What you need to know about adoption and postpartum depression

Mar 28, 2015 at 12:00 p.m. ET
Image: James Pauls/E+/Getty Images Plus

I was crying in my hospital room after my daughter was born. A nurse handed me tissues and pamphlets on postpartum depression.

"This happens sometimes, honey. Talk to your doctor about meds."

I was too embarrassed to tell the nurse my tears were because of the double whammy of episiotomy stitches and constipation. Bored, I read the literature. I learned postpartum depression (PPD) is a clinical diagnosis characterized by symptoms of depression after childbirth.

Counting myself lucky I didn't experience PPD, I went home. The stool softeners worked. My stitches healed. I encountered other women who suffered from PPD over the years. I was always grateful for the nurse who'd enlightened me. Awareness is a good thing.

Eighteen years later I was a new mom again. My husband and I adopted a little boy. I heard murmurs about post-adoption depression (PAD), stress over difficulty attaching to an adopted child. Guilt that accompanied the aftermath of "wow, we have a kid." Similar to postpartum depression… without the postpartum.

I admit I was smug, a sanctimommy. Surely anyone having trouble bonding with a wanted, chosen child was doing something wrong. Smugness bit me in the behind.

I expected to feel love for my new child, to be enthralled. Enthralled was far from how I felt. I wasn't even sure I liked him. 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.

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: 

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. There was no colicky infant or breastfeeding struggles so people thought I should just be my usual self. I assured everyone that we were doing fine… because no one wanted to hear otherwise.

Unrealistic expectations

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.

Residual emotions

Struggles with infertility or birth parent uncertainty may linger after a child is placed. Adoption has few absolutes. Adoptive parents experience anxiety over what could go wrong. Holding a new child for the first time doesn't erase those anxieties.

If someone in your life has recently adopted, look for signs of stress or withdrawal. Ask if she wants to talk or if she wants you to bring dinner. Better still, just bring it. I rowed alone and it was hard. 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. Awareness really is a good thing.

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