This essay is dedicated to the memory of Carol P. Christ, scholar of the Goddess, who has brought so much wisdom and liberation to our world, and whom I deeply admired. May her memory be a blessing.
The call of the Divine Mother has compelled me for most of my life. I have scoured kabbalistic works for visions of God/dess as Mother, Womb, Protectress, Home of Being. I’ve gone on treasure hunts through museums to find paintings of the Annunciation and statues of birthing goddesses. I’ve written poems to the Mother Goddess of my imagination. Experiencing Deity as creatrix and nurturer moves me. But when I had a daughter of my own, becoming the Mother in an immediate sense proved to be more difficult than revering Her from afar. I couldn’t fully internalize that I had stepped into the sacred role of parent, even after I became one. I know this is true because of my dreams.
Not long after my daughter was born more than a decade ago, I began to have disturbing dreams. In the first of these dreams, I dropped my infant daughter by mistake into water that had flooded the area around my home. She disappeared without a trace into the deep water. I begged for help finding her, but no one would help me. Soon I realized she must be dead. I woke up terrified and sobbing. In another dream, I realized no one was watching my daughter and she must have fallen into the nearby lake. In a third dream, a huge flood came into my house and carried her away.
Dreams like this, dreams of my only child’s death by drowning, occurred over and over again. I’d had nightmares before, of course, but these dreams were worse for me than dreams of my own death. My anxiety about being a new mother seemed to have spilled over into my dream life, and no matter how carefully I watched over my daughter, the dreams continued to recur.
I took the dreams to my dreamworker, hoping for an answer to my question: what did they mean? He offered the interpretation, based on the ideas of Jung, that the child in the dream was my soul. He suggested to me that I was losing my soul during the daily grind and responsibility of my life: that the drowning girl I kept seeing was me. What I needed to do was let go of my role as mother, and become the soul-child. Then the child in my dream would stop drowning.
There were truths in this reading, but it still didn’t work for me. To me, this understanding of the dream denied that “mother” was a fundamental part of my identity. It felt impossible for me to put that part of myself aside, to see it as not fundamental to who I was. The dreams, to me, were not about my soul but about my daughter and my failure to protect her. I feared some catastrophe lay ahead. My dreamworker and I parted ways.
Then, when my daughter (R.) was about six, I had another dream:
I am at a retreat center with my wife S. and daughter R. We are walking with a large group of people. R. and I have gotten ahead of everyone else. There is a large puddle between us and the house where we are staying. As we get close to it, I see that the puddle, though narrow, is really a lake; it is so deep that it fills the valley in front of the house.
R. runs into the puddle. I run after her. R. paddles in it and begins to drown. As she goes under, she yells for me. I tell myself: “This has happened many times before in my dreams; I know I can handle it in real life.” R. sinks to the bottom of the puddle. It is very hard for me to penetrate the surface of the water, as if the water is very thick, and it takes me a long time to submerge in it. I summon up all my strength and push myself under the water. I find R., pull her to the surface and hold her up so she can breathe. While I am holding her up, I realize that my own mouth is under the water. I am breathing. I am okay.
We climb out of the water. The group begins to arrive. I tell S. and everyone: “If I hadn’t been with her, if I hadn’t been watching, she would have drowned.” I am so grateful R. is alive.
This dream broke the pattern of my nightmares. I finally found the confidence to go under the water with my daughter rather than stand calling on the shore or wading at the water’s edge, and when I did, I found myself breathing under the water. The underwater place I had feared so much turned out to be a place of life, not death. Once I had this dream, the drowning dreams stopped. I never had another one that I can recall.
Now, looking back, I think that all those drowning dreams expressed my anxiety about being a mother. In a society that has no real initiation rituals to guide people into parenthood, I had to experience a dream initiation, a moment of finding the Divine Mother in myself. This dream finally initiated me into motherhood– but I had to be willing to go under, to let go of my old self and become someone new. The dream celebrated my protecting my daughter during those early years and let me know I had developed the resources inside myself to be her parent. I was no longer as afraid of being “drowned” by my responsibilities. As my dream-self said, “I know I can handle it.”
But the dream didn’t only confirm my identity as a parent. It also let me know that there is an elemental spirit, a watery Mother, that holds both me and my daughter. Looking back on this dream, I feel that the water in the lake was a form of the Goddess surrounding me and my daughter, letting us face our fears and move through them. It now seems to me that my daughter and I were born out of that lake together. In this sense, my dreamworker was right: my daughter and I can both be children of the Mother.
The dream suggests a layered reality is possible: I can be the mother who holds up my daughter, I can acknowledge my daughter as a separate and mysterious entity who must immerse in life on her own, and also I can be aware of the elemental power, much bigger than we are, that supports us both. Since that dream, I have a complex sense of the Divine Mother as a Being I converse with, wonder about, question and rely on– and also a Being I (fitfully) embody. And, She is also embodied in my daughter, who is herself a nurturing and protecting person, and who, in the dream, leads me deeper than I might otherwise be able to go. To me, this is a feminist way of understanding our roles in the world—we are not solo individuals, but intertwined in relationship with one another and with Being itself.
Author’s note: In a few months, I’ll be publishing a book about what dreams reveal to us, called Undertorah, with Ayin Press. If you’re interested in reading more about dreams, please look for the book!
Rabbi Jill Hammer, PhD, is the co-founder of the Kohenet Hebrew Priestess Institute and the Director of Spiritual Education at the Academy for Jewish Religion. She is the author ofThe Jewish Book of Days: A Companion for all Seasons, The Omer Calendar of Biblical Women, The Hebrew Priestess: Ancient and New Visions of Jewish Women’s Spiritual Leadership (with Taya Shere), Siddur haKohanot: A Hebrew Priestess Prayerbook (with Taya Shere) andThe Book of Earth and Other Mysteries. Her forthcoming book is titledReturn to the Place: The Magic, Meditation., and Mystery of Sefer Yetzirah. She is a poet, scholar, ritualist, dreamworker, midrashist, and essayist