Crossing into and out of Dreamland

"Daddy?" asks a small, sleepy voice at my bedroom door. "Yes, Molly?" I reply, not knowing that I was even awake. Someone used to have to shake me by the shoulders or pour water on my head to wake me up. Now that gentle wisp of a voice has me up on one elbow with just one word. "Can I sleep in your bed?" I melt at her innocence. Almost every night she wakes up at some point and comes to cuddle back to sleep with me. I always let her. But still she asks. Is it that she wants not only to cuddle, but to know that she is wanted?

"Did you pee?" I ask. This means both: "Did you wet your bed?" and/or "Did you go to the toilet before coming in here so I know you won't wet MY bed?"

"No," she says, honestly.

"Go to the toilet, and then come back and climb in with me."

She scampers away. I have a moment to adjust to the fact that my bed will soon be more crowded. (The problem is that sometimes Molly fidgets in her sleep. This I cannot bear. Usually, after about twenty minutes of me hoping she will settle down, I will pick her up in exasperation and carry her back to her bed. If she wakes up in the process I will lie down with her there until she falls asleep again. Then I will steal away, back to my bed.)

When Molly returns from the bathroom we have a moment of exquisite sweetness. This is what makes me willing to take the risk of being kept awake by her fidgeting. Her little body burrows into the warmth of my chest and belly. Her hand reaches up in the dark to find my face. Delicate fingers light on the stubble of my cheeks. My arm around her tiny frame must feel huge to her. She believes her daddy's strong arms will forever keep her safe from all the scary things in this world. Feeling her complete trust in me, I almost believe it myself.

"I love you, Molly" I whisper. In the daytime I will say this and she will sometimes mock me, annoyed by my redundancy. "I wuv you Mauwee, I wuv you Mauwee." she will sneer. "You are always saying that!" I flash on my own childhood and think, "Better always than never."

But just before she crosses into sleep she eagerly soaks in my affection. "I love you too, Daddy,...really, really love you." Then in a moment, she is gone, safely back in the land of dreams. 

It can be scary crossing the gap between waking and sleeping. You go from conscious awareness and control of your life to surrendering everything, including your own mind. It takes faith to believe that you can let it all go and still be safe. Maybe that's why we say our prayers at bedtime. Even if you are not afraid of robbers or ghosts, you never know what upsets your dreams may bring forth.

It can be scary coming back to waking too. Peaceful sleep must give way to endless demands: the rush of getting ready for school, the scary teachers waiting there, the older kids, the bullies, the shifting alliances of best friends, the ever-present danger of ridicule. 

When Molly wakes up in the morning she needs me to help her transition into the day, just as she needed me to help her get to sleep at night. Her body insists on being next to mine. She starts by sitting on me in bed and refusing to let me rise. We wrestle. She feels powerful against my waking body that doesn't really want to get up anyway. Walking downstairs by herself is intolerable agony. She believes that her place is on my back. To her I am a school bus that she hops like a freight train. When we get to the kitchen I set her on the counter so that I can make the oatmeal. She leans out toward me trying to hop on as I pass by to get some salt. When I need to fill her lunch box I have to steer clear of her like I would a pond full of leaches. Her seat at breakfast is always in my lap. In my pick up truck she sits right beside me, trying to get her fill of body contact before we arrive at school. When we arrive in the parking lot the agenda is obvious to us both, but she pauses and I always have to say, "Time to get out now. Don't forget your lunch."

When I pick her up in the afternoon. Everything has changed. There is not even a hello. It's just "Dad, please can I go to April's house? Please? Her mom says it's okay." I agree and drive back home alone. I'll pick her up at April's later, but even then she won't want to come with me. We will eat dinner with Mom, read stories with Mom and turn out the light. Molly will be faced with crossing that bridge into sleep once more. But with Dad on one side and Mom on the other she will release her day, like a sky diver stepping off a plane. Buoyed not by a parachute, but by the warmth of her parent's bodies and the soft sounds of her mother's lullaby.

© 2008, Tim Hartnett

Other Father Issues, Books

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Your children need your presence more than your presents. - Jesse Jackson

Tim Hartnett, Ph.D. is a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in private practice in Santa Cruz, CA. He specializes in Individual Counseling, Couples Therapy, and Divorce Mediation. He can be reached at 831.464.2922 or through his website:

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