I stumbled upon a new blog today. It rocks my socks. It is called Love Is Not a Pie and deals with adoption from a ton of angles. I read a bunch of her posts and I kept thinking YES! YES! and YES!! An articulate, sensitive, thoughtful look at adoption and all its messy love. And it got me thinking, too.
In retrospect, we were pretty naive going into adoption. But you know, I think all of us are pretty naive going into parenting so this naivete may not really be all that unique. I remember knowing I was naive, and reading everything I could get my hands on about adoption and glombing onto other peoples' adoption stories voraciously, just to try and rub off some of that naivete. But how can you invent experience before you've experienced it? And how can you fully be ready before your life arrives at your doorstep? So we leapt, anyways.
I've alluded to this story before but never actually told it, out loud, here. Not in full. Where to start? I will try to answer some of the questions that we get asked more frequently, since people seem to be particularly curious about those things, but I think mainly I will just tell you my story. Because that's all we can really do, isn't it? Put our story out there and pray it is heard? Really heard. The way it was intended.
We adopted because there are kids in the world who need adopting. This is simple, but it is true. We talked about adopting internationally when we were dating. We always planned on it. We got married, five seconds later I got pregnant, and hello, 9 months later, along came Ayden (9 years ago now! Yikes!). I remember railing at God in my first trimester (future Ayden, please don't be disturbed by this! It was all just rather sudden and unexpected), yelling,
all I want is an opportunity to lay a foundation in my marriage before I have children! Isn't that a good thing to want? I don't understand!
It felt really unfair. But then he was born and I was like, well okay. The love is pretty cool. Our marriage weathered him well. Maybe it wasn't so bad, after all.
When Ayden was 12 months old, Brent said to me, "Why don't we adopt the next one?" We hadn't decided where in the long term plan adoption would enter in, but our second child seemed like a good place. We were young (27 and 29), but we were keen. Attitude is half the battle, right? Bring it on. So we started the process, knowing it can take years to adopt a child internationally and not wanting Ayden to be an only child for too long. All I can say with adoption is, expect the unexpected. Sometimes it takes years. And then there's us. Ha ha ha haaaaaaa.... So there was a projected 2 to 3 year wait from application to proposal with Thailand at that time (application is the packet of papers including an application to adopt form which gets mailed to the appropriate agency in Thailand. Proposal is the official packet of papers that comes BACK to you after you get matched with a child; it has their photo and medical and social information, background, age, name, etc). We struggled with the decision of whether to go ahead with the plan to adopt for child #2, or to postpone our plans and have another biological child since the wait was going to be long. After praying about it, we felt sure we were to go ahead and adopt. We mailed off the application package, and lo and behold, the VERY NEXT DAY we received our proposal.
Adoption is so hilarious. Actually, life is. Oh my goodness. We jumped up and down, we pored over his picture, we laughed and couldn't believe our luck. So cool.
I was a tiny little bit disappointed he wasn't a girl. I mean, I got over that quickly and I was glad Ayden would have a brother to mess around with, because every little boy needs a brother to wrestle. But that little seed of disappointment made me feel really incredibly guilty. What kind of a mother was I, feeling a small bit of disappointment when presented with a baby? I was overwhelmingly glad, but that small bit was there. For a small moment. It was gone in an instant but it tore a hole in my confidence in myself as a mother. I kind of slipped, you know?
We waited impatiently for a court and hence a travel date. We were pumped. We were EXTRA PUMPED when we got a call before Christmas of that year, knowing that our best Christmas ever would be the one where we met Matthew (it was).
One night in Thailand, after we walked the terrifically insane grief of relinquishment (essentially ripping a kid from his foster mom's loving arms and breaking both their hearts), we traveled to Bangkok to finalize legally. In the hotel one night Brent left after Matthew was asleep, meeting up with some friends. We figured Ayden would go down easily and I could relax, win-win-win. Ah, naivete. See, any experienced parent knows that just when you are counting on a night off or a good sleep, the Universe fucks you over. When I went to put Ayden to bed, he freaked out and woke up Matthew, and so both small, barely verbal, overtired, overwhelmed, transitioning, traveling, and LOUD children were awake and screaming. Like, SCREAMING. I had never in my life been the sole care provider for two children under 2. I didn't know how to meet both their needs at the same time. I had no way of contacting Brent for help. I was tired, overwhelmed, jetlagged, and transitioning myself, and so I lost my shit. I yelled and screamed, and tried to put Ayden in the bathroom to calm him down and knocked his head against the sink accidentally, further igniting his fury and decimating any remaining confidence I had in myself as a mother. That right there, that minute where I freaked out and didn't pay close enough attention and smacked Ayden's head into the sink while both kids wailed? That's it. That's the moment I remember devolving and watching it happen and being utterly powerless to stop it. I can't remember what I did after that; probably sat down on the carpet and cried, maybe threw my hairbrush at the wall. I somehow got both kids to sleep again, because when Brent came back several hours later I was frazzled and wild eyed, but presiding over sleeping children.
When we flew home, Matthew didn't cope well. His body couldn't adjust to the time change. He was very wary of us. He rejected me outright (this is common in toddler adoptions; to reject one parent, and in 75% of cases it is the adopted mother who is rejected). He withdrew. He lost his sense of humor, his ability to respond to tickling, and his smile. He didn't play.
Then after a week or so, he started to play a little again. He started to adjust to the time change, though not fully until two weeks had passed. And the floodgates opened, and he started to cry.
He cried and he cried and he cried.
This is sad. Of course this is sad! It makes me weepy just thinking about it. But living with it 24/7, you start to go a little insane because you cannot fix it. I have this theory that parents are hard wired to respond when their children cry; this is why those tiny infant wails bother parents so much when other people hardly notice them, you know? This child was sad, and eventually every crying session was a finger pointed inside my failure to respond in a way that could comfort him. I'd look at him and think, I'm angry.
And then I would feel overwhelming guilt.
One day three weeks after we brought him home, I was washing his face after a meal and he started up wailing again, his sad little drone complete with snot and blue lips and reproachful glare, and I reached out and smacked his cheek before I had any idea that it was going to happen. I was astounded at myself. Who was I? How did I get this angry? What was wrong with me?!!
I know now that I was insane with anxiety, and depressed as well, but I had no idea that depression could manifest as anger, or that anxiety was something I was prone to, or that guilt could morph into something so ugly and destructive, so quickly, so fully. I failed in that moment, so colossally that I still wrestle immense guilt over it, and it knocked me off course and I nearly shipwrecked and left my family, the anger was so bad. And I just walked around feeling failure and anger and guilt and self hatred, for months.
I know post adoption depression (and anxiety) exists because I lived through it. I found professional help and it sucked. Can I just say that aloud, here, finally, with some degree of justified anger? I reached out and went to a counselor and was wide open willing to do whatever it took to get to the root of my anger and fix myself and my counselor sucked. How awful is that? He was terrible. It is so hard to find good help for mental health in this country, it is disgusting. The health and well being of my small family was entirely on the line and the health professional I went to for help failed me. I mean, partly he was just ill equipped to deal with my case, and had poor intuition, and partly I've noticed that it is particularly vulnerable to reach out and find mental health professionals and when they fail us, it evokes massive anger because we were hurt when so utterly vulnerable, so my reaction is strong because of that. But mostly, he just sucked at his job.
I mucked around in the darkness in pain and so obsessed with my failure and consumed by guilt, it got in the way of me healing and functioning in any healthy or consistent way with my children. But I kept walking. Sometimes I would hide in my closet and pound on the door in anger. Sometimes I would yell and stomp around, scaring the kids with my unpredictable irritability. Most of the time, I stuffed my anger and took care of their needs but didn't look them in the eye. I praised their little accomplishments, sat on the floor and played with them, took them to the park and playdates and the mall, but I didn't look them in the eye. I didn't feel I deserved to, and I was afraid they would see the intense anger in my eyes.
See how undiagnosed, untreated mental illness can destroy a family? Imagine if I lived like that forever? Or simply gave up trying to get better, or get to the bottom of what was wrong? I didn't have a name for what was wrong, so I was powerless in the face of it.
Do you know what helped me the most, that time? Support from Brent, my mom, Sara, and Ro were the most helpful. They got me through the daily grind believing I might still be worth redeeming, if I could just somehow get better. The next most helpful thing~now don't laugh at me too hard here, people~was Dr. Phil. No, I said don't laugh at me too hard!! I like his show, and at that time I used to watch it (I have absolutely no time for tv watching at 3 in the afternoon these days but I did then) pretty regularly. He wrote a book called Family Matters and I bought it. I was reading a fictional book about a girl with a really atrocious father whose anger I could relate too a little too closely, and simultaneously this Family Matters book by Dr. Phil. One day I put the fiction book down and I thought, I cannot read this or I will die of guilt and sadness. And I picked up the Family Matters book to the page on Inner Monologue.
Essentially it talked about how you talk to yourself inside your head. Dr Phil said to listen to that voice, and pay attention to what it was saying a little more closely. Because you need to be kind to yourself, and also positive, if you want to behave kindly and positively towards people. I skimmed over it and thought, "yeah, okay. Check! My inner monologue is fine." But because he had pointed it out I started to tune into my inner monologue and started to realize that it was pretty psychotically negative. Stuff like my parenting was so bad I pretty much assumed Matthew would be a rapist or a serial killer because if it. I hate myself. I'm ugly. I am a failure. I'm a fuckup. I never get anything right. It is a mistake that I'm a parent; the Universe or God made some miscalculation and I wasn't supposed to be a mother because I'm unfit. I'm a bad mother. I'm an unfit mother. I can't be trusted. I'd be better off dead. My children would be better off if I were dead. Matthew would have been better off with K (his birth mother) or L (his foster mother), and if they could see me parent they would hate me. I'm a terrible person. And it went on. I think on average people think around 30,000 thoughts a day? Mine were ALL different variations of this.
Wow, I thought. That's fucked up. So I tried to change some of those thoughts. Little by little, day by day, I examined my thoughts and chose to modify them just a little bit. Dr. Phil says that children are healthy emotionally if they display 'authentic joy.' I sat back and watched my kids play and saw them exhibit authentic joy all the time! Even Matthew, who by this point was transferring his attachment to me, and spent far more of the day playing and engaging the people in his family and his life and far less of the day crying (though he still did a LOT of that, too; he had difficulty with emotional regulation that went beyond grief and lasted for a long time). His eyes, once I started looking in them again, sparkled. Perhaps there was hope for me? Ayden's eyes, too, they sparkled with joy. Not when I let my stuffed anger spill out and stomped and yelled and freaked out, but most of the time it was stuffed and they just vibrated with the joy and curiosity that comes with being a child wrapped in the arms of a loving family. My anger just fell away in waves. I was a million, billion times lighter. And I could do it. Bit by bit, step by step, in my head, just me and God and my thoughts, I changed my inner monologue into something happier, more positive, and more grounded in reality.
It took me a long time to relinquish the guilt over what I dragged my family through during that time period, and particularly how much harder I made an already impossibly difficult task Matthew had of transitioning to a new family. I still have to crop it back every now and again. But mainly, particularly since being diagnosed with postpartum anxiety/OCD after Riley was born and getting treatment that HELPED (!!!!!!!!), I feel compassion for myself. I was mired deep in a viper pit in the dark, fighting with nothing but my bare hands. I knew something was wrong, but I didn't know what, though I wanted desperately to turn the lights on and see what I was dealing with. Get my hands on some weapons that are effective with vipers. How many other adoptive parents experience this, and are in utter isolation? No one talks about post adoption depression, and most people don't know it exists. PPD is not hormonal. And it is very, very real.