When Fear Slithers Into the Room
Of snakes, anxiety, and post-adoption depression
Posted Sep 10, 2013
[Geek Pride welcomes guest blogger By Amy Rogers Nazarov]
When Leo asked me if I wanted to hold her, I shuddered. But I craved cool-mom points from my six-year-old child, so I held out my hands. Leo draped Orlando across them like so much pulled taffy.
Striped in bands of rust and gold, the snake felt cool gliding through my fingers, flicking her tongue this way and that. “Jake, do you want to pet Orlando?” I asked. He stared, rapt, and shook his head.
Jake's fascination with planets has recently given way to a snake obsession. (“Mom!” he’d say, standing at my bedside at dawn. “Do you like inland taipans better than kraits?”)
“Hold her closer and she’ll go into your hair,” said Leo. “She likes doing that.”
I looked down at my locked elbows. “You know, Leo, I’m good,” I said. “Maybe next time.”
This was a big deal, my allowing a reptile to get intimate with my fingers. If you’d told me five years ago I’d do this and not freak out, I’d have looked at you funny. For decades, even a photograph of a rattler or cobra filled me with revulsion and fear.
Other creatures, I have since learned, can flood me with an anxiety far more acute.
In 2008, along came our future herpetologist-in-training, the baby whom my husband Ari and I adopted from South Korea, our firecracker of a son, who barrels through our house and through life itself, endlessly curious about the people and things around him.
About a month after his arrival, I found myself in the grip of an anxiety so raw I could taste it. Its initial flavor was one of panic – How do I keep my baby safe from icy stairs, masked gunmen, germs, IEDs, fires, cancer? It gave way to a different kind of terror: What if I wasn’t meant to be a mother? Reptiles were nothing compared to the scariness of complete responsibility for a tiny person.
I plummeted into my first ever bout of depression, a common but little known phenomenon among adoptive parents. A March 2012 Purdue University study determined that between 18 and 26 percent of adoptive mothers struggle with post-adoption depression (coined PAD), while studies in Europe and elsewhere have those numbers even higher. It was wholly unexpected, and I felt like I’d miserably failed my son, my husband, and society’s expectations of me, as well as my own.
I’ve thought often about what triggered my post-adoption depression. Jake was sick repeatedly his first few months in the States. Thus his dad and I had a crash course in how to manage croup and fevers. Every stuffy nose or diaper rash felt like a fire drill, and we all slept poorly for months. (Some studies show that sleep disruption can precede depressive episodes.)
More subtly, Ari and I – late-blooming parents who’d spent decades developing our careers, and getting reasonably good at them – had to learn to tolerate nagging feelings of incompetence and uncertainty around, well, everything Jake-related: When will he sleep through the night? Is it okay to give him peanut butter en route to his 12-month checkup in case he has an allergic reaction? How will we help him make sense of being the Korean-American son of white parents? We have no idea what we’re doing.
I tell people today that when I got depressed, I toppled into a chasm between the rosy expectations I’d cultivated of motherhood and the reality of life with a child – of this child, who came to us with memories and attachments to his foster family built in, and who had to learn to trust us. As that process gradually unfolded, I was also developing a new kind of trust – the faith that my nascent maternal instincts were correct, that I could meet the needs of this beautiful little stranger.
With therapy and antidepressants, I recovered by the end of that year. As the curtain lifted, the pleasure in all I’d lost interest in when I was ill – watching my boy learn to talk and walk, making soup, sipping cocktails with girlfriends – felt twice as good. In fact, every emotion has come back burnished on this side of my depression. When I’m upset, frustration seeps from every pore; likewise, happiness and gratitude look brighter since those months when depression seized them from me.
My anxieties about my son’s well-being now and into adulthood became more manageable after I talked with other biological and adoptive parents about how they learned to make peace with the inherent risk of falling in love with the child who comes to stay forever, arriving from the hospital or from the aiport. In the end, we parents bargain with the universe to keep our children’s bodies and souls healthy and strong. When fear slithers into the room, we may not rush to embrace it, but neither do we ignore it completely. It confers vigilance upon us in a scary, beautiful world.
Slowly I pulled the snake a bit closer to Jake’s face and mine.
“Hi, Orlando,” cooed Jake, the person whose arrival in my life made me as fearful I’ve ever felt, and the person who has made me braver than I could have imagined. “How are you today?”
Orlando flicked her tongue. Jake reached out and stroked her scaly head, while my own thumb rubbed her back. She’s not so scary, I thought. I wouldn’t have missed this for anything.
Amy Rogers Nazarov is a Washington, D.C.-based journalist with more than 25 years experience as a staff reporter and a freelance writer, covering technology, adoption, and lifestyle topics from food & drink to home organizing. Her byline has appeared in Slate, Cooking Light, The Washington Post, Washingtonian, The Writer, Smithsonian, The Washington Post Express, The Baltimore Examiner, The Sacramento Bee, Cure, Government Computer News, InternetWeek, The ASJA Monthly, InformationWeek, Adoptive Families, The Washington Times, Museum, Media Bistro, Internet Evolution, and many other outlets. Now at work on a memoir of her experience with post-adoption depression, Rogers Nazarov is represented by the Fairbank Literary Agency and is a member of the American Society of Journalists & Authors. Follow her on Twitter: @WordKitchenDC, Facebook www.facebook.com/amyrogersnazarovwriter or www.wordkitchen.net.