Where Do Dream Babies Come From?
I began having the baby dreams a month before I left for college. In the first, I was a surrogate mother for my high school principal. I don’t remember the feelings of the dream, nor much of the plot, but I know the child was never born. The second dream came a few weeks later, and in it I was on the brink of labor. I knew in the dream that it was June because September was nine months before, and I was trying to figure out who the father was. I went through all of my options, but none of them lined up. And then I remembered that not only had I not had sex with a man in September, I hadn’t had sex with a man at all. I chose not to tell people that because, although it didn’t make sense to me, there had to be a logical explanation. But how? I wasn’t even kissing boys at that time. I decided to ignore the father and raise the child alone. I anticipated the moment my body would crack open and spill out of itself. I readied myself every time my stomach growled. I never did go into labor and woke with a pang of disappointment.
The Internet told me I was likely “working through an archetypal transition into a new self-awareness.” The dream may also have symbolized “the birth of a new attitude or viewpoint; new project; new recognition or acceptance of your inner child. It can also refer to separating from some recent relationship; release from an old relations; anticipation of a new future.” This made sense: I was moving away from the soft cocoon of my home and into a world—physical and otherwise—that upended my perception of what the world was and how I fit into it. It’s sticky to detach oneself from childhood. The place where I was nestled was comfortable, and to move from it was like forcing myself from the body-warm pocket between cover and sheet on a snowy February morning. Or like getting into the shower fifteen minutes later, or getting out five minutes after that. It will be okay once I’m in the next warm place, but in between there’s a moment of isolating cold, when I am neither quite here nor there. In the case of growing up, there is not only the fear of discomfort, but also of disconnection. For my whole life I have been a child; how can I relate to children now? How can I relate to myself when I don’t recognize the place where I’m standing?
What I thought in the dream was true as well: I had never had sex with a man. I had had sex with women, and hooked up with men, but nothing that could lead to a baby. There wasn’t a daddy. There was only me, alone and reaching my trembling foot into new territory.
The next dream didn’t happen until seven months later. There were two this time: in the first, my mom and I were both pregnant, and I gave birth to quintuplets. Again, I couldn’t figure out how I had gotten pregnant because it must have happened before I’d had sex with a man. In the other, my sister—who, in the waking world, already had three kids—and I were both pregnant and gave birth on the same day in adjacent hospital rooms. It was March.
In August, I had three baby dreams in a row. In the first, there was no pregnancy—the baby just appeared. By the time the dream was over, it was several months old. At one point, I set it down and forgot it. I was cradling a baby doll when I realized and saw someone feeding it from a Poland Spring bottle labeled “breast milk.” As I watched, it occurred to me that I hadn’t stopped drinking caffeine or alcohol during the whole pregnancy, and now it was too late.
This is a frequent problem. In one dream, I was at a college house party, sitting on a couch in a hallway by the door. I had one drink and then said, I’m not having any more! A friend asked if it was because I was afraid of getting diabetes, and I said it was because my son did not appreciate the alcohol in my breast milk. Do you care more about your son not absorbing trace amounts of alcohol than you do about getting diabetes? I did; she didn’t. Again, it occurred to me that I may have been drinking the whole time, pregnancy and all, but I couldn’t remember.
In dreams like this, I realized that I failed before I knew there was something to fail at. I poisoned this being who was at once a part of and apart from my body, a whole body living in, through, and off of me, and I didn’t even know it was there. In the dreams, I worry what other mistakes I’ve made in the past that I haven’t yet discovered. Time collapses. There’s no present; there’s only the past when I messed up, and the future when I will realize it. I wake up and worried what else I might be hurting. Maybe there’s a baby in me that I was ruining right now. By the time I had the party dream, I’d had sex with a man, but only twice, and I definitely wasn’t pregnant. Waking, I felt the weight of this: What secrets was my body harboring that I didn’t know?
Once the children are born, they often won’t nurse. I once had a son who was very small. I wanted to carry him around, so I tied a blanket around my body and put him in it. He sank into the middle like a seed in a pod. He was one day old, but I hadn’t fed him yet—he just hadn’t cried. I was in the Museum of Natural History, in a dark hallway lined with glass cases of bird skeletons, when I realized. I took the baby to a bathroom, sat on the bench, and debated whether I should breastfeed in public. Yes, it’s what people do, we’re animals, and besides that, we’re all women. I pulled down my shirt, but he just turned away. Fear clung to my chest, both that he wouldn’t nurse and that he wasn’t being fed. I was afraid that he was killing himself. I rushed out of the building and into Central Park. I felt guilty and distraught that I’d forgotten, or never learned, how to care for him in a way I should instinctively know. He was one day old, and he had already rejected my rotten body.
In another dream there were triplets, one of whom had no legs. They lay in a single crib in my college dorm room and never cried. I came home and, again, realized I’d forgotten to feed them. I picked one up and gave her water in a bottle, but it quickly ran out. I thought I should nurse her, but she only wanted water. I was afraid she would cry and I would be discovered. I opened the door to a find someone sitting on a pile of gym mats and playing ukulele. I couldn’t decide if I should ask her to get me water and thus tell her my secret or leave the babies and risk their wails. The babies should need me, but they don’t. I should be able to care for them, but I can’t. I wonder why the hospital nurses didn’t teach me how to feed them, and more than that, I wonder why they won’t take me back into their bodies.
It’s a common adage that we don’t truly die until those who remember us have died; this is, of course, how we can be immortalized through text or image. But what of past selves—not past lives, but the selves that existed earlier in one’s current life? The first-tooth-lost, the hidden-and-sought, the self whose ears are still unpierced. Are all of these separately immortalized, or are they erased with each new iteration of being? If each self is immortalized in those who remember it, and if I remember it best, then to abandon my hold on that perspective will kill that iteration of myself. I can’t become a new person without erasing the person I was. This is a dangerous idea to cling to, for with it comes the fear of change. But change is a scary thing—to embrace it means jumping head first into the unknown. There was some part of me that embraced this change, and in the dreams, I watched it leave me. It wanted no part of the rest of me—neither for sustenance, nor attention. And the rest of me was afraid of being found out. Nobody could know I had this baby. Nobody could know I had this secret—whatever this secret might be.
Another dream had twins, a boy and a girl, who could sit up at one day, stand at two, and by the third day were walking. It occurred to me to film them, but I was too absorbed in watching them grow. I wouldn’t let them drink anything but water and breast milk, although they already looked like one year olds and acted like toddlers. One night, I got a babysitter and went to a party at a friend’s a two-story apartment. It was lushly decorated, with dark, thick rugs and velvet curtains. We sat on a couch. I drank a lot of wine, and then I remember my kids and felt a surge of guilt. All of a sudden, the kids were seven. The boy was learning Greek and every other language. I looked through the glass back door to see him lighting a cigarette, his small hands flaring yellow in the match-light. My hand flew to the handle, but who was I to tell this person how to treat his body?
The dreams kept coming, once every month or two. In one, I woke up to find my bottom teeth were all turned sideways and there was a crowd of new teeth clawing its way through the roof of my mouth. I was in the bathroom, crying, blood raining over my hands, when my partner came in. We lived in a Spanish-speaking country with our two children. I spoke to them in English and told my partner that if I didn’t do it now, they’d never learn, and they’d resent me forever. If I had poisoned the children with alcohol before I knew they were there, how might I hurt them now that they were born?
Once, the child was once born with teeth. I kept asking someone if I could have some formula for him, but someone didn’t want to give it to me. Babies need breast milk, someone said. I tentatively offered him my breast but caved my chest away from the jagged white cliffs of his mouth. He groped blindly at the evasive nipple. I relented, and he began to suckle. The rest of the dream came in flashes: an image of the father leaving for work, and me overcome by a wish that we were lovers, or even tolerably married—how easy it would be to slip into holding each other. I said, Come hug the baby. He came, and we held the child between us, a pretense for holding each other.
I once got myself pregnant by someone I knew, and then said, Okay, that’s it. You can go away now. He wanted to help, but all I’d wanted from him was what my own biology couldn’t produce. I looked at him and regretted that my child would have half his genes.
While straight sex is tied to pregnancy in the waking world, my dreams saw no such connection with my waking actions. I had the dreams even in months when I was sleeping with women or not sleeping with anyone at all. Awake, I’ve never so much as had a pregnancy scare, and I knew that asleep. In the beginning I would spend whole dreams counting the months backwards, trapped in the non-sense of it. Like the fearful dreams in which I’ve poisoned the baby by drinking, these dreams exist in a collapsed simultaneity: I have to recount the past in order to account for the future. I have to determine the origin in order to know what I’m birthing. At that indeterminable union, something crawled into my body and began to grow. That past moment now exists in me and is trying to be born into the future. But when I look for the union, I find only myself. I am the carrier for something that crosses time and the source of it. There’s a life hidden in me that’s beyond my reach.
Even if I look for it, I rarely find the root. There’s no man at the origin. This infant body is just in me, or out of me, and I’m charged with it. My belly is wall behind which something unintelligible is growing. I try to logic the baby into being, but it fails. There’s no explanation, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t something there, so I abandon logic and address the fact before me. Often this means I neglect the baby for days and then disappoint it with my attempts at reconciliation. Over and over, it turns away. It lives in my body and then discards it like a husk of skin. The future, now born, needs no part of me. I, once the present, am relegated to the place of the past.
I want to tell people about the dreams like I want to tell people about my childhood—because this place, this other world that only I belong to, shapes me. I am the only one who knows how it was to fall asleep to the rainfall of my brother’s shower, and to wake up in the middle of the night to the creaks at the foot of the landing, to quietly whisper Mom, wanting to scream but worried at breaking the clean silence of the dogs’ breathing and the taxis rolling over the cobblestones. These childhood memories live in my present, waking body; they exist in the me who’s dreaming—who’s making a child, and a childhood, for her sleeping self. In dreams, we make our own memories—we create a new alternate reality that we alone witness, a new childhood in which we parent ourselves.
In one dream, the father and I were in a clean, dark bedroom, and I began to go into labor. It came too quickly to get to a hospital, so I lay on the bed and spread my legs. We could feel its head crowning, and then it eased out of me and onto the thick bedspread. It was a boy. The umbilical cord was caught around his neck, and his small, glossy body was shaded blue. We tried to slip it off, but he slid out of our hands like spoonful of Jello. We had to cut it with a knife. It was gummy, like tapioca, and pushing the blade against it felt like severing the slick root of his neck.
What I remember most was lying on the hospital bed, and the baby started coming. I thought Oh god, here it is, this is going to last a long time, who knows how long, but the baby just poured out. After, soon after, I considered how the body erases the pain. I remembered her oily seal-shape swimming out, but nothing of the strain. I forgot it as one forgets a bad dream in order to sleep again.
In mid-June, I was walking with a friend down a street in a family-filled neighborhood in Chicago. This was not a dream. The friend was in the middle of telling me a story when we passed a group of children playing on three-wheeled scooters. A boy who looked about two and a half was wearing, on his left foot, a car-covered rainboot, the other of which lay on the sidewalk a few feet away. There were parents on a nearby stoop, but I didn’t see them. All I could see was the child. As I watched, he sat down on his scooter and readied himself for the immensely difficult task before him: to replace his missing shoe. A part of his body, at least for the day, had fallen off, and it was up to him to put it back. His parents were aware of his plight, but they didn’t help. His slightly older companions looked on with modest concern; here was a younger child attempting a task they were both old enough to accomplish and too young to assist. My eyes snapped back into focus, to the carless street and the rows of suburban-style houses with their quaint yards and comfortable families settled on their porches before dinner. Sorry, I said to my friend. I didn’t hear anything you just said.
In my dreams, I regret forgetting this child that has already forgotten me. Perhaps I regret forgetting myself. Perhaps I fail in sleep to remind myself not to fail awake. I must be the parent, and I must also release what I am harboring—that silent, watching part of me that’s begging me to let it go. My body is full of something that was always there and I never learned how to take care of. These dreams are practice for something I hope will never happen, and an apology for what I’m sure already has: I’ve poisoned, forgotten, neglected, and abandoned myself. And yet, the baby never dies. It already knows how to parent itself.
The night after I saw the boy with the rainboots, I dreamed I was in labor. I was in the bathroom of a house, and there was someone else—another woman—there with me. She was exasperated, as though eager for the ordeal to be over. She kept walking in and out and sighing. I wasn’t excited, but I couldn’t stop it any more than I could stop breathing. I sat on the toilet and pushed, but all that came out was shit. I kept reaching down to see if I could feel the head. I didn’t want to get up and make a mess, but I didn’t want to accidentally birth the baby into an enamel pool of my own feces either. There had been no pregnancy, and there was no thought of what would come next. There was only pushing, and feeling for the slick crest between my legs.