Strange: bringing a distant dream home in the form of adoption, then one day after a series of bad days, wonder . . . is this post-adoption depression?

What cruel joke is this to finally chase a blessing only to be left standing in the lonely rubble of shattered expectations and unfamiliar feelings.

If I don’t have a newborn, is it still considered postpartum?

If I didn’t experience postpartum depression with my biological kids, how do I know this is legitimate?

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Am I grieving the loss of what our family was or am I fretfully swirling the fear of what our family might become?

When you have been the positive one, it is a harsh departure for a husband and children to live with this new skeletal version of a woman who is simply not the you they know. This brittle and broken stranger. They flinch and blanch and walk wide, wounded paths around your unpredictable moods while the most scared of all is yourself.

Where is Wife?

Where is Mother?

Where am I?

Post-adoption depression feels like confusion and sounds like fury.

I am furious at the hurt these children have endured and the way the loss of those first years compromised their frontal lobes and trust and ability to draw a direct line from cause to effect.

I am furious at the aggressive and attention seeking behaviors because of it.

Furious at the easy accusations from others wondering aloud how we could do this to our biological children by allowing pain into our home, changing it from a sanctuary of calm and polite to overactive bodies and slammed doors and high-focused needs of the few.

Furious at the constructs of a society that punishes fathers for taking time off work to tend to his family.

Post-adoption depression feels like anxiety and looks a whole lot like business as usual.

While the desire is to cave up, there is life to be done. And mothers? We get it done. 

I have learned there are ways to be surrounded by community and still be alone.

I wonder how it is I could shout to the world I AM NOT OK and be given a thumbs up in return. How could I share in words and actions that I need help, that I am overwhelmed, only to be given placating platitudes and plastered smiles or pitied looks, but no practical aid? Left to push aside depression and stare down a ten-hour day meeting vast oceans of physical and emotional needs for five kids trying to become one family. I drown in their oceans hourly.

I open and slam doors in the interior of my soul until I find the silent space where God holds me.

Chaos abounds yet the mystery of the Spirit named Comfort and Creator and Life can still be found in the quiet sanctuary of our heart. The Holy Mystery.

I have clawed and clung my way from coping to hoping while parenting through the very real physical, mental, and emotional weight of post-adoption depression. These intentional practices of a return to body, tending to mind, and stirring to spirit have been the breadcrumbs out of the tallest weeds.

A return to body.

Part of depression is a lowering of immune system, increase in stress, and general breakdown of body. Side-note: I have had strep throat four times the past eight months since our boys moved in from foster care on our journey to adoption. It is easy to ignore the needs of our bodies as moms while caring for the needs of others.

I must return to my body. This begins with eating. I am not here to tell you to go all-organic or whatever the latest food fad is. I am here to tell you I had to conscientiously feed myself. Five kid plates for lunch plus one for me. Today I will not punish my body for having needs.

The next part of returning to my body and living fully in the present instead of swirling in the worry and fear is sweating through an urban/world beats cardio class. I am not a dancer. I dance to get out of my head and honor my body. All negative feelings are left as I cross the threshold and find grounding in the sacred church of the local community center dance floor.

A tending to mind.

Mending together as a family and guiding traumatized children toward wholeness is such an all-consuming, long-term, nebulous task that it is easy to feel like a failure under that crushing enormity. It is important to set small, achievable goals.

Today I will empty the dishwasher by 10 a.m.

Today I will leave my phone on the shelf and spend 10 minutes playing one-on-one with the youngest few children.

Today I will shut my mouth instead of criticize or question the seven-year-old’s choice of school clothes.

Today I will actively ignore the preschooler’s negative behaviors and focus on affirming the way he can sit at the table to eat with a calm body.

Today I will let the preteen’s eye rolls slide and talk fantasy fiction books instead.

Today I will lotion my elbows.

Little goals. Little moment by little moment we will string a day together that has some tangible wins.

Another aspect of hushing the loud and angry lies of anxiety means hushing the interior of our home. Our physical environment is as gentle and inviting as possible so some semblance of sanity can be grasped even while tantrums and big feelings abound.

At least one if not two items of furniture have been banished from every room. Flat surfaces are kept as bare as possible. Clothes and toys have been paired down to only the favorites or purposeful. The practice of simplifying our home practically addresses the anxiety entwined with post-adoption depression—especially for our family with lots of littles and not a lot of space.

A stirring to soul.

I believe in the healing power of beauty. We are neck-deep in the aftermath of neglect that expresses itself through tears, development delays, and attention-seeking behaviors. Adoption is messy work and trauma is ugly. We need beauty.

Appreciating beauty is a form of worship as we attune our focus from self to awe in God. But awe is not the endgame of spirituality as current theologian, Diana Butler Bass, reminds us. “Awe is the gateway to compassion.” Compassion for ourselves during depression and compassion for our spouse and children. Compassion to keep our hearts tenderized, which is probably what led us to adoption in the first place.

When we can’t get to nature while the children learn safety and attachment, we bring nature to us. Since last spring I have adopted two sons and 12 houseplants. Each watering a plea for God to tend to us. Each tender sprout a reminder that daily growth is imperceptible, but it is there.

Finally, and maybe most importantly, professional help.

Utilizing an attachment therapist has offered us practical methods to meet the myriad of needs for the children that threatened to overtake me.

Meeting with a spiritual director and therapist has allowed someone outside the dynamic of our home to hold my hand and keep me tethered to the truth of my identity in God apart from my role of mom and wife as we reform our family in adoption and battle through post-adoption depression.

Because adoption is a battle. Make no mistake. It is one of the most profound spiritual battles we can enter as we welcome the left-behind into our homes and fight for their healing and their future.

I ache, but God is near.

I am weary, but I am not weak.

I am overcome, but God is not.

I am depressed, but I am not depression.

Jenny Leboffe

Jenny lives in San Diego with her husband and five kids. She writes about everyday family life, foster care, adoption, and the spiritual expansion of motherhood at jennyleboffe.com. Join her story on Facebook or Instagram