I’m standing in a hotel room in China while my son screams with all his might. His father just left to find more bottled water, and it’s the first time the two of us have been alone. I cautiously try to approach. I hold out a peace offering in the form of a biscuit but my son’s screams just get worse. Only 22 months old and he has an impressive set of lungs. I take a deep breath. We’ve only been a family for four days. I tell myself, “This too shall pass.”
During our journey to adopt, post-adoption depression was not something that concerned me. Quite frankly, there was just too much to do. Paperwork to fill out, visas to file, travel to book, not to mention decorating the room and preparing our home. Like many prospective adoptive families, we struggled through the wait, felt over the moon when we finally received a match, traveled with high expectations, then suddenly became a family. We had wanted this for so long. We should be happy. And the truth is, I was. Even though my son struggled, hard, to attach to me, even though we had epic bedtime battles, even though we were first-time parents to a toddler, I was okay. So, when three years later we decided to expand our family, we looked again towards international adoption.
Again, post-adoption depression was nowhere in my mind. We traveled to India to meet our beautiful daughter and, unlike my son, our bond was immediate. Blissfully, our new family of four explored the streets of Delhi, soaking up as much of our daughter’s culture as we could. Our daughter was sleeping through the night, eating well, and seemed happy. We had this adoptive parenting thing down! Then we returned home.
The first few days we seemed to glide back into place. Except two children felt more like seven. And my son was regressing, hard. While my new daughter slept through the night, my son sought us out six, seven times. Then, twenty-three days after we arrived home, I wound up in the ICU with typhoid induced sepsis. A week confined to the hospital and my world turned upside down. I was exhausted. The bond I had established with my daughter vanished. I struggled to get out of bed and stumbled through each day waiting for it to end. My daughter’s strong-willed personality appeared, and I wrestled with how to care for her. My sister had a baby around the same time, and I told myself, “She needs the help, not me. I’m a second-time-around parent; I should be able to handle this.” Publicly, I kept up the façade of a happy new family of four, but privately I dreamed of getting in the car and driving. Maybe I’d go to a hotel room where I could be by myself for however long I wanted. Maybe I’d just drive and enjoy the silence. Anything to escape where I was.
Thankfully, my close friends, fellow adoptive mamas, saw the signs. Jane’s daughter (second adoption) had come home a few months prior, and Jane shared she had gone through a similar experience. Why, I wondered, don’t we talk about this more? Is it because family and friends have watched you wait. Is it because “This should be the happiest time” and you “Finally got what you wanted.” And if the journey or the child you adopted turned out differently than expected, “You should have known what you were getting into.” But maybe your child isn’t sleeping or eating. Maybe he or she is exhibiting behaviors (like food hoarding or self-soothing) that you’re not sure how to handle. Maybe your child, or you, are struggling to attach. Maybe the grief of infertility finally hit. Whatever the inciting event, post-adoption depression is real.
Post-adoption depression syndrome (PADS) was first recognized by June Bond in 1995. Since then we have learned that PADS is a continuum. It can be minor and temporary, or it can be long-lasting. It can become recurring, and it can disappear almost overnight. Most importantly, PADS does not mean you are a bad parent. It does not mean that you do not want to love and bond with your child. PADS is completely normal, and it happens to more adoptive parents than you would think.
So, what can you do? First, it’s important to know the signs. New adoptive parents might find themselves fatigued, feeling powerless, irritable, suffer sleep changes, suffer weight changes, all while trying to adapt to life as a new family. Second, please ask for help. Attachment between you and your new child is important, but you can find ways for family and friends to help. Have them bring a meal, or do laundry, or hire a cleaning service for a few months. Anything to make daily life easier. Third, know you are not alone. It can be hard to talk to family and friends, especially when they have not experienced an adoption, but there is a whole adoptive community ready to support you. I promise. Social media, in particular, can be a great resource to connect with fellow parents experiencing PADS. And most importantly if you need to, seek help. Your social worker is a great jumping-off point, and he or she will be able to recommend professionals in your area. Remember, there is no shame. You and your new child have been through a lot so be kind to yourself. You are an amazing parent, and you are doing the best that you can.
Back at home, things in our world slowly improved. Our community of friends and neighbors came together to provide weeks of meals, take my son on playdates, and offered relaxation resources (magazines, good books, bath salts, wine) for me. I found an incredible online community for PADS and talked every day with my fellow adoptive mamas and close friends. Today, I still struggle, but every day gets a little better. My only regret is not being more honest about what my family was going through at the time. Help could have come sooner, but I am forever thankful for those who were there when I finally took the step and said “I need help.”
Have you experienced post-adoption depression? What was your experience like? What would you recommend to family and friends who want to help?