Every Parent’s Nightmare

A new father undergoes an ominous rite of passage.

mI was in a hotel, with my father, my wife, Lisa, and our boys. We were traveling down the hallway, laughing about something. I don’t remember who was carrying Eli. But at some point he was set down near a stairwell. He rolled over, just once, and that was all it took.

My tiny little son, 14 weeks old, spun right out of his swaddling blanket and tumbled—so fast—down the stairs. I reached Eli first and picked him up. He wasn’t crying. His eyes were open, and for a second I thought maybe he was all right. Then I saw that his head was misshapen, cratered in the back, and rivulets of blood oozed up slowly over the rim of his wound, like lava from a volcano. My father announced he was dialing 911. Lisa just started screaming. I held Eli tight and hollered “Eli! Don’t go! Please, please don’t go!” The tears rolled really fast and hot over my face and I just kept yelling those same words—like the boy had a choice, like he could save himself.

I struggled, the first few minutes after that dream, just to process what I’d seen.

Eli was safe, still sleeping in his crib. Lisa was feeding Jack, his fraternal twin. I said nothing about the dream to Lisa, not right away.

Something told me the dream served as a punctuation mark to our first few, rough months as parents. As those weeks spun on, I fear I shared too many of my negative emotions. But the truth is, I held back. I’ve avoided mentioning it, till now, but there was a period of maybe seven to 10 days where I felt mostly despair. The boys I’d worked so hard with my wife to have weren’t people to me, weren’t Jack and Eli, but things, obstacles always blocking me from the loves that had sustained me over the last many years—reading, writing, long conversations, dinners and time with my wife.

I fell victim to lack of sleep, and spent several days at work struggling to get through the day. Worse, I dreaded going home. Much to my shame, I behaved around Lisa and my new sons like an antelope caught in a lion’s mouth: limp, glassy-eyed, shocked, struggling not to feel anything at all. It seemed that if I allowed my feelings any momentum I’d be subsumed. So I stayed silent. I grunted in response to all of Lisa’s requests and made every motion count, trying to use up as little energy as possible because it took so much effort not to cry. The boys were barely there, just blurs in my vision, duties I had to fulfill.

I’ll likely write about those feelings and that period more in the future. But for now, just know that I did something about it. I called someone, a Trusted Advisor, and I talked to Lisa, and I admitted everything. I said the words I felt were too raw to say to anyone else: That I worried I could not fulfill these new responsibilities, I felt fatherhood might be too much for me.

Relief came by degrees. Speaking the words, saying them out loud—“I’m afraid,” “I’m not sure I can do this”—deprived them of all the power they had gained as secrets. Out in the open, they suddenly seemed far less threatening—the way a gun loses power when it’s hung on a wall and not tucked in someone’s pocket. Over the ensuing days, I still felt fragile. Mercifully, the boys finally began to sleep, once per night, in a four–to-six-hour stretch. And given this reprieve, the world seemed, literally, clearer to me, as if I had stepped out of a fog. I noticed that, as 5 o’clock approached, I no longer felt so intimidated. And I could see the boys again—Eli and Jack. Without giving it much thought, I quickly developed a new ritual. After I changed their diapers, redressed them and exercised their developing muscles, I laid them on their backs, stroked the tops of their heads and stared deeply into their eyes.

I had tried this earlier, with no real result. The babies stared just past me. But now, as they passed the 12-week mark, I stared at them and they stared directly back. And as I stroked their hair and spoke to them, of the toys I’d buy for them, and the wrestling matches we’ll have, and the long games of catch, they filled in the silences with coos and smiles.

The nightmare arrived as this new relationship was ritualizing itself. And it struck me, initially, as a mortal threat. But as I processed what I’d seen, the core truth of the dream suddenly became obvious to me, and I broke into a wide grin. The nightmare contained a message, all right, and I suppose it is only natural that every time I pick up either boy I find I am doing so with a heightened sense of security. But rather than serving as a prophecy, a foretelling of some possible future, the dream illustrated for me all that had already come to pass: The little creatures I had been beset by and afraid of and unable to see had become the little boys I love and could not bear to lose.