Thursday Book Review: "The Dream Worlds of Pregnancy"

Eileen Stukane is a seasoned author who has written on many subjects related to women's health. Her book "The Dream Worlds of Pregnancy" opens the door to the rich inner emotional and mental landscape of expectant parenthood. This is an exclusive interview. 

What drew you to this subject as a writer?

Women's health issues have always interested me and the emotional side of pregnancy was one aspect of pregnancy that I thought needed exploration.  On assignment for a magazine, I began interviewing pregnant women about their mood swings during different trimesters.  In one of my interviews an expectant mother said to me, and I remember this clearly, "You are asking me what I'm feeling emotionally when I'm awake but there's a lot happening in my sleep. I thought this would be my happiest time because I'm going to have a baby but I'm having these awful dreams."  She had had a dream about going to visit a friend and leaving her baby outside on a bench. When she returned to find the baby, it was shriveled and wilting because she had left it out in the hot sun too long.  

Never having been pregnant myself, and never having asked pregnant women about their dream lives, I did not know whether this woman was unusual, but her dream captivated me.  I think most writers want to delve beneath the surface of polite society and seek deeper truths for human behavior.  I felt that if other expectant mothers also were experiencing wild and vivid dreams, I could open a new, exciting path to understanding pregnancy.  It was surprising to learn from other pregnant women that they were having more dreams than ever before, dreams of risks and injury and incompetence and sex, and never speaking about them. They were hiding their dreams.  Better to be silent than to be judged a "bad mother."  Women did not know that they were not alone, and that their dreams during pregnancy were being broadly experienced by other women who did not want to talk about them either.  There might be less anxiety if everyone shared, I thought.  In The Dream Worlds of Pregnancy I opened up the floodgates.

Other books on this subject have since been written - what makes your analysis poignant?

In The Dream Worlds of Pregnancy for the first time women became brave enough to reveal their dreams, which in turn revealed their fears and insecurities about becoming mothers.  I allowed all the women I surveyed and interviewed to remain anonymous in the book, and this gave them the freedom to speak out.  What became clear was that in each trimester there were common dream themes which showed that there was no reason to feel guilty if, for example, you wondered whether you really wanted this child.  Almost everyone is having the same kind of dream.  A frequent second trimester dream, for instance, is one of being invaded.  A woman in her second trimester dreamed that she was living in a house that was being broken into, a house that she must defend against an unseen unwanted intruder.  She goes through her house trying to protect windows and doors but then she discovers the intruder is in the basement.  She confronts a baby who is singing.   

I hope my analysis has allowed expectant mothers to feel OK about whatever they are experiencing emotionally during pregnancy, which is a major transitional time.  I also was fortunate to work with Dr. Alan Siegel at the University of California/Berkeley who at the time was researching the dreams of expectant fathers.  His work showed the themes of fathers' dreams during the trimesters.  When the dreams of expectant mothers and expectant fathers were compared, a complementary pattern surfaced.  During early pregnancy women's dreams were calm and verdant while the dreams of men were fueled with anxiety,  but toward the end of pregnancy those themes flipped because women were becoming more fearful as childbirth approached, and men were taking on more nurturing roles.  The support partners provide for each other is strikingly clear in the complementary patterns of their dream worlds.  By talking about their dreams with each other, pregnant women and their husbands or partners share a deeper pregnancy experience.

Why do expectant couples have such vivid dreams?

Pregnancy is a time of major change for partners.  Two people are growing into a family of three (or more if siblings are already in the picture).  The transition is being processed by the unconscious mind during REM sleep.  For expectant mothers who are experiencing hormonal increases, senses are heightened.  Also, as pregnancy progresses a woman becomes more physically uncomfortable.  She may not be dreaming more frequently than normal, but it may seem that way since she wakes up more often and remembers the vividness of her dreams.

What dreams or symbols commonly arise in the: first trimester, the second trimester, the third trimester?

The concerns of expectant parents change and shift during the nine months of pregnancy.  For the first trimester, expectant mothers generally have tranquil dreams with images of fertility such as plants, trees, water.  Sometimes small animals appear in early pregnancy dreams.  In the second trimester, with the fetus growing, as I mentioned earlier, dreams may include situations of invasion, where intruders take over.  This is also a time when a woman's mother and grandmother may appear in dreams.  

A woman is questioning her ability to be a good mother and comparing herself to the mother, grandmother, or perhaps, aunt who has been a role model in her life.  Houses, cars, boats, trucks, may also symbolize a woman's changing body image in second trimester dreaming.  She may have dreams of having sex with a movie star because she is questioning her attractiveness.  By the third trimester, as childbirth approaches, expectant mothers may dream about their doctors.  Concern about childbirth, the wellness of a new baby, and her own health, may fill the dreams of women at this time.  A woman can dream of being in water, swimming and feeling so fatigued it seems that death may be near.  

Meanwhile, expectant fathers who may begin the nine months dreaming about a big win at NASCAR, end the nine months with dreams of carrying shields or searching their neighborhoods for milk or forming a protective circle around the pregnant woman.  Dream worlds reveal that women start out peacefully in their pregnancies but become more anxious as childbirth nears, while their husbands do the opposite.

How can pregnant women explore their own dreams? (Is there a useful symbolic guide)

In general, dreams seem to help us illuminate the issues at hand in our lives.  Contemplating a dream, however, means that you have to remember it.  So before a dream disappears from memory, a pregnant woman can keep a recorder or a cellphone or a notebook close to her bed, and upon awakening, record her dream either verbally or in writing.  The goal is to capture a dream so she can think about it and talk about it with her husband or partner.  Then both become detectives in deciphering a dream.  As I explain inThe Dream Worlds of Pregnancy, asking a few opening questions can start the exploration.  These may be:  What do you think the dream is about?  What is its literal meaning?  What is the setting and mood of the dream?  Answers can always be followed by the question:  What does that remind you of in your life?  With answers to these questions as their lead, expectant parents can take their explorations into their own creative directions.  

Can dreams help expectant parents connect more deeply with their unborn children?

During the course of pregnancy expectant parents work out their separate personal conflicts and concerns, which become illuminated in their dreams.  By the end of the nine month passage, however, they both are dreaming of babies, labor and delivery.  Communicating those visions throughout the trimesters will bond them closer to each other, and bring a deep attachment to their baby.  Once a baby is born, the couple and their child will share a sense of family that dreams have helped them achieve.

How does a dream log help?

Waking life can vaporize a dream.  To be able to think about and talk about your dreams, it helps to verbally record or write down a dream as soon as you wake up.  A daily log of dreams will soon grow into a week's worth. When you look over your week of dreams, it is possible to see a repetition of themes, objects, people, places.  Reviewing a collection of dreams can often reveal that a pattern, and bring an issue considered "underlying" out into the open for expectant parents to talk about with love and, often, laughter.  

An updated edition of The Dream Worlds of Pregnancy is in progress. If you would like to contact the author to pre-order this book email here:  

EILEEN STUKANE recently reported for WestView News, a monthly newspaper in Greenwich Village.  In the past she was a staff writer at Good Housekeeping, at Self, and a features editor of Cosmopolitan.  She has covered womens health issues for Cosmopolitan, Harper's Bazaar, Glamour, McCall's, Family Circle, Redbook, Ladies' Home JournalThe Daily News, The New York Post, and numerous other national publications.    

For eight years, from 1986 to 1994 Ms. Stukane was a columnist and contributing editor to Food & Wine.  Her full-page,“Healthy Eating” column, which contained the latest findings in the field of nutrition, appeared monthly.  Her feature articles on nutrition also appeared in the magazine. 

Eileen Stukane is the author, with Niels Lauersen M.D., Ph.D., of four widely-read books on womens health: 

Listen To Your Body, A Gynecologist Answers Women's Most Intimate
Questions, by Niels Lauersen M.D., Ph.D. and Eileen Stukane, published in 1982, 
Simon & Schuster /Fireside, trade paperback; 1984, Berkley Books, mass market.  
An updated trade paperback edition of Listen To Your Body was published by Simon & Schuster in October 2000. 

PMS: Premenstrual Syndrome & You, by Niels Lauersen M.D., Ph.D. and
Eileen Stukane, published in 1983, Simon & Schuster/Fireside, trade paperback; 1984, Pinnacle Books, mass market. (Foreign editions: Italy)

You're In Charge, A Teenage Girl's Guide To Sex and Her Body, by Niels
Lauersen M.D., Ph.D. and Eileen Stukane, published in 1993, Fawcett/Columbine trade
paperback. (Foreign editions: Korea)

The Complete Book of Breast Care, published in 1996, by Niels Lauersen
M.D., Ph.D. and Eileen Stukane, Ballantine Books, hardcover; 1998, Fawcett/Columbine, trade paperback. 

Eileen Stukane is also the author of:
The Dream Worlds of Pregnancy, by Eileen Stukane, published in 1985, William Morrow/Quill, trade paperback. (Foreign editions: The Netherlands)  Reissued in 1993, Station Hill Press, trade paperback.