Postpartum Depression/Post Adoption Depression in Adoptive Parents

Did you know that Postpartum Depression occurs in adoptive parents?  A new scientific study shows that women with no history of depression suffered the symptoms of Postpartum Depression within six weeks of becoming adoptive mothers.  This study is ground-breaking as Postpartum Depression was originally thought to be limited to biological parents after giving birth.  In this article, we will be examining this phenomenon from both psychodynamic and cognitive perspectives to better understand this condition and to offer some solutions that can help.

Peripartum Depression

Before we can dive into the symptoms of Postpartum Depression, let’s explore the Peripartum Depression, which is the onset of depressive symptoms in women during pregnancy.  Psychologists believe that while 1 in 7 women who are pregnant report feeling depressed, the problem is largely unreported in this population as many women believe that pregnancy is supposed to be a happy time, so they put on a brave face and at times, suffer in silence.  Studies show that 50% of cases of Postpartum Depression actually began before giving birth.

Most people have an idea of what Postpartum Depression is, but a brief examination of the condition from a clinical perspective is of some importance to understand the significance of the symptomology experienced by adoptive parents.  The American Psychological Association has identified Postpartum Depression as a depressive mood disorder that typically occurs after childbirth.  A description of these symptoms is published in the APA’s fifth edition Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Mental Disorders (DSM-5).  The diagnostic criteria are experiencing 5 of the 9 symptoms within a 2-week period or longer.  The symptoms are as follows:

  1. Depressed mood (persistence sadness, mood swings, or irritability).
  2. Loss of interest or pleasure in ordinarily pleasurable activities.
  3. Sleep disturbances (sleeping too much or too little).
  4. Change in appetite.
  5. Psychomotor agitation (pacing, fidgeting, strange movements). Psychomotor retardation is the slowing down of thoughts that manifest into slowing down of physical movements.
  6. Loss of energy of fatigue.
  7. Thoughts or feelings of worthlessness or guilt (in both biological and adoptive parents, this symptom is altered into them believing that they are not good parents).
  8. Impaired concentration or decisiveness.
  9. Suicidal ideations or thoughts of death.

It is important to note that other symptoms may also occur such as anxiety, or panic attacks.  If you or someone close to you experiences these types of symptoms before, during, or after pregnancy or adopting a child, they should seek medical treatment right away.  In addition, one or both parents may have problems bonding with their child, which is another symptom.

Unfortunately, the DSM-5 fails to mention that women can experience Postpartum Depression anytime during the first year post-child-birth.  For example, after several months, a mother finds the courage to make an appointment to see a doctor. The mother feels more confused about the diagnosis because the medical professional claims she does not have Postpartum Depression because of the time frame of the occurrence of symptoms post-child-birth.  Subsequently, the mother falls further into depression wondering what is actually wrong with her.

A mother who has adopted her child/children have similar likelihood of Postpartum Depression/Post Adoption Depression.  Statements made from family and friends that she should feel joyful that a child was placed into her forever home is devastating to hear because she identifies with the truth of what is being told yet the depression still exists.  Nonetheless, the adoptive mother would hide the guilt feelings in fear that others may consider her being ungrateful. The shame is overwhelming and as a result, she keeps the secrecy in silence by making self-sabotaging statements, “I should have never considered adoption” or “I don’t deserve to be a mother.”

Why does Postpartum Depression/Post Adoption Depression happen?

Welcoming a child into the family is supposed to be a time of delight and family cohesiveness, in this context, understanding why people become sad when it is supposed to be happy can be difficult.  However, psychological studies into this phenomenon have uncovered three sources of onset of depressive symptoms after giving birth and adopting a child.  These three causal elements are as follows:

  1. The transition into parenthood is intimidating and highly stressful.
  2. Big changes in the family including structural, functioning, and psychodynamic elements.
  3. Cognitive deficits in response to stressful events.

Transition into Parenthood:

The decision to bring a child into the family is a huge one.  People who wish to expand their family often face extremely difficult challenges that may include, but may not be limited to, the psychophysiological stress associated with the high demands of adoption and childcare, financial burdens, logistical problems, fatigue, and even familial issues.  It is important to understand that these demands are a real psychological stressor, which is exasperated by the socially scripted, misconceived notion that this is ‘supposed to be a time of happiness’.  One cannot be stressed and happy simultaneously.

Big changes in the family: 

It is significant to recognize that the family is not just a group of people, it’s a systemic unit.  The family has structure and functions like any other living thing.  Changes in the family create stress by altering the structure and functioning of the family system.  For example, a young couple adopts a baby.  The father begins working excessive overtime to help bring in extra money to meet the financial demands of their new baby, so he is unable to help the mother with the now surmounting everyday household tasks causing her to feel overwhelmed.  This leads to not only stress, anxiety, and depression, but also marital conflicts.  This also leads to psychodynamic (the interrelated conscious and subconscious emotive elements that make up motivations and behavior).  So, in our previous example of the couple who adopted a baby, before they adopted their baby, they were very close, and now that they have a baby, they are not.  This may also lead to depression as the attention shifts from each other to their baby.

Cognitive Elements:    

Cognition is a fancy term that basically describes thinking.  Therapists who specialize in Cognitive Behavior Therapy believe it is not the stressor (event or antecedent) that causes depression, it’s the distorted thinking. For example, a family adopts a beautiful child they have been waiting for years, and the experience does not match what they expected (they expected it to be a time of happiness, but found increased stress instead), and this causes the mother to think, “I’m a bad mom.”  This thought causes emotional fallout, which is likely to be depression.

What to do about Postpartum Depression/Post Adoption Depression

Postpartum Depression/Post Adoption Depression is a serious condition that cannot only negatively affect the relational dynamics within the family unit; it can lead to physical illness.  This condition should be treated promptly.  Talking to your doctor about your symptoms is a crucial first step in recovery. Treatment varies with each individual.  Sometimes medication is necessary.   In addition to this, it is important to talk to your family members about how you are feeling.  Family support is essential to not only recovering from depressive symptoms but to also increase family cohesiveness which is necessary to facilitate positive change in the structure and functioning in the family unit.  It is imperative to know this is not your fault.  Understanding this will further help you in the healing process mentally and physically.  You will get better.


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