A big thank you to Keri for this wonderfully honest article about post adoption depression. It’s something that happens a lot, but we’re not very good at talking about it. I think Keri’s feelings, particularly about what post-adoption support, will resonate with many of us. I didn’t feel I could contact them, or speak to our social worker about it when I struggled after youngest came home. I thought if I did, that would raise alarm bells with them and youngest would be removed.
The reality is far from that when we ask for help. But I think when you’ve been through so much to become a parent, you’re terrified that something will go wrong. If you are struggling, talk to someone. Ask for help. There’s so much support available from lots of different places. Keri’s suggested a few places who provide help and support at the bottom of her post.
I managed to hold it together long enough to get back to my car. That’s when I burst into tears. It had taken me over a year to find the courage to ask for help. To admit to a professional that I was struggling with my mental health after adopting the most beautiful baby boy to have ever existed.
I poured my heart out to the GP, telling him how I was emotional, angry, stressed, and not the parent I wanted to be. He began to write down a phone number for a free-to-access CBT service (which was already no longer being offered) as he told me “You’re probably just resentful of having to look after a child that isn’t yours”.
Post-adoption depression was discussed only briefly in our pre-adoption training. We were told it existed, and it was slowly being recognised. But that was it. I wasn’t given any resources about what to do if I didn’t feel perfect. Or signposted to anywhere that might be able to support, other than the Local Authority’s own Post-Adoption Support Team.
But here’s the issue with that; if you’re struggling with depression, the last people you want to contact are social workers. Because having only very positive interactions with social workers throughout the adoption process, admitting I was struggling to them just felt like lighting an emergency flare to say “HEY, I’M NOT OK AND SO NEITHER IS THIS CHILD YOU TRUSTED ME WITH!”.
My mental health declined immediately once my son was placed with me. But it took time to recognise it. His first night with me was torture. I didn’t sleep for fear he would wake up and I wouldn’t hear him. I put this down as normal parenting worries, and to some extent it was. But it persisted.
Despite everything I was told about keeping his routine the same as it was with his foster carer, I decided that the bedtime routine needed to change. I couldn’t put this 13 month old little boy in his cot and leave him to cry and self-soothe when I was trying to teach him what no matter what, I’d be there for him.
So, every night, I would take him to his bedroom, sit on the floor in the dark with him whilst he had a warm bottle of milk, cradling him until he was asleep, and then very carefully place him in his cot. Where he would immediately wake up and scream. I’d repeat the routine until it worked, and then carefully commando-crawl across his bedroom floor so as not to wake him up.
This is normal parenting, and most parents can relate to this, but I felt like such a failure. I’d been told repeatedly what a good sleeper he was. And yet here he was, in my care and not sleeping. Looking at it objectively I knew it was because he was completely traumatised from moving from his foster placement to his new home. But I couldn’t separate his behaviour from my failures as a mother.
I eventually managed to fall asleep, but even the slightest whimper or sign over the baby monitor would have me waking in a cold sweat. I had panic attacks that he would wake up and I wouldn’t be able to get him back to sleep. I couldn’t imagine anything more horrific. It felt like the worst thing that could possibly happen. And it happened a lot.
He also wouldn’t eat. Not the solid food I’d been told he enjoyed. Or the baby porridge that he’d still have for breakfast in foster care. He was 13 months old and surviving on milk, with the occasional Greek yogurt with honey. I tried everything I could. Encouraging him to feed himself, ensuring we had the same meals and that we ate together, leaving food on the side within his reach and allowing him to just wander up to it and have it when he was ready.
I lost count of the times I sat on my kitchen floor and cried as another plate of beans had been launched at the wall. I tried feeding him exactly the same meals he was used to, down to the same brand baby ready meals. He refused them all. I tried my best to ensure that meal times were not a battle. But I was completely unable to relax.
And therein lies the problem; our children pick up on our anxieties. He knew I had no confidence in myself as a mother. And so he had no confidence in me either. Whilst this is probably true for any new parent struggling with a child, the difference is that my son had spent his first year with a very competent foster family who met his needs. And then he lost them and moved in with a stranger who he didn’t believe could look after him.
The guilt was immense and multifaceted. I couldn’t admit out loud that I was struggling because I was sure the response I would get was “but this is what you wanted?”. I had gone through so much to get my son and become his mother and the thought of admitting I was not coping seemed so ungrateful for this amazing gift I’d been given.
I also felt guilty about the fact that so many children are removed from birth parents before they’re even given the opportunity to parent due to concerns that they wouldn’t cope. Here was this beautiful child who’d been given to a parent who couldn’t cope. I didn’t deserve him.
The guilt ate away at me. I would spend hours just looking at his perfect face and falling head over heels in love with him, thinking “one day soon they are going to realise I can’t do this, and I will lose you forever”.
It made me feel constantly sick with anxiety, that I was only ever one misstep away from losing him.
All of this was magnified by the fact that as a newly adoptive parent, you really try to keep your world small in order not to overwhelm your new child. You’re advised not to have family or friends around. My parents had already booked a holiday that coincided with the first two weeks of placement. I didn’t want to tell them how hard I was finding it because I didn’t want to spoil their time away or make them feel guilty for leaving.
My best friend stepped up like the hero she is. She came round to sit in the garden and make sure I was ok. Or to help me escape for a walk when things got really tough. She was the first of my friends to meet my son. Sooner than I had anticipated but it was completely necessary to keep me from having a breakdown. Entire afternoons were spent in her living room whilst our sons played together and we drank coffee. She reassured me that I could do this.
She was right. Slowly but surely I became more confident in my parenting abilities. It took a lot of time. It was nine months before he finally ate a home cooked meal. His sleep at least got better sooner rather than later. The sleep gave me enough mental clarity to understand that I needed professional help.
Despite the first doctor I saw dismissing me (and telling me my child was not really mine, which I obviously put in a formal complaint about), the second was much more understanding. They immediately provided the right support – a combination of CBT and a low dose of anti-depressants. I no longer felt ashamed of my struggle and I recognised that both me and my son had been traumatised by the circumstances that brought us together.
My mental health is still an ongoing battle. I’m still on the anti-depressants. A higher dose than when I was first diagnosed with anxiety and depression, and I’ve recently started another round of CBT. But for the most part, I feel confident in my parenting, which means that the relationship between my son and I is stronger than I ever imagined it could be.
I still have wobbles. I took him to a forest back in April, and we got lost and had no way of finding our way back to the car other than to hope for the best. I cried myself to sleep that night believing I had some nerve calling myself a mother. That the most basic thing I should be doing in keeping him safe was beyond my capabilities. But on a day-to-day basis, I look at my son and see that he is happy, healthy, loving, kind, caring, thoughtful, and intelligent. I recognise that I have at least played some part in this.
If you’re struggling with your mental health following adoption, here are some resources that can help:
- Adoption UK are always here for you and can signpost you to the relevant support
- The Child Psychology Service have provided an understanding of so many of the issues facing new adoptive parents, which can hopefully help you to realise you’re not alone
- Your LA/VA Post-Adoption Support Team (I mentioned how scary this feels, but I promise they will support you and not judge you – mine have been a fantastic support)
- The #adoptionuk community on Instagram
- Me! I will be your village. Find me on Instagram at @kezzabods and I promise you that if you reach out and ask for support, I have got you.