These days, most people are familiar with postpartum depression and recognize it as a true psychological issue. Celebrities have even begun to openly discuss their struggles postpartum. But what about adoptive parents? Though there is no hormonal component, adoptive parents, adoptive mothers, in particular, can suffer from Post Adoption Depression Syndrome or PADS, which very closely mirrors the symptoms of postpartum depression.
Adoptive parents have often experienced great stress for a prolonged period of time before bringing their child home. Despite undergoing pre-adoptive education and a home study, many adoptive parents are not told that PADS is a common phenomenon. While working through the stress of the adoption process, many pre-adoptive parents rely on the dream of their future child’s homecoming to get through. They can idealize the experience, particularly if they are first time parents, and often when the reality of parenting hits them, it is far different than the dreamy scene they pictured. This is especially true for parents adopting children with special needs, or children older than infants who may experience issues bonding.
And all of the other stressors of being a new parent are there too, just as they are for biological parents. Babies who won’t stop crying, operating on very little sleep, juggling your new responsibilities as a parent with work, and all the worry that accompanies caring for a child, especially if that child is a newborn or cannot communicate with you at all. Couples may find their relationship is strained, and social activities become very difficult. All of this can contribute to feeling disillusioned, frustrated, and ultimately, depressed.
Signs you might be experiencing PADS include:
– Loss of interest in activities you used to enjoy
– A difficulty with concentrating or making decisions
– Fatigue or loss of energy
– Difficulty sleeping or increased need for sleep
– Significant weight change
– Excessive guilt
– Feelings of worthlessness
– Sense of hopelessness
– Suicidal thoughts or ideation
Many parents also experience the other side of depression: anxiety. When we brought our daughter home, she was 2 days old. We had gotten the call that we were matched and that she was already born, just 48 hours before that. I distinctly remember not sleeping at all the first night, not because she wouldn’t sleep, but because I was terrified if I went to sleep something would happen to her, even though she was in a bassinet and within arm’s reach away from me. In her early infancy, my anxiety continued as I somehow became convinced there was a “right” way to be doing everything and would spend hours at night obsessively googling things about sleeping and feeding and making sure she had enough stimulation.
Many new biological parents experience this as well, but looming over my shoulder I also had the worry that I would somehow let her birth mother down, and also the worry that since she was not my biological child, I was somehow not fully equipped to care for her. If she cried and I had trouble soothing her I wondered, would I know what to do had I given birth to her? Most of me knew these thoughts were irrational, but when you’ve only slept for 4 hours, haven’t showered in two days, and haven’t had much interaction with the outside world for a while, it can be harder to shut those thoughts down.
Another issue that can contribute to PADS is a pre-existing history of anxiety or depression. In my case, I have dealt with Generalized Anxiety Disorder my entire adult life, so it’s no surprise that in this highly stressful time of literally becoming a parent overnight, my levels of anxiety became unmanageable. Fortunately, I already had a good support system in place and was able to move past this extreme anxiety as she grew older. Now that she is two, I certainly worry, but I’m not up all night obsessively googling, and I am secure in my role as her mother.
Another contributing factor to developing PADS is unresolved grief about infertility or previous pregnancy losses. Many adoptive parents think they have moved past their infertility, but their grief is triggered again by bringing home a new child. Perhaps it’s an off-hand comment someone makes that implies you are “lesser” as a parent. Maybe it’s not being able to relate when the talk at Mommy and Me classes turns to epidurals and episiotomies. Maybe they have family or friends who are not supportive of their adoption. Any of these things can remind an adoptive parent that their child entered their family in a different way than most do, and can reignite infertility related grief.
Like with postpartum depression, PADS or post-adoption related anxiety is not only normal, it is treatable. How can someone experiencing PADS get help?
Take care of yourself. Self-care is incredibly important during this time. Find some downtime to engage in activities you enjoy. Make sure to eat right, exercise, rest, and get enough sleep. Time away from your child is important too, even if it’s just an hour to go shopping or get a cup of coffee. You need time to decompress.
Remember you are not alone. Connect with other adoptive parents who are experiencing similar feelings and challenges. Join an adoption support group, either in person or online. There you will find many other people who have been in your shoes and who can help show you that there is hope of making it to the other side of this challenge.
Give yourself time to bond with your child. Bonding and attachment can be a slow process, so be patient. Newborns don’t really give much back in the way of affection, and older children may have a language barrier, be dealing with physical illnesses, or just take time to warm up. You and your child have been through a lot in coming to find each other. Don’t expect bonding to be instant.
Ask for support and seek help. Do not be ashamed or afraid to ask friends and family members for help. Though they may not understand what you are going through, those closest to you are best equipped to help you begin to sort things out. For your benefit and the benefit of your child and family, seek professional assistance if needed. Find a healthcare provider who is familiar with the challenges adoptive parents face and if necessary, consider taking medication.
Keep in mind that the first several months after an adoptive placement are a transitional time for everyone in the family. Your whole life has changed, and so has your child’s. Take everything one day at a time, enjoy the positive moments, and be kind to yourself in the less than stellar moments: everyone has them.