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POST-ADOPTION PANIC
From the anthology, A LOVE LIKE NO OTHER: STORIES FROM ADOPTIVE PARENTS,
Edited by Pamela Kruger and Jill Smolowe (New York: Riverhead Books, 2005).

Reprinted in REDBOOK
December 2005


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.
Ditto my wondering what would happen if he rolled over in the night and somehow fell out a second-story window onto the driveway.
And there was the day, in the grocery store check-out 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 leave right now, 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, whom we had just adopted from Bulgaria in October 1999.
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 he agree with me 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 wept.
Don, a bearded defense attorney, 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.
One night, trying desperately to pull myself together, I woke up Don and announced: “Okay, I’ve figured something out: if I think about my friends, I realize that many of them are facing really difficult issues. This one is in the middle of an awful divorce, that one is fighting breast cancer, this one just lost her job.” I waited for his assent.
“Gosh,” Don said mildly. “Well, yes.. but, this was supposed to be a happy thing.”
One morning, I pulled a telephone as far as it would reach from one room to the privacy of another, dialed the long-distance phone 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 to ask.”
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 screen porch, with his legs straight out in front of him, trying to learn how to play with blocks. He looked up from the blocks often to make sure I was nearby, to seek my approval for his block-touching. He’d never had anything to play with in the orphanage. 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; he looked cute, even.
“No!” I sobbed. “I can’t! It was another person; it wasn’t me. I can’t even remember that person. What was she thinking?”
I knew what she had been thinking: 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 that 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, insisting I wait. 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. This was happening four or five times a day. When I slipped outside to walk my seven-year-old daughter, Lily, to school one morning, as I’d always done in our former life, the little boy screamed his outrage in the front hall and then tried to run through the glass storm-door to stop me. Somehow my seven-year-old daughter’s hand got caught by the storm door. She and I ran away crying up the hill to school. “I said he could come,” she wailed, “but I didn’t know he was going to hurt me.” We staggered on towards school, blinded by unhappiness. After I dropped her off, I could barely drag myself home. A friend spotted me on the sidewalk and pulled over. Though my spirits lifted ever so faintly when she picked me up, I crashed again when we pulled into my driveway 30 seconds later. I had hoped we were going somewhere new. Like to Europe.


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. It had become shrink-wrapped when I was outside of it. I was closed out forever.
I drove through Atlanta weeping, with Jesse buckled in the backseat. I tuned in to every moment of the NPR station’s fall fund-raiser, listening not for the classical music but for the studio chatter. I listened in the car, then I ran in and turned on the radio in the kitchen. I felt so frighteningly alone that the fund-raising pitches felt like conversation to me, the voices felt like company.
“Post-adoption depression” never crossed my mind. I hadn’t yet put my hands on the little research that had been done on the subject. So I didn’t know that it was quite common among adoptive mothers of older post-institutionalized 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 early period of tender mother-infant courtship is missed as sorely by adult women as it is missed by the older orphanage kids who suddenly parachute into their lives with their boots on.
What I thought was: my sudden bizarre fervor for adoption has ruined what was most precious to me on earth, my family.
In the orphanage in rural Bulgaria, the director had taken the little boy by the shoulders, turned him to face me, and said, “Mama,” and 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, as one fears might happen in older child adoption. But I was.
Adoption agency websites and brochures, magazine articles and adoption memoirs brim with “love at first sight” epiphanies. Some mothers report falling in love the minute they meet their children; others, when they see a video; still others, when they behold a blurry black-and-white faxed photograph. None of that happened to me. I hadn’t been visited by “love at first sight” and now I couldn’t figure out where the love was going to come from, nor how on earth I would survive the coming years of raising the boy. I was reeling with the sudden tremendous and terrible revelation that if you don’t love a child, there’s no way on earth you can bend to the hundred daily subservient tasks of caring for him. All the little things I’d done thousands of times for my older children were impossible to perform for a child I didn’t love. This was like the little kid, invited for a sleepover, 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 the thought crossed my mind for the first time: “You’re crying over sheets. You’re losing it.”
Followed by: “You’d better get help.”
Followed by: “If you succeed in convincing your husband that your lives are ruined, you’ll never get out of this spot. There will be no one left to pull you out.”
I made a doctor’s appointment. “Today. I need to see her today.”
“Can you come tomorrow afternoon?”
“I think so,” I said in a tiny voice.
“People take something for this, don’t they? Aren’t there drugs for this kind of thing?” I asked the physician the next afternoon.
“You’re completely exhausted,” she said. “Are you sleeping?”
“No.”
“Are you eating?”
“No.”
“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 the sheets.”
“Okay, okay,” 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 in the parking lot, 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 effect 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. I couldn’t be alone with him. It wasn’t that he had a behavior problem; I did. When I found myself alone with him, the despair stretched infinitely beneath me.
My friends also gave 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 so 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 okay with mothering him—my lips knew how to kiss him, my hands enjoyed stroking his hair. Yes, my heart was in total rebellion, my brain frozen with regret, but I tried to lose the panic for a little while and just follow the willingness of my body to mother him.
“Do you love him yet?”
Such an awful thing we adoptive parents do to ourselves and our newly-adopted children, asking ourselves this question. “Do you love her yet?” Like the television ads for wireless phones: “Can you hear me now?” “Do you love him now?” We don’t pursue this line of questioning about the children to whom we gave birth. Even when our then-16-old broke curfew and gave a lift to an entire punk-rock band, too many for her seat-belts, my husband and I never asked ourselves, “Do we love her?” We loved her more than the sun, moon, and stars; we just didn’t want her driving around at 3 a.m. in strange parts of Atlanta with six members of a punk band.
Yet here sat this little guy at the table, painstakingly peeling a hot dog before eating it, looking up with his shaggy little 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 day-bed in my downstairs office. In the middle of the night, Jesse, also a night-wanderer, found me. I opened the covers and he climbed in beside me. “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; he nuzzled and snuggled like a kitten. 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 back 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 remembered, and reminded me, laughing: “Mama speesh, Cha-chee speesh,” pointing to himself to help me remember our great encounter, our wonderful secret. That night he tried to make it happen again, but I stayed in my own bedroom, with the door closed. 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 star-struck. He adored picking through my jewelry box to find pairs of earrings, and took very seriously the responsibility of choosing a set for me to wear. It was like he’d been starved not only for a mama, but for all the accoutrements of a mama.
Under such an onslaught of tenderness, I began to soften.
I no longer assumed he was leaving; I assumed he was staying. He no longer assumed I was leaving; 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 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. Lily discovered that Jesse would let her dress him up like a big doll. She decked him out in beads and wigs and ballerina tutus and karate belts, and led him into the living room so all of us could laugh and clap. When he became enamored of the cartoon hero, Hercules, and insisted on wearing a cape at all times, Lily helped him find just the right cape and arranged it across his shoulders. He began to follow Lily around devotedly.
One afternoon, feeling irascible and weary, I gave in to his pleas of “Bagel, Mama? Bagel? Bagel?” and hacked so hard at a stale bagel that the knife glanced off the roll and slashed my finger. I ran upstairs to get cotton to stop the bleeding. Jesse followed in a panic. “Mama! Oh Mama! Mama!” His eyes were huge and filled with tears. He stood beside me as I sat on the closed toilet trying to staunch 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.
Downstairs, 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 this knife anymore; let Daddy use it.
Still later he had an updated announcement to make. He dashed into the kitchen, pointed to the knife and said,”Nay Mama, nay Franny, (the rat terrier). Daddy.” I know he loved the dog very much already; I don’t know if this 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, towards the end of the day, he came to me with a plastic toy 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 toy 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: “Do you love him yet?” I had learned about post-adoption depression and realized such interrogation was getting me nowhere.
But if this wasn’t the beginning of an old-fashioned sweet mother-son relationship, this repentant little boy handing me, so earnestly, a plastic knife, I don’t know what is.
I had an appointment with a psychologist scheduled for a few days after the bagel mishap. But after Jesse handed me that plastic knife, I phoned ahead to cancel it, and scheduled a haircut instead. I took him 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 and elegant thing, full of the scents of perfumes and hairsprays and peppermints in a dish. I glanced back at him in the backseat, his cheek big with a peppermint, as I drove home. He gave me a huge sticky smile. Did I love him? I didn’t ask.


Biography l Author Profiles
Last Man Out l The Temple Bombing l Praying for Sheetrock
Magazine Articles l Adoption Stories
Family Photos

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