|Cassandra.mllr / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)|
I don’t generally dream, or at least if I do, I don’t remember dreaming, for the most part. Occasionally, if I fall back asleep in the morning hours when I should be getting out of bed, I will have short, strange dreams that I can recall, but for the most part, I have no active dream life.
Lately, I’ve been dreaming about the food bank – specifically, how to configure boxes and pack them efficiently, what kinds of food we have left on the shelves that we can share, what supplies we need to order to bolster our pantry. I am usually a champion sleeper – falling fast asleep within minutes and sleeping soundly for 7-8 hours at a time. But in the last two weeks, my sleep has been restless, dreaming of squatting to pack cardboard boxes with dry goods furiously, sliding them across the concrete floor to stack higher and higher. I dream for a while, wake to acknowledge that it’s a dream, roll over and begin again. All night long. Strangely, I wake rested, but by 3:30pm I am exhausted and ready to nap on the couch with the dogs.
This morning when I stepped out of the shower, recalling last night’s dreams of scrolling Costco lists and counting the jars of peanut butter we have left in storage, I shook my head, remembering the other times in my life when I dreamt like this. I recalled my first job as a waitress, my sleep peppered with scenes of heavy trays of clam chowder and sourdough bread, refilling coffee cups and forgetting the creamer, sliding across the kitchen floor as I smeared my rubber-soled shoes through a spill someone had left behind. I dreamt like this again when I took a job managing the wait list for children’s inpatient psychiatric care, imagining spreadsheets and databases, sorting by county and age and number of days in foster care.
This is my brain’s way of working out how to master something new. It’s what I do, and even as it is repetitive and lasts for weeks, it is not something that feels distressing to me. I have come to appreciate it as a way my brain works while my body rests.
I volunteered for a while leading groups for parents of newborns. I spent 12 weeks with couples or just mothers with new babies, helping them build community, giving them a safe space to vent and find solidarity with others, and teaching them about the unique qualities and milestones their children would make their way through. I remembered those days of sleepless nights, not ever feeling like you were on solid footing, reinventing every single day anew. I didn’t dream during those times, mostly because I never slept long enough between feedings or rocking my babies at night to get to that stage of sleep.
But I do remember counseling new moms about their babies’ sleep patterns. I remember cautioning them that even when their babies did settle in to an overnight routine – sleeping 5 or more hours at a time – that every time they came to a new milestone, their sleep would be restless again for a while. A week before they figure out how to crawl, many babies will revert to old ways of waking over and over again in the night. They repeat this when they’re learning to walk, and talk, and when they start solid foods. I imagine it the same way my brain works to figure out something new, to master a new skill or task. And so while it is stressful and frustrating for parents to feel as though they have finally gotten their baby to sleep for a long stretch at night and then have to go backward, what their babies really need during this time is care and comfort. It is hard work creating those new neural pathways, but once created, they serve us well for most of the rest of our lives. In general, once we learn to crawl, we never forget how to do it. Same with walking and talking.
It is a reminder to me to nurture my own disrupted sleep as my brain toils to find a better solution, and to react to my teens with compassion as they stay up later and later or lie in bed for 12 hours and come down for coffee still looking like they haven’t slept much at all. We are all, in our own way, working out how to manage this time in a way that feels right and sustainable for us. Like I tell my newborn parents, the least we can do is be gentle with each other and know that even if we can’t see it happening, there is magic going on in our heads that takes time to work through.