I’m in my local nightclub and there is my childhood sweetheart. He walks over and kisses me and I feel beautiful and special and chosen.
I wake up with a jolt, and turn to see my husband and our 2-month-old baby soundly asleep. My heart races with guilt, as if somehow I’ve been unfaithful. I feel concern at the state of my relationship, as if this is my subconscious telling me I had a child with the wrong man. Is my sleeping self telling me I want to be with my first love, a boy I was with eighteen years ago?
When it happens again, I post about the experience on a Facebook Mom group. Within an hour, I have several responses sharing their relief at my message; they, too, have had those dreams.
Intrigued, I reach out to a certified dream analyst, Lauri Loewenberg, who quickly put my concerns to rest. “The ex that is typically dreamed about is the first love," she says. And there is actually a very good reason for that. "The first love leaves a lasting impression within the psyche as they are the one that first evoked those very powerful and raw emotions of desire, feeling important, walking on air, never wanting to be apart," she explains. "Falling in love for the first time is something you never forget, and the first love will forever be the face and embodiment of those feelings. But you know what feels similar? Meeting your baby for the first time. It's like falling in love all over again.”
Suddenly my dreams have turned from my dirty secrets into something beautiful. It’s true: A first love is a transformative, memorable experience that only happens once, with one person. True, also, that for many new moms, it’s a case of love at first sight with their newborn baby.
Natalie Bryant, a dream coach with a Ph.D. in cognitive psychology specializing in sleep and memory, agrees with Loewenberg’s theory. Speaking on the phone, she explains the power of dreams, and how they work: “Any time you have a major transition or shift in your life, a lot of dreams and emotions are going to come with it. It can bring up stuff about your parents … and about your relationships, which is why you’re dreaming about your ex. You’re undergoing a major identity shift. It’s not about you anymore, it’s about this little tiny baby and you’re responsible for this tiny human life.”
The role of dreams at these transitional points in life, Natalie says, is to “assess in the integration of that new experience into your existing knowledge. When we go to sleep, our brains don’t shut off — they’re actually very active as they process information from the day before, taking the information we learned across the day and integrating it into our current knowledge structure.” So it makes sense that an ex, from my younger self, should show up. “You’re dreaming of yourself as a sexual female and prospective mother, a maiden, as opposed to a mother.”
The emotions associated with the dream — feeling excited and beautiful, desire and being desired — are also from a time in my past, one that I’m missing from my present. Currently in the postpartum period, several pounds heavier than normal, with ups and downs in emotions, my marriage has basically been put on hold as my husband and I learn the family dynamics of parenting a newborn baby along with a toddler. Right now, the days of nightclubs and passionate kisses seem like they’re from another lifetime, and they kind of are.
“With every life change there comes grieving, as we grieve what we’ve lost and embrace the new,” Bryant says. But she’s quick to point out my dream isn’t necessarily bad news. In fact, it might be a good thing. “Dreaming is actually healthy, as is journaling dreams, or talking through them.”
Of course hormones have a big part to play too, as all a new mom’s oxytocin is spent on her baby, especially if she’s breastfeeding, meaning there is none left for a partner.
And there’s the stress hormone cortisol, a major component in dream, or REM (rapid eye movement) sleep, says Bryant. “Studies show it's the uptick in cortisol that allows the brain to get into a a state by which dreaming can occur,” she says. Thanks to the elevated levels of the same hormone after birth, dreams can be especially vivid and bizarre, which might explain some of the more stressful dreams, and the quantity.
As for the recurring dream of an ex, Loewenberg says another trigger is when a relationship turns routine. “It is those emotions of excitement and feeling desired that are at play here and serve as a reminder from the subconscious that it is time to spice up the current relationship,” she says
Bryant explains that when you record and interpret a dream and its meaning, you’re delving into your brain, which is your meaning maker: “You’re saying, 'Why do I find this memory important and relevant, and what is my brain deriving from this experience?” She notes an experience as intense as giving birth can spark a lot of emotional processing.
Now that I’ve done some work on my dreams, I no longer worry about being unfaithful, or that I married the wrong person. I better understand my present situation, and what my subconscious is trying to say. I decide to listen to it, and arrange a babysitter so I can go on a date with the man I love.
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