It’s coffee time at work and a colleague is telling us how he slept badly due to the fact that his little boy (aged four years old) woke up crying in the middle of the night terrified of some dream he had had. My colleague says this happens often and he and his wife have to let the boy sleep with them, as he won’t stay alone in his bed. All of us parents sympathise of course – who hasn’t been through the same, at one time or another?
This inevitably brings back images from my childhood.
I don’t really know how and when it began, but as a child I had a recurring nightmare. There was an old witch dressed in black robes coming towards me, with a menacing look and her long claws trying to catch me. I would run in a panic, shouting for help but no one would come. And when she was about to reach me and all hope was lost I would wake up panting and covered in sweat. I would lie in bed, terrified, and would not go back to sleep for a long time.
The worst of it all was that I knew who the witch was. Her face was that of my great grandmother’s, who lived with us and with whom I had always felt uncomfortable. Maybe this was due to the fact that Granny, whom I worshipped, did not like her one bit. My great grandmother had resented her only son’s marriage and she and Granny had never gotten along well. I once overheard Granny saying something about her “witch ways” and that was that – from that day on I was so afraid of her that I tried to avoid her at all costs – something which proved to be difficult considering the fact that she lived in my grandparents’ house where we spent most of our time. This was of course silly of me as the poor lady had been a loving mother and grandmother, but children have a strong instinct and mine told me she didn’t like me.
Even after she died – well into her nineties – the nightmare persisted, but it became more and more rare until it disappeared for good.
Fearing “Robin Hood”
A few years after, when I was about nine, my night terrors returned. At the time we lived in Mozambique in huge houses with no protections whatsoever ; they were not needed in fact as before the 1974 revolution it was a safe world. However, there were stories about a sort of local Robin Hood called Zeca Russo, a thief that apparently stole from the rich to give to the poor and, in addition, always found a way to escape from prison. There was a time when I woke up every night around 3 am in fear, wondering if he had managed to break into our house and picturing his malevolent eyes looking at me from my bedroom door. At first I was so scared I couldn’t move but then I found my courage and ran to Mom and Dad’s room begging for help. Which I didn’t find, as they firmly told me I was not a baby anymore, sending me back to my room. Looking back I think they just didn’t realize what I was going through. The same happened when I slept over at my grandparents, who not only didn’t sympathise with my plight but reprimanded me on behaving like a baby as well.
My nights became a true nightmare. I would go to bed knowing I would unfailingly wake up in the middle of the night and feel terrified. There was an angel, however, who saved me: our live in maid São, who slept in a room down the corridor. Once she was passing by my door and after the initial fright of hearing real steps in the night I recognised her familiar silhouette and called her. Surprised as she was to find me awake, she listened to me and understood my plight. She told me I could go to her room during the night if I needed and from then on I did exactly that. It did require a lot of courage to face the dark corridor but as I knew I was going to find some company it was worth it. Sometimes I would just get into bed with her but on others she would come back to my room with me and stay there until I fell asleep. I cannot begin to say how grateful I am to this girl who, young and childless as she was then, had the sensitivity to understand how frightened I was, something both my parents and grandparents somehow failed to do.
Night time companions and lice
I suppose that’s the reason why it never crossed my mind to send my children back to their beds when they had night terrors or nightmares. I never forgot about mine, about how helpless I felt, about how much I needed the support of adults and how it was denied me. I never did that to my boys. I would either get up and go to their room and try to soothe them and make them go back to sleep or I would welcome them into my bed if there was no other way to calm them down. Especially in the case of my son Pedro, who had terrible nightmares for years, as well as insomnia, and came to my bed every night for a long time, a tiny figure looking helpless and lost.
All of this comes to my mind as we discuss this subject over coffee. Some people say it’s a bad habit, allowing our children to leave their beds and come to sleep in ours, adding this may become a long term habit. I say there is no need to fear this will last forever as I have never heard of teenagers creeping into their parent’s beds… as eventually happened with my son, who after some time overcame his nightmares and has slept soundly and peacefully ever since, with the exception of more stressed times when he has exams or is worried about something.
I do remember one particular worrying situation when I woke up one morning to find my little son on my bed, discovering later that day that his hair was full of lice, that he might have passed on to me. At the time I was so upset that for a few days I had Mom inspect my shoulder length hair to look for any traces of the tiny enemy! Fortunately I didn’t get any lice – I suppose due to my dying my hair; apparently lice are not keen on chemicals – but even if I had, I would still have welcomed my son the next night and all the other nights that followed. After all, isn’t it what we parents are there for? To help our children when they need it the most, when they are at their most vulnerable. I know from experience, that when as children we wake up in fear in the middle of the night, we need a loving hand to reassure us and give us comfort. I do not forget the one that helped me, and my loving hand has been there for my sons too. As it will always be, in nightmares or any other situations; when they call me, I will be there for them. That is the fate of mothers, and our joy too.