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…”.
For me, I had not particularly wanted a child; I had not waited or planned, or dreamed of a baby. But around me were well-meaning people reminding me how lucky I was, what a wonderful child I had been blessed with when I had not even been trying for one. The message was clear: you have been given a gift; be grateful and do not mess it up.
On the outside, I was a besotted mother. I would regale my friends and family with funny stories, boast of her achievements and exclaim over her courage and resilience. But on the inside I was a mess. The most troubling and relentless thought was whether I loved her “like a mother should?”. I obsessively analysed everything I did, or said, for whether my actions and emotions were “motherly enough”.
When I discovered she was being bullied at school, I became enraged; this seemed motherly so I gave myself a mental tick. But then she spent a weekend away and for two days I forgot about her, earning me a big cross – not very motherly! When I was too tired to read her a book before bed, it was not because I was working full time while also adjusting to raising a child, but because I must not love her enough. Real mothers would find the energy.
For every motherly tick I earned, I gave myself many more crosses. I would shout from the rooftop that I loved her as my own child but internally I did not believe my own rhetoric. And it was not as though she was hard to love – everybody who met her loved her – so what was wrong with me?
The thing about internal conflicts is that they do not stay internal for long. My self-doubts spilled out into the way I behaved. I was short-tempered, resentful and angry and was constantly berating myself for my failings. Children, even the most well-mannered of them, require patience, and I am an impatient person at the best of times. And I was not at my best!
I would leave work early to be with her, but yet the moment she was in my company she would irritate me with her very childishness. I would snap at her, instantly regret it, but two minutes later, snap again. Sometimes I had to force myself to hug her; she was so affectionate, so desperate to demonstrate her own feelings and to find her place in my life, that I felt suffocated.
When I was away from her I would intellectualise how much she meant to me, and determine to be better; to love her as she deserved. I would have whole days, even weeks where I was a better version of me, faking motherliness; but inevitably I would resort back to my lesser self, and consequently wallow in self-hatred.
I resented that I had been asked to do something that was too big, too much to ask of anyone. I was angry that my husband seemed to have taken it in his stride, and resentful that he seemed oblivious to my battles. If I told him of a bad parenting moment, and expressed regret that I did not behave differently, he would good-naturedly agree, nodding his head as I described how I SHOULD have reacted. I desperately needed him to tell me that sometimes I got it right, remind me it takes time to be a parent, perhaps express some of his own doubts.
In retrospect, I realise that he thought he WAS being supportive, that he was allowing me to intellectualise my failings so as to do better next time. I doubt he was giving any thought at all to the detail of what I was expressing and almost certainly not judging me for my actions. There is also the very real possibility he heard nothing I said as he excels in the art of “yes dear”! Nevertheless, at the time, I felt judged, when in reality, I was my own condemner.
My biggest mistake was that I did not seek help. As a kinship carer I had been offered access to courses, support groups, and workshops. I met semi-regularly with support staff who would ask me how I was feeling and coping and I would brightly express just how much I loved my child, how much I loved being a parent. I would tell her story again and again and always emphasise how remarkable she was; how lovable. I was terrified that if I revealed my doubts, that someone would take her away. And so this went on. I had lost the ability to even recognise love as every twinge of emotion I felt was excessively analysed.
Then one day, her birth mother called. She called regularly to speak to our daughter, and occasionally we would chat. On this particular day, she began the conversation with “you know how you were going to raise [blank] for me?” and I lost the ability to breathe. This was the moment I had pretended would never happen. She was going to take her back. The next second stretched endlessly in front of me. My heart felt as though it was being clenched and wrung out of every drop of blood; my knees buckled, I don’t know how I remained standing. My head felt as though a million voices were inside it, all screaming and punching me from the inside. I did not feel like my life had ended; I felt like it lay in front of me, a gaping dark hole of meaningless.
And then she said “I was thinking we should formalise that?” And I breathed again. Of course I was a mother.
I have been a mother now for 5 years and this is what I have learned: There is no right way to love. An adoptive mother’s love is not ‘less’ because it took longer to develop.
Instant love is no stronger in the long-term than love that matures slowly. And it is okay that it takes time. It is no less precious for that. I no longer ask myself whether I love my daughter “like a mother should” because there is no such thing.
Some mothers love gently, some love fiercely. Some express it through their daily presence, through touch and words, while others express it by a new-found vigour to change the world. Raising children is hard whether they come from our wombs or arrive on an aeroplane and self-scrutiny and judgement is not helpful. Because sometimes, no matter how much we love our children, we just do not want to read them a bedtime story and it really is as simple as that.
The names in this post have been withheld because the child is under a child protection order.
Had you ever heard of adoption depression? Have you ever experienced it, or do you know someone who has?