[It might be helpful to read the original post, "A Parent Asks Me About 'Gotcha Day'" that preceded this post.]
Firstly, I know that this practice is well intentioned. Adoptive parents want to celebrate what was a very joyous occasion—finally receiving the child for whom you had longed and waited for what felt like forever.
However, this “celebration” fails to recognize that what you as an adoptive parent may have experienced as a joyous occasion was actually a terrifying, confusing, and jarring experience for the child you adopted.
Really, more accurately, it should be called, “We-got-you-but-you-lost-everything-you-know Day.” I know adoptive parents respond by saying, “Well, yeah, but why do you have to be so negative—she may have lost something but she now has gained a whole new family who will give her the love she needs and deserves.”
Er, yes, but again, such an attitude basically invalidates and ignores the adoptee’s very real trauma, and it conveys that the love and/or relationship that the adoptee shared with his or her original family and/or foster family is somehow less or inferior to what the adoptive parents have to offer.
You may be the adoptee’s family now, but you cannot compensate for or replace his or her biological family. And I mean that literally. You literally cannot be his or her biological mother, father, grandparents, uncles, aunts, cousins, siblings, and so forth.
You literally cannot physically in the most real, practical sense replace the adoptee’s biological family. You look and talk differently. You don’t know the culture. Although some of this can be learned and cultivated, when it comes to the adoptee’s original family, you literally cannot replace them.
You are in the truest sense not the adoptee’s biological family. There is nothing wrong with admitting to this. It doesn’t mean you can’t be a family, it doesn’t meant you don’t love the adoptee, it simply allows the adoptee to acknowledge the inherent loss of being adopted.
“Losing family obliges us to find our family, not always the family that is our blood but the family that can become our blood.” (Jamal Wallace in the film, Finding Forrester)
You have to be willing to acknowledge first and always the loss that leads to having to find a new family. And in acknowledging such a loss, you can come to realize that it is not that adoptive parents should seek to replace the biological parents, but rather that they are simply new and different parents.
As mentioned earlier, you are a new family, a different family. But new and different do not imply better and more loving, just simply new and different.
It's easy to hear only what we want to hear, especially when it comes to issues so personal and so emotionally evocative. We (and I am referring to myself also) have to beware of the classic tendency to practice confirmation bias—incorporating into our thinking only those ideas that confirm what we already believe and rejecting anything, no matter how true or valid, that challenges what we already believe--not simply for our own sake but also for the sake of those we claim to love.
For instance, I was adopted at the age of 6 months old—my Mom told me that when the “exchange” took place, that is, when my foster mother passed me off to my Mom and Dad that the foster mother sobbed uncontrollably. I have never asked if my Mom remembers my response at that time, but I do recall my Mom telling me the story of how I would not stop crying once they had taken me back to their home.
I cried incessantly and nothing—I mean absolutely nothing—seemed to work to pacify me. My Mom tried everything from holding me, rocking me, patting me, bouncing me, walking with me, singing to me, talking with me, but the cries were unrelenting.
Finally, she began flipping through television channels, out of desperation and exhaustion. In the midst of frantically skipping from one channel to another, just about to give up, she suddenly stumbled upon a station that seemed to assuage my wailing almost immediately.
What was the trick?
It was not the television itself. It appears to have been what I heard coming from that particular channel. My Mom had stumbled across a channel that happened to be speaking in the Korean language.
When I was growing up, I just thought this was a funny story. I didn't think much of it. However, now as I have learned more about the realities of being adopted, I’d say that it is a profound observation that demonstrates in a very tangible way that the act of being adopted was affecting me even at the age of six months old.
This challenges the general preconception that babies are too young to be aware of what is happening. This challenges the idea that if you adopt a child as an infant, or at a very young age, he or she will not experience related difficulty or trauma.
Furthermore, if you have ever read accounts of adoptees that were adopted at ages old enough to access memories of the experience, those memories are not characterized by joy and excitement but rather by fear, anxiety, and confusion. Despite such feelings, they often tell of remaining silent and doing their best to adapt. But eventually as adults, they cannot help but revisit the memories and experiences now that they have the understanding and ability to process them. Parents can either work to hinder or facilitate this process.
In my opinion, the practice of "Gotcha Day" has the potential to serve as a hindrance because of the perspective it impresses upon the adoptee that his or her adoption is something that he or she is allowed only to celebrate. It ignores the intense grief and trauma experienced by losing one's biological family and all connection to his or her origins.
It ignores the truth of grief and loss exemplified when at six months old I wailed and wept uncontrollably until the familiar sounds of the Korean language placated me. One can easily dismiss this as coincidence--or one can draw from it the possibility that even at such a young age, the trauma of being relinquished and subsequently adopted was already beginning to emerge.