Adoption, like all forms of parenting, doesn’t come with an oversized manual. There are no set protocols, no chronological steps, no uniform order of events. Every placement is different, every child unique, every time frame variable, every hopeful parent human. In the same tune, post-adoption depression symptoms can vary from onset to manifestation. No one is singing from the mountaintops about what to do or who to talk to. It can leave any adoptive parent feeling scared and incapable. Thanks to continued research and awareness within the adoption community, we can now identify post-adoption depression syndrome (PADS) and continue to outline avenues of support.
Starting with recognition through to coping, it can feel overwhelming amidst our daily challenges as parents. A period of regression, for instance, might follow a strengthened child-parent bond. In turn, this may bring happiness and an immense amount of stress within the relationship. These feelings are all normal because while there is finally long-overdue attention in place, there is still so much unknown wrapped up into one beautifully complicated gift: adoption.
My personal experience likely developed well before our adoption was finalized. However, I didn’t begin to recognize the impact until about three months post-adoption. Irritable and guilt-ridden, the anxiety would come mostly at night. It forced my mind to go into a state of overdrive and my body to become stiff and sleepless. The couch frequently became my haven to avoid waking my husband with a crying spell. Those were the nights I’d grieve for my children’s loss, their birth mother, the unknown, and the simultaneous heartbreak and joy on this journey.
On an average night, I’d dream about medical appointments with the lingering fear of my children’s birth mother showing up against her court order. I’d lie awake pouring over a missed meeting with caseworkers, running through dates only to realize the time and place didn’t exist. We finalized the adoption months earlier. I regularly questioned my parenting abilities and my children’s future, despite knowing full well that I had been their mother since our first meeting two years before. I didn’t know I had post-adoption depression.
These feelings were heavy, frequent, distracting, and above all, I felt very alone despite an overwhelming network of friends and family. I acclimated to this sense of loneliness mostly because I wasn’t aware of the genuine possibility of PADS and therefore didn’t share my struggle with anyone. It wasn’t until I began simple desk research one night (in place of my usual anxious bout of permanency uncertainty) that I discovered several scholarly articles. It was at this moment in time I decided to turn the page on my restless nights.
My initial relief came the following day in the form of an apprehensive phone call to a nearby health services agency. I recall the early intake being general, followed by a question that admittedly stung but quickly provided a sense of relief:
“Do you feel your family is in crisis?”
I answered: “Yes. Yes, I think I need help.”
It was scary to take the first step and reach outside of my late-night routine to seek the help of a professional. It wasn’t enjoyable to relay that while I once had endless house guests analyzing my every move, I was somehow sad amongst the sound of happy giggles.
Still, this nearly desperate phone call opened up a world of possible coping strategies, new relationships, and most importantly, a fresh perspective on what it means to be an adoptive mother. My fears of inadequacy took a back seat when I realized that I wanted my children to know and witness the often underrated act of reaching out for help when you need it most.
For those struggling or finally placing a finger on their symptoms, who can you talk to about post-adoption depression?
Talking to your child is included. The adoption community knows the importance of openness and communication and communication with children is no exception. Children are innately observant and mood swings, short tempers, or even anxiety are all perceived by them. Don’t be afraid to explain your feelings and how you are looking for ways to process those feelings healthily. Encourage questions and be open to advice from your closest circle. They may surprise you.
Friends (outside of the adoption community)
Knowing that you’re in the middle of a crisis, this might require pushing yourself towards your friends. Your instinct will be to retreat from those who haven’t walked this path. When talking with them, try starting with the changes and address your new normal. It could be navigating an intricate relationship with a birth parent. You could share your worries about how you think the family movie you watched last night might be a trigger for your child. By talking openly about these changes, about your normal, you are creating an open line of communication. Sink into those shared parenting experiences. Use your struggle to provide moments of awareness to otherwise well-intentioned but unaware friends.
Adoption Support Groups
Our choice to adopt from foster care led us to countless weeknight training modules. There we developed a natural network of parents who knew first-hand the array of challenges we might face. Our agency’s parent support group met once a month and I had always looked forward to the experience. Courtroom dramas, self-soothing, and sleeping issues were all typical talk and we bonded over these shared experiences.
But even in those raw moments in the non-judgmental space, we were all still reluctant to discuss our post-adoption struggles. We all secretly questioned our gratefulness for the adoptions being finalized. Once I began to speak up about my grief, my stories were matched by friends’ that were so similar; we’d end up laughing through the recent distress. These conversations were invaluable and being part of a support group also allowed me to listen to and assist others. In-person support groups aren’t always plentiful, so a quick search can yield a list of online groups and adoption forums.
Seeking guidance from a professional is often extremely difficult to arrive at for many parents. Our backgrounds, our perceived flaws, our family structures, and even our parenting achievements intensifies the adoption path to parenthood. If you are struggling, these feelings of failure might creep in and cause you to shy away from seeking a professional. Remember, taking the first step – sending an email or making a phone call – is just that, the first step. Contracts do not bind you and the services are there for you and your family. In conjunction with other coping skills, therapy can often prove to be life-changing for you and your child.
Your Child’s Therapy Services
If your child is currently receiving therapy services, this is another safe space to relay your concerns and reaffirm the bond within your family. In this space, your child can contribute ideas, ask questions, and even learn new coping techniques. On my children’s weekly therapy calls, I found it most comfortable to open discussions on those realities that I realize now were often the source of much of my guilt, sadness, or even anger. It was tremendously helpful to walk through some early life experiences or strained relationships with their biological family next to a professional. Your child will also witness the engagement and commitment to your growth, their growth, and your shared bond.
While not recommended as a sole means, self-talk is encouraged in many life sectors and is truly life-altering. Daily, I would replay ill-informed comments in my head regarding our adoption. Or I would have mini panic attacks while replaying my children’s birth mother’s last words to me. Admittedly at first, it felt unnatural to stop mid-thought and revert my attention to a positive affirmation. Still, with practice, it became routine to fend off those unwanted negatives. Self-talk can help in combating post-adoption depression syndrome symptoms and prove to be another tool for your child to use.
Our adoption day greeting cards live in a plastic container for safekeeping. These decorative cards are full of well-wishes and advice; all meant to send us off into adoption bliss with no mention of the struggles we will continue to encounter. One of the biggest mistakes in our adoption journey was my decision to store my feelings away, much like those cards, only allowing others to absorb the good. I was surrounded by best-intentioned loved ones. But it wasn’t until I identified my struggle and began to speak up about my experience that I saw real change. While there still isn’t a manual, coping with the guilt, anger, and sadness I feel at times is much easier now that I’ve asked for help.
Through those conversations with my children, husband, therapist, and friends, I have found my voice on this subject. I have confidence and peace as an adoptive mother that I never imagined I could maintain. I wish it for every parent struggling with post-adoption depression.
Those piles of cards under a pink plastic lid remind me to reflect often. I made a promise to myself to open the box many times throughout the year. I do this remember the heartbreak, feel the loss, grieve the unknown, and still be forever grateful for this remarkable gift.
As many of my colleagues here have remarked, you are never alone in this community. No matter who you talk to, speak up.