On Parental Dread



I had a dream the other night that my nine-month old daughter died. She is my third daughter, and I’ve had this dream about the other two as well. It’s a completely jarring experience. In this most recent dream, Hattie died from an illness, and she was scheduled to see the pediatrician the very next day (thanks for that twist of the knife, subconscious.) The other lasting image was that of my older two girls playing outside, oblivious to the fate of their baby sister.

It’s not surprising that I had this dream. Hattie recently spent a night in the hospital with pneumonia. While concerned, my conscious self did not consider it a life or death matter. She was being monitored and taken care of by well-trained doctors. I am grateful for our proximity to health care; I am grateful for health insurance. My subconscious, however, turned my low-level anxiety into full-on dread.

A sick child need not be the catalyst for these  nightmares, however. I am constantly living with the dread that something bad will happen to one of my children. It is unavoidable. The worst part of it is that I can take every precaution in the world, and bad things can still happen. I do my best to submerge those fears, but of course they can’t be held in check forever. Every once in a while they bubble up as nightmares that take several days (or weeks) to shake.

Dread is a parent’s constant companion. And from what I understand about my own parents (and in-laws,) it doesn’t go away when the kids grow up. I can’t watch the news anymore. I can’t deal with school shootings. I can’t deal with war, poverty, and our nation’s (maybe species’) deranged drive to annihilate ourselves. So I do what I can to mitigate those fears. I turn off the television. I play with the children. I read. I write.

For me, so far, and I say this with humble gratitude, my worst fears have not been realized. My children have been safe, and more or less healthy. But my dread understands that all of this can change in a blink of an eye: a car crash, disease, a person with a gun. Other parents have been made to confront their worst fears – tragedies that nobody would face in a just world. The randomness of it all is unsettling, and feeds the dread.

A few years ago, one of my coworkers came face to face with the fickle nature of this existence. His daughter was diagnosed with cancer. My coworker is one of the best people. His family is one of the best families. It wasn’t fair. Of course, it’s never fair. His daughter overcame her diagnosis, and my coworker dedicated himself to helping other families overcome cancer as well. He became involved with the St. Baldrick’s Foundation, a group dedicated to providing funding for research into childhood cancers.

I have agreed to help with this endeavor. I am raising money and will have my head shaved in front of hundreds of middle school students. For me, it’s just another way of fighting the parental dread. It’s one way to work towards a positive outcome. Finding a cure to cancer is possible.

When I examine my own parental dread, I fear the things I can’t control, like a drunk driver smashing into the car my kids are riding in. They are girls, so I fear toxic masculinity, which contributes to our rape culture and means that if my girls decline an amorous invitation they could lose their lives for it. I fear diseases that we don’t have cures for yet.

But I don’t fear polio, or measles, or smallpox. Childhood diseases that once menaced generations of parents are gone (as long as we continue to vaccinate our children.) I believe the same can be true of cancer. I would love it if we could eliminate it from the expansive list of things for parents to dread.

Dread is unavoidable if you’re a parent. But contributing to a just cause may help to mitigate some of those nagging fears.

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Josh Hammond writes things. He has an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Hamline University.

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