After the Bliss
For many adoptive moms, post-baby depression is a real and painful ordeal. Understand why it happens and how to feel better.by Shelley Page
The women in the new mothers' circle eyed me warily. I'd sat politely listening as they discussed their C-section scars, cracked nipples, and nighttime feedings, and now, apparently, it was my turn. I had suffered insomnia, jet lag, and a radical life change, but I didn't feel I had a right to complain. After all, I'd been reminded so often, "You're lucky, you did it the easy way."
A thin, sparrow-like woman asked with a big grin: "Why did you adopt?" before adding with a sweet smile, "Infertility problems, I guess?"
Of course, my reasons for adopting were none of their business, yet I felt the need to explain. I mumbled something about health problems, and then I was on my feet, fumbling my way out of there. Trudging home through the snow, I reprimanded myself: Stay indoors, don't go near biological mothers. What were you thinking?
As an adoptive mother, I sometimes seemed to have little in common with other new moms. My baby was months old, not weeks. And I had different issues -- insensitive comments, for example, or worries about a shorter parental leave. There was only one thing that I was certain I shared with some biological mothers: I was depressed.
Not What I Expected
From the heights of euphoria two months earlier, when my daughter was placed in my arms for the first time, I had slid into despair. Despite a few attempts to get out and socialize, I mostly lay on the couch watching bad movies, ordering take-out, occasionally shaking a rattle in front of my daughter's face, and praying my husband would come home to rescue me.
"The cows, let's go see the cows," he said one afternoon, before hanging up the phone to rush home. I remember that day as the lowest point of my depression. It was the middle of winter. The sky was gray, like the unwashed blankets piling up in the laundry basket. He thought a visit to the Ottawa Experimental Farm would cheer me up, so within an hour of my pleading phone call, he was pushing us around the heated barn, from Jersey to Holstein.
Far from feeling better, I ached for the poor cows, trapped in pens with nowhere to go. "This is so bleak," I moaned. At a restaurant later, I wept and could only choke down half a veggie burger.
It wasn't supposed to be this way. My lovely daughter, Cleo, was deeply content, had a sharp sense of humor even as an infant, and pretty much slept through the night. I knew how blessed we were, yet, some days I could manage little more than popping in a Teletubbies video. Or I'd get a head of steam to make organic baby food, then leave the ingredients on the counter all day as I slumped in front of the TV.
Isolation just added to my despair. To mention my depression to my extended family, or the biological moms at a play group, seemed like heresy. I tried it a few times and got remarks like: "Don't be silly, you had it easy, you didn't have to give birth or breastfeed." Besides, women get depressed after birth because of their hormones. Don't they?
When we went through the adoption process, our adoption agency prepared us for the unexpected: a sick child, a difficult journey, developmental delays. But no one mentioned that some adoptive mothers, and even dads, wrestle mightily with depression -- perhaps because it's only recently that depression among adoptive parents has become an area for study, and many psychologists bluntly say they've never heard of such a condition.
What Does This Mean?
Post-Adoption Depression Syndrome (PADS) is a term coined by June Bond, an adoption advocate from North Carolina who wrote about it in 1995. Bond had encountered panicked, depressed, and overwrought parents. One woman said she could not reconcile the birthmother's feelings of loss and grief with her own sense of satisfaction.
Another North Carolina mother, Harriet McCarthy, suffered profoundly from depression after adopting the first of her three sons, who was then six. "I'd wake up in the middle of the night panicking," she recalls. "He kept throwing temper tantrums, I didn't know why. He didn't want to be hugged. I was angry constantly." She got better only after she was prescribed antidepressants.
Curious to see if other adoptive parents shared her experience, last year McCarthy surveyed 3,100 members of an adoption Web site she moderated. Of the 145 parents who answered, over 65 percent said they'd experienced depression after adopting their children. Nearly half of those with symptoms said that they suffered for at least six months, and almost all said depression had affected their health. After she published her survey, McCarthy received e-mails and calls from parents, psychologists, and doctors thanking her for exposing the problem.
For McCarthy, there is no mystery as to why some adoptive mothers are stricken with the blues. First, many have spent years struggling to reach the point of having a child. "Their protracted and unfulfilled hopes, dreams, and longing may cause unrealistic expectations about what it will be like to be a parent," she wrote. "They are unprepared for the grief they feel when reality confronts the child of their imaginations."
Dee Paddock, a psychotherapist based in Denver, points to one culprit: the disconnect between outsiders' assumptions about adoptive parents and the real stresses that any new parent experiences. "The world sees you as this holy, besainted mother because they think you have rescued a child. So it's difficult to be part of the club that says, 'This is so hard,'" says Paddock, herself a mother of three. "The world also says you did it the easy way, which is really dismissive." Paddock believes women with chronic, low-lying depression due to health or infertility issues are at greater risk for post-adoption depression.
Instead of seeking help, adoptive moms typically try to tough it out because they worry that an admission to their social worker or adoption agency could get them branded as unfit or incompetent parents. Meanwhile, even close friends and relatives don't always understand. If a couple has struggled for a decade to become parents, why aren't they blissed out when a child finally arrives?
That was the experience of a friend of mine, who confided in me that no one took her depression seriously. "They all say I was desperate for a baby, and I asked for this." My friend, who adopted her daughter internationally, didn't want me to use her name in this story for fear that admitting to depression might jeopardize a second adoption. She was prone to depression, but had no idea adoption was a risk factor. If she'd been warned, she might have been better prepared, she thinks. As it was, "I couldn't even make decisions about what to have for dinner."
Adoption is not something you spend your life preparing for. As a girl, I used to act out the ritual of becoming a mom. We'd tuck our baby dolls under our smocks and pretend we were pregnant. When my doll, Betsy, popped out, I would rock her gently. I never imagined Betsy coming from the other side of the world. Neither adoption nor the messy realities of life are child's play. And as adults, many of us are unprepared for the emotional journey that adoption demands.
Some adoptive mothers report being very sad on what is supposed to be the happiest day of their lives: "This isn't my baby, it's someone else's." I, however, was euphoric when we received our eight-month-old daughter. The photographs from our trip to adopt her show a radiant and elated mother. My husband said I entered some state of grace where little bothered me. Then we returned to Ottawa and real life.
While I did my best to keep my chin up, I didn't suffer in silence. I remember sitting slumped in my doctor's office. Not once in our several conversations did either of us consider that it was motherhood making me blue. Instead, we settled on Ottawa's winter weather, and I was prescribed a light box to combat Seasonal Affective Disorder.
Looking back, I wonder why it took me so long to understand what now seem like obvious reasons for my emotional nosedive. Anytime we achieve a major life goal, whether it's graduating from university, landing a dream job, getting married, or having a baby, there is some sort of letdown afterward. For those of us who adopt children of a different race, the health concerns or infertility that led us to choose adoption are suddenly in the forefront, thrust there by the questions that strangers ask when they see us with our children. We also face many of the same problems any new parents do -- stress, financial troubles, sleep deprivation, marital strife.
Harriet McCarthy encourages parents to ask for help. The adoption agency we used recently held a session called Shifting Gears, to prepare parents for the emotional pitfalls they might encounter before and after adoption. The agency now gives a resource binder to all adopting families, which includes material on PADS.
One of the most important steps I took was joining a weekly play group for adoptive parents and their children. One early spring day, after four months at home with my daughter, I forced myself to attend. The mothers there asked all the right questions: "Where did you adopt?" "When did you get back?" "How did you manage adjusting her sleep to Ottawa time?" They got it. That day, as I pushed my daughter home in the stroller, there was a spring in my step. I was on the road back.
When we adopt a second time later this year, I have no fears I will become depressed again. Maybe I'm being unrealistic, but I think I've learned a lot from the first time around. And if I feel isolated, I have a large group of adoptive parents to turn to for support. In fact, I'm unbelievably excited to become a mom again because I know I'm more emotionally prepared.
Shelley Page lives in Ottawa, Canada, with her husband and two daughters. This article originally appeared in Today's Parent.
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