My Pregnancy Nightmares Taught Me Something Crucial
I was dreaming again. This time, my daughter was being chased down a dark, lonely road. The terror on her face was as palpable as her tears. She was running, running, running, but her pursuant was growing closer. I knew it was my daughter, even though she was a young teen in the dream. My actual daughter wouldn't be born for another few months, but this was her — this was how my mind was imagining her future. By the seventh month of my second pregnancy, vivid pregnancy nightmares were becoming a staple of my evening experience. This particular one — my daughter being chased by someone so desperately wanting to hurt her — was the most common.
There were others, too. Sometimes I would picture my unborn child alongside my eldest daughter. I'd dream of them locked in a cold, damp room. They would yell, and kick at the door, and try to unlock the window, all to no avail. Once, my nightmare was simply of my eldest crying silently. She was crying so much that the floor beneath her feet flooded while I just stood there; hopelessly unable to offer any advice or consolation that'd help make her stop. I often dreamt of them in deep distress, most frequently as a result of other people.
The nightmares would leave me feeling exhausted, both physically and emotionally. They'd leave me anxious, pondering myriad what ifs about futures that I was concocting entirely in my head. My nightmares, those of my daughters experiencing pain, evading physical attacks, and typically featuring potential assailants, all seemed to reveal one thing: I was terrified of raising girls.
When I finally discussed my dreams with my midwife, she assured me that pregnancy nightmares are fairly normal. Unlike a standard sleep cycle, which takes you from drowsiness to light sleep, onto rapid eye movement (REM), into deep sleep, and back to light sleep and drowsiness before waking, pregnant woman often experience an interrupted cycle.
According to Psychology Today, "Hormonal changes [during pregnancy] can disturb sleep, diminishing sleep quality, and causing more interrupted sleep. In turn, these sleep changes are associated with increased recall of dreams, and with dreams that seem to be more emotionally charged and frightening than during other periods of life."
When I found out I would be having a second daughter, the first feeling to manifest within me was fear.
Additionally, "Dreams might entail terrifying childbearing images or disturbing threats to the baby’s health," Psychology Today reports, with specific worries a mother-to-be might have finding their way into her nightmares. According to Huffington Post, some of the most common pregnancy dreams and nightmares include those about being trapped or about physical harm being inflicted onto one's children — as well as birthing inanimate objects or forgetting your baby in a public place. I was certainly experiencing the former two.
When I found out I would be having a second daughter, the first feeling to manifest within me was fear. I knew I would love her as unconditionally and overwhelmingly as I loved her sister. I knew that my partner and I would do our best to raise strong, independent young women who know their worth and do not tolerate disrespect. I knew that we'd also do our best to help them cultivate their passions and follow their dreams and never feel "less than" any individual, and especially than any man.
The trouble is, I also knew that the world is not always kind to girls. Having experienced girlhood myself, I was well-acquainted with various forms of harm: that of a culture of beauty standards that teaches girls they are ugly and useless if they are not small and conventionally pretty; that of boys who have not been taught consent; that of older men who feel it their place to manipulate little girls; that of all manner of contradictory pressures (have sex and become a "slut," but stay a virgin and become a "prude"; dress in a revealing outfit and be told "you asked for it"; dress in a modest one and be told "no one would go after someone who looks like you").
Raising our girls and young women to be cognizant of the potential dangers and injustices that they might face does not have to mean we are raising them to be chronically afraid, or to feel inept.
I knew that things didn't always improve with age, either. I knew they might find themselves having to work harder than certain male counterparts in order to be considered for the same job opportunity. I knew that those same beauty standards, and slut shaming, and the demand that they be the caretakers of all those around them would never be too far behind. We could keep all these messages out of the house, but we could not keep them out of the rest of the world.
A friend once warned me that if I allowed my nightmares to affect my parenting, I would either end up raising my children to have a "victim complex," or to maintain a fantastic fear of everything: a constant dread that someone will always be waiting for them behind a dark corner, or ready to spike their drink in a bar, or plotting against them in the workforce.
Although I understood the concern, I couldn't help but wonder whether my nightmares were a little bit more useful than all of that. The truth is, raising our girls and young women to be cognizant of the potential dangers and injustices that they might face does not have to mean we are raising them to be chronically afraid, or to feel inept. Instead, it could simply instill a sense of responsibility and awareness, which might then allow them to make safer choices and have more positive experiences.
My nightmares did ease up after my youngest was born and my hormones slowly began regulating, even if the fear of raising girls (and all that comes with that) still lingers. Today, however, I am grateful that my daughters will have each other. I am hopeful that the 18-month age gap between them will mean they can experience much of girlhood, and womanhood, together. I am hopeful that they will take care of one another.
We cannot protect them from everything, and we shouldn't. But when girls help other girls — and when women help other women — a lot of beauty and strength can follow. I am hopeful that they will help each other.