I have never considered myself very maternal. I make babies cry and I really do not understand the appeal of them. Puppies I totally get; babies, not so much. For much of my life motherhood was something I intended to do someday but in recent years it had started to feel like an alien concept.
So when I unexpectedly became a mother to a 7 year old girl, I am smart enough and self-aware enough, to know, I should have been better prepared.
In 2008 we were asked to take custody of a relative of my husband whose own parents were unable to raise her. I had met her once and had just one memory of her kicking the family dog, which did not endear her to me; but still, we did not hesitate. She needed a family, and we could make one.
In the weeks before she moved to our home, I was a buzz of activity and planning. I painted and decorated her bedroom in an explosion of pink (it looked like a My Little Pony stable had imploded). I dragged out my childhood books and toys, enrolled her in school, and identified every sporting club in a 20km radius. I had plans and at the top of the to-do list was, “be a perfect mother”.
There were a series of bureaucratic processes that needed to happen before we could take custody, but like any bureaucratic machine, progress was slow and I spent many hours on the phone pushing, prodding, and demanding results. I was louder and pushier than I had ever been. I barely knew this child but I loved her already. I felt that slaying the bureaucratic monster was my first battle in a lifetime and I was determined to fight for this little girl. I was a mother and my sword was drawn.
The first month or so was bliss. She was a genuinely delightful child; sweet, kind, affectionate and desperately craving a mother figure. On the day she moved in she asked if she could call me Mum, and my heart nearly burst. It was real, I was a Mum and I even had the label. Her little life had been a series of traumas, each one alone capable of toppling most adults, but yet she was full of laughter and joy.
Some people said it was a honeymoon period, that eventually her traumatic life would bring out behavioural issues, that it would not stay this easy. But time passed and she only grew stronger, and more delightful as her sense of humour and quirky character developed. She showed a kindness and empathy beyond her years. We had the perfect child. So why was it so hard for me to be even an imperfect Mum?
I had heard about post adoption depression. Similar to post natal depression, it is rarely discussed, and even less understood or empathised with. For most adoptive parents, welcoming a new baby is the culmination of years of planning and waiting. Adoptive parents generally want a baby with every ounce of their being, demonstrated by the efforts and financial commitments that adoption requires.
So when their dream is finally realised, and they struggle to bond with the new baby, or the reality of having a child – especially a physically or psychologically damaged one – catches up with them, depression often sets in. And like any new Mum, an adoptive Mum feels ashamed; even more so because this child was a gift, for which she is supposed to be forever grateful. When she has talked about nothing else for 2, 3, 5 years, and now it has happened, no one expects the new Mum to turn around and say “I think we made a mistake…”.