We Adopted a Beautiful Baby. Then I Got Depressed.

What women really think about news, politics, and culture.
April 3 2013 8:00 AM

My Post-Adoption Depression

It was as crippling as postpartum, and much less recognized.

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Around week four, my appetite waned. I started bursting into tears for no reason at all. Not only did I obsess about the icy stairs, but I became preoccupied with how to defend Jake from imaginary carjackers. I started practicing unbuckling him quickly from his carseat. I began missing work deadlines, ignoring calls from friends, wearing the same ratty black pants day after day. Sleep was strangely elusive: Even at the end of an exhausting day caring for this bright-eyed, sweet little man, whose smiles were coming more frequently, I’d lie awake in bed as if my eyelids were screwed into the open position.

Bed began to feel like the only safe place, in fact.

“Amy, I really, really need you to get up,” Ari would say over his shoulder as he carried Jake downstairs to where our gentle new part-time babysitter was waiting. “In a little while,” I’d answer vaguely, wishing I could just disappear beneath the sheets forever. Once or twice I reviewed in my mind’s eye the contents of the knife block in my kitchen, wondering whether a serrated or straight blade would be more effective at slicing open my wrist.

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For the first time ever, I was depressed. And as far as I knew, there was no name for the state in which I found myself. I couldn’t, after all, call it postpartum. I hadn’t gone through the hormonal roller coaster of pregnancy and recovery. I hadn’t experienced labor and delivery, nor was I breast-feeding, which some adoptive parents successfully train their bodies to do. Moreover, I’d had a clean bill of mental health as we moved through the adoption process. (In fact, any history of a prospective adoptive parent’s using antidepressants or receiving counseling of any kind, whether or not it’s related to depression, can derail their chances of adopting a child from certain countries, South Korea among them.) Nevertheless, I was in the throes of an adoptive parent’s version of postpartum depression.

It turns out I was not—am not—alone. A March 2012 Purdue University study suggests that between 18 and 26 percent of adoptive mothers struggle with post-adoption depression, brought on by extreme fatigue, unrealistic expectations of parenthood or a lack of community support.

In the course of interviewing some 300 women who’d adopted one or more children in the prior two years, Karen J. Foli, an assistant professor of nursing at Purdue, says that she and her team—including Susan South and Eunjung Lim—began examining societal assumptions about adoptive parents. Among them: the belief that the mother who doesn’t carry a child for nine months or doesn’t go through labor does not require as much help after the child comes home, does not need respite care, or someone to unload the dishwasher, or a few casseroles in the freezer.

I had certainly assumed as much. I didn’t take maternity leave, feeling at some deep level that I neither needed it nor earned it. I kept up with my reporting and writing assignments, underestimating the importance of just rolling around on the floor with our new baby, who likely was grieving the sudden absence of his beloved foster mom.  I didn’t feel that I “deserved” as much help as my friends who’d given birth had received. I found myself questioning my authenticity as Jake’s mother. I’d look at Jake and think: This child came from another woman’s body. Who am I to say I am his mother?

“No matter what, there is time when the [adopted] child has lived apart from his or her adoptive parents,” says Foli, co-author, with Dr. John R. Thompson, of The Post Adoption Blues: Overcoming the Unforeseen Challenges of Adoption. “When he comes home, it adds to society’s impression that the adoptive parents are the ‘winners,’ as compared to the birth parents, who relinquished the child, and the child himself … There is this unspoken message that the adoptive parents are coming out [ahead] of all in the adoption triad, [so] there can be a stigma when you, the adoptive parent, struggle in your new role. This was your life goal, people say to adoptive parents. This was what you wanted.”

In other words, to complain that my new life taking care of this baby was much scarier and much harder than I’d ever thought it would be seemed obscene.

Yet just like some biological mothers, I may not have had a choice in how I felt. Dr. Lisa Catapano, an assistant professor of psychiatry at George Washington University Medical Center, told me that both postpartum depression and post-adoption depression are likely to be triggered by biological, psychological and social factors, and that there is more overlap between moms by adoption and moms by birth than one might first realize.