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Reality Check: Fearing the Worst

Q. Now that I'm a mother, I obsess about something bad happening to my 6-month-old --or even to me. How can I stop?

The world can look a lot scarier once you've had a child, and you and I aren't unusual in thinking so: Many new mothers experience a surge in irrational fears after the birth of a baby. If the baby's in daycare, there are worries about abuse, benign neglect, germs, and not spending enough time with her. Flying, or even driving, becomes an exercise in terror as you realize that an accident could deprive your child of her mother. When she has a cold and fever, you'll obsess about meningitis or pneumonia. (You can see this comes naturally to me.)

Over time, as your baby grows and becomes sturdier (and you grow and become sturdier), your worries will change, but they'll never go away completely. Instead of fretting about fevers and losing your toddler at the mall, you'll worry about classmates who think bringing a hunting knife to school is a neat idea, and lunchroom aides whose discipline methods are better suited to a military academy than to kindergarten.

But what can improve is your reaction to these worries. My friend Jim, who in his other life is James Feldman, M.D., clinical instructor in psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, is dealing with the worry issue in his own new family. At 44, he's a first-time father of Lucas, 10 months: "I find myself playing the don't-worry-so-much role most of the time -- unless I'm the only parent around. Then I end up being the one who worries because somebody has to." (Worry as good-luck charm.)

Professionally speaking, Dr. Feldman believes the best way to quiet worries is to not fight them: "Just accept them --don't try to get rid of them. Worry is, after all, an aspect of love. If you didn't love, you wouldn't worry."

So we fret because we love our children, and want to protect them. Personally, I don't even bother trying to stop worrying. But I am working on letting go of my illusions of control -- over my children's lives, and over my own life (though not, as my husband points out, over his life). And it's a relief to give up trying to be the all-powerful Mommy-god. Because deep down inside we know the truth:

We can help keep our babies safe and healthy most of the time, and we can love them all of the time, but as for the rest, it's really and truly out of our hands.

Q. When my husband and I leave our 14-month-old with a sitter for the evening, he cries -- often long after we're gone. Should we put him to sleep first, and then sneak out?

A. It could work, but what happens if he wakes up? Then he gets to be surprised by a babysitter, and learns that his mom and dad are pretty sneaky and may run away whenever he shuts his eyes.

No, trickery is never a good idea, but putting your baby to sleep yourself may be. We did this with each of our kids when they were young, and it was the only way we (read: I) could go out and have a good time without worrying (see previous question) about the scene at home. In fact, it is only in the last month that my husband and I have left both girls (Madeline, 7, and Ellie, 4) awake with our teenage sitter. Emily now puts them to bed later on, after they've had their extra 30 minutes of video-viewing time, complete with buttered popcorn (so that they can look forward to our going out as much as we do).

So here's the plan. Tell your son during the day that tonight Mommy and Daddy will be going out. Explain that his favorite babysitter will be there to take care of him, but that you'll put him to sleep as usual. Promise to come in and kiss him in his sleep when you get home. (Even a 14-month-old will get the key points here.) Remind him again about the plans later on, as little people have littler memories.

When your sitter arrives, have her read him a book, sing songs, or play a quiet game while you dress. Then you take over alone -- go through your usual rituals, and put him to bed. Expect a silent vigil, in your rocking chair next to his crib, in the darkness, hoping your going-out clothes haven't gotten too wrinkled or drooled on. When he seems to be asleep, tiptoe out, and leave your number with the sitter. If he wakes up crying hysterically before you leave, put him back in bed, grant him another five minutes of guard duty (it's worth it in the long run), and let him sense your calm resolve. (That means you don't even think about giving up and staying home, because children can read minds.)

If he wakes up and cries after you've gone, the sitter will do her best to deal with it. But he just may stay asleep --he knows there's only a babysitter in the house and not his parents, but he's had the comfort of his normal bedtime routine to help lull him to sleep. Just be sure not to forget the final step in the process: to go in and kiss him on the forehead when you get home. After all, a promise is a promise.

Trisha Thompson is a contributing editor to PARENTING magazine and a former editor-in-chief of BabyTalk.