When I am anxious, I will often have some version of the following dream: I have to take an exam in Chinese. I never went to class. I have 24 hours in which to become fluent. I study frantically, knowing it is hopeless, certain that I will fail. This is, of course, a run-of-the-mill anxiety dream. It is the kind I have when I am worried about myself.
Last night’s dream: We are on a boat. A large yacht. Oldest, who is about ten in the dream, jumps off the back of the moving boat. As he plummets toward the water, I remark confidently to Mate that he is a good swimmer. He lands and loses his bathing suit in the downward rush. It gets tangled around his legs. The boat moves on. He starts swimming, but flails about unproductively. He is not such a good swimmer after all. The boat, with us on it, moves on. With rising fear, I see we are leaving him behind. This is the kind of dream I have when I am worried about my children.
Most of my anxiety about my children – and most of the real mistakes I make as a mother – are the result of my taking a moment in the present and projecting it into the future. Take this dream. It shows I am worried about Oldest. He seems overwhelmingly uncertain to me, still ambivalent about growing up, with one foot in college and the other in high school. He can’t seem to let go of his childhood enough to commit to the new experience of college. Is he really ready for college? We all thought he was, but maybe our confidence was misplaced. Maybe he is not such a good swimmer after all.
In my dream, he is ten. This is appropriate since it reflects how young he is, relative to his actual age. But in my waking anxiety, I imagine him, just as he is now, but 40 years old. At 40, his current state, wrestling as he is with uncertainty and ambivalence is intolerable. Untenable.