When an adoption comes through, it is usually a joyful and triumphant feeling that takes precedence over natural apprehensions and worries. The long slog of filling out endless forms and defending one’s ability to be a good parent before social workers, legal bodies, and the court, are finally over. The child one sought is now one’s own to raise and enjoy.
However, about one in ten post-adoptive parents experience profound depression following a successful adoption. This is often a surprise to the parents who had expected to now start enjoying life with their new child. But what causes post-adoptive depression?
It is natural to feel tired and listless after a prolonged struggle. Many adoptive parents fail to understand this, and instead feel guilty because they don’t always feel up about the daily job of child-rearing. They had fully expected to be the most wonderful parents of all, but find that they resent or feel tired of the whole thing at times. In addition, the cost, frustration, and complexity of the whole bureaucratic process may go beyond their expectations, making them feel out of control. A difficult adoption can also take its toll on the emotions of the parents.
Raising a child is by itself a challenging and fatiguing assignment. Parents who are undertaking child care for the first time may find it an unexpectedly difficult task. This may arouse fears, confusion, and feelings of inadequacy, bewilderment, and defeat. They may think that this shows they are not such committed parents as they thought they were, and this traps them into further sadness and lowering of self-esteem.
They may also experience guilt for daring to think that their child is not as perfect as they imagined, or that parenting is not as wonderful as they thought. Sleep deprivation, tiredness, increased responsibilities, financial demands, having less time and opportunity or inclination for emotional and sexual sharing within the marital relationship, and a history of previous depression, are all risk factors for post-adoptive depression.
Adoptive parents are prone to depression also because of the unrealistic expectations they placed on themselves and/or the child. They might have thought that once the adoption came through, life would become easy as the child and parents melded into one cohesive family unit. The truth is that, much like marriage, the child and the adoptive parents come from different situations and need to adjust together in a harmonious whole.
This requires time, patience, understanding, and wisdom. These are not qualities that easily come by for most people, so the majority of adoptive parents find themselves learning to be good parents on the go, just like biological parents do.
Lack of communication
Adoption is a major life event with concomitant stress. In many adoptive parents, the guilt of feeling as if they robbed a mother of the child may compete with the joy of finally getting a child of their own. They may also feel fearful that the child may reject them when the fact that they are not the biological mother comes to light.
Moreover, it takes time to bond with a family. Failure to realize this sets up parents for negative thoughts about how unexpectedly difficult and unrewarding post-adoption life is turning out to be. The lack of a suitable forum to express these fears and feelings exacerbates the stress, and predisposes to the development of depression.
Existing emotional stressors
Infertility is a major cause for adoption. The stress and the feelings of helplessness and low self-worth associated with infertility do not always die out with adoption, however. In addition, the feeling of lack of control experienced during the adoption process is a stressor for post-adoptive depression. A history of past psychological trouble also increases the risk of depressive symptoms.
Lack of social support
Excessive realizations of family and social support may also predispose to depressive symptoms, as this is not forthcoming to the same extent or by the same segment of society in the case of adoption. The feeling that others think you have acted foolishly or wrongly often acts as a dampener on one’s positive emotions about adoption, forcing one to second-guess one’s decision or doubt one’s wisdom.
In addition, people may discriminate in their treatment of adopted children, which may leave the parents feeling ashamed, indignant, or helpless, again spinning them into negative feelings.
Marital disputes may increase after adoption, perhaps linked to child-raising styles or financial handling. However, studies show that overall marital satisfaction increases after an adoption.
Doubts linked to adoption
Parents who are faced with difficulties in parenting may also feel that they have no right to exert discipline since they are not the child’s ‘real’ parents. In addition, it may take longer for the child and parents to bond, which may foster fears and worries about the ‘failure’ of the adoption.
The nature of other stressors is different for biological and adoptive parents. The latter are usually from a higher-income group overall, with better-paying jobs and higher education levels.
They do not undergo the hormonal shifts, anxieties, and body image changes that accompany pregnancy, labor, and delivery, thought they do share the stresses of parenting. In most cases, their stressors are uniquely related to adoption. Thus, it is important to recognize and treat this group of parents specifically.
Reviewed by Susha Cheriyedath, MSc