The same thing happens every time I have a nightmare. Just before some catastrophic event takes place in my mind, my eyes open and there’s this tingly feeling over my whole body. My hearts beats a little faster then slows as my eyes adjust to the dark and I remember where I am. Then I debate whether or not to wake up Matthew, I almost always do, he tells me it wasn’t real and slowly, I fall back to sleep. We’ll laugh about it later, in the light.
My nightmares normally center around being chased– there’s a jailbreak and murderous convicts have invaded our house or I’m in a jungle with an explicable T-Rex on the loose, bloodthirsty and coming for me. And my legs won’t work or the car won’t start and right before I’m forced to face what I’ve been running from, right before the threat that’s been conveniently off camera comes into view, I wake up. In dreamland, I have never once had to face my fear.
Wouldn’t it be nice if our waking nightmares were that generous?
At the beginning of this summer, I was staring down two long months of parenting without Matthew. Me on my beloved East Coast, him on the West. A nightmare realized: giving every single bath, changing every single diaper, making every single meal, and answering every single one of Ella’s incessant questions. She’s adorable and I love watching her take the world in but I’m a human being with limits. I mean, I thought Curious George was really annoying even as a kid so questions like “Why, Mama?” and “What does that mean, Mama?” were seemingly destined to challenge me. As for myself, I only had one question: how as I going to survive it?
Obviously, I could do it because I had no choice. Moms do hard things, a lot of moms have done much harder things than this. I knew I could do it but I knew I couldn’t do it and have it not change me. My second greatest fear has always been that the sum of my negative experiences will turn me into a resentful monster with dust for a heart, a devil on each shoulder. I worry that they’ll permanently damage me, that I’ll be wounded, forever changed. I was scared I would never be the same.
Now, here we are. The eight weeks are over, I’ve woken up, and I was right. I will never be the same.
I can divide this summer in two: what I was afraid would happen, the damage and all that I mentioned above, and what I hoped would happen, despite the odds and what I know about myself. Unlike love and hate, I think the line between fear and hope is pretty thick. They have nothing in common and they cannot coexist for long. I feared what I would become and I hoped I would emerge out of the experience, if not unscathed, at least better for the scars. Either would change me but only one could win out.
Well I have the scars. I have the difficult days and the harsh words and the soul crushing moments where my first greatest fear, the fear that haunts me like a specter, seemed like it could be true: that I’m a bad mom.
After all, I am not adaptable. I shrink under pressure. I fail.
And now, because of this summer, I will never be the same.
I know more than I did. I’m more confident than I was. I met the challenge and so far, seem to be better for it. And the nightmare that was supposed to damage me ended up fortifying me, strengthening me like an ally.
The hope won out.
Where fear would have had me running, hope kept me still. Safe. Anchored.
The past 8 weeks were anything but easy. I never want to do this, or anything like it, ever again. I can’t even say that I’m grateful for this experience; I’m not there yet. How many times did I have to pick myself back up? I had to move past hurts faster than I ever have before. I’m a notorious grudge holder. I have a Ph.D. in silent treatment. I carry wounds like gold medals, when truthfully, they are chains that weigh you down. And being alone, handling something as precious as my children, I just couldn’t afford the extra baggage. I had to keep my balance, resist the damage, and do what I could. And what I could do was much more than I thought. And I’m not grateful for the 8 weeks but I am grateful for that conviction.
So who knows really if I’ve changed or if I just can now see myself clearly? I was never going to know my own strength if it wasn’t tested. When we win, we don’t have to examine ourselves or learn anything. When we coast, we don’t know our own mettle. When we aren’t challenged, we won’t have any mettle to begin with. In the end, I was never going to stop being afraid without the nightmares.
When Matthew first went back to work after Jack was born, I was terrified. I didn’t know how I was going to do it. When he went to Morocco for Spring Break, I didn’t know how I was going survive. When we slowly realized at the beginning of this summer that we would spend two months apart, I still was terrified and I still thought I couldn’t do it. Even though I’ve survived every single thing that has ever happened to me, I still doubted and I still feared. But now, as I leave this experience in my rearview, I have to ask myself: when am I going to start giving myself credit for the strength I’ve gained? When am I going to start using it?
I used to think all trials were meant to root some evil part out of us and until the job is done, we’ll keep having similar trials. And maybe that’s true. But I think our trials, my nightmares, force us to recognize who we really are. Who are we when we stop running, when we turn around and face the demons? I turned around and there I was, who I really was. This summer didn’t just strengthen me; it showed me how strong I have already become. I should not have been so afraid at the beginning because I have earned not being so afraid.
I have the scars to prove it. And more importantly, more miraculously, I have the hope to extinguish that fear for next time.
Matthew and I are already laughing about this nightmare. What was impossible and scary in the dark is now kind of funny and a little bit preposterous in the light. The first few days where I could barely speak to him. The time I took the kids to a Nats game and Jack threw up all over me. The weekend where I let Ella watch TV all day and quickly remembered why I have such strict rules around TV. The details are already a little hazy, the darkness is receding, and most of the scars are already healing. See what a little light can do?