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Surviving the First Year of Parenthood

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While the birth of a new baby is indisputably miraculous, the demands are daunting, making the first year as exhausting as it is exhilarating. Pride and joy jostle with sleep deprivation, frantic scheduling, marital issues, and work pressures. "It's a tidal wave effect," says psychologist Harriet Lerner, Ph.D., author of The Mother Dance: How Children Change Your Life, of the enormous adjustments each parent must make. "Adding a new family member is supposed to be a happy event, so people underestimate the profound stress of two people in one magical moment becoming three." It's no wonder that about 80% of new mothers experience some sort of mood disturbance, ranging from the baby blues to postpartum depression. Periodically, such high-profile cases as Andrea Yates's drowning her five children highlight how serious these symptoms can be.

Fortunately, most new parents find creative solutions and support from friends and family to help ease the transition. "It's critical to have your own coping strategies so you don't end up feeling totally overwhelmed," says Dr. Lerner. From music lessons and mountain biking to finding more "me" time, moms and dads divulge their secrets to getting through the first year with more grace and fewer tears:

  • "I found that when I was home my kids only wanted to be with me. So what I often did to get some precious time to myself when another adult was there was to act as if I were leaving. I would say good-bye, then sneak back into my bedroom and shut the door to have an uninterrupted talk on the phone with a friend, a relaxing bath, or even just some peaceful time for reading. I did this to get through the first year, and quite frankly, I still do."

    -- Liz Lange, 36, president of Liz Lange Maternity, New York City, mother of Gus, 4 1/2, and Alice, 2

  • "When my daughter Zoe was born, I went from being in control to realizing I was on a roller-coaster ride for the rest of my life waiting to find out what was around the next corner. I felt pushed down in the hierarchy of importance with my wife and yet was simultaneously required to do so much more. First, I switched jobs to a family-friendly company that understood the needs of a new father. I also discovered a neighborhood park that I went to on weekends with Zoe. It was a way for me to connect with other dads and put things in perspective. And I got closer with my parents. My mom shared her parenting wisdom, and my dad shared his cooking skills by making a meal for us once a week. It was a huge help. It was like I transcended my childhood because my parents and I were all in the same boat now."

    -- Kenny Miller, 38, television executive, New York City, father of Zoe, 5 1/2
  • "I was very stressed and craved bonding time with my girlfriends, which was a new thing because in my pre-mommy life I was never much of a girlie girl and didn't have many women friends. As a mother, I started totally appreciating and loving women. I yearned for time to talk with them about stuff that my husband had no interest in discussing. Because of this, my friends and I started a Mom's Margarita Madness club. We met every Tuesday at 4 p.m. at a nearby restaurant that was mom-, stroller-, and crying baby-friendly and had a drink or two. We made it a point to compliment one another on how well we were surviving. We didn't discuss how much we missed our sex lives, our pre-baby bodies, our careers, or our freedom. When we took one look at our kids, we realized we weren't really missing anything, except maybe sleep."

    -- Stacey Wax-Distell, 34, stay-at-home mom, New York City, mother of Dylan and Ryan, 2

  • "Being a mother, working full time, and finishing up a master's degree had my mind working on overdrive. I knew my schedule would be a lot of work, but I wasn't prepared for the sheer mental exhaustion. It was grueling. So I decided that every night at 9 p.m. was scheduled "me" time. No matter what the current crisis, my husband knew the ball was in his court. I would retire to the tub with a glass of wine and a good book for a hot bubble bath. I'd either reflect on the day or just not think at all. It allowed me to unwind from the craziness, escape from responsibility -- even if only for a half-hour. It made me a happier wife and mother."

    -- Kirstin Rochford, 32, medical research ethicist, Houston, mother of Justin, 2

  • "My emotions were all over the place. I felt off-center, like I couldn't breathe. At the same time this was happening, I saw several beautiful celebrities in magazine spreads who'd just had babies and looked slim and fit mere weeks after giving birth. I thought, they're taking time for themselves, why aren't I? It really motivated me. I wasn't ready to conquer the physical yet because I knew the emotional had to come first, so I started doing energy-balancing work called Flow Alignment and Connection. You lie there on a massage table and essential oils are rubbed all over you. The goal is to find blocked energy points and to work on those areas. It's very subtle but extremely powerful. It made me feel renewed and peaceful. I felt like a person again."

    -- Nicki Francis, 36, stay-at-home mom, New York City, mother of Jamie, 1
  • "As a stay-at-home dad, I sometimes feel like I'm in a second-class position. People often assume I don't know what I'm doing as a father. I make a concerted effort to take it in stride, and I feel like a daddy activist in my own way. My coping strategy has been to just focus on the relationship between me and my children. I continually remind myself that the evidence is right in front of me, so I take my cues from my kids. If my children are happy, then I know I'm doing things just fine. I've also gotten back into yoga in a consistent way since becoming a father, doing it every day during the week. I seriously needed to chill out. Yoga gives me some time for myself, when I don't have to worry about my daughters. And it's perfect for helping me to focus, relax, and stay balanced."

    -- Mahlon Stewart, 34, stay-at-home dad and physical therapy student, New York City, father of Veronica, 4 1/2, and Beatrix, 4 months

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All content here, including advice from doctors and other health professionals, should be considered as opinion only. Always seek the direct advice of your own doctor in connection with any questions or issues you may have regarding your own health or the health of others.

Copyright © 2003. Reprinted with permission from the September 2003 issue of Child Magazine.