Attitude adjustment

A baby can turn your world upside down. Here's how to enjoy your new perspective.

My fantasy: I’m a workaholic power babe and sexy sylph/wife hurtling ahead at the speed of light. Except that, OK, I’m a mommy, too. That makes me, of course, a Total Woman, who looks fabulous with an infant riding my well-toned hip.

The reality: Baby arrives. Postpartum meltdown turns thoughts of work into bouts of anxiety. My eyelids snag on my contacts from sleep deprivation. Late-night soirees sound just about as enticing as rounds of electroshock therapy. The word sex leads me and my husband to cock our heads like dogs to a strange noise: What’s that? In the meantime, my flesh has elephantine qualities, sagging where it once was pneumatic with pregnancy—except, of course, for my football-shaped breasts.

Be forewarned. Whatever your preconceptions of life after Baby, they’re sure to be dashed. Just as a hurricane deconstructs the landscape into its component parts, a baby splinters your lifestyle into fundamental elements of survival: eating, sleeping, diapering and maybe showering, if you’re lucky.

“When I was pregnant I kept saying, ‘I can’t wait to go on maternity leave, work out every day and get into gourmet cooking,’” recalls San Diego social worker Kirsten Larson, mother of 21-month-old Connor, “but the reality was nothing like that. Connor wouldn’t nap, and then he’d be up every three hours at night. I thought I was going to lose it.”

“The first six weeks are like a fire drill,” says Betsy Hamilton Schwartz, a Santa Monica, California, copywriter and mother of 9-month-old Caroline. “Before Caroline, I used to make a huge list and accomplish everything in a day. Now I just make a list. If I do one chore from it, I think, ‘Oh! I did something!’”

It can also be a shock to find yourself suddenly cast as Mother, the physical umbilical cord replaced by an emotional one linking Baby to your every move. “The birth of a baby throws you off balance. Your identity is challenged,” notes Sheila Kitzinger, a British social anthropologist and author of The Year After Childbirth: Surviving and Enjoying the First Year of Motherhood (Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1994). According to Kitzinger, psychologically it can take a new mother as long as a year to adjust to the role.

Ch-, Ch-, Ch-, Ch- Changes

Physically you may be annoyed by a panoply of ailments, from hemorrhoids to breast pain, as your body begins downsizing. “The whole body from the waist down feels like a disaster zone,” says Janet Orsi of West Hollywood, California, owner of a public relations firm and mother of a 9-month-old. “Someone should design a pin that says ‘Give me a break. I just had a baby!’”

The physical shifts only exacerbate the psychological ones. Raging hormones whipsaw you between baby-inspired ecstasy and feelings of maternal incompetence. According to Postpartum Support International, a clearing-house on research related to postpartum life, located in Santa Barbara, California, during the months following childbirth at least 10 percent of women endure postpartum depression, a severe mood disorder linked to changing hormones, stress and fatigue. Luckily, though, some of those surging hormones work in your favor. One of the upsides to breastfeeding every two to three hours, says Valerie Jespersen-Wheat, a Los Angeles–based certified lactation consultant, is that prolactin is released, which reportedly relaxes you (God is a woman!).

Another adjustment must be made by women who return to work. Sure, you may have intended to start back in eight weeks (studies indicate this is the average leave taken by working women), but your anxiety at leaving your child conspires to make this grueling.

When Angela Dunkle, a Los Angeles art director, had to first drop off 8-week-old son, Jack, at day care, she was a self-described basket case. “I told myself that what I was experiencing was just hormonal, but it was really hard, and I still bawl my eyes out when I leave him.” If your company doesn’t offer on-site day care, ask about flextime working schedules. Also, take it from those who have been there: Extend your leave for as long as possible.

The birth of your child will also bring you, at some point, to the realization that solitude is now catch as catch can. “Once I was in the supermarket without the baby and I thought, ‘I can decide, all by myself, which apples I want,’” says Schwartz. “I relish those little moments to myself. I find them if I can take a bath at night. Work becomes personal time, as does going to the gym.”

Relationships with friends will be affected, too. Socializing with childless friends might give way to time spent with friends who have kids. Your childless comrades might decamp on their own, flummoxed by your passage to the baby netherworld. The answer may be to keep in touch with childless friends on the days—or nights—you can get a baby-sitter.

And Baby Makes Three

As Nora Ephron astutely observed in her novel Heartburn, having a baby is like tossing a hand grenade into a marriage. “Parents should disabuse themselves of the idea that Baby will bring them closer,” says Jay Belsky, Ph.D., a Pennsylvania State University professor of human development and author of The Transition to Parenthood (Delacorte, 1995). “In fact,” he adds, “it could do the opposite.” In a study he conducted of 250 couples, half reported a decline in marital satisfaction during the first 18 months postpartum. (While 35 percent noticed no change, only 15 percent said marital quality improved after Baby.)

One of the largest sources of conflict can be the domestic division of labor. Typically, according to Belsky, a mother’s workload jumps 250 percent after a baby’s birth, compared to a 25 percent decrease in the father’s. Among most couples, the baby-related work is still categorized as woman’s work, and because mothers are usually the ones to stay at home, the majority of domestic work, including the husband’s contributions prior to Baby, tend to wind up in her domain. The trick is to start the discussion with your spouse before Baby arrives to ward off conflicts later.

My husband and I fell into the, ahem, “decline” category. Snappy, hostile communication was the order of the day as we fairly buckled under the stresses of unrelenting baby needs, overwhelming work schedules and the zombielike symptoms of sleep deprivation. At times we treated each other as adversaries, each vying for the prized position of most long suffering and hardest working. (“What do you mean, you don’t want to hold the baby? I’ve had four hours of sleep, no shower for three days, and I made the coffee this morning!”) This landed us at opposite ends of a therapist’s couch for a brief time, relearning the rudimentary laws of courtesy. (The intervention worked.) “

Most couples are not prepared for the strain of creating more egalitarian relationships at home, and it is that strain which seems to lead men and women to feeling more negative about their partners,” writes Carolyn Pape Cowan, Ph.D., a research psychologist at University of California, Berkeley and co-author with her husband, Philip Cowan, Ph.D., of When Partners Become Parents: The Big Life Change for Couples (Basic Books, 1993). This palpable tension, combined with sleep deprivation, usually spills over into the realm of intimacy.

“Sex is a vulnerable area for many new parents,” says Cowan. “Some don’t get back to regular sex for many months.”

Make an effort to renew the romance. As soon as you can stomach it, employ a regular baby-sitter to give you time alone together and force yourselves to stick to it, even if it means just an early dinner. As for sex, says Cowan, sometimes the discovery that your partner misses it too can result in increased closeness. “When one partner is more dissatisfied, the other needs to hear that and help find a way to address the problem.” She adds, “If partners can discuss it, they will be able to find opportunities for nonsexual intimacy: touching, hugging and cuddling.”

Obviously, despite the seismic shifts wrought by Baby, little compares with the emotional nourishment he brings. “There is nothing like it as far as the love you feel,” says Jo Anne Mathias, a veterinarian in Athens, Georgia, and mother of Jacob, 18 months. “I can’t get enough of him, smell him enough, cuddle him enough or love him enough.”

Once the dust settles, a certain acceptance emerges...and contemplation of another child may even begin.