Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Fear of the Dark: It's not Just for Kids

I'm not sure exactly when it happened, I can't quite put my finger on the night. But sometime between the long, lazy days of summer and falling back to Daylight Savings, my 2-year-old son became acutely aware of the dark. And he doesn't like it, not one bit.

It's never been an issue, perhaps because "dark" didn't really exist in his little world. Noah's first word was "light," and his ensuing fascination with switches has ensured both the illumination of our home and the profitability of DTE. And with an 8pm bedtime he just hasn't spent much time in natural darkness. But all of a sudden when he wakes in the morning and I go to raise his blinds, he asks me in a quivering voice, "Is the dark all gone, Mama?" as if he's been worried all night about what lurked outside. He wants his nightlight on all day, as if to guard against any sneak attack or unscheduled dark visit. And every once in a while he'll wake up in the middle of the night crying and call out for me.

I try to comfort him, holding him close as he wraps his jammie-clad arms and legs around me. We'll sit and rock as I whisper to him that everything's OK, that the dark is nothing to be scared of. Then I lay him gently back down in his bed, kiss his forehead, and tiptoe guiltily back to my room, knowing all the while I am nothing but a big, fat liar. Because here's the thing: I'm just as scared.

It's not the same fear I had as a child, when monsters lurked behind closet doors and shifting shapes and shadows on the floors were most certainly up to no good. No, my fears have grown-up over the years but still induce the same child-like panic.

Much like with my little Noah, I manage to dodge the dark fears during most of the day. Between a 2-year-old, a 4-month-old, a job, a house to take care of and a partridge in a pear tree (that reminds me, Christmas is coming), the daylight hours pass in a blur. I also avoid make a point to avoid dusting in corners, the bottom of the laundry basket, trips to the basement and anywhere else dark might dare hide. But late at night when I finally stop moving long enough to think, dark and fear come creeping in, swirling all around my bed in question form. What if I'm not doing this right? What if my babies don't grow up to be happy? How will I protect them from everything that hurts? How will I nourish their little minds, their souls, their beautiful spirits? What if something happens to me, to my husband, to my parents? What? How? What? How? It's my very own version of Fear Factor.

Eventually, sleep takes over and the monsters retreat. They leave without a trace before dawn, just as silently as they appeared and the world returns to "normal." But I know they'll be back.

That's why lately, I've begun arming myself with a secret weapon. Once both kids are tucked securely into bed I peek into each of their rooms and lean down close enough to smell their still-damp hair, feel their warm breath and hear those tiny heartbeats I once carried inside. Then I kneel down beside their cribs and pray. I pray for strength, for peace, for light in the dark. I know our fears are normal, I know they'll subside in time. Until then, we'll just have to hold each other tight and try to shine as brightly as we can.

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