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Post-adoption depression is a common occurrence in parents

January 3, 2007, 0:00 2951 Author: Jeff Gammage The Philadelphia Inquirer

Adoptive parents attribute feelings to jet lag or fatigue but it’s more than that.

PHILADELPHIA — In November 2003, Vicki Hummel came home from Russia with her newly adopted baby boy, excited to start a joyful new phase of her life.

Instead, the first-time mother plunged into despair. Even picking up her son, Alex, took enormous effort. She was convinced she could die at any moment.

Today, feeling better, Hummel has hard-won perspective on the little recognized and rarely studied malady that leveled her — post-adoption depression.

“I wasn’t crazy, I wasn’t losing my mind,” says Hummel, 35, who lives with her husband near Reading. “There are other women out there who have suffered the same thing.”

Nobody has reliable numbers on its prevalence; it seems to afflict women more than men. But mention depression to those who have adopted from overseas, from countries such as China or Russia, which account for 55 percent of all foreign adoptions, and it seems nearly everyone has a story.

In an Internet poll conducted by the Eastern European Adoption Coalition, a group for families with children from Russia, Romania, Bulgaria and Ukraine, 65 percent of parents said they became depressed.

The condition is not readily recognized by society or by medical experts, who are more familiar with hormonally driven post-partum depression. Adoptive mothers complain that doctors attribute their symptoms to fatigue or panic attacks. The American Psychiatric Association doesn’t recognize post-adoption depression as a distinct illness.

But as the number of adoptions — especially overseas adoptions, which seem to hold particular risk — grows in the United States, professionals in the field are seeing more people with signs of depression.

“There’s no doubt it’s going on,” says Regina Levin, a social worker with Child and Home Study Associates in Media. “If you talk to therapists who understand the psychology of depression, they’d say absolutely, adoptive parents are ripe.”

For Melissa Fay Greene, author of the critically acclaimed, best-selling “Praying for Sheetrock,” fame proved no bulwark against a crushing depression.

During the worst of it, she says, she thought about terminating the adoption of her new, 4-year-old son, Jesse. Of having him removed from her home and her life. And that, she says, would have been a tragedy.

Greene and her husband, Don, adopted Jesse from Bulgaria in 1999. Expecting the addition of a fifth child to be a happy meshing of hearts, Greene crashed into the reality of a boy who would go berserk the moment she slipped from his sight.

Greene became wracked with panic. She would awake in the night, sobbing, insisting to a bewildered Don that the adoption had ruined their lives and those of their other children.

“It just doesn’t feel like when we brought the other kids home from the hospital,” Greene told him.

“To me it does,” he said.

“I didn’t know what was going on when I was in the middle of it,” says Greene, 53, of Atlanta. “That’s what’s so insidious about it. ... It never crossed my mind that it was a psychological issue I was having.”

How could parents be despondent at the very moment they should be elated?

Levin and other professionals say many are fragile before they turn to adoption, having suffered the grief of infertility or miscarriage. Adoption pushes them through a months-long “paper chase,” to gather an armload of government approvals, and up to a year’s wait to be matched with a child.

Then, upon meeting their new son or daughter, they are thrust into parenthood — and in charge of children who are often confused and upset. Most adoptive parents get no chance to start slowly, with a gurgly, cuddly baby. Some are overwhelmed, others feel let down by the accomplishment of a long-sought goal.

In particular danger, advocates say, are parents who adopt older children — age 2 and up — from overseas orphanages. Since 1990, the number of foreign-born children adopted into U.S. homes has tripled, to 22,728 last year. Those expecting love at first sight can be shaken by kids who arrive frightened, lost and unable to understand a word of English.

In the orphanage, some children may have soothed themselves by banging their heads against walls. Some bite, hit and steal, behavior born of self-preservation. Some may be slow to attach, not wanting to be held or touched.

“Feeling anxious or upset, or even angry that things aren’t the way you’d dreamed they would be, can lead to terrible guilt,” says Mindy Coath, past president of the Delaware Valley chapter of Families With Children From China. “But you don’t talk to anyone about it ... because you’ve got everyone around you reminding you how much you wanted this.”

About 70 percent of women who give birth experience some “baby blues,” and 10 percent suffer full-blown post-partum depression. Doctors and mothers are on alert for symptoms.

But adoptive parents may dismiss their low mood as fatigue or jet lag. They can be reluctant to complain even if they know they need help.

“It’s a very difficult thing to admit to society, to yourself and others, that this isn’t going so well,” says Karen Foli, coauthor of “The Post-Adoption Blues.”

And no parent, she points out, wants to express misgivings to a social worker whose assessment could affect the adoption.

Kim Simpkins, 37, isn’t sure how to label the emotions that flattened her when she and her husband arrived in China last summer. She and Neal were eager for their biological son, Connor, to have a brother.

In the city of Wuhan they met their new son, Owen, an active 4-year-old who had spent one year in an orphanage and three in foster care — and who made sport of running away from them toward speeding traffic.

“I’d heard a lot about people bonding with their children, having this instantaneous love, and I didn’t feel any of that,” Simpkins says.

At home she grappled with “constant worry, an overwhelming sense of doom,” and her feelings about her feelings. What kind of person was she, she wondered, not to love her child?

Simpkins sought help from Internet groups that deal with Chinese adoption, and made sure she and Owen had special time together. Over five months, she felt her attachment grow stronger. One day, “I asked myself, ‘Would I give my life for this child?’ And I answered, ‘Yes.”’

Hummel thinks her first trip to Russia, an ordeal of ramshackle airplanes and translators who couldn’t translate, set the stage for what followed. At home after the required second trip, she found herself exhausted, struggling to calm a screaming, disoriented baby.

“Both our worlds were turned around,” Hummel says. “It’s kind of overwhelming to be thrown into parenting an 8 1/2-month-old child.”

She ended up in an emergency room, certain she was about to have a stroke. After that episode, she had a serious talk with her doctor, who prescribed antidepressants.

Greene examined her experience in the book “A Love Like No Other: Stories From Adoptive Parents.” “The crucial early period of tender mother-infant courtship,” she wrote, “is missed as sorely by adult women as it is missed by the older orphanage kids who suddenly parachute into their lives.”

Looking back, Greene says, she did key things right. She sought help from friends. She saw a doctor for medication.

She followed the advice of other parents: Pretend to love Jesse. Her mind resisted, Greene found, but her body knew how to love a child, how to smooth his hair and kiss his cheek. Her heart followed.

Today, she is extremely close to Jesse, almost 12.

“I can recognize now when I hear adoptive parents in bad shape,” Greene says. “People who are getting hit by this really need to tell someone.”

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