"Do I Love Him Yet?"
Award-winning author Melissa Fay Greene vividly describes post-adoption depression—and AF readers share the complex emotions of the first days home.
When I found myself weeping in the laundry room over being forced to put my children’s sheets on the interloper’s bed (because, at age four and a half, he was wetting the bed), I knew I was in trouble.
Refusing to take photos of him during his first weeks in America (because it might mean he was staying, because the photos might be used as evidence that he’d been here) also might have been a clue. Refusing to let anyone else take a picture of the whole family (because his presence in the family portrait, among our four kids by birth, would mar the effect) similarly could have sounded a warning note.
And there was the day, in the grocery store checkout line, when a cashier brightly asked, “Would you like to contribute a dollar for Thanksgiving dinners for the homeless?” and I snarled, with murderous anger, “I…HAVE…GIVEN…ENOUGH.”
Lying awake at night considering, “If I drive all night and check into a motel in Indiana, will anyone ever find me?” also might have signaled that I was having some issues with our son, Jesse, whom we had adopted from Bulgaria three weeks ago.
My husband knew. I couldn’t stop myself from shaking him awake at night to sob and complain. I insisted, in the small hours of the morning, that we’d spoiled our lives and the lives of our children, then ages seven, 11, 14, and 17. “It just doesn’t feel like when we brought the other kids home from the hospital,” I said, weeping.
Don answered softly, with some surprise, “To me it does.” I turned away from him and let the ridiculous man go back to sleep. All night long I thrashed and pummeled my pillow, in the grip of panic and grief and regret.
Melissa Fay Green (above)
and Jesse (top), with his
shaggy haircut and sparkly
eyes, full of his mom's
One morning, I pulled a telephone as far as it would reach from one room to the privacy of another, dialed the number of the adoption agency, and whispered, “I don’t think I can do this. Is it possible to disrupt an adoption?”
“Well, gosh,” chirruped a friendly voice on the other end. “Nobody’s ever asked me that before! Let me find somebody who might know.”
Undone to learn that I was the first, the very first, adoptive mother to even ask such a question, I was incapable of gathering enough voice to reply. I hung up on the woman and doubled over in agony.
“Can you believe I’ve done this to myself?” I cried to a visiting friend, gesturing wildly at the child. Jesse, with his neat brown bangs and dark eyes, was sitting at that moment on the screened porch, trying to learn how to play with blocks. So far that morning, he’d confirmed that the wood blocks were not edible, but he was unsure what he was supposed to do next. I was in too foul a mood to show him.
“Can you remember why you wanted to adopt?” asked my friend, at a loss as to how to help me. The child looked fine to her, cute, even.
“No!” I sobbed. “I can’t. It wasn’t me. I can’t even remember that person. What was she thinking?”
I knew what she had been thinking; “Our children are so wonderful, our house is so full of love, we’re good parents. Let’s bring in another little kid from somewhere and prolong the fun.”
Ha ha. What a mistake. Instead of prolonging the fun with our four children, I now grasped, I’d never see them again. Every time I tried to spend a moment alone with one of them, Jesse came barreling into the room and threw himself onto my body. He was thrilled to have been given a mother, even a rumpled, disconsolate one like myself. He pulled me into the bathroom with him. He wanted me to watch him eat. He couldn’t fall asleep unless I was sitting on his bed. Whenever I disappeared from his line of vision, he went berserk, falling to the floor in a fit, screaming and thrashing.
The landscape flattened. I drove slowly through my neighborhood, heartsick at how the houses and yards had become two-dimensional, like comic-strip sketches, almost colorless. I recognized everything, but I could no longer insert myself into the scene.
“Post-adoption depression” never crossed my mind. I didn’t know that it was quite common among adoptive mothers of older children. The reasons vary. But surely it is, in part, because adults are hard-wired to attach to wide-eyed, helpless babies; a fit-throwing, non-English-speaking, snarling Bulgarian four-year-old does not, at first glimpse, invite adoration. The crucial period of mother-infant courtship is missed as sorely by adult women as it is by the kids who suddenly parachute into their lives with their boots on.
Are you just adjusting to parenthood or experiencing post-adoption depression?
If you are experiencing the symptoms below, consider seeing a professional.
Loss of interest in being around other people
Always on the verge of tears
General fatigue or loss of energy
Difficulty sleeping or an increased need for sleep
Significant weight gain or loss
Excessive or inappropriate guilt
Feelings of worthlessness or powerlessness
Loss of enjoyment in life
Recurring thoughts about death or suicide (Seek help immediately)
In the orphanage in rural Bulgaria, the director had taken the little boy by the shoulders, turned him to face me, and said, “Mama.” That was it for Jesse—a light went on in his mind, an archetypal image was personified: “Mama.” He felt instantly devoted to me, instantly cared for.
Jesse was not having “bonding” or “attachment” issues, but I was. I couldn’t figure out how on earth I would survive the coming years. I was reeling with the tremendous and terrible revelation that all the daily subservient tasks I’d done thousands of times for my older children were impossible to perform for a child I didn’t love. He was like the sleepover friend who overstays his welcome. “When is that family going to pick this child up?” one felt.
It wasn’t until the afternoon in the laundry room, awash in a feeling of pity for our old sheets, that I first thought: “You’re crying over sheets. You’re losing it.”
Followed by: “You’d better get help.”
“You’re completely exhausted,” the physician said the next afternoon. “Are you sleeping?”
“Are you eating?”
“Have you caught up on your sleep since the jet lag of flying back from Bulgaria?”
Though I’d been back three weeks now, I still hadn’t.
“I’m going to give you something to help you sleep,” she said.
I burst into tears. “I need something stronger! I’m crying over sheets.”
“OK, OK,” she said. The doctor, who had known me for 15 years, had never seen me like this. She brought me some sort of pharmaceutical sample. I grabbed it. In my car, I snapped open the package and swallowed the tablet whole, dry, without water. Instantly I began to feel better. I didn’t care that the instructions said to allow six weeks for the medication to take effect; the placebo pulled me back from the brink.
There were other things I did right: I told my friends I was in bad shape. I’d never reached out for help from such a scared and vulnerable place before, and my good friends flew to my side. They sat with me. They helped me watch Jesse.
My friends also gave me good advice. “You don’t have to love him,” one said, consolingly, over coffee. “You can just pretend to love him. He won’t know. Jesse’s never been mothered in his life. Jesse’s in heaven. Just fake it. Your faking it is the greatest, sweetest thing that’s ever happened to him.”
While faking it, while pretending to love him, I discovered that my body was OK with mothering him—my lips knew how to kiss him, my hands enjoyed stroking his hair, even as my heart was in total rebellion, my brain frozen with regret.
“Do you love him yet?”
Such an awful thing we adoptive parents do to ourselves and our newly adopted children, asking ourselves this question. We don’t pursue this line of questioning about the children to whom we give birth. Yet here sat this little guy at the table, painstakingly peeling a hot dog before eating it, looking up, with his shaggy haircut and sparkly eyes, and all I could think was, “Do I love him yet?”
Well, he loved me, and that little, steady, unwavering beacon of love began to lure me.
One night, within the first month of Jesse’s arrival, sleepless again, I strayed from my bedroom and ended up resting on the daybed in my downstairs office. In the middle of the night, Jesse, also a night wanderer, found me and climbed in the bed. “Damn! He found me! Damn!” I felt trapped and angry. Yet I was not insensitive to the sensation of the little boy curling and purring beside me. At first light, I sprang out of bed to put distance between us. When he got up, he found me in the kitchen and drew me by the hand to the office. He pointed to the bed and said, in baby-Bulgarian-English, “Mama speesh, Cha-chee speesh.” (“Mama sleep, Jesse sleep.”) All day long he reminded me, laughing, pointing to himself to help me remember our great encounter, our wonderful secret. That night I stayed in my bedroom, with the door locked, and I heard him looking for me downstairs.
He was intoxicated with everything I did. One night, as I dressed to go out somewhere, he sat high on my bed, swinging his legs, watching me. On went the stockings, on went the slip, on went the low heels; before I could finish buttoning the satin blouse, Jesse flew off the bed and into the closet to hug me. “Oh, Mama!” he cried, utterly starstruck.
Under such an onslaught of tenderness, I began to soften. I no longer assumed he was leaving, and he began to trust that I was staying. He began to let me out of his sight for minutes on end. I was able to walk seven-year-old Lily to school in the morning, savoring every step, every breath of the fall air, like heaven had been restored to me. I was able to listen to my older daughter practice her upright bass, and to my older son play his trombone, seated on the beds in their rooms, without a small Bulgarian draped across me.
One afternoon, feeling irascible and weary, I gave in to his pleas of “Bagel, Mama? Bagel?” and hacked so hard at a stale bagel that the knife glanced off the roll and slashed my finger. Jesse followed me upstairs in a panic, his eyes huge and filled with tears. He stood beside me as I sat on the closed toilet trying to stanch the bleeding; he patted and patted my shoulder. “Mama!” he announced. “Mama, nay bagel; Mama, nay bagel.” He was trying to help, after the fact, by unrequesting the bagel.
Later, he stood on his tiptoes, reached into the kitchen drawer, extracted the big, guilty knife, and said, “Nay Mama this. Daddy. Nay Mama. Daddy.” Meaning you should not use the knife anymore; let Daddy use it.
Still later, he had an updated announcement to make, pointing at the knife: “Nay Mama, nay Franny” (our rat terrier, whom he already adored). I don’t know if the policy statement was meant to protect the two individuals he most loved from the bad knife, or if he now put me in the competence department with the dog.
Finally, toward the end of the day, he came to me with a plastic picnic knife he’d found somewhere. He put it in my bandaged hand and said, firmly, “Mama.”
What was it I felt at that moment, as I laughed and wept and accepted the picnic knife and hugged him? Was it, actually…could it be…? Well, by then I was trying hard to stop grilling myself a dozen times daily. I had learned about post-adoption depression and realized such interrogation was getting me nowhere.
I had an appointment with a psychologist scheduled for a few days after the bagel mishap. But after Jesse handed me the plastic knife, I canceled it and scheduled a haircut, instead.
I took Jesse with me. If he thought I was beautiful before the haircut, he really thought I was beautiful after the haircut. He thought the whole haircut experience was a glamorous and magnificent thing, full of the scents of perfumes and hairsprays and peppermints in a dish. As we drove home, I glanced back at him in the backseat, his cheek big with a peppermint. He gave me a huge, sticky smile. Did I love him? I didn’t ask.
“Post-adoption Panic” by Melissa Fay Greene, reprinted from A Love Like No Other (See AF's review of this book), edited by Pamela Kruger and Jill Smolowe, by arrangement with Riverhead Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA), Inc. Copyright © 2005 by Melissa Fay Greene.
It happened to me... (Share your story below!)
When our daughter was about one year old, the euphoria of being a mother began to wear off, and I understood, for the first time, how difficult the loss was for our daughter’s birthmother. I felt very guilty and sad when I thought about breaking her heart. Our continuing contact has helped enormously. She has been unswerving in her conviction that she made the right decision; hearing her voice as she heals has been so helpful. I am a better parent, I believe, because I can convey both the sadness and the joy of adoption to my daughter. My advice? Recognize your sadness. Talk to others or keep a journal. Seek treatment if your depression interferes with life.
—Amy W., via e-mail
Oh boy, did I ever have post-adoption depression. I was a brand-new mom, irritable and restless. I had no idea what I was doing. I cried a lot and slept poorly. I muddled through and finally started exercising more. Being able to talk to our daughter’s childcare provider, the mother of a child the same age as mine, gave me some sanity. With child number two, the depression was even worse. Everything set me off. Ultimately, I went on antidepressants. I’m a much better mother, wife, and friend now. I wouldn’t change any of what I experienced—it brought me here and I like where I am.
—Janiece P., via e-mail
I had sudden onsets of sorrow, panic, and anxiety, and I was afraid I’d never attach to my child. We had waited so long for this, so why was I sad? My supportive husband reminded me, gently, that we had spent eight years in infertility and two in the adoption process, and now, it was over. We had a beautiful daughter! We were parents! I was fortunate—the depression lasted only a few weeks, and I formed a strong attachment to my daughter very quickly.
—Lisa S., Wisconsin
I found myself crying over my newborn son, wondering if his birthmother missed him, and feeling sad because I, and not she, was holding this beautiful little boy. My husband was patient but didn’t understand. I finally got used to the idea of a new baby, and now feel our son’s place is with our family.
—Kris V., via e-mail
It was a mixture of sleep deprivation, grief for the birth
family, and the unreality of motherhood, after years of desperate longing for it. Bringing home a baby didn’t erase the feeling of being an infertility patient. I became obsessively focused on the baby. I didn’t eat, I didn’t clean, I didn’t do the laundry, I didn’t leave the house. Finally, my mom came to help, and I began to sleep. The baby also began to sleep more and was easier to care for. She started smiling and responding to me. News came from our adoption agency that the birthmother did not regret her decision and was grateful for the pictures and letters. Gradually the depression passed. Support from family and friends was critical.
—Tracey C., Georgia
Our first son’s arrival, just before the holidays, along with jet lag and illness, set me up for depression. Fortunately, our adoption medical specialist recognized what I was going through immediately, and helped me through it. When our second son came home, I should have been ecstatic, but we had lost two referrals, as well as my dad, only months earlier. So, instead, I felt overwhelmed and unfit. Making matters worse, our son’s foster family in Guatemala would have adopted him had they been able to afford it. Seeing their pain made it impossible for me to rejoice. This time, I sought counseling. I hired a helper. I made time to write, shop, and relax. My counselor said that adoptive moms seem to feel so lucky to be parents that we put our children’s wellbeing before our own. It’s not good for us—or our kids.
—Shelli G., Ohio
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