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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No matter how the baby arrived, new parents are contending with shifts in their identities and in their relationships with their partners. New parents struggle with feelings of inadequacy. Perhaps they lack relatives nearby to help keep up with food preparation or laundry duties, or find themselves leaning on friends more than they’d like as they adjust to this profound life change. And it’s all but guaranteed that no new parent is getting much sleep.

In addition, love at first sight is not always the norm whether you adopted the child or delivered her. “Just as people fall in love differently,” says Catapano, parents “bond at different rates with their babies.” While I felt strongly attached to our son the minute I first held him, I know other adoptive and biological parents who’ve told me, a little tentatively, that theirs was a more gradual process.

Another potential factor that could contribute to PPD or PAD: infertility. There is no question that the struggle with infertility that may have preceded the arrival home of an adopted child—or a pregnancy, for that matter—leaves its scars. “Some of my patients with fertility problems harbor a secret fear that they were not meant to be parents,” Catapano suggests. “If you came to adoption by way of infertility, the consequences of infertility don’t fully disappear when you have your baby, because there were all these losses that happened to you during a period of infertility. You don’t have a baby in the way you had planned to, or in the time you had planned to.”

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While biological mothers’ fluctuating hormone levels are thought to play a part in PPD’s onset, depression after adoption, Dr. Payne found in a 2010 study “was much more likely to be associated with stress and with a perception of how difficult the [adoption] process was rather than a personal or family history of depression.”

How I wish I’d known about Dr. Payne’s and Dr. Foli’s work back when we first brought Jake home. Thankfully I recognized that something was deeply off kilter, that I needed help to get better and to get Ari help to care for our baby. I asked my parents to come stay with us, started Zoloft at my doctor’s suggestion, and got a prescription for sleeping pills to battle the hellish insomnia. Other eyes were on me then, too: I know now that our social worker, whom I’ll call Monica, who had conducted our pre-adoption home study back in 2007 and who had gotten to know both of us well, was closely monitoring our family.

When Monica would visit, I was scared that once she saw how weepy and tired I was, she would remove Jake from our custody. But my fears were unfounded. Though I had no name for what I was feeling at the time, Monica had suspected then that I was depressed, and she suggested I talk to my doctor. Years later, she told me that she never wavered in her belief that Ari and I were taking the right steps to ensure our baby’s well-being and to help me recover.

For the next six months, my therapist helped me explore my greatest fear: that I was not a good enough mom for Jake, who’d had no say about who would raise him and who over time would have his own adoption-related losses to grieve. I realized that my periods of greatest despair were driven by two key fears: that I would not be able to keep him safe, and that I’d be unable to help him make sense of how he came to us.

And then one day that fall, a curtain lifted. It wasn’t an hour or two of feeling like my old self, which I experienced around the sixth or seventh week of taking Zoloft. It was a whole day, and then another, and another, in which I felt prepared to meet Jake’s needs, in which I marveled at the way the autumn light hit the Potomac, in which I thanked the universe for bringing our family into being. The great and unexpected gift of my depression was the ability to appreciate more fully everything I might have lost.

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