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Great expectations often blindsided by dirty diapers

Remember imagining how idyllic life would be when you had your first baby?

Cute little booties, a beautiful nursery filled with plastic duckies and "Goodnight Moon," and a precious baby clad in a hand-smocked white gown, cooing and gazing up at you just like the cutie on the Pampers box.

And of course, you and your spouse would grow closer by the minute as you basked in the devoted love of your darling child.

If you're like most of us jaded moms and dads out there, you probably found out that parenthood is a tougher gig than you thought.

One of the biggest surprises to many people is how merging your DNA with the one you love can drive your relationship onto the off ramp and have you searching for the nearest exit faster than you can scream, "Who lost the binky that's supposed to be clipped to this car seat?"

I'd like to say my hubby and I were immune to such pressures but, like many clueless couples, we naively underestimated the impact a baby would have on our marriage.

The fact is, a baby changes your relationship forever.

I have yet to meet a person who finds their spouse more sexy and entertaining after they have a child.

However, many of us discovered that, as our children grew and could wipe their own bottoms, and the bone-weary, exhausting reality of 24/7 parenting began to fade, we gained a new level of love and respect for our significant other.

If you're a new mom or dad, be forewarned, it takes about five years per kid, and you never really recapture that early infatuation. But if your spouse hangs in there with you during the crunch time, there's a better, more mature marriage waiting for you on the other side of the parenting abyss.

The problems arise when you expect your relationship to stay the same.

As one of the contributors to the new book "Blindsided by a Diaper" (Three Rivers Press, $14.95), edited by Dana Bedford Hilmer, I chuckled and wept reading the other 30 essays from some of America's most popular writers detailing the funny and touching ways parenthood changed their relationship forever.

A sneak peak into their private lives revealed everything from resentment over loss of spontaneous sex to the joy of watching a spouse come into their own as parent.

The people who found themselves most disillusioned with their parenting partnership were the crazy nuts who actually believed a baby wouldn't change things. Or, even more unrealistically, who thought a baby would be the magic ingredient to make their marriage happy.

Because as everyone knows, once the real baby arrives, in all its screaming, pooping, demanding glory, replacing the chubby-cheeked cherub fantasy, most couples have less sex, less money, less sleep and less alone time than they ever imagined.

And thus the complaining begins.

"She hasn't even looked at me in weeks, all she cares about is that baby."

"It's alright for him, he doesn't have to sit on a plastic doughnut while his breasts leak through his favorite shirt."

Men often feel abandoned, while women feel unsupported. Having been on both the giving and receiving end of both of these familiar parental whines myself, I can tell you that every ounce of energy you spend mourning the loss of your old marriage is energy you're taking away from creating your new marriage, which can be better, but is never the same.

As someone who has come out on the other side of the parenting years with my marriage relatively intact, I can promise you, it gets better. But it does take time.

If you're lucky enough to have a spouse who steps up and becomes a great parent, you can wind up with a stronger marriage and more mutual respect for each other than either of you imagined during your pre-baby years.

If you keep your eye on the big picture, you don't have to let a few years wading through the parenting abyss become the great divide in your marriage.

Snellville resident Lisa Earle McLeod is a nationally recognized speaker and the author of "Forget Perfect" and "Finding Grace When You Can't Even Find Clean Underwear." Contact her or join her interactive blog at www.forgetperfect.com.