Eventually he fell asleep. My husband got dressed for work.

We’ve entered a brief hiatus in parenting. One where I can actually solve the problems they present me with. Gone are the newborn days of tears for which I do not know are the impetus. The days of breakups, rejection, and loss are still on the horizon.

The morning after a nightmare, my son can tell me what he dreamed about. After a night terror, however, he cannot remember what happened. 

I hope this is what he remembers. The times he needed me, the times I could help him, and the times I did. I hope that is enough to carry him through the times I cannot.

I need to go. My youngest son just woke up.

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