no monsters

Chicken had a nightmare. He woke up at 1:00 am screaming "no monsters! No monsters!"

The first thing I thought: oh my god, is there a monster in his room?!

The first thing I did: go into his room, pick him up, hold and rock him, tell him he is safe and there are definitely no monsters.

So I'm old enough now to know there are no monsters, but still young enough to have a knee-jerk hide-under-the-bed-go-get-mommy impulse.

I was an imaginative child, which is a euphemism for "pain in the ass."

I imagined all kinds of bizarre nightmare scenarios. I wasn't doing it for attention. I deeply feared whatever monster or demon my mind had invented as I lay in bed, alone and small in a big, dark room. I filled up that dark space with fire ants and phantoms, and I'd lie paralyzed under my blankets, afraid to move and draw their gazes.

When I heard Chicken crying last night I got knots in my stomach thinking about that small, sweet boy, scared, all alone in a big dark room. I couldn't help but wonder if all the kids in the world who fear monsters know something that their parents do not. 

I admit it. I got scared too. And chasing on my fear's heels came shame and helplessness - how can I help my son feel peaceful and safe in the dark if I don't feel that way myself?

I thought about what I should say to him. "There are no monsters" rolls right off the tongue, and addresses the "dreams aren't real" concept head-on. But it also seems like what the parents in Peter Pan would say to Wendy about pirates and tiny Tinks. It's a statement that reveals a profound misunderstanding of the magic space inside a toddler's head.

Of course there are no monsters in my parents' craft room where Chicken's crib, newly adorned in zoo animal decals, sits against the wall. Of course there are no scary ghosts hiding under fabric swatches. And the sooner he realizes that really in reality he is safe and monster-free, the sooner he will feel truly safe again.

But he believes there are. If I tell him. "what's real to you is not real," aren't I just adding another layer of anxiety to a middle-of-the-night fear parfait? Now he's scared of monsters AND he can't trust his own senses? Is he even old enough to have a conversation about "bad dreams" and "pretend monsters" and "you're awake and safe now"? I don't know.

Asking him to talk about what he's afraid of seems to be the more positive, solution-oriented, validating parenting tactic. But If he starts to tell me about a nightmarish ghoul hiding under Nana's quilting patterns, then I'm most likely to want to say shit man that's scary as fuck I'd want my mommy too. So that's not that helpful either right? Or is it helpful for me to honor his fears as valid and legitimate? Or by honoring his fears as valid, am I telling him that he does have something to be afraid of when, in reality, he does not? And by encouraging his fears of pretend monsters am I just adding to the number of nights I'll have to bolt into his room, heart pounding, and feel his tiny body shaking when I pick him up?

What would I want to hear? I'm 30 years old and I still haven't found the magic incantation to send the nighttime monsters back to bed.

What's the goal when a kid wakes up scared? Is it to help him understand that dreams are scary but not real? Is it to say I understand why you're scared and I'm scared too? I do not have an answer.

Tonight, my goal is to pick him up and hold him close until he stops shaking. There will be time down the road for empowering him and explaining the difference between what is real and what is not. That time is not now. Now is the time for teaching a much simpler lesson: when he's scared at night, he is not alone. When he needs Mommy, she is there. And there is no monster on earth, real or imagined, who can take down Mommy. She is one bad bitch.

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