Being a parent is the hardest job you'll ever love. To make your first few months as goof-proof and enjoyable as possible, follow our troubleshooting guide and avoid these ten classic mistakes.
Believing Everything You Hear
During the first weeks with your newborn, you'll seek advice from everyone who's been there, done that. Even if you don't, they'll offer suggestions anyway. One acquaintance advocates sleeping with the baby. Your best friend warns against it. Your sister-in-law says it's okay to let the baby suck her thumb. Your pediatrician prefers a pacifier.
"The only opinion that matters is yours," says Alvin Rosenfeld, M.D., a child psychiatrist and author of Hyper-Parenting (St. Martin's). "If you follow everyone else's advice, you give up the most creative role in your life." Friends and relatives can offer useful parent-tested information. But remember: Your and your spouse's intuition are the best guides. As Dr. Spock once wrote, "You know more than you think you do."
Overestimating Your Free Time
Whether you're planning to take weeks, months, or years off from your job, don't kid yourself into thinking that being home with an infant is a holiday. Instead, you're starting a new job, with a tinier, more vocal boss who's so demanding that she won't even give you time off on the weekends. I'd planned to put our vacation photos in albums and reorganize the closets while my son napped. I didn't. On some days, showering by 2:00 p.m. was an achievement. "It's not your old life plus a baby," says Anna Speke, an Atlanta mother of two. "It's a completely new life."
Your plans to work out, catch up with old friends, and cook dinner every night just may not coincide with your baby's schedule. "On my worst days, my first daughter cried nonstop," Speke remembers. "On my best, she would wake, nurse, cry for half an hour, need to be held, sleep for 45 minutes, and then start the whole cycle over."
Set one realistic task every day: Return a phone call, write three thank-you notes, make the bed. At the end of each day, you'll feel pleased if you've crossed that one thing off your list.
Neglecting Your Spouse
After a long day of feeding, rocking, soothing, and diapering, you may feel like telling your just-home-from-work spouse to take a hike-a perfectly understandable reaction.
"There's nothing abnormal about having marital troubles and personal stress and feeling blue when your kids are little," says psychologist John Friel, Ph.D., a marriage counselor in St. Paul and coauthor of The 7 Worst Things (Good) Parents Do (Health Communications). "Making the transition from carefree twosome to parenting an infant is the biggest challenge to many marriages."
But you have to make your marriage a priority. If you can afford it, hire a baby-sitter and designate one night a week as date night. You'll talk about the baby, of course, but make a vow to chat about other things too. "Focus on each other, and make it a habit," Dr. Friel advises.
Putting Yourself Last
My sister-in-law, Lisa Zucker, a New York City mother of three, always tried to carve out half an hour for herself to have a cup of coffee or read the newspaper when her kids were babies. "That half hour made my day special and helped me feel normal," she says.
Making time for yourself after your baby is born is a necessity, not an indulgence, says Elizabeth Silk, a New York City psychotherapist who works with new mothers. Find time to talk to friends on the phone or go to a yoga class. "You need to nurture yourself so you don't become mechanical or joyless," Silk says. "The happier you are, the better a parent you will be."
Not Sharing the Load
The learning curve is steep for new moms and dads alike -- so don't shut out your spouse. Let him find his way around the nursery. You may feel proprietary about the baby, and you may initially diaper her faster or bathe her with more confidence. But your spouse needs to master these tasks too. Caring for a newborn is simply too much work for one person to do alone.
While he is doing his part, don't hover, criticize, or constantly instruct. "Some mothers say they want their spouses to help with the baby but then don't let the guys assume responsibility," says Kyle Pruett, M.D., a professor of child psychiatry at Yale University School of Medicine and author of Fatherneed (Free Press). "A mom will say, 'Make sure she doesn't get cold, don't overfeed her, and don't play too much after she eats or she'll throw up.' And without realizing it, she has turned her husband into an au pair."
Assuming the Worst
Some babies have real health challenges or develop serious ailments that cause legitimate worries or concerns. But even a healthy child can exhibit all sorts of symptoms that trigger parental anxieties-blotchy skin, a cough, colic, diarrhea. Don't worry too much. "In today's society, we're trained to think we can control everything," says Martha MacCallum-Gregory, a Ridgewood, New Jersey, mother of two. "Accept the fact that you can't, and let go a little bit. Things are going to happen, and it's not because you didn't think to prevent them."
Being a new parent, you're bound to worry because you've never had such a responsibility before, but raising children should be a positive experience. If you can learn to relax while the baby is an infant, you may not worry so much over the other weird stuff to come -- like when your child decides she will eat only orange foods.
Comparing Your Baby With Others
Is she sleeping through the night? Smiling? Trying to sit up? Don't focus too much on developmental charts (they're averages), and don't let other parents make you feel as if your little darling is somehow slow because their child is already solving complex equations.
Babies develop at their own pace, and as long as yours is within the normal range, relax. A baby who crawls early isn't any more advanced than another; it just means more chasing for Mom and Dad.
Everyone told me to sleep when my son, Matthew, did. But there was always so much to do. It wasn't until I started dropping things, including plates and glasses, that I realized how exhausted I was.
According to psychologist James Maas, Ph.D., author of Power Sleep (HarperCollins), new parents lose between 400 and 750 hours of sleep during their baby's first year.
You should snooze daily, if possible, or take at least one long nap on the weekend. Without adequate rest, it's hard to enjoy what should be a very happy time in your life. Sure, you'll have to sacrifice other things that could be done during naptime, but getting enough rest right now is more important than putting away the dishes.
Spending Too Much
"Everyone tells you the baby is going to change your life," says Alan Fields, coauthor of Baby Bargains (Windsor Peak Press) and a father of two. "But no one tells you how parenthood will affect your pocketbook. You get sucked into Babyworld, and there is no escape." Like going to the grocery store when you're hungry, shopping can be risky for new parents. Fields estimates that a baby's first year will cost them at least $6,200 for diapers, clothes, food, strollers, and other essentials. His tip for avoiding overbuying: "Take an experienced parent with you when you shop, someone who knows what you really need and can cut through the hype." Go easy on clothes -- your baby will outgrow them in minutes. Ditto with toys; most babies will happily play with the same object over and over-or even the box it came in. "Save your money for piano lessons or college," Fields says.
Not Preserving the Moment
At every stage, you think, I'll never forget this moment. Sadly, you will. In the continuum of life, hours, days, and months blur together. Suddenly, your child's infancy has passed. "When my daughter was a newborn, I visited a friend with an 18-month- old," remembers Marion Paterson, of Simsbury, Connecticut. "She looked at my baby and said she couldn't remember when her son was that small. I couldn't believe it. Now my daughter is 18 months, too, and I can't remember her infancy. I'm so caught up in what she's doing right now."
There are many ways to preserve your child's stages. Keep a journal, take photos, or videotape the simple everyday things-you'll want to relive them for years to come.
Copyright © 2000 Karen Benfield. Reprinted with permission from the November 2000 issue of Parents magazine.