Adoption Can Be Tough On Parents, Too

Let’s face it: American girls and women get sold a bill of goods about what it’s like to become a mother. We are conditioned to believe that the minute we set eyes on our newborn baby we will fall head-over-heels in love with him or her. Presto-Chango! The magic happens in a flash and a happy family jumps to life.

The dirty little secret is that the bonding process very often does not happen in the instantaneous, quick-as-lightening way that many of us had expected. Quite often it doesn’t feel like the super-glue was applied at all, and new moms can feel guilty, ashamed and confused as a result.

Most new moms go through a period of feeling exhausted from the lack of sleep; overwhelmed by the demands of around-the-clock feeding and caring for a new little person they don’t know; and stunned and depressed by their loss of personal freedom and professional identity.

Over 80% of women who have given birth will experience a short period of “the baby blues.” But for about 10% of them these feelings are intensified and when coupled with the barrage of hormones raging through their systems, it can result in post partum depression.

But what happens if you are an adoptive parent? Do you get “the baby blues,” too? And what if the child you have adopted is not a newborn at all? How does Post-Partum Depression fit in here? No chemicals are involved — you didn’t give birth — so can it happen?

As a matter of fact it can. Although Post-Adoption Depression Syndrome (PADS) has yet to be officially classified as an illness by the American Psychiatric Association, it shows up front and center on the radar screens of those who work with adoptive parents.

Although little research has been done on it yet, it appears to be quite common among adoptive parents and according to one study affects up to 65% of them. Some researchers have found that it is more likely to appear in mothers who have adopted a special needs child or one from overseas. It can present dramatically, as a serious episode of depression that lands a woman in the hospital or less intensely as a more simple case of the blues that hangs around for a couple of months and then disappears.

When you think about it, many of the stressors that show up for moms who give birth to their babies are there for moms who adopt, too. There are the same feelings of being overwhelmed by new responsibilities; the lack of sleep; the major adjustments to lifestyle and personal identity; and the incessant demands of caring for a newborn.

But the bonding issue can become more complicated for adoptive parents. Although some adoptive parents can pinpoint the moment when their love for their child began to blossom — when they saw the sonogram or got their first picture from a far-away adoption agency — others cannot. For them the process takes longer and can be more problematic, especially if the child is older or has been institutionalized.

The adoptive couple may have spent years going through the process of locating a child and getting approved. They may have waited months for their child to be born or become available — all after enduring a gamut of tests and unsuccessful procedures to conceive themselves. And then finally they get what they have been wanting for so long.

But once the first few days at home with the new child have passed, many adoptive parents feel a sense of deflation or let-down, similar to what one feels after accomplishing a major goal. They may start to feel sad, overwhelmed and anxious  — not unlike that which can happen for biological parents. And when they don’t feel that instant connection with their child, they may be wracked by feelings of not only guilt, but panic and uncertainty about their decision to adopt in the first place.

If they have adopted an older child, or one who has been institutionalized, things can be even harder. He may have serious and significant medical or emotional problems like fetal alcohol syndrome or attention deficit disorder, oppositional defiance, major depression, or separation-anxiety disorders that may need years of treatment.

Or, he may have developed disturbing coping behaviors like head banging, or have severely limited social skills. He may be hyper-vigilant and unwilling to let his new mom out of his sight for even a moment. And he may be having a hard time bonding and fitting into the existing family as well.

But given all the effort that went into making the adoption happen, not to mention the fact that she made her desire for a child so public, the new mom may be reluctant to share her feelings of regret or ambivalence with anyone, especially the adoption agency. She may simply feel that she doesn’t have the right and that no one will understand. This can make it even harder for her to come to terms with the depression that has taken hold and get the help she needs.

Adoptive parents are entitled to a lot of help and support when these feelings or experiences begin. They are no different from any other parent when it comes to problems or difficulties regarding bonding, attachment, the baby blues and even post (adoption) depression. In fact, they may well need more support and understanding. For the sake of everyone who’s involved, it’s critical that they reach out and not blame or judge themselves.

It can and does often work out beautifully. There is hope and help available for those who are suffering from this challenging and little known problem. If you think you might be one of them, don’t be afraid to seek out the help you need.

June Bond, the person who literally coined the term PADS, has some specific suggestions to help you weather the storm:

“1. Recognize that Post Adoption Depression Syndrome is common and there are several valid reasons for feeling down after your child is placed with you. This does not mean that you have made a bad decision or are different from many other new parents.

2. In focusing and sharing birth mother grief . . realize that the birth mother made a positive plan for her and her child. You are an integral part of this special plan. If you share in her feelings of loss and grief, then take positive actions to help you both feel good about the plan that has come together for the adoptive triad. Write her a letter, make her an album, make certain that she knows what a great job she has done in giving this precious gift of life to you. Recognize that her grief is a natural part ofthe healing process.

3. Being anxiety ridden about certain legal risks and unresolved/unexpected issues is often a major source of stress. As adoptive parents, we must all accept the fact that with adoption comes certain risks. But, before accepting an adoptive situation make sure that the risks are ones that you can comfortably handle. It is a good plan to keep your head in control when evaluating each potential adoption situation. Once the baby is placed in your arms, the head control is usual replaced by heart control. Ask questions and know in your head the limit that your heart can endure.

4. Go to an infant parenting seminar. These seminars are often a part of child birthing classes at most hospitals. Call your local hospital to see when a class is being offered. Some hospitals will even allow a neonatal nurse to work one on one with you to show you how to care for your new born. Added confidence can relieve some of your feelings of anxiety and inadequacy about properly caring for this little, but very demanding little bundle.

5. Arrange for time to adjust to your new status. Unfortunately, many companies do not allow adoptive parents to take paid time off. With the rising cost of adoption, many families simply cannot afford to take time away from work without pay. Consequently one alternative is to rearrange your work schedule, if possible, to be more flexible for the first six – eight weeks. Another suggestion is to make plans for food and other necessities for the initial weeks in advance. One client I knew has a casserole shower from her local dinner club. Fifteen frozen casseroles came in very handy when the new baby arrived. “I wanted to spend every available minute with the baby. Clearly cooking was a low priority for me. ” stated one adoptive mother. Paperplates, utensils, and cups can also cut down on work time and give you more time to relax and adjust.

6. Many adoptive couples feel that they must be super parents. They can pick up a baby on Friday, go back to work on Monday, have a meeting on Wednesday night, keep the church nursery on Wednesday night, have gourmet club at your house for the regularly scheduled monthly meeting on Saturday night, never missing a meeting or activity- all on four hours of sleep a night. Realize that birth parents usually take six weeks off of regularly scheduled activities. This time is not just for the healing of the body, but also for adjustment and bonding to the baby. Allow yourself the same time frame to adjust. Take a sabbatical from other responsibilities for six weeks and learn to love your baby.

7. Join an adoption support group, if you have not done so already. Share your feelings with others. A former client confided that she did not feel comfortable complaining about the baby’s colic and her lack of sleep. “I felt like people would say that I asked for him. . . shut up. ” Adoptive parents are not superhumans. We are real parents, who get tired, irritable, and have REAL feelings. Share your feelings with another adoptive parent in the support group.

Bringing your baby home is one of the highlights in your life. It is the beginning of a long and wonderful journey called parenthood. As with most journeys, there can be detours and bumpy spots in the road. Learning where the pot holes are makes the journey a little bit smoother.”

June Bond is a Certified Adoption Investigator who has published numerous articles on adoption in local, state and national publications. Mother of six chidren, four of whom are adopted, she was recently recognized as South Carolina’s Adoption Advocate of the Year for 1995.

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Ellen and Rachel are two old friends and “expert” mamas—one a pediatrician and one a family therapist—with fifty years of parenting experience between them.

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One response to “Adoption Can Be Tough On Parents, Too”

  1. Barbara

    This is a good post. A little bit late for me as my sons adoption went thru a couple of years ago, but very good for prospective adoptive parents. It’s all true. It was a tough time, and while I didn’t join any adoption groups physically, I enjoyed internet forums. The best advice ever I saw: “When you feel like you can’t smile anymore…fake it.”

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