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The Secret Fears Of New Parents

What's Going On?

As bewildering as this onset of paranoia may be, say experts, there's an explanation: Becoming a parent makes you realize, suddenly, that someone else's life is entirely dependent on you  -- not only on the job you do as a parent, but on whether or not you're there to do it. "You start to think about what it would mean if you were to die, because you realize you have so much more to lose," says Wendy Mogel, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist in Los Angeles, who developed a fear of flying right after her baby was born. "I'd taken hundreds of flights without it ever bothering me," she says, "but the first time I got on a plane after I became a mother, I began to notice every little noise and bump. Suddenly, I knew what all my friends and patients had been talking about." She continued to fly, but it took several months before she felt less uneasy about it.

"Becoming a parent is the first time we really leave adolescence, when we felt like nothing could hurt us," says Mogel. This shift in basic identity  -- from having parents to being a parent  -- can completely reorder your values, priorities, and perceptions. "When you have a baby, you see how vulnerable she is, and you realize that your own body is vulnerable too," she says. A parent who's just had a pediatrician explain how to protect the soft spot on an infant's head might subconsciously make a connection to how easily she herself could get a head injury from a skiing accident. Similarly, the memory of a long-forgotten news story about someone killed by falling debris can suddenly trigger a fear that something like that could happen to him, too. "Soon after my first baby was born, I found myself walking on the other side of the street to avoid construction going on overhead," says Nicole Berkhout, a Phillipsburg, NJ, mother of a 2-year-old girl and a 1-year-old boy. "I'd never worried about things like that before, but I became much more aware of all the things that could go wrong."