With Daddy Deploying, a Child’s Nightmares Echo a Mother’s Fears

An installment in the New York Times Deployment Diary

Monsters under the bed are one thing. You grab a flashlight, lift the dust ruffle, and prove that there is nothing to be afraid of. But what happens when the nightmares are based on rational fears? How do you tell a 4-year-old everything will be O.K. when you can’t guarantee that it will?

With my husband’s deployment just around the corner, we are down to our last two “work-ups,” each close to a month long. The night after our latest goodbye, I awoke to my daughter’s sobs. “Daddy, No! Daddy, No! My Daddy!” I ran into her room, where she was sitting on top of her bed, blankie clutched in her little hands, tears streaming down her face. It’s a scene I wish I could forget, but I can still see it so vividly. Her fear. Confusion. Sadness. I cuddled her in my arms and lay down next to her, whispering soothing words of safety and assurance.

The next morning, I woke up with her still in my arms, and the blankie still tightly in hers. I watched her sleeping peacefully, drinking in the rare, quiet moment that life with two toddlers often prohibits. As she opened those big beautiful blue eyes, we talked about the night before. In a trembling voice, she told me that she dreamed that my husband had fallen off the boat and bad guys had picked him up. I was at a total loss. We’re not a big television family. We read age-appropriate books. The only children’s app I have is “Bake Shop With Strawberry Shortcake.”

How did she construct those images? And, what could I possibly say to her? I didn’t want to mitigate her emotions. I didn’t want to tell her that her fears were silly or unreasonable. I didn’t want to admit that I worry about those same things. Instead, I held her a little tighter, and told her we could send her dad an email to see if he could call later. We did, and hours later through tears, she told him her scary dream. I imagine feeling helpless on the other end of the phone is just as much of a nightmare.

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