What you need to know about post-adoption depression

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No one talked to me about post adoption depression until after we adopted.  This isn’t something I ever heard discussed outside of adoption circles.  Maybe it’s time to change that?  Here’s part of my story.

Three things you need to know about post-adoption depression

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I was crying the ugly cry in my hospital room after my daughter was born. A nice nurse found me some Kleenex.  She was kind to me, patting my shoulder.

This happens sometimes, honey. Talk to your doctor about meds.”  She discreetly slid a pamphlet into my snotty little hands:

“All About Post-Partum Depression”

Say what? I was too embarrassed to tell the nice nurse that my tears were because of the double whammy of episiotomy stitches and constipation. My hoo-hah felt like it was on fire and I hadn’t pooped in three days.  Trust me, you would cry, too.

This was in 1992. There were no Angry Birds or smart phones. My baby was blissfully asleep and I was tired of reading my 3-year-old issue of Redbook.  Bored, I flipped through the literature. I learned postpartum depression (PPD) is a clinical diagnosis characterized by symptoms of depression after childbirth, sometimes referred to as “the baby blues.”

Counting myself lucky I didn't experience PPD, I went home. The stool softeners did their thing.  My stitches healed and my lady bits seemed to return to normal…or as close as they were gonna get.

Over the years that followed, I had occasion to meet other women who suffered from PPD and I was always grateful for the nurse who'd taken a few moments to educate me. Awareness is a good thing, people.

Eighteen years later I was a new mom again. My husband and I adopted a little boy after our daughter grew up and moved out because that whole quiet house and lots of freedom thing wasn’t working out for us.

It was 2011. Times had changed and I had Facebook and Google in my arsenal so I was instantly connected with a huge network of adoptive families who were in the same boat as us. I discovered “mom groups” and amidst the snark and judging, I learned a lot and made a few good friends.  I heard murmurs about post-adoption depression (PAD).  I heard about families who experienced stress over difficulty attaching to their adopted child. I read about the guilt and shame that went with the aftermath of “wow, we have a kid…now what?” Similar to postpartum depression…ya know… without the postpartum.

I was smug.  I was a sanctimommy, I admit it.  I thought that anyone having trouble bonding with a wanted, chosen child was doing something wrong. We brought home our son Zack from China in 2012. Things were peachy-keen. Perfect.  I was completely head over heels with this kid from day one and pretty much all I wanted to do was kiss his head.  I counted my blessings and tsk-tsk’ed at all of the moms who were complaining about feeling depressed and unable to feel attachment.

Clearly, they were doing it wrong.

My smugness partnered up with karma and snuck up to bite me in the ass. Hard.

We decided to adopt again, because the process had been so wonderful for us…and because we wanted another kid and stuff.  In 2013, we brought home another child, also from China.

This time, things were not so peachy-keen.

I expected to feel love for my new child, to be enthralled and want to kiss his little head. Yeah…no.  I wasn't even sure I liked this kid. I'd had a picture in my mind of how my family would look after adoption. Reality didn't match up.

I went through the motions but I felt myself spiraling into depression. I started isolating myself to hide the choking anxiety. Ashamed of my feelings, I withdrew. It was easier to do that than talk about it.

I went through the motions but I felt myself spiraling into post-adoption depression.

Many women experience anxiety and guilt after adoption but keep silent because they're afraid others won't understand. The symptoms (anger, sadness, anxiety and inability to concentrate) are similar to PPD but the root causes are unique to adoption:

  1. Lack of community support

Adoption might look like an easy path to parenthood: no stretch marks, hemorrhoids or other gross stuff. The flip side is that not all adoptive parents enjoy bona-fide “new parent” status. Family and friends said things like:

You should have known what you were getting in to;” and

You wanted this. Be happy he's got a family to take care of him now.

I saw myself as a new mom, but the rest of the world didn't treat me like one. I didn’t have a colicky baby. I wasn’t struggling to learn to breastfeed. People thought I should just be my usual self. I am responsible for keeping up a brave face because I assured everyone that we were doing fine…just fine.  But really, I don’t think anyone wanted to hear otherwise.

Spoiler alert: I was not doing fine. Not. At. All.

  1. Unrealistic expectations can contribute to post adoption depression

Adoptive parents fantasize about the moment they meet their baby for the first time. We expect adoption to be a happy time. The waiting is over. Our pre-adoption parenting classes focus on how to help our child feel safe and secure with us, not the parents' feelings for the child. I never thought I would be that parent who couldn't attach. But, I was.

  1. Residual emotions 

Struggles with infertility or uncertainty over dynamics with the birth parents may linger after a child is placed. Adoption has few absolutes. Adoptive parents worry over what could go wrong. Holding a new child for the first time doesn't make those fears melt away.

If someone in your life has recently adopted, watch for signs of stress or withdrawal. Ask if she wants to talk.  Offer to bring dinner. Better yet, just bring it.

I rowed alone and it was hard. I can’t really put into words how hard it was. If someone would have acknowledged I wasn't in a great place and helped me talk through it, I might have gotten back on track faster.

I’m in a good place now, but I can’t help but wonder how much less of a struggle it would have been if I’d felt comfortable just opening my mouth and letting someone know I was hurting.

Awareness really is a good thing, people.

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  1. We adopted 2 children from Poland. They were 8 and 9 at the time. I wanted to be the perfect adoptive mom. I’d wanted to adopt since I was 16 or so. Here I was at 38 and it was finally happening. Only I wasn’t happy. My children both have Reactive Attachment Disorder. Our son was violent (hasn’t been for 7 months now–He’s 13 and in residential treatment). So I was not only depressed but getting TSD (I left out the P in Post Traumatic Syndrome Disorder because it wasn’t Post it was ongoing). For 3 1/2 years I lived in frustration and fear. But when I did reach out for help, my problems were too big for others to hear. So I was left to drown alone. I’m only better now because my son was removed from our house. He may return before the end of the year and, God willing, he will not go back to violence. But my daughter, now 14, still believes, deep down, that she doesn’t need parents. Both children have trouble with respect and responsibility and senses of entitlement. They’re smart and beautiful and talented so people don’t expect that we have these underlying problems. And NO ONE believed a child could be abusive until they saw it for themselves.

    1. Thank you for that candid share Gabrielle. I would like to know how things are going for you now. As an adoptee and adopted parent I am one year in and I can see that bonding is not an easy task overall.

    2. Thank you for sharing. We adopted a brother and sister from foster care (31/2 and 5yo) and 31/2 years later, still struggling — bonding, respect (lack thereof), major aggression. Their life before us was made up of five foster homes — neglect, no stability, no sense of family — I could go on and on. Counseling, classes, meds — when will we be a happy family? Hubby and I just wanted to be parents. Our lives are torn, our relationship is on the edge at times. We’re in deep! Some days I don’t even feel like a mom. I agree, I feel like our story is too big to involve others. And, when I do share, others make light of it, “All kids do that.” Um, no, I don’t think so. Hoping for some relief at some point. We press on.

  2. Great post! I attribute my post-adoption blues to wanting to only show the good stuff and keeping the hard stuff bottled up. I had a roller-coaster of emotions in the first year and it took a lot of work and ultimately counselling. Today, things are so much better. I still have my rough days, but nothing like before.

  3. We adopted an infant/toddler sibling group from foster care. I thought once the crisis living, team meetings, early intervention, doctors appointments, court days, had passed, that I’d be home free. But I was overtaken by an overwhelming sadness, an exhaustion and brain fog. My body wanted to curl up like a fat bear in the winter, away from everyone that knew our story and were just waiting for a fairytale to unfold. And I did. I took to my basement that winter, in a thick blanket, near the fire. And the few times I tried to reach out, or explain this thing that had overcome my senses, just like postpartum depression. ..I heard, You chose this, This is what you wanted.

  4. Jill, I had a huge anxiety and depression right after I brought my daughter home from China. Probably didn’t help that her times were totally off. She wasn’t sleeping and I was an anxious wreck. I never even told anyone about it because I thought that only if the baby came sliding out of my vagina would postpartum happen! To this day, I’ve felt guilt and shame about it.

    So there’s that!
    Great post!

  5. Thank you for sharing your story, Jill. PPD was thankfully on my radar well before I even got pregnant so I knew to be aware of it, but I would never have imagined that this is something adoptive parents could experience as well. I will keep this in mind if someone close to me ever adopts. I want to make sure I am as opening and understanding as I would be of a friend who just gave birth.

  6. I too have two children placed with me from Foster Care for adoption. We 5 days notice they were moving, I didn’t have child care lined up, didn’t know what furniture or supplies they needed, and change, even change you want, causes stress. They were ll months and 1 year and I had a seven year old. I didn’t know how I was going to get everyone to daycare each morning! I didn’t even know if we had daycare! The 11 month old was significantly delayed and was huge but couldn’t sit up independently. I had two weeks of “morning sickness”, ended up in bed for a day and a half. I too had emotional stress. I told one person how I was feeling “I don’t know if I can do this” and I was told “Well, you better figure it out quick, for their sake”. That was not what I NEEDED to hear. Fortunately I had other friends, a supportive husband, two works that allowed adoption leave, and I figured it out. We are on track, we are good.

    Through the foster to adopt process I said adoption is like pregnancy without the morning sickness and weight gain. I was wrong- there was morning sickness- but I was more right than I knew- there was also depression and anxiety.

    Oh, and yeah, I took us time to bond with our children, just as it took time for them to bond with us.

  7. When we adopted our second child, I experienced an overwhelming depression. Our first child had come to us with severe failure to thrive, and I felt so needed as she flourished and I loved her from the first minute I laid eyes on her photo. Our son seemed so happy and for some reason, I just didn’t feel the same. It took a long time as I struggled alone to overcome the depression and come to love him from the bottom of my heart.Although I have loved him for many years, I still feel guilt about my ‘failure to love sooner’

  8. Yeah, ummmmm ….. I’ve been suffering from post-adoption depression for 58 years now — ever since I was taken from my birth mother and handed over to strangers to raise.

    1. Since your tone in your comment comes off as bitter and a little snarky, I’m going to go out on a limb and say you have some negative feelings about your adoption, and for that, I’m truly sorry. One of my own kids may someday have these feelings and as a mom, I’m not blind to the feelings of adoptees, even though I have not experienced them myself.
      This is MY BLOG where I tell MY STORY. There are many facets to an adoption that don’t make it in to each and every 1000 word blog post. My struggles with depression after our adoption are what drove me to write, and while it hasn’t been a cure-all, it has helped to tell my story and it’s been my honor to be able to know that my words have encouraged others…although clearly not you.
      Wishing you some peace. Adoption is not roses and unicorn farts, but I guess I don’t have to tell you that.

    2. I too was adopted as an infant. I have also adopted two children. No two people experience or process things the same way. I suffered from PAD partly bc I was overwhelmed and partly bc I couldn’t imagine what the birthmother had to be feeling as she passed my sweet bundle of joy into my waiting arms. It is not an easy or thoughtless decision, but one that is made out of concern for a child and what is best for them.

    3. As an adoptee myself I totally hear you. But I can tell you one thing that I know from the bottom of my heart. My life is not all about my adoption story, but is SO much bigger than that. Try and take a step back, feeling that maybe, just maybe, you were put where you were meant to be- with a family that loves you. Family does transcend blood and race. You just need to expand your perspective and embrace life as it is, not as you wish it could have been. You will be so much happier and grateful for the blessings that you do have.

    4. You should be grateful two people welcomed you into their home to love an nurture you. I am an adoptive mom and I wish you only knew what we go through. First from infertility and then to adoption. It is not an easy road and for you to make such a nasty comment truly breaks my heart!

  9. I stumbled upon your post tonight…..tears just falling. I have a very public and open blog about our adoptions so, like you mention, I am so afraid to take about it. It’s killing me, and I am struggling with this second adoption. I am grateful to have found you.

  10. Thank you for sharing. I too went through some PAD. I don’t feel its acknowledged the same though. I was afraid to speak up too, afraid if I wasn’t “perfect” they would take my child away or stop me from having anymore, because why would I have PAD when we waited 7 years for a child?! I wish more people could understand this emotional roller coaster called adoption. Thanks.

  11. Thank you so much for sharing! My wife and I just got the call that we have been placed with two little boys and I am SO excited and anxious all at the same time! I look forward to reading the rest of your blog and learn more about being an adoptive parent.


  12. Thank you for sharing this. We are considering adoption and I am grateful to be a little prepared and not so ashamed if it happens. I might even be able to prepare my family to be empathetic. That would be amazing.

  13. So sad to know someone is suffering a post-adoption depression. Our emotions can be triggered to different behavior sometimes it may fall to depression.

  14. Hi,
    Thanks for sharing this, was a good read. My husband and I have been married for a year and a half and we’ve applied for adoption. There is a child and we’re waiting for the agent to give us a call back on the way forward but I seem to be having Pre-Adoption depression. We were first called about late April/ early May and we agreed to go on with the process but they have taken so long to begin.

    I already have a lack of community support so I know that’s going to continue post adoption.
    The recent scares on the market from COVID makes me wonder some time if I really should go through with it or cancel.
    The overall uncertainty just has me so uncertain and sad.
    We have no children and no diagnosed infertility issues.

    And reading this now makes me wonder if I’ll continue being depressed even after we’ve gone through the entire process.

    Any advice?