Sharing one’s dreams and nightmares with friends and family can usually be lots of fun for the teller but tedious for the audience subjected to a detailed narrative. That said, I just have to relate this one, a REM blip that encapsulated my feelings about trying to put my career back together after six years of full-time parenting. My apologies in advance.
(Cue the wavy dream sequence and mysterious music…) My PhD advisor, who hasn’t aged a bit in the dream, has invited me back to his lab to continue my graduate research as a way to help me get back into science again. All the students working in his lab are young, gorgeous, and very smart, while I feel like a frumpy old woman. I have no idea what I’m doing, but the students are capable and patiently explain how the project and equipment work. They’ve carried on with my own dissertation research, the details of which I can’t remember, and they’ve gone beyond my work to address questions I never thought were feasible to study. I don’t understand what’s going on, yet my own research formed the basis for their work. It seems hopeless that I’ll ever get back up to speed. I try to use a piece of equipment I thought I remembered how to use, only to have my advisor stop me and tell me that everything I’ve set up is wrong. Another scientist with whom we’re collaborating runs down the hall, excited to hear how the work is going. He asks me questions I can’t answer. I feel stupid and look to the 20-something student working with me, who provides the answers. After a break from the lab, I return with my son, a toddler in this dream, in my arms. Immediately people yell at me that he can’t be in the lab, that it’s a violation of protocol and safety. In a panic, I search everywhere for someone who can look after him so I can finish my experiments. When I finally find an old friend who’ll care for him, my son is very upset that I’m handing him to someone he doesn’t know. Although I know he’s in good hands, my son’s distress upsets me. I’m miserable in the lab, but I feel pressured to leave my son because if I just put in the time, maybe things will get better. It’s not a happy dream!
I didn’t exactly wake up in a cold sweat, but it was surprising to me how one little dream could be so literal and say so much about my underlying anxieties: failing to live up to expectations, being left so far behind I can’t catch up, and feeling torn about leaving my children, no matter how good the childcare! So if anyone else out there suffers from weird career anxiety dreams, I share this so you’ll know you’re not alone!