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Your First Year As a Parent

An old cliche rings true when it comes to parenthood: Life will never be the same. After your baby is born, you discover that so much has changed  -- your body, your relationships, your priorities  -- that there's no getting back to "normal." And you find (after you get some sleep) that that's okay.

You also discover that, along with your baby, you experience many of your own developmental milestones as you grow into the role of parent. Some may be challenging, others downright exhilarating. And by the end of the first year, you'll look back with wonder, love, and, above all, the satisfaction of knowing that it was all worth it.

From the Parenting Guide to Your Baby's First Year, by Anne Kreuger, with the editors of Parenting magazine, published by Ballantine Books, a division of Random House, Inc.

Learning to Love Chaos

Birth to 3 Months

By the time my second daughter, Gracie, was a week old, I was tired of family and friends hogging her, suggesting I take a nap, putting the dishes away in the wrong cupboards, and otherwise being "helpful." Why doesn't everyone just leave me alone, I thought.

But on day nine, my husband was going out of town and my parents had to leave. Halley Rose, our 2-year-old, came down with a fever. Sore and bone tired, I suddenly didn't feel so strongly about being by myself, and I burst into tears the minute my mother walked out the door. Halley took one look at me and began to wail, and before long Gracie joined us.

Well, nobody said it was going to be easy. Chaos is normal those first few months, so lower your standards. Let the house be a mess. Order takeout. You can't do it all, so do what's important: taking care of yourself and your baby.

Other ways to stay sane:

Sleep when the baby sleeps. Because you have 10 million other things to do, you'll resist taking catnaps. Don't.

Eat well. You need fuel to get you through the night (and day). If you cut back on calories, you cheat your body of energy. It also sabotages milk production if you're nursing.

Accept help. If relatives, friends, or neighbors want to offer food, housecleaning, babysitting, whatever  -- say yes! If you can afford it, hire a baby nurse for backup newborn care, or a doula (or even a neighborhood teenager) to run errands and do chores for a few days.

Get out of the house. A change of scenery, with or without your baby, can work wonders.

Connect with other new moms. There's nothing so comforting as finding out you're not alone.

These tactics can help counter the mood dips you'll most likely experience. Although this is no doubt one of the happiest times of their lives, new moms may still feel depressed, anxious, and weepy. That's normal. According to some studies, the "baby blues," caused in large part by plummeting estrogen levels, strike 50 percent of women a few days after they give birth. Thankfully, the blues tend to disappear about a month postpartum, especially if you breastfeed, which is thought to minimize the effects of hormonal shifts.

But the ultimate healer may be your baby herself. "I was fine during the day, but at bedtime I would cry and cry," says Michele White, of Lennon, MI, about the first few weeks after now 6-month-old Madeline was born. "Then at 5weeks I was looking at her and worrying whether or not I was doing everything right, and she looked back and smiled as if to say, 'I'm fine, Mom. Relax.' So I did."

A new father probably feels a lot like a new mother: tired, overwhelmed, proud, worried. And he also may be feeling left out. Often the mom is the primary caregiver and the baby spends a lot more time with her, especially if she's breastfeeding. But sharing the baby is well worth the effort. When Atlanta dad Tom Lombardo's daughter was born, he and his wife agreed that one of his jobs would be getting Lucy back to sleep after the 5 AM feeding. "A lot of bonding went on in those hours," Lombardo recalls. He'd sit at his computer with Lucy snuggled against him in a baby carrier. "Looking down at her was really special," he says. "I felt such joy, elation, and responsibility."

Back to the Real World

3 to 6 Months

Before their baby is 6 months old, many women head back to work, or at least venture out into the world again, to the gym, volunteer duties, and other obligations. You may feel guilty  -- or relieved. Both are normal reactions. Often feelings of guilt stem from a working mother's inability to acknowledge how much she's really doing  -- and doing well. She also may be worrying about childcare, pumping breast milk at work, and simply juggling everything.

Nailing down decent daycare is critical, especially if you work full-time. Once you have, think about ways to ease into your job. Consider starting on a reduced schedule. If that's not an option, go back to work in the middle or near the end of the week, so you're not too exhausted, and your time away from the baby doesn't seem so endless.

Be clear with everyone that you intend to pull your weight, but that you need to do it within set hours. This isn't the time to take on extra assignments or to work longer days. And if your pay isn't full-time, make sure your work isn't either.

Above all, take care of yourself. When working moms are asked in surveys what suffers most  -- their babies, jobs, spouses, housework, or themselves  -- you can probably guess the answer. They often eat on the go, rarely exercise, and get too little sleep.

This stress can contribute to everything from headaches or insomnia to ulcers or hives. The answer, again, is to let others help, and go easy on yourself. Six weeks after Laura McCormick, a single mom in Tucson, gave birth, she felt overwhelmed with trying to do it all. So she moved in with her grandmother, started working from home, and joined a mother's group. By the time her baby, Laurance, was 6 months old, Laura felt confident enough to get her own apartment and find a roommate willing to exchange babycare for reduced rent.

Settling Into the Role of Parent

6 to 9 Months

"I can't believe this," a friend said to me a few years ago at a New Year's Eve party. "I still think of myself as a black-leather-skirted woman who can work all day and stay up all night. Look what's happened to us!"

The celebration was very low-key: It included eight children, six of them under a year old. Two of the women were wearing short skirts, but they were also wearing their babies (one in a sling, one in a backpack). Most of the finger food was of the nonchoking variety. The champagne bottles were popped at 9 and the party was over by 10.

The funny thing was that everyone  -- including the mother who no longer wore a black leather skirt  -- had a great time. We reveled in new parenthood.

Even so, although the second half of the first year of parenting is much calmer than the first, things still may not be running smoothly. It's not unusual for your head to be spinning with big questions of the "Where did my life go?" kind.

Cut yourself some slack! You simply can't be the same person you were before you became a parent. Not after six months, not after six years. The earth has shifted in ways you never imagined, and in ways you've yet to discover.

For one thing, as the dust settles and you feel ready to spend time away from your baby, you may realize that you haven't heard from certain friends lately  -- namely, those without kids. Don't write them off yet. You may have to work at rediscovering common interests, but maintaining some of these special relationships (along with establishing new ones) can enrich your life. Stephanie Barsness, of Durham, NC, no longer sees her best friend, Pam, every day, but they continue to get together at least twice a month. "We talk about everything," Barsness says. "We still feel like girlfriends because we try to understand each other's perspective. And our friendship is a wonderful thing for my son, Samuel, to see."

Make time for things you did before you had a baby: Stop in a coffee shop, take a bath, read a book, go to a museum. Women who think they're too exhausted to do more than watch TV are often invigorated by a short trip (sans baby) to the mall or 20 minutes of exercise.

Don't forget to include your partner in nonbaby activities. When husband and wife become father and mother, there are some seismic shifts in their relationship. It's not only that you're changing diapers instead of going out to dinner; you may not be in the mood for meaningful conversations, much less lovemaking. What's happened?

You've lost some sexual confidence. Thanks to a little extra padding and a deficit of sleep, new mothers often don't feel very attractive (even when their partners beg to differ). Yes, your husband still wants to make love to you, but there's many a new mom who sometimes suspects he's interested only because the alternative is no sex at all.

You've become your mother. To some extent, everyone pretends that their mother never had sex (except to conceive them), so your new status as a mom can throw your libido for a loop.

You feel invaded. After carrying a baby for nine months and then having him literally attached to you  -- either latched onto your breast or cradled in your arms  -- you may not feel like being intimate with your husband, at least until your baby is weaned and a little more independent.

In order for you and your partner to feel more spiritually and sexually connected, carve out some couple time. Schedule "dates" as well as sex, and don't worry about losing spontaneity: You may find it's pleasurable to spend a few days anticipating the time together.

Truly in a "Family Way"

9 Months to 1 Year

You've been parents for a year now, but you still may have issues to work out with your partner. A common hitch is different child-rearing styles.

Let's say your baby has started hitting the dog. You believe you should say "no!" sternly, your partner just thinks it's funny. Or you feel it's okay for your child to watch TV now and then while your partner's adamantly against it, even when it's educational.

Neither of you is right or wrong. Yet to avoid sending mixed signals  -- which could inspire your child to play one of you off the other when he's old enough to pick up on it  -- you need to develop common goals. Ways to do this:

Avoid saying, "This is the way my parents did it." The inevitable response will be, "That doesn't make it right." Your job is to create your own rules together.

Discuss how you were raised, however. Then your spouse has an idea of where you're coming from, and vice versa.

Don't criticize your spouse or fight in front of your child. It will become more of an issue later on, but even while your baby is young you should get into the habit of building each other up, not cutting each other down. If your little one sees your argue, make sure she sees you making up too.

Be flexible. There's more than one way to be "right."

After all, these three months mark the countdown to a very important milestone: the end of your first year as parents. What will you remember about it? Your limited social life? The kazillion diapers you changed? Sheer exhaustion? More likely you'll look back with fondness on 12 months filled with new developments and growing love. And you'll look forward to another year of being a family together.

"When Lauren turned 1, I reflected back on what life was like a year earlier  -- how I used to carry a purse, not a diaper bag," says Brenda McAden, of Memphis. "We looked at pictures of her to remind us how she's grown. I was relieved she'd made it through her first year so well  -- when you're a new mom, you tend to worry about everything. But she made it, and so did we!"

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