No matter how much you prepare for it, parenting will blow your mind.
Your kids will challenge you, bring you to tears, crack you up, and make you forget what you urgently had to do. They'll shatter the life you knew into a million pieces. Then they'll put it back together, like a stained-glass window, into something infinitely more complicated and beautiful.
While every parent's biggest surprises are different, there are common themes to the ways that kids revolutionize our lives. Read on for the top 10 surprises of new parenthood according to interviews with our site moms and dads. Then tell us your biggest new-parent surprise!
Surprise #1: Your relationship with your partner will change
"Before kids, we were inseparable. We talked all the time, went everywhere together. My friends said we acted like high school sweethearts," says new mom Kimberly Taylor of her relationship with her husband.
Since their baby arrived, however, the couple has been constantly at odds. "We hardly speak to each other. We're stressed out over money and bills. We fight a lot," Taylor says.
Even if you've both dreamed of becoming parents, life with a little one can put an enormous strain on the bond with your spouse or partner. In fact, relationship satisfaction drops for many couples during the first year of parenthood, says psychologist and couples counselor Sam Jinich.
Stories about the most unexpected parts of parenting
"Conflict dramatically increases, emotional and physical intimacy deteriorates. Both partners are often left feeling unappreciated, neglected, lonely, misunderstood, tired, and isolated," says Jinich.
Amy Baliva was shocked by how having a baby brought ugly, unresolved issues in her marriage bubbling to the surface. "Apparently my husband was feeling suffocated prior to the baby being born, and once we had our baby, it just got worse," Baliva says.
The good news is that the love you felt can return, even if it feels hopeless now. The key is taking time to communicate and reconnect – and being honest about how you're feeling.
"Talk to your partner about the fact that you're unhappy," Jinich says. "Ask your social network – friends and family – for support, and consider professional help."
While this may seem impossible at first – who has time to reconnect, much less go to couples counseling, while parenting a newborn or infant? – the demands of baby care do lessen over time, giving you the opportunity to rebuild a battered partnership.
In fact, many parents we asked said that after that first exhausting and stressful stretch with a baby, their relationship rebounded and grew stronger than ever before.
Some said they love their spouse or partner much more after watching him or her grow into parenthood. In a our site poll of more than 43,000 moms, 73 percent rate their mates as either "the best" or "pretty darn great" at being a dad – and the majority say they're most surprised by how well their partner has taken to the role.
"My husband is the most amazing father," says Nancy Martineau. "When he walks into the room, our son's face just lights up. It's a wonderful thing to witness the love between these two very special people in my life."
Get great advice from financial expert Jean Chatzky on how to save money, avoid fighting, and stay on track financially.
Surprise #2: You'll have no idea where the time goes
Those days of sleeping in or getting out the door in five minutes are a thing of the past. You will vaguely remember taking long, leisurely showers. You'll think you've left plenty of time to feed your baby and get him to the doctor's for his check-up – and you'll be late anyway. Where does the morning go?
"Everyone said I'd be amazed at the time I'd have," says Marcia Thompson, a new stay-at-home mom. "They were wrong. I'm lucky if I get out of my pj's in the morning."
Many of us imagined that we'd be buzzing around with our new baby, visiting friends and taking long strolls through the park. We'd scrapbook and finally organize our closets. But in the early days, getting the hang of baby care and handling nonstop naps and feedings is all that most parents can manage.
"I thought that being a stay-at-home mom was going to be a piece of cake," says Jeanette VerCammen. "I honestly thought I would have more time to visit friends and family. I expected that I'd have time to actually do housework."
Not exactly! "My whole day is consumed by my son. Sometimes I feel like I'd get more done if I had a normal 8-to-5 job," VerCammen says.
As you start to get the hang of life with your child, the chaos may calm. And many parents rise to the time-crunch challenge by establishing an effective schedule.
"I was a fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants kind of girl. Now I have a plan of attack every day, from the time I wake up, to the chores I need to do, to the appointments to schedule," says Janis Reeves, mom to a 7-year-old son and a baby daughter.
Valerie Newcomb uses a similar strategy. She and her husband map out every detail of their days, making sure they get up early enough to feed their baby and drop him off at daycare before work. Every weekend outing is planned around feeding and napping schedules.
Some parents told us that lack of time actually helped them organize and structure their lives. Ashlee McGee says she used to be a couch potato who hated getting up early. Since having her daughter and gaining custody of her 4-year-old nephew, however, McGee is on the go "from 6:30 a.m. to 11 p.m."
And she wouldn't change it. "I love the way my children bring routine to the days," McGee says. "They've filled the spaces between the rocks in my life, making it smoother."
Surprise #3: You may look different
The physical changes of parenthood catch many of us off guard. And we're not just talking about moms here.
True, moms experience the brunt of changes like wider hips, stretched-out tummies, burgeoning then deflating breasts, and even bigger feet. But dads go through physical changes too – usually because of sympathy weight gain during their partner's pregnancy and lack of exercise time once the baby is born.
Still, it's moms who usually see the biggest changes to their bodies and body image – as 7,000 moms told us in a our site survey.
Some things aren't permanent – those tired eyes will brighten up again, the hair loss will stop, and your belly will keep shrinking. Other changes are more long lasting, however.
"My body will never be the same after having my son," says Kimberly Taylor. "I had wide hips to begin with, but I could fit into a size 10. Now I can't lose the additional 20 pounds I gained, and I can't get a size 10 above my thighs."
And yet, many moms told us that looking different doesn't matter all that much to them. Many say they're proud of their post-baby bellies and other "battle scars."
"With all the ways my body has gotten bigger, my son is worth every inch of it!" says Taylor.
And there are also nice things that happen to our looks after childbearing, like more pronounced curves and other phenomena. "I used to have two different sized breasts, very noticeably so," says Brownyn Carsell. "After I had a baby, they evened out almost perfectly!"
Surprise #4: You'll join an exclusive worldwide club
Suddenly strangers smile at you, and moms start conversations in the checkout line. Your boss kindly asks how the daycare search went, and your neighbor comes over for playdates. With your babe in your arms, or in the stroller, you've earned a lifetime membership in this exclusive-yet-universal club called "parents."
Many new parents enjoy this sense of belonging and security, as well as the automatic camaraderie with folks they meet. "Everywhere we go, we're stopped by all kinds of people asking about my baby and talking to him," says Kimberly Taylor.
Janis Reeves loves the special status she feels when she describes herself as "mom of two" instead of plain old "adult."
On the other hand, Rachel Groner doesn't always feel comfortable as a newly inducted member of the parenting club.
"Having a child makes it automatically okay for every parent to talk to you, coo at and touch your child, and give you advice or commiserate," Groner says. "It's annoying. I'm a reserved person and certainly don't want strangers touching my child – or worse, picking her up – without permission!"
Surprise #5: You'll be stronger than you ever imagined
"I've been shocked by what I'm capable of," says Alison Gluski, the mom of twin girls. "I never knew I could function – and run around all day chasing two children – on three hours of sleep and a granola bar."
New mom Rachel Segobia says that she's still amazed by how she made it through labor and delivery.
Other parents we spoke to say they can't believe how little sleep they survive on. Or that they handle raising kids alone, without help from a partner. Or that they can deal with all the big and small challenges that parenting brings, from overflowing toilets to sickness and loss.
"I'm surprised at how strong I've become as a person because I've had to be a single mom while her dad is on deployment," says Rosie Rodger, who has a 1-year-old daughter.
Surprise #6: You'll make "mistakes" you never anticipated
"I always swore I wouldn't let my child sleep with me – and then I had a baby. We co-slept until he was 10 months old because it was the only way I could get any rest," says Kimberly Taylor.
"I thought I'd never let my son have a pacifier past a certain age. At 3 years old, he still needed it to go to sleep – and all the other tricks never worked," says Doe Viscusi, the mother of three boys.
We may go into parenthood determined to follow certain tenets. Then we meet our kids and discover they're little people with their own ideas and preferences. In other words, "mistakes" can be what happens when you find that what works for you and your child isn't what you had imagined.
Raising kids isn't like taking a dog-training class, where you have to follow every rule in the book to ensure obedience. Sometimes it's best to take the path of least resistance – as Viscusi discovered when trying to wean her preschooler off his pacifier.
None of her attempts worked. Then the family spent a long weekend at Disney World, where her son was so distracted and excited that he forgot to ask for his binkie. Problem solved.
Of course, new parents also make real mistakes – like forgetting to buckle up a car seat or accidentally letting a baby roll off a high surface. When this happens, thank your lucky stars that it wasn't worse and comfort yourself in the knowledge that you'll be extra careful next time.
Surprise #7: Your friendships will change
"Friends? Who are they? All of my friends are still in their party phase," says Jill Furlong, mom to a 1-year-old. "They call me and ask me to go out clubbing. I laugh and remind them that I don't do that anymore."
Many our site moms told us they're surprised by how their non-mom friends have drifted away. It can be hard for girlfriends who aren't going through the same thing to relate to constant talk of pregnancy or babies, or to understand how little time and energy is left for them.
"Three weeks into my pregnancy, my best girlfriend and I started drifting," says Alaina Shearer. "She was the first. The rest slowly drifted out of my life as I became completely wrapped up in pregnancy and mommyhood," Shearer says.
But good friendships can make it through life changes – sometimes it just takes work and time. Some of Shearer's old friends have resurfaced now that her son is older and she's more able to maintain contact. Plus, she's formed new friendships with other moms.
If you're facing this issue, check out our expert advice on keeping up friendships when you're a new parent.
Surprise #8: There'll be times when you hate parenting
Being a parent isn't all Hallmark moments and instant bonding.
"I love my son more than anything, but he's so fussy all the time," says new mom Maggie Craven. "It's really hard listening to him cry."
In fact, many new moms told us they've been taken aback by how tedious and isolating parenting can be. You said that the never-ending diaper changes and attempts to get your baby to nap wore on you. And then you felt guilty for not enjoying every minute of it.
Some said you welcomed the end of maternity leave because you felt like you did a much better job in the 9-to-5 world than at home with your newborn all day.
It's normal to have moments when you wonder whether you're really cut out for this parenting gig. In fact, a whopping 84 percent of moms in a our site poll say they sometimes worry that they're not cut out to be a mom. And 49 percent say there are times when they dislike their child.
The key is to accept our bad moments and move on, says our site blogger Betsy Shaw. Though the "perfect mom" who loves every minute with her kids may exist out there somewhere, most of us aren't her. "It doesn't mean we can't work with what we have to do the best we can," says Shaw.
Surprise #9: You'll be overwhelmed by love (and other emotions)
"I never thought being a mom would be this emotional," says Cristy Kennerknecht. "I catch myself looking at my daughter, and there I am tearing up again!"
It's an old stereotype – the parent who can't watch a commercial about calling loved ones long-distance without tearing up, much less a movie about a missing or hurt child.
Whether it's due to hormones, gratitude, awe, sleep deprivation, or all of the above, parenthood often gives our feelings new depth. In a our site poll, 74 percent of moms say they cry more now – either because of happiness or sadness.
"I'm holding my son, having some quiet time before a nap, and I realize that I'm the whole world to this little person," says Monique Macaranas, describing a teary moment. "I never knew the meaning of unconditional love until I had my son."
Surprise #10: You'll have to let go sooner than you think
With every milestone your child reaches, he or she is moving away from being dependent on you.
This may hit when you first see your baby crawling across the room, your toddler dashing around the corner, your preschooler resisting your hugs, or your big kid saying "I can do it myself." And while you're proud of your child's accomplishments, you may feel a twinge of sadness.
Letting go isn't always easy, but it's essential, says psychologist and mom Leah Klungness.
"Parents who constantly hover and give their children the message that they can't do things on their own deprive them of the precious gift of independence," Klungness says.
Fostering independence in your baby, toddler, 2-year-old, 3- to 4-year-old, kindergartner, or big kid can be tricky.
"There's no guide but your own common sense," says Marcia Parks, the mother of grown children. "It's so tempting to keep them close and dependent, but that's really to fulfill our own needs. To release that arrow and see it fly is the ultimate act of love."
More: Tell us! What's been your biggest parenting surprise?
Check out seven surprises to look out for as your child grows up.