Nico, just over 2 years old, had a nightmare last night. Midnight, house asleep, everything humid, all windows open, everywhere dark, and suddenly three screams in a row, a repetition of words I didn’t understand until the the next morning.
I have several fixed roles in the family. I often cook, even more often clean the kitchen. A garbage bag would have to grow legs and walk itself to the trash if I didn’t take it out (this has come close to happening a few times). But my most consistent job is nightmare patrol. My wife usually wakes for work between 5:15 and 6 am (a different kind of nightmare), so it’s me who answers the sudden howling, whimpering, jabbering or sobbing. Another reason it’s me: They like seeing my wife a little more than they like seeing me. If screaming at midnight was a reliable way to get their mom into the room, our home would sound like the Broadmoor insane asylum every night of the week.
My job as dream patroller has give me an amateur fascination with just what films are playing behind those closed eyes while my children sleep. It’s not the kind of urgent obsession I used to have when they were infants, when their refusal to sleep at night made me a worse human being during the day. But although less disruptive, their sleep is still utterly foreign to me.
I also know this about my kids: Their sleep, at every stage of development, gets hijacked by other priorities. As newborns, their need to be fed and changed trumped it. When they were infants, they needed to be comforted and held more, it seemed, than they needed to rest. Now that Nico is a toddler, I see that the biggest impediment to sleep may be his imagination.
Part of this, of course, is that the lines that delineate REM and non-REM sleep are a little blurry in children. Non-REM sleep is important: it restores us physically. But REM sleep, where we dream, is what makes us human (or perhaps not just human–reptiles don’t have REM sleep, mammals do). The blurriness is that children’s brains don’t always immediately kick in the paralysis that should be part of REM sleep (so we don’t act out our dreams). So dreaming is a more physical event, as far as I can tell, for them than it is for me.
Back to the question: what does Nico see when he sleeps? I always thought that a narrative would have to be somewhat complex and powerful to inspire the kind of deep emotion that would wake him up in terror. But his storytelling, like his speaking, is pretty basic. He’ll take one plastic dinosaur and make it say ‘hi’ to another plastic dinosaur. And then he seems content to leave it at that. Unless his nightmare is that the other dinosaur doesn’t say ‘hi’ back, it’s hard to imagine that a story is freaking him out.
The one clue to last night’s nightmare: the words he woke up screaming were, I realized this morning, “I’m ready”. That is what he cries out when he’s been put in time out, as an answer to our (probably insufferable) question “are you ready to stop hitting/spitting/crying/misbehaving?” So maybe that’s the answer. His nightmares aren’t elaborate D&D scenarios with half-eaten elves or oceans on fire; they’re probably not even low-budget glowing-eyed demon sheep. Rather, they seem to be domestic dramas about misbehavior, conflict, disappointment and abandonment.
If that is the case, then it’s simple: Our children have same nightmares about us that we have about them.