4.16.2017

adoptive moms can get the baby blues, too

Recently, I was talking to a friend of mine who is also an adoptive mother. We were discussing the way society seems to believe adoptive mothers simply bounce back after baby, as if they are immune from the anxiety and the depression (and the the fear and chaos and sleep deprivation) that mothers who gave birth tend to experience. It was an a-ha! moment for me because I realized then how right she was. We had a great deal of support from friends and family during Carmen's entry into our family, and I was fortunate to escape the baby blues (this go 'round) that often accompanies new motherhood -- but not everyone shares that same luck. I've been told before how lucky I am to have the joy of a newborn without the pain of giving birth, and as someone who has also given birth I can understand the intention behind the comment.

After all, I had a c-section with Ethan that was a far cry from routine and my issues continued into the postpartum period for sometime. Of course, my husband had a nice chunk of paid paternity leave following the birth of our child so I wasn't alone at home and, moreso, I'm pretty sure we had visitors every moment of every day bringing by food, helping out. Our pediatrician was on call for all of my new mom questions and when I cried to my OB that I was feeling very depressed and anxious about breastfeeding failures, I got the support I needed -- including a handy phone number to a counselor who specialized in postpartum depression and anxiety. While, no, I didn't just have my body stitched back together when I strapped Carmen into the car seat upon hospital discharge, I still had a newborn in my care who we were just beginning to start the bonding process with. No one was sleeping, I had another child at home desperate for normalcy and my attention, and life was just supposed to snap back to where it was -- including my husband having to go back to work right away. I won't pretend I didn't cry those first few nights from the exhaustion and stress of it all, the conglomerate of happy disbelief and overwhelmed exhaustion wreaking havoc on my body.

For many adoptive mothers, the bonding begins when the baby comes home. You don't have the option of caring for the child in utero. You don't get those moments bonding over food cravings and sleep patterns, or the way the baby moves to the beat of a certain song. You don't particularly know whose baby photos she resembles more, or whose allergies she has inherited. In our case, we visited our daughter in the NICU and she still legally had a different last name than ours. Most of the nurses were understanding and knew we were adoptive parents, but there were a couple of greeters who explained in great detail we would need parental permission to visit. Ouch. You do a lot of explaining and guessing in those early days, which is really unnatural in terms of mothering. I felt admittedly very self-conscious about having to answer "I don't know" to most of the questions on our newborn check-up at the pediatrician because I was her mother -- how could I not know? I'm pretty sure I legitimately brought a family tree print-out to Ethan's first visit with everyone's allergy or ailment clearly marked. For me, as someone whose body carried a terminally ill child and who gave birth to death and then delved into the pits of infertility, I struggled mostly with wanting to feel accepted as a mother. I wanted people to stop asking me if I wanted their breastmilk -- a well-intentioned offer that read more like a reminder of all the ways my body was inferior to everyone else's -- and to stop speaking to me like I found a baby on the side of the road who I had no connection with ("do you think she knows who you are?"). There's that anxiety when the baby cries and you don't know how to calm her -- in Carmen's case, it was silent reflux -- when logic falls by the wayside and you're wondering if she doesn't accept you as her mother and what if she doesn't love you with the unconditional love that you're already pouring all over her? For some adoptive mothers, bonding is hard and bonding takes time. For some adoptive mothers, mothering begins as a routine and an adjustment period until one day it just becomes as natural as breathing -- but sometimes that takes time, and sometimes it takes work. Sometimes it causes great stress and great sadness and there is no OB who pulls you aside to slip you a little piece of paper with a counselor's phone number written on it.

For me, when Carmen first came home, everyone seemed to want to know about her birth family. While I was quick to ensure no one ever shook their heads with disgust upon the assumption she was an unwanted or discarded baby, it felt very dismissive. With Ethan's arrival, people asked if we were sleeping or eating or how much he weighed or if we needed any help with anything. With Carmen's arrival, people asked about her birth parents and were they teenagers and why did they decide on adoption and is it an open or closed adoption, anyway? For some adoptive mothers, and certainly myself, the guilt in those early days was palpable and stressful. Being bombarded with inquiries that concerned no one else but us was intense and a major trigger for my anxiety. "But how much did it cost?" people asked as I tried to let my oldest have some normalcy time at the playground. No.

When you bring home a baby you gave birth to, you bring home a baby into your home and settle yourselves into your own routine and schedule. When you bring home a baby through adoption, you have to clear your calendar for post-placement visits and finalization dates. One time in particular, I had to rush Ethan home from art class as he wailed he wanted to stay because we had to rush home to meet the social worker. And then you wonder if your house is clean enough, if they're going to mark you off for your lack of laundry skills or the banana peel browning on the kitchen table that you overlooked. You're going to wonder if they can tell you haven't been sleeping or if they're going to take your dirty yoga pants and mom bun as a sign you're failing at motherhood because you just can't look as put together as you wanted to for this occasion. You're going to have to answer questions about your relationship and life and children and make sure you have clear answers from the pediatrician with the baby's measurements and vaccination records. You just want to pass every test because you love your child so much, you do, and you don't want anyone to doubt you.

I was fortunate enough to have friends who put together a Meal Train for my family and so we were fed for those first couple weeks -- but from my research, not all adoptive mothers receive that level of care. I had missed a dentist appointment that I forgot about in the chaos of the adoption process and, when the receptionist called to scold me and reschedule me, I blurted out we just adopted a baby and I'm so tired and sorry. She was quick to point out that I didn't have the baby so my mind should be a lot sharper. She meant it as a joke, but I wasn't laughing -- and I found a new dentist, too. I began to quickly fall behind in Ethan's schedule, with his lessons and classes and playdates as well as his homeschool activities. There was a lot of pressure to bounce back, snap back, integrate myself back into everyday life because my body wasn't healing. I was apologizing a lot in those days and beating myself up with what I thought were failures but now I see was just normal life with a newborn in tow. Because a newborn is a newborn, no matter how the baby came to be.

When there's no OB appointment to follow up with every few weeks, there's no one to ask how you're doing or notice your tears. There's no one to ask how your mental health is. There's no one looking out for the warning signs of depression or anxiety in adoptive mothers as there are in women who have just given birth. I've come to realize that adoptive mothers spend a lot of time trying to remind people that they're mothers and those early days are no exception but somewhere in the exhaustion and chaos and diapers and bonding, you don't have the words for your feelings. Sometimes you're just sad. Sometimes you're just scared. Sometimes you wish you had a village huddled around you as someone who gives birth has, reminding you that you just brought a baby home and to be gentle with yourself -- and asking how they can help, if you're eating, if you're sleeping and if you're doing okay.

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