Friday, April 16, 2010

a Parent Asks Me about "Gotcha Day"

I’ve been getting some great inquiries from adoptive parents as of late. I would like to share some of these inquiries and my responses.

The first I’d like to address is the practice of what is often referred to as "Gotcha Day." An adoptive parent sent me the following inquiry:

What are your thoughts about celebrating "gotcha" day, or as we call it, family day, the day our daughter met her father and brothers. For us it was a wonderful time, a time where our dream of having a daughter came true. But I know now that the gotcha day especially, was not a happy day for her. We ripped her away from all she knew, as the orphanage had when they took her from her foster family, as the foster family had when they took her from her nanny...

Before I share my response, I would like to say that I appreciate the fact that this adoptive parent is willing to not only question her preconceived notions but that she is willing to open herself up to feedback from adult adoptees and alter her perspective and practices accordingly.

I'm sure this topic may stir up some emotions and may cause strong reactions--we can all be honest with one another, but let's just remember to treat others as we also wish to be treated.

The following is the email response I sent (with a few additions) in response to the parent's inquiry:

As far as "Gotcha Day," I have to admit that the name alone makes me wince. I personally think it would be more accurately referred to as "You-lost-everything-you-know-but-let's-not-think-about-that-now-because-WE-are-your-family-now Day."

As far as the actual practice, I personally believe it diminishes from the loss and grief inherent to an adoptee's identity and life. I understand why parents practice it, and I think the heart behind may be right. But the implementation of the good intentions is misguided with the concept of "Gotcha Day."

I personally think it can, although unintentionally, teach the adoptee that he or she should feel only grateful, happy and excited about his or her adoption. I think it can inadvertently communicate to adopted children that they are not allowed to feel angry, hurt, sad, upset about their adoption.

I know parents do not have such intentions, but I'm just expressing that employing such a practice can have unintentional consequences. Birthdays have become increasingly difficult for me, because it functions as a reminder of my abandonment, of my loss of all connection with my original family, culture, language, and origins. My birthday is the day recorded in my file as the day that I was "found abandoned" by my biological mother. Not exactly celebratory in nature.

Even subsequent to reunion with my Korean parents last year (after a 7-year search), my birthday remains of painful reminder of all that was lost. My birthday symbolizes for me deep loss and grief.

How much more does a "Gotcha Day" take a tragedy and coat it with euphemism? Again, please understand, I am not bashing or condemning anyone who practices it, but I am asking that parents simply rethink the practice itself.

In some ways, it'd be like taking the day a loved one died and celebrating it every year as the best thing that ever happened to your family.

No doubt, it is good to remember the one who has died and to have opportunity to reflect on good memories and to honor the person you miss and love. But to celebrate without acknowledging the grief and sadness that is inherent to losing a loved one is cruel and insensitive.

By celebrating a "Gotcha Day" it's almost like you're celebrating the fact that your daughter has lost everything. It's as though you’re celebrating the death of a crucial and vital part of who she could have been.

I know that the intentions behind it are to communicate love and specialness, but if that kind of communication is already woven into the fabric of your family and the relationship between you and your adopted child, then a "Gotcha Day" is not necessary.

I really appreciated the two posts (click here and here to read the pertaining posts, written by adoptive parents) you shared with me. I agree for the most point with what was shared. I agree with the decision not to celebrate a "Gotcha Day," and I agree with the practice of absolute honesty and truthfulness. The truth is painful, for example, when you don't know if the date given is your child's actual birthday. But using euphemism or denial to deal with that truth is more detrimental that simply being honest.

Parents are so afraid that their children won't be able to handle the truth. Honestly, most of the time, they handle it better than we adults do. That is in part, simply because developmentally, the reality of the truth is hard for them to process. However, it is my belief and understanding, that the younger you begin to cultivate the truth with them about their story, the better equipped they will be as they mature developmentally to deal with these hard truths.

Part of the reason I've had so much difficulty as an adult dealing with my adoption issues is because I was never taught or equipped to know that the issues I would face would be normal. My parents never spoke openly with me about my adoption. They made the common mistake of thinking that silence was the best policy, in part because that was the policy that professionals in the field of adoption often taught.

My parents have always been very loving people. But all the love in the world couldn't prepare me for the obstacles and emotional difficulties I would come to face as I matured intellectually and socially. I really believe had they cultivated openness and communication from the beginning, the difficulties I have encountered would not have been so surprising to me. (Again, my parents lacked the resources available to families today, but in some ways I think the current availability of resources leaves adoptive parents today without much excuse.)

Since you have already established a precedent for practicing a kind of "Gotcha Day" or "Family Day," I'm not certain as to what would be best (at least, perhaps referring to it by a different name). You mention that your daughter loves the attention, and so to take it away might feel confusing to her. Whatever you decide, however, again be aware that you might be teaching your daughter that she should feel only happy and grateful about being adopted to America.

I don't know if you already include a celebration of things from her original country as a part of your Family Day or Gotcha Day, but it might help to add those things to it if you decide to continue this practice. It could help to somehow incorporate and include an acknowledgment of the country she came from along with fun facts about the country. I know it's so complicated. I know that ultimately your heart is simply to want to do what is best for you daughter.

Obviously, there is no formula. Whatever conclusion you come to, the most important thing is to continue to initiate and cultivate a relationship with your daughter that teaches her you are a safe place, that you will not get angry or upset with her for the thoughts and emotions within her. Even if she seems to be unresponsive to your prodding, it is important to build that foundation, because being adopted is such a fluctuating process, subject to great change.

There are things that I feel and think now that I NEVER did when I was a teenager. Had you asked me these questions when I was fifteen or even twenty-five, I would have shrugged my shoulders and said, I’m fine with being adopted, and well, I have no desire to know about Korea or my biological family.

And I imagine that by the time I hit my 40's (I'll be 35 in June), my thoughts and attitudes will have shifted again. Adoptive identity is complex and at times, unpredictable simply because as we mature developmentally we may begin to process things that we did not before...


[I have more thoughts, but will share them in a follow-up post]


22 comments:

Mei Mei Journal said...

Our family does not celebrate Gotcha Day or Family Day. In my own mind I rephrase it to "We got your back day" meaning now you have a family to support you and stand by you for the rest of your life journey. However, I have never say that, I just think it. It keeps me from wincing when I hear "Gotcha Day".

Anonymous said...

Hey, it's Jeremy. I had never heard of this term until I read your post. I must say, it does make me wince as well..."Gotcha" (at least to me) invokes a knee-jerk reaction in me which translates to "Thank goodness we saved you from your terrible situation/country/circumstances and NOW you're OURS." This may be an overreaction, but there is something almost self-congratulatory in this simple word.

Of course I know the day I arrived in the states (almost a month to the day after you were born). But my parents never celebrated it or anything. It was always just marked on the calendar "Anniversary of Jeremy's arrival." Nothing more, nothing less. I actually appreciate them for being so low-key about it now, in retrospect.

The Byrd's Nest said...

We have never celebrated "Gotcha Day", only their birthdays. I know alot of people do but for my two little ones, that day was not pleasant for them either just like Kim from 3Peanuts wrote about.

For Lottie, she is very very insecure and clings to me every moment she can, she is fearful constantly of us leaving her. For Emma, she was 23 months old and screamed for over an hour until she passed out cold and did not wake up until two hours later. Nope, these were not happy days for my babies.

How could it have been? We are a missionary family and just moved to Costa Rica to learn Spanish. I lived in Texas my whole life. Now we live in a different place with different smells, language, culture etc and there are lots of times I think to myself, "Oh how my girls must have felt this type of fear leaving the only people, place, smells, language they ever knew and then multiply it by 1000!"

I know that it is up to each individual family but for us we do not have a dinner or celebration or even a conversation on that day. In my heart, I am thankful because for an adoptive mom that is the day I met my daughter's for the first time and I will never forget those two special days. To finally hold them for the first time, smell them, kiss them and begin our lives together. For them, I know it was different.

Our girls have two different beginnings in their lives. For Emma (Korea) we have her mom and grandmother's names and we can search for them one day. For Lottie (China) we have a picture of the store she was left in front of early in the morning on Nov 17, 2004. I often think of how difficult the days will be in the future when they are searching for answers.......one will be able to have some answers....and the other will never have answers.

I thank both Mom's for their honesty (I just adore Kim:) and I thank you for your honesty and the other adult adoptees who comment on your blog. I know that my Emma is finally releasing alot of anger right now that she has kept inside for three long years, it's not pretty........but it is necessary....and hopefully one day soon from reading books or talking about her life before coming to our family she will feel comfortable enough to talk about it AND hopefully, you guys will be there for me to help me.

Harmony said...

Melissa, what about celebrating that day in a different way, more like "This is a special day for our family, because we received the precious gift of you"?

You know, in Korea they do celebrate days of loss. They go to their ancestor's graves and hold a ceremony on the day they died. They bow to their dead ancestors and hold a feast on Chusok (Korean Thanksgiving), too. So I think there can be a place for "celebrating" the loss of the birth family, but it would need to be done right.

Maybe by adding a time in the celebration where everyone in the family thanks the birth parents for the difficult decisions they made and prays that God will bless them, wherever they are. Or perhaps for Korean adoptees, doing a sort of Chusok feast honoring the birth parents? I don't know, I'm obviously not speaking from experience. But there should be a way to deal with the loss of the birth family in a constructive way during a celebration of adding the child into the family. What do you think?

Melissa said...

Harmony, really I think that rather than having a "special day,"--the dialogue about one's adoption, loss & grief, about one's original family and culture needs to be a part of the family dynamic on a daily basis.

And the word "celebrate" implies joy and happiness.

And the whole idea of "this is a special day for our family, because we received the gift of you" translates again as "it was a gift that you were abandoned by or relinquished by your original family...it was a gift that you were left at the police station...it was a gift that you don't know anything about your original family...so that WE could have you..."

Parents have to be careful to think of the WHOLE picture. You will of course view your child as a gift, and there's obviously nothing wrong with that. But along with that acknowledgment must be added the truth that for you to receive your "gift" the adoptee lost everything. So what you see as a gift is experienced first as a trauma by the adoptee. I love my family, no doubt. But I came to them as a result of tragedy.

If families are going to do something along those lines, sure. But the really if it is something built into the daily dynamic of the family, then a special day becomes less important.

There is no formula, and certainly I'm not going to ultimately tell families how they should do things. These are just my thoughts and personal opinions.

Honoring the original family and country is important, but it's so complicated. And "thanking the birth parents for the difficult decision"--that kind of language again makes me wince. Why would I want to thank my Korean parents for giving me away? And even from their perspective, something that was so painful and often against their desire is not something in which they rejoice. My Korean mother doesn't even like to think about much less talk about that time in her life.

She says it's too painful. I would never tell her "thank you." I've told her that I forgive her and that I have tried to understand to the best of my ability the sociocultural and socioeconomic pressures and stigmas she faced. I've told her that I am sorry she felt forced to make such a decision....

I have a lot more to say, as always...I'll think about this some more...

I normally like to think more before responding to comments...

Melissa said...

Oh, and Harmony...I apologize if I sounded a bit insensitive. You're definitely on the right track. I do think your ideas to incorporate Korean tradition and culture are useful. The biggest concern I have is simply being careful not to teach the adopted child that he or she should only feel celebratory and happy and grateful for being adopted...

Mia_h_n said...

My parents never practiced Gotcha Day and I don't know any other APs who have done that. I had heard about before though, but I must admit I find it very strange.

With or without bio. kids in the family (but more so with), why should it be necessary with an extra celebration? I see Gotcha Day as a celebration of the day, and here I agree with Melissa among others, that it seems wrong (my word) to involve the child in the celebration of a day that was most certainly not a good day for them.
In my mind it's much better to celebrate birth days. That way all kids are treated equal.
I understand what Melissa says about birth day possibly being a difficult day if it's not a fact, and in that case you of course shouldn't make a bigger deal out of the day, than the child is comfortable with.
But when you celebrate the birth day you celebrate the child coming to be, and not coming to be with you.

And I agree it quite possibly sends a message of gratitude and thankfulness/appreciation to the child.

And I don't think APs should expect their children to say no to Gotcha Day on their own when they get older. I know I wouldn't have. My abandonement issues and insecurities would've prevented me from doing so, even though these issues only first became outwardly visible in my early twenties. It can be extremely hard for an adoptee to have to go against something that obviously means that much to the parents.

Of course my parents have the day marked in their calander and no doubt it's a happy note, but to be honest I think they have worked very hard on creating an atmosphere where my sister and I are speacial every day, so it's not that big of a deal. A day wothy of rememberance for sure, but that's all.

Melissa said...

Mia, great comment! I appreciate your insight, and I can COMPLETELY relate to what you stated when you wrote:

"And I don't think APs should expect their children to say no to Gotcha Day on their own when they get older. I know I wouldn't have. My abandonement issues and insecurities would've prevented me from doing so, even though these issues only first became outwardly visible in my early twenties. It can be extremely hard for an adoptee to have to go against something that obviously means that much to the parents."

Very valuable point.

3 Peanuts said...

Melissa,

I am linking to both of these posts on my blog. You articulately and insightfully write of things that all adoptive parents need to ponder. Thank you.

TanyaLea said...

Wow. This is a lot to take in, but so helpful the same. I appreciate the candid honesty here, and I know it will affect how we 'remember' the day our daughter joins our family. I appreciate everyone's comments, as well as the original post. Thank you to Melissa and everyone else for their insight and thoughts...there is much that can productively be taken away from here and applied into our families. Kim (3 Peanuts) linked over to here from her blog, and I appreciate the honesty and lack of "fluff" that I found here. If I wanted my own ideals and ears to be tickled, there are plenty of places to find that... so once again...thank you.

Stefanie said...

I am so grateful for your transparency and candor, Melissa!
We don't celebrate 'gotcha' days, although it will always be a special day for me in my heart, I am fully aware of the sadness my children had to endure on that day and the days that followed. They lost everything they knew.
Thank you for sharing :)

Melissa said...

3 Peanuts, you wrote, "I am linking to both of these posts on my blog. You articulately and insightfully write of things that all adoptive parents need to ponder. Thank you."

Just want to say thank you for taking the time to care and caring enough to help spread the knowledge...

Melissa said...

TanyaLea, you wrote, "If I wanted my own ideals and ears to be tickled, there are plenty of places to find that... so once again...thank you."

Thank you for not seeking only what you want to hear or what feels good or what confirms your beliefs...I appreciate your willingness to expose yourself to all the facets of the adoptee experience...

Melissa said...

Thanks for stopping by, Stefanie, and thank you for opening yourself up to the loss and grief experienced by adoptees...

Julie said...

I am so thankful to have found your blog. I know that I will be back often to read your words of wisdom. Thanks so much for being open and honest. It is truly what WE adoptive parents need to hear.

Melissa said...

Julie,

Well, I'm thankful that you are thankful that you found this blog ;) I appreciate parents who are willing to open themselves up to adult adoptee perspectives.

Kristen {RAGE against the MINIVAN} said...

I really appreciate all the thoughtfulness you put into answering this question. I can't tell you how helpful it is, as an adoptive mom, to read this. We never planned on doing the "gotcha day" thing - I always thought it seemed a little othering for small kids to have an elaborate celebation that their non-adopted peers do not have and may not understand . . but now that our son has come home I can concur that his homecoming was very traumatic for him, and not a day I would want to gloss over with balloons and cake.

Melissa said...

Kristen, thank you for taking the time to stop by and thank you for your comment--acknowledging the loss and trauma experienced by your son....

Mean Mama said...

Melissa,

I appreciate your point of view -- even though I am reading it so long after you wrote it. And I think you make some very valid points and give lots of food for thought to adoptive parents. Sensitivity is very important.

Just another point of view...

I am an older child domestic adoption (7 years old at placement and well into my 40's now). For me, and I do agree that it is a very personal thing, it was important to celebrate my place in the family. I had never heard of the term "Gotcha" until I was well into the process of adopting my daughter. I don't like the term and I don't use it. But I do celebrate her entry into my life just as my parents celebrated my entry into their lives.

As a child we celebrated 2 days for the family. One the day that we (sister and me) moved in with my parents and two the day our adoption was finalized. This were not big party celebrations by any means. It was a nice dinner. A phone call home after I was living on my own, a piece of jewelry for big dates. My loss dates were not the same as my dates of entry into the family. So I could mourn or grieve on those dates and celebrate on the other dates. And my parents made a point of telling stories about those days and not focusing on how grateful I should or shouldn't feel. For me those dates were important as it allowed me a sense of security and value within the family. I had lost a bio family and 3 foster families prior to coming to my adoptive family. I needed to know that I was wanted and valued as a member of the family. And because of the loss I had already experienced, I needed to know that I was secure in the family. Those minor celebrations allowed for that.

For my daughter I have 3 special dates. The date of her referral, which I celebrate by writing her a letter about the year and what she has brought to my life -- I intend to share this with her when she is older. The date of court -- which I celebrate by writing my annual report to her country of origin. The date we first met -- which we celebrate with ice cream and stories about our first week together. She only sort of notices the last one. The first 2 are for me. The last one she doesn't yet understand but she loves ice cream.

I also allow conversation about her losses to happen anyday she wants. She brings up the topic of her first parents and how she misses them (despite the fact that she has no concrete memories of them herself) regularly. It is an open topic.

Just another perspective.

Melissa said...

Mean Mama,

I appreciate your perspective. What you share makes sense.

I think it's simply that as an international adoptee, I find the actual term "Gotcha Day" and the practice it infers a bit insensitive and offensive.

Some families practice a "Family Day" or otherwise, and that's their perogative.

I realize that my opinion is simply my opinion.

In my experience, so many families that celebrate "Gotcha Day" hold to a certain attitude and do so in a way that is insensitive and neglectful of their adopted child's losses and griefs as well as their origins. I simply wanted to bring to light certain issues and ideas that are often neglected among families that actually practice specifically, "Gotcha Day."

For me personally, there is too much pain associated with my adoption to ever feel comfortable "celebrating" the day it happened. It would be like celebrating a death...

But my situation was very different from yours. And ultimately, every situation is unique and uniquely complex, particularly when dealing with adoption in general as well as considering the variations within adoption according to transracial, intercountry, domestic, etc.

Thank you for taking the time to share your perspective...

Anonymous said...

Interesting that there are so many comments on this topic. I am not surprised. As an AP, I know other APs who celebrate "Gotchya Day" by that very name. That has always seemed creepy and inappropriate to me.

We do celebrate Adoption Day, as a special day. Both my kids were adopted at older ages (12 and 14) and several years apart. At their ages, they had the right to consent to the adoption, which I think is important. They were also biological siblings whose parents were both deceased, and they had been separated by the government, so in a way, I think there is cause to celebrate their reunification. I hope that isn't wrong or insensitive on my part.

I enjoy the very balanced and thoughtful approach you present in your blog. It is thought provoking and refreshing!

Anonymous said...

The way my family sees family day as when they were blessed in getting me. We see adoption as something that happened more to them. Granted, I was only a toddler, so I was not in the same situation as other adopted children. But I believe that family day was created to celebrate the joy the parents felt in adopting a child to call their own and the love they feel for the child. I really think it was meant to celebrate love, no more and no less. It is just a shame not all families have one.