Nightmares on Crib Sheets

My earliest memories involve nightmares. Waking up screaming and sweating, waiting to be rescued by my mother in her nightgown or my father rubbing his eyes.

Most nights they would take me back to bed with them, or my mother would sing to me or my Dad would scratch my back.

The nightmares persisted, almost every night for five years. Eventually the nightmares became less. I started sleep-walking instead. Once I sleepwalked to the staircase and tumbled all the way down. I woke up bleeding from the head and totally confused. But most of the time I just woke up in the bathroom or on the bedroom floor. There was nothing worse, though, then the nightmares. I had a recurring fear of skinny objects. A phobia. In my dreams toothpicks had legs and they were all marching side by side, thousands of them, kind of like that scene with the broomsticks in Fantasia.

I hadn't thought about my nightmares in forever. Not until Archer started waking up screaming. Standing in his crib, holding open his curtains, staring out the window like he was watching something horrific. Sweating and shaking-- totally inconsolable.

This has been going on, now, for the last few nights and I don't know what to do. I wish I knew what the dreams were about but he cannot tell me. He just screams and shakes and I do what my parents did for me, rub his back, sing to him...

The ants go marching one by one, hoorah.

...Until he falls back asleep, up against me on the couch or in bed.

Like right now. His little head on my lap as I type this from the safety of our couch, where nightmares cannot reach him for whatever reason.

I remember feeling so safe between my parents, like nothing could touch or harm me. Like everything was going to be okay. I knew that Boogie-men couldn't reach me and there was no such thing as monsters under my parent's bed. Not even marching skinny toothpicks could find their way back into my subconscious.

In many ways I still believe that-- that when something scary happens, or upsetting, that I can just run away to my parent's house. That they will take care of me. Protect me from boogie-men or the scary things in life. The complexities. The fears of having so much responsibility, of feeling unprepared for domestic life-- for marriage and motherhood and being an adult. Waking life can be just as scary, just as out-of-control as nightmares. Sometimes even worse. The inner-demons we wrestle with in our waking life cannot be killed with a lullaby or a parent's warm embrace.

I look at Archer, asleep in my lap and I think, "I am his safety. Nightmares do not reach him here." But one day they will. One day he will wake up a man. And his nightmares will all but be forgotten, the tremors of real life taking their place, and he will come to me for safety and suddenly realize that the only person who can protect him from his fears and chase away the boogie-men is himself. That growing up means having to sleep alone sometimes, with bad dreams and the ominous shadows that filter in through open windows.

And he will want so badly to lie beside me, to believe me when I say, "everything is going to be okay" and so will I. Because a parent wants nothing more than for their child to be happy. To sleep soundly. But a parent can only do so much.

No matter how much we want to chase away our children's nightmares, protect them from heartache, from their inner-demons, we are powerless. There will come a point when we cannot bring our babies to bed with us to stop the crying.

It has been difficult for me to come to recognize this about myself-- that knocking on my parent's door in the middle of the night will not make my boogie-men go away. Because I'm not the child anymore. I am the parent. I cannot seek protection, I must protect. I am the safety. I'm the one who opens the door.

I have the answers. Somewhere in here.


cross-posted @ Straight From the Bottle


Anonymous | 5:37 AM

Aidan was a little older than Archer when he started having nightmares- I think he was about 3, maybe 2.5... But what we did together before putting him to bed was do a little chant. I would say the words and he would echo them in a loud commanding voice: I won't have bad dreams! (he'd echo) Never Never Never (he'd echo) I am stronger than the dreams (he'd echo) I won't let you come (he'd echo) etc... We had fun with it too, and would make jokes in there and all sorts of stuff.

IN the end we made up this song kind of thing that went something like this: Bad dreams with a line through it- good dreams green circles around it- rainbows and bubble gum, Bad dreams Nay, good dreams Yay, Good Dreeeeeaaaaaammmmms!

It's way better when you sing it istead of reading it. Haha.

Anyway, it worked for him. Even still sometimes he asks to sing it together before bed and he will be 7 this september.

Sorry to hear Archer is being tormented by the nightmares. That really sucks, and I know it's so brutal to be watching the fear and not being able to take it away.

But he can get rid of it. With your help.

kittenpie | 6:33 AM

ON the plus side, dreams and nightmares come with the advent of imagination - and it's clear there is plenty of creativity in your family. On the minus side, of course, are the wakings and the awful feeling of seeing your child totally freaking out. Pumpkinpie has had some doozies, but fortunately they are sporadic. There have been weeks, though, where it was pretty consistent for several nights before they went away for a few months. Hopefully Archer will follow that pattern instead of your nightly one!

Mom101 | 7:52 AM

I think that to say "it will be okay," even if we can't guarantee it, is one of the essentials of parenting. It will, and he will be3 happy to hear it from you.

I remember my father putting a watch on my table when I was little, telling me it had powers to scare away all monsters and boogeymen. Looking back, it was a watch with a characature of him on the face. He was being ironic. Still, it worked.

I hope Archer does better tonight.

Unknown | 7:59 AM

I remember having terrible nightmares about a gorilla standing in my closet. Just standing there. Ominously. I had this recurring dream and couldn't shake it (I was probably 4 or 5). My Mom sat me down one day and asked me to describe the gorilla. She drew a picture of her, and made her a benevolent gorilla nanny with curlers and an apron. I can still see that picture in my mind! It makes me smile. I never had that nightmare again. What is so hard is not being able to get that desription from Archer, but maybe something for the future if he follows your pattern. Silly toothpicks.

It is so hard being tha safe haven sometimes. Somtimes I snuggle into my little man and smell his hair, and without him knowing it, he is making ME feel safe and protected.

Scar | 8:36 AM

i love you.

Anonymous | 10:05 AM

Does he have night terrors? (he seems like he's awake and his eyes are open but he doesn't respond to you)? I know when I was young I had those and my mom had no clue what to do. But if you think it's a possibility, maybe you should google it?
(sorry, I know that wasn't very helpful. hope archer feels better)

Anonymous | 10:29 AM

Amen, sister. You hit so close to home here. I so want to protect my daughter from life, but I also still want to be protected by my parents. Oh, the complexities of growing up and becoming an adult. Thanks for articulating so perfectly what so many of us feel.

Anonymous | 10:45 AM

What a great post. So true. Thanks for putting it in words so eloquently.

Trysha | 11:03 AM

Hi, I've been reading/lurking for about a month now, but I still have those nightmares, or those nights when I'm just inconsolable. I have a huge phobia of the dark and I'm terrified to pass it on to my kids. I don't want them to know the gripping fear I feel when the lights go out. My youngest is my safety. He just comes in to my room (yeah, how backwards are we) and he's the one that snuggles to me and rubs my cheek until I go back to sleep. Then he slips back to his room. I don't get it but he does. He just gets this look like "Mom, I get it, I understand and I'll be here until you fall asleep." There's no other face I'd rather see at 3am than his.

motherbumper | 11:20 AM

My earliest memory is waking from a nightmare. I still have very vivid nightmares and dreams and yes, I wish I could go and curl up with my mom.

Bumper has had her share of nightmares and each time it tears my heart up a little - all I can do it hug, rock, and cuddle. I wish I could scare off the meanies and make everything sunshine and lollypops. Damn, parenthood is a hard job.

Anonymous | 12:11 PM

That was so beautifully written. Thank you !

Mamalang | 12:19 PM

My son has those night terrors. I hate them. The white pasty skin, the vacant eyes and trembling body. But I absolutely love that all it takes to make it stop is one hug from me...then he slides into bed and passes back out. How awesome that we are the safe harbor for our children and not the cause of their nightmares.

Jenn | 12:43 PM

I had night terrors as a youngster and in fact still have them to this day. They're horrific. Thankfully I don't suffer from them chronically, but once every 6 months or so it's truly horrendous.

My daughter started having night terrors around 3. nothing like hearing your young child scream bloody murder to jolt you into panic mode in the wee morning hours. They're fairly common and unfortunately, not a lot can be done about them. Soothing bedtimes may or not play a role because night terrors are different than nightmares, which seem to be controllable to a degree.

Best of luck, momma.

Zellmer | 2:40 PM

What a beautiful post.

Anonymous | 3:24 PM

As much as I loved this post, I hate to hear about the nightmares. I hope tonight is better.

Given my choice, I'd rather be the parent - the one who has the perspective to offer comfort. Being a child is too hard.

Anonymous | 4:25 PM

I feel the same way - how the hell can I be a grown-up when all I want to do sometimes is run home to my mommy and have her protect me? I look at my son and wonder how I can protect him and care for him when I feel like such a child myself. But I keep soldiering on, and he has that same look on his face that I remember from my own childhood - the one that says "you are my protector and I love you and I feel safe with you", and I realize it doesn't matter how childish I feel, I really am an adult, and I really am doing okay at it.

Anonymous | 8:29 PM

My son woke up screeching tonight and my husband simply hushed him back to sleep. I didn't think much about it, but now I want to curl up beside him...

figleaf | 9:28 PM

Oh my gosh. I remember those night-after-nights with my son who, fortunately, would almost always fall right back asleep if I curled up with him or lay on the floor (later a foamie) next to him and sang "Rockabye Baby" and, oddly, "On Top of Old Smokey." It was more often simple anxiety than outright nightmares but trying none the less.

Our daughter was either a lot more confident or a lot less insomniac because she generally slept right through unless there was a real problem. Except when she got night terrors and oh boy was that hard! Hard not least because there's just nothing you can do -- it's harmless, sure, but you can't wake them, you're maybe not even supposed to try, and they're howling with eyes staring-at-nothing so hard you understand where stories of ghosts and possession might have arisen. She almost never remembered them, and they only lasted for a couple of weeks, but eeeyyikes! The only possible bright spot of the whole thing is she referred to them as her "night terribles." Adorable, yes, but I'd have given anything to have spared her, and us, the distress.

As for the perils and nightmares of adulthood... I think the real answer for me is sort of like yours -- when I became a parent my own occasional nightmares became no better or worse, no more frequent or less, but when I woke there's nothing more calming than getting up to check on the children, feel their chests rising rhythmically, hear their little snuffles and snorts when they shift position, and smelling shampoo (if you're lucky) or little-kid sweat (more likely) in their hair.

I dunno. Somehow knowing I can be there for them makes my own bad dreams, though no less bad, a whole lot easier to cope with.

Beautiful post, GGC.

Anonymous | 7:34 AM

i used to have a nightmare about a big hairy monster with a giant slimy hand. i would wake up crying. had to learn how to put myself back to sleep. archer is lucky to have you to help him. my children have me. i hope they know that. ~jjlibra

Anonymous | 8:38 AM

you won't be able to protect him forever, but you have the opportunity to raise him into a strong, loving conscious human being who will not be stopped by fear. from your post, i have faith that you will.

Jersey Guy | 8:54 AM

Did you ever think that Archer might be having nightmares about... ANTS! Ants marching! OHMIGOD marching ONE BY ONE! marchingmarchingmarchingmarching ants! Noooooooo! red and black shiny shiny ants all marching in lockstep thousands and thousands marching without ceasing. Horrible, horrible marching ants. Marching on their skinny ant legs, rhythmically clicking their mandibles as they MARCH?
Just thought I'd throw that out there.

Trenting | 11:13 AM

My kids mostly just have fever nightmares but have always talked in their sleep, it's funny, when my son talks in his sleep his minor little speech issue (the r's l's) is gone! How can that be?

Here's to sleep-filled, nightmareless nights~

Unknown | 9:12 PM

even at 30something, i still run to my mother's home.

she's my beacon in an otherwise stormy existence.

Meemo | 2:11 AM

The realization that I'm the mommy still blows me away. I have to answer the tough questions and be the strong one, when I still need my mom.

Unknown | 1:14 PM

I wasn't sure if Blogger supports WordPress trackbacks or pings or whatever, but I referenced your post:

Pretty, eloquent blog:)

Anonymous | 6:38 PM

I used to have horrible vampire dreams when I was young. For years and years, vampire nightmares. Now my daughter has started talking and whimpering in her sleep. I think there's just been too much going on in our lives this past year and that it's starting to invade her sleep. I feel honored to be the one she wants when she wakes up upset.

Gina | 10:00 AM

Beautiful post. I love your insight, GGC.

I am sorry he's having a rough time. I hope this is a short phase and not 5 years long.


kisses on your ass. love you.

Fraulein | 1:07 PM

He's just about 2 now, right? This was exactly when the nightmares started for my Peanut, who will be 3 in October. It lasted for several months--every night she woke up screaming, afraid of alligators and "big bad wolves" and who knows what else, and either my husband or I had to sit there with her until she fell back asleep. We were going crazy trying to figure out what to do for her, and then suddenly one day it just stopped. She's only had the occasional nightmare since then. We have no idea why it started and stopped as suddenly as it did.

Oh, and that seersucker suit kills me! That is too cute!

Unknown | 9:42 AM

A friend pointed me toward this post, pointing out similiarities between us and I just wanted to share with you:

Maybe it will help, maybe not.

But blogging makes you care about people you don't evn know.

scarbie doll | 10:18 AM

I am the friend that lead Marla here. I must convince her to come to BlogHer with me next year so that you two can meet.

I didn't read all the comments, but might be his rear molars. My husband had night terrors with each new tooth, and sometimes with the need to pee as he was night training. He would dream of soft things going hard and giant things enveloping him.

I also had terrible nightmares -- mostly about being bitten by dogs and something to do with the Pink Panther and a wicker basket. Go figure. Always had to do with my need to pee in the night but being unable to wake myself up. Sometimes I would open my eyes and still see the dream before me. Very scary.

Nate of course, inherited the teething nightmares too. I found him screaming a few times, completely unaware of my presence. It passes, but if you've experienced the same, it's extra hard on you.