Addressing the Common Problem of Post Adoption Depression
After adopting a long-awaited child, Karen Foli and her husband, John Thompson, were shocked to discover that it was not always the joyous event that they had imagined. Their new daughter, adopted from India, had been raised for her first five months in an environment where she got little attention. As a result, her behaviors were challenging beyond what Foli had been prepared to face, and Foli felt rejected. Foli was so unhappy she began to wonder if there was something wrong with her. After all, she had wanted this child very severely and had dreamed of nothing else for months. How could she possibly be so depressed?
To put a name to what she was feeling, Foli began to do some research, which resulted in the book, The Post-Adoption Blues: Overcoming the Unforeseen Challenges of Adoption (Rodale Books, 2004), co-written by her husband, psychologist John R. Thompson. Theirs is the first widely published work on the subject of depression following adoption.
Harriet McCarthy, who did extensive research on the subject of post-adoption blues back in 1998 and was one of the first to research and write about it, says that depression after an adoption is often because feelings of guilt are so strong in adoptive parents. “They may have been through infertility and years of waiting for a child, and now they’ve gotten what they wanted and feel they should be pleased and present a happy face to the world and their families,” she says. “Unfortunately, there are a lot of stresses associated with adoption, and it can lead to a lot of negative feelings.”
McCarthy should know. She is the mother of three boys adopted from Russia. All three were adopted as older children – two at age 6, one at age 5 – all presented with severe sensory issues and other special needs. A year after she adopted the first child, who had a severe attachment disorder, she went to her doctor and told him she couldn’t handle it any longer. He started her on antidepressants, which she says helped her quite a bit.
McCarthy’s experience, both with post-adoption depression and trying to find answers for her kids’ problems, led her to start the Eastern European Adoption Coalition Inc., a Website devoted to preparing and educating adoptive parents. A few years after she began the site, she ran a survey asking her listserve parents if they had ever experienced post-adoption depression. Of the 150 responses, an overwhelming majority, 71 percent, said they had.
McCarthy points out that many factors can cause post-adoption blues. Usually, it’s women who are affected, mainly because women are the primary caregivers of children, but she has heard from men who are also struggling with this. Foli thinks a big part of the problem is that the adoption follows a period of enormous stress for the adoptive parent. This is particularly true for parents who adopted internationally. The process of international adoption is so overwhelming, with paperwork, travel, and financial juggling, that often parents don’t have the time to reflect on the fact that they will have a child at the end of this process.
“This is not like a 9-month pregnancy where everyone is excited and shopping and preparing the nursery and all those things we do with pregnant women,” says Foli. “Adoption is about chasing that last birth certificate and hoping the home study is approved and worrying about birth parents backing out at the last minute. It’s a completely different process and one that puts enormous stress on the parents.”
Foli also points out that families of couples trying to adopt don’t always support adoption announcements in the same way they support pregnancy announcements. That in itself can cause a team to feel some sadness and perhaps question where their child will fit in with the extended family.
Foli and Thompson, who have two older children by birth, found this true even in their families. “I think the support was very different for us in our births versus our adoptions, and this is not uncommon,” says Foli. “It’s not always even as obvious as actual objections, but sometimes just a marked lack of excitement over adoption.”
Another big challenge for parents adopting from overseas is some of the health issues that parents face that they didn’t expect, such as attachment and integration disorders from children who have been in orphanages. Also, many problems, such as fetal alcohol syndrome, often are not recognized until the child begins to have developmental or learning difficulties.
“I’ve seen cases where the parent held it together pretty well for quite a while, even though it was a shock to them how difficult things were, and then, after three years or so, they realized that, hey, this is very serious, and it’s not going to get better quickly,” says McCarthy. “That’s when you see kind of a delayed depression where they finally accept how bad things are.”
Treating the Problem
Although this is not a happy adoption subject, neither Foli nor McCarthy wants to discourage anyone from adopting. Their aim is merely to have the tools available to help parents who need help and make sure they don’t feel alone.
McCarthy says that while antidepressants helped her, there are other ways to approach post-adoption depression. Start by seeing your doctor. If the depression is mild, talk therapy and perhaps some chemical intervention is all that’s needed. It’s also important to enlist your family so they can help. McCarthy suggests having literature ready to hand to family members as you explain what’s going on in your life. This will act to deflect some of the comments that might make you feel worse.
Foli also points out that these feelings will pass, and you will begin to bond with your child – even if it may not be the bond you envisioned. “If you feel that you’ve lost your way or that you’re floundering and can’t seem to bond with your child, don’t hesitate to seek help,” she says. “Just finding out that you’re not alone can go such a long way toward helping you to heal and to find the balance in your life that will help you build your family.”