The reality of post-adoption depression

Society is made up of all sorts of families, and the women who parent these children are mothers through and through, whether they’re raising biological children, a child born by surrogate or an adopted child.

Kim Van Pelt and sons

But there may be a little less empathy for the adoptive mother who didn’t carry a child for nine months and physically give birth. The reality is, every mother needs and deserves support, no matter how she came to have the title of “mom.”

Some adoptive parents experience the gestation of all gestations, waiting months, even years, for their child to finally be in their arms and legally theirs. As a result, many mothers begin to feel like they’re not allowed to be anything but grateful for the child that is now in their life. And that great expectation can lead to post-adoption depression.

An unexpected side effect of adoption

A single mom to two boys, now ages 5 and 2, Kim Van Pelt was struck with post-adoption depression for several months after the arrival of her 7-month-old son from Ethiopia. “I was utterly exhausted, crying all the time, wondering what I had done. I was so scared I wasn’t going to come out of it and be able to love my child and be a good mom,” she admits.

Through the help of friends, family and her social worker, Van Pelt eventually overcame her depression. “I had brief moments of feeling normal, moments where I was enjoying my baby, attaching to him, which gave me hope that I would get better. After four or five months there was a dramatic change and I finally felt like a loving mom. I was so relieved and began to really enjoy being a mom.”

Van Pelt’s experience is not abnormal. In fact, post-adoption depression is more common than society really knows.

The danger of post-adoption expectations

“Post-adoption depression can be brought on by extreme fatigue, unrealistic expectations of parenthood or a lack of community support,” explains Dr. Sue Cornbluth, clinical psychologist and adoption and foster care expert. “There is a big adjustment process and sometimes expectations are not met.”

One of the greatest fears of adoptive parents is being unable to bond with their new child. “It’s not always love at first sight. Attachment takes time,” explains Cornbluth. Unfortunately, post-adoption feelings don’t always pan out according to daydreams. “This can result in a mother feeling sad, withdrawn, hopeless and let down — all of which can lead to depression. Don’t expect it to automatically change. See your doctor or a therapist for help. Whether you give birth or not, postpartum depression can occur and is treatable.”

Causes of post-adoption depression

Post-adoptive depression can occur at any time, says Dr. Carole Lieberman, psychiatrist and clinical faculty member of UCLA’s Neuropsychiatric Institute, citing some of the main causes: Having to come to terms with the inability to have natural children; seeing what you perceive as “flaws” in the adopted child, which are very different from the fantasy of your ideal child; and worrying about genetic disorders your adopted child may develop that weren’t known or disclosed to you.

But it’s also the unexpected side effects of child rearing that can spur on depression. “Fatigue, lack of social contact and anxiety can all contribute to depression. When you cannot easily sleep in, go for a run, meet up with a friend or manage stress in your preferred way, it can snowball into post-adoption depression,” explains Brooke Randolph, LMHC and VP of Social Services for MLJ Adoptions, Inc.

Any new mother — adoptive or otherwise — can identify with these extreme feelings. Which should make it that much easier for any mother to admit that she is feeling overwhelmed by her emotions and the major life change she is experiencing. “Adoptive mothers need to know that it is normal and OK to admit that things are not wonderful. It is OK to ask for support,” says Randolph.

Adoptive parents, like all moms and dads, may need to learn to cut themselves some slack. “There is research that shows that postpartum depression is higher for parents of a child with special needs or who isn’t temperamentally a good fit for the parents. A quiet mother may feel more challenged when caring for an active baby,” explains Dawn Friedman, MSEd LPC-CR. “A toddler or older child who is adopted certainly has some specific special needs having to do with grief and loss and they may have additional challenges if they were abused, neglected or in an institution. There’s also a hit-the-ground-running aspect of parenting a full-blown kid.” Parenting is exhausting, and it is not easy. Believing you’re “supposed” to be a superstar parent because you wanted it so badly can have negative consequences.

Is there enough support for mothers who adopt?

Demographics sometimes play a part in the type of support that’s available for adoptive parents. Major cities are more likely to offer post-adoption groups — even some that are geared toward parents adopting from specific countries or specific experiences, like foster care — but those living in rural areas may be out of luck, says Friedman. “For some parents the only support is going to be at local new mother groups, but as soon as the talk inevitably turns to labor and delivery, it can be hard for some adoptive parents to hang in there.”

For Van Pelt, the encouragement to communicate how she was feeling made all the difference in her recovery and future. “When I adopted my second son, everything was fine,” says Van Pelt. “By talking to moms I was reassured that there wasn’t anything I was thinking that hadn’t been thought by others before me. So many suffer with the guilt and sadness and feel that if they admit it everyone will think they are a bad mom.”

Lieberman encourages parents who believe they are experiencing post-adoption depression to seek individual therapy as well as couples therapy — the sooner the better. “Their depression will negatively impact the psychological development of their adopted child. The child will sense they’re not wanted and will start to act out, which will make the parents feel even more as though they made a big mistake. Post-adoptive depression won’t go away by itself,” she says.

A family’s hopeful future

Michelle Seitzer and her daughter

For the many couples who struggle with infertility, adoption is usually not their first choice for starting a family, and that can be difficult to overcome. But Michelle Seitzer and her husband, who have not experienced infertility, knew long ago that they wanted to start their family through international adoption. “Throughout the 30 hours of pre-adoption training required by our agency, post-adoption depression was mentioned often. I think it helps that we know about it, know the possibility is there for it to happen and have an idea of warning signs and symptoms,” says Seitzer, who just welcomed their daughter home this June.

“There is a history of depression on both sides of my family, so I do worry about it, but at the same time, I would guess that being aware and prepared is a big plus. I would hope that I wouldn’t be blindsided by it, if it does happen,” Seitzer says. “Things are going so well right now there’s a part of me that’s wondering if/when the proverbial shoe will drop. But so far, we’ve been prepared for the worst and the best has happened instead. We’re enjoying the adventure as it happens. If post-adoptive depression comes along, we’ll deal with it then.”

Image credits: Kim Van Pelt and Laurie Beth Ward, LBW Design & Photography

More about adoption

Celebrities who became parents through adoption
Adoption photos: The moment I became a mom
Attachment parenting and adoption


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