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The Secret Fears Of New Parents

Shifting Into A Protective Mode

Besides feeling an increased awareness of one's own vulnerability, many first-time parents become acutely conscious of dangers that could harm their spouse and new baby. "If my husband was late coming home, I'd worry that he'd been in an accident," says Berkhout. "That's also not something I would've done before I became a mother."

Others may not develop such specific concerns, but they can be affected by their new identity shift in less perceptible ways. Anne Honzel, from Evanston, IL, found herself making subtle changes in her normal routine after the birth of her son, Henry, now 10 months. "I sometimes used to drink a couple of glasses of wine with dinner," she says, "but I don't do that anymore. And not just because I'm breastfeeding. I feel like I'm on call twenty-four hours a day, and I can't let my guard down."

Some experts think there may be an evolutionary reason for new-parent paranoia: "The fact that so many first-timers experience worries like this suggests that they've been important to our survival," notes Ilene Sackler Lefcourt, director of New York's Sackler Lefcourt Center for Child Development. For every far-out fear of a tornado or a piano falling from a third-story window, she explains, there's a more realistic concern that prompts a parent to, say, buy a safer car or install a new smoke detector. In other words, worrying  -- even about unlikely mishaps  -- is an important part of parenting because that's what can lead parents to prepare properly for less improbable dangers.