Post-Adoption Depression Is Normal, And We Need To Talk About It

by Rachel Garlinghouse
Originally Published: 
Mother with children
Rachel Garlinghouse/Instagram

When we adopted our first child over a decade ago, no one prepared me for the emotions I would face once I finally had my baby in my arms. From the time we started seriously considering adoption to the day our daughter was placed with us, it was over two and a half years. I had long visualized what it would look like to feel the weight of a newborn, spending my days washing bottles, changing diapers, and rocking my baby to sleep. We would read books, I’d push her in the swing at the park, and we’d host playdates with chubby toddlers while I sipped coffee with fellow moms.

My introduction to motherhood was abrupt. One day I wasn’t a mom, and the next day we got a phone call from our social worker that we were parents. We frantically packed and left town, driving four hours to meet our child. The moment she was placed in my arms, her foster mom said to me, “She’s hungry and poopy, Mommy!” I remember that moment so clearly, because I was someone’s mom. Not just someone, but a brown-skinned, black-haired, six-pound baby girl. I didn’t know it at the time, but my motherhood journey would also lead me to consider post-adoption depression.

When you adopt, people assume you are over-the-moon happy and so grateful for the fairytale, that you live in a parenting utopia. Of course, we were beyond thrilled to be parents, relishing in every little baby sigh and smile. Middle-of-the-night feedings were oddly a joy. We treasured moments that some new parents dread, because we knew that being chosen to be our child’s parents was a tremendous honor. However, there were moments where I began to feel some serious blues.

When my daughter was nine months old, I was rocking her to sleep in her nursery, moonlight illuminating her bedroom. The moment was picturesque, like we were in a greeting card commercial. Suddenly, it dawned on me that I now had cared for my baby the same amount of time her birth mom did. Though my daughter’s time with her birth mom was mostly in-utero, I knew that season, all nine months of it, was sacred and limited.

Before we adopted our daughter, she only knew her birth mom’s voice, heartbeat, rhythm, and scent. She was abruptly moved from her birth mom, to a foster mom, to us. That’s an incredible whirlwind for a helpless baby. Additionally, I began to consider that I got to see all of my daughter’s firsts, while her birth mom had to learn about them via the letters we would write to her.

This began a spiral of feelings including guilt. Why did I get to parent this child? What unfair and unjust systems are in place that don’t support moms so they can parent their children? Was I going to be good enough for my daughter, especially given that I’m white and she is black? The questions didn’t stop over the years, as we added three more children to our family through the same domestic, infant adoption process.

Post-adoption depression isn’t an official medical diagnosis. Rather, it’s a depression that many of us who adopt feel is legitimate, just as real as postpartum depression that biological parents can experience. There’s an entire book about it, The Post Adoption Blues: Overcoming the Unforeseen Challenges in Adoption, which I read after we brought our second daughter home. Once I began having conversations with other parents-by-adoption, I realized how pervasive this issue is.

Adoption is usually presented as either a horror story (thank you, Lifetime) or as a Hallmark movie, with nothing but sunshine, smiles, and happy endings. But really, much of adoption lives in the in-between. Whether the journey is smooth or rocky, parents can experience post-adoption depression due to the abrupt changes, the intense emotions, the relationship (or lack thereof) with the child’s biological family, and adjusting to adding a child to the family. There’s also added layers of complexity when parenting a child with special needs, an older child, multiples, or a sibling group, or a child who was adopted transracially.

Kristin Jones told Scary Mommy, “People always tell me I am lucky not to experience child birth or PPD, but they do not understand how hard adoptions can be.” When she and her husband got the call to adopt a newborn baby, who was already born, they said yes, flying with their two-year-old to Florida to meet their new child. However, they ended up stuck in the state for five weeks, encountering multiple legal issues with the biological father, and moving every week from rental condo to condo, racking up credit card bills. To top it off, their newborn had severe feeding difficulties. Jones said, “I felt like I should have been so happy.” But she wasn’t.

Renee Kane adopted her son from China after having two biological daughters. She thought she was well-prepared for the complexities of adoption, including adoptee trauma and attachment struggles. Yet, when she brought her son home, she realized she didn’t have the motherly instincts she had experienced with her daughters. Major guilt ensued.

“When he cried, instead of being compassionate, I was upset and wanted to run away,” Kane told Scary Mommy. “When he needed me, I didn’t want to be there.” She also said she felt like the worst mom and was confused by her sadness and anger. She then researched postpartum depression and realized she had all of the symptoms even though she didn’t give birth. She reached out to her doctor and got on anti-depressants, as well as found support among other adoptive moms.

Gina Adams adopted two daughters, three years apart. She told Scary Mommy that she went from working a full-time, challenging job to going on maternity leave. That dramatic life shift set her post-adoption depression into motion. She “felt guilt for not loving life.” She returned to work part-time after three months, but still had the same feelings. Three months later, she started taking anti-depressants. She reports that it took months for her to realize what caused her depression.

Each of the four times we waited to adopt, not once did an adoption professional or medical professional forewarn us of post-adoption depression. Unlike when women go their obstetrician after giving birth, adoptive moms aren’t handed a postpartum depression form to fill out, screening us. The assumption is that adoptive parents are just fine because, after all, our dream has come true. We should be blissfully happy. The reality is that adoption is complicated, and adoptive moms aren’t exempt from experiencing the depression that can come with new motherhood.

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