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The Secret Fears Of New Parents

Lynn Kiefer had always loved fast boats and stomach-churning carnival rides  -- the scarier the better. But a few months after she gave birth to her son, Gage, she realized that something was different: Suddenly, the thrill was gone. "It was during a vacation by the lake with my husband and some friends," recalls the Goshen, NY, mom. "I was out on the water, riding around on a Jet Ski like I'd done a thousand times, when it suddenly dawned on me: If something happens to me, who'll breastfeed Gage two hours from now?" She immediately headed for shore and watched everyone else have fun as she wondered what had just come over her.

According to experts, being stricken by the sudden awareness of possible accidents and catastrophes is no more unusual for first-time parents to experience than worrying about whether the baby's eating or has a temperature. But contemplating doom scenarios can be surprising, especially when you find yourself thinking and doing things that are out of character.

These scary thoughts are more difficult to talk about with friends, family, or a doctor than, say, how to handle diaper rash or soothe colic, says Rita Casey, Ph.D., a psychology professor at Wayne State University.

Nancy Cambridge, a kindergarten teacher in Hampden, ME, lost interest in skiing and sailing  -- which had been her favorite sports  -- soon after she had her first child. She remembers not wanting to tell anyone about her haunting concern with getting hurt or dying at what was supposed to be one of the happiest times in her life. "I wasn't sure how normal it was," she says.

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."

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.

Generation Anxious

This sudden sense of vulnerability takes many first-timers by surprise because, during pregnancy, they're thinking more about practical details than about how parenthood might change their worldview. "My preparation for motherhood focused on things like getting the right equipment and choosing a daycare center," says Cambridge. But when she got home with her newborn, she suddenly realized that the baby was totally helpless and dependent on her, and "it hit me like a ton of bricks. Nothing," she says, "prepared me for that overwhelming feeling of responsibility."

While new-parent fears are not new, a number of factors make today's moms and dads more likely to experience this heightened sense of danger than their parents. One of the biggest, say experts, is the speed with which news of relatively rare tragedies, such as stranger abductions and children falling into wells, reaches us. "These news stories feed on our ordinary instincts and magnify them," says Casey. When we become parents, adds Mogel, we hear such stories and worry that we have no control over something hurting us or our family.

New parents nowadays might also feel anxious because they're more likely to live farther away from their extended families. Without this support, they have to deal with the challenge of becoming a parent largely by themselves.

And the fact that more people are becoming first-time parents later in life  -- when they have more education and work experience under their belt  -- may make them more, not less, afraid of life's unpredictabilities. "People who've been in the workplace are used to tackling a project and being in control," says Carol Kuykendall, director of communications at Mothers of Preschoolers International, a Denver-based mothers' outreach program. "Then they bring the baby home and can't stop his cries, and realize they don't have the answers anymore."

In fact, taking control may be the key to feeling less vulnerable, say experts. One way for new parents to achieve that is to do whatever they can to make themselves feel more secure. After his son was born, Dean Lorey, a screenwriter and producer in Los Angeles, realized that he no longer wanted to go river rafting  -- a hobby he used to enjoy. "When your responsibility is not just to yourself anymore, you have to be more careful about what you do," he says. He stopped rafting, and says that as hard as it was to give it up, he felt better doing so.

Give It Time

The good news is that over time, these worries become less intrusive and, in some cases, disappear altogether  -- though it may take a few weeks, or even a few months. And while becoming a parent means that you always worry and, in some sense, feel responsible for your children, the intense feeling of vulnerability fades as you gain a more balanced perspective on things.

For many, seeing their child learn to walk and communicate basic needs can alleviate some of the concern. "There was a gradual easing of worries for me, especially as my daughter grew older and began to need me a little less," says Nancy Cambridge. Eventually, she not only went back to sailing and skiing, but took the whole family along. "I realized I'd seen my first child safely through her first few years," says Cambridge. "Nothing happened to me or to her. Everything turned out just fine."

Gillian Judge writes for American Health, Walking, and other national magazines.