Saturday, April 17, 2010

More thoughts on Gotcha Day (you can't replace the biological family & infant/child adoptees are not clueless)

[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.

Fair enough.

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.

*Quick additional thought: in the case of divorce or the unfortunate death of a parent, it is basically understood that, say, if the father remarries to a different woman, his new wife cannot and should not attempt to replace the biological mother of the man's children from his first marriage. And vice versa--if the mother remarries to a different man, her new husband cannot and should not attempt to replace the biological father of the woman's children. Not that either new spouse cannot be a "father figure" or "mother figure" type, but certainly assuming that he or she can replace the biological parent is insensitive and presumptuous.

Similarly, when parents adopt a child, their role is not to replace the biological parents but rather to simply be a wholly different and new set of parents.


Michael said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Michael said...

I mad some changes to the comment and am reposting it.

I read the first post and the links to the adopted parent's sites and having been processing the information along with today's post.

I remember the pictures of our little guy - he was happy for 5 minutes. He knew who we were and recognized us from the pictures, but after this first burst of excitement or adrenaline, he cried and withdrew.

After a nap, no more tears, but he was checking things out and each day he emerged a little from his shell as we finished our trip.

He had suffered a loss, but he had also gained a family. Nothing occurs in a vacuum. The fresh loss was of country and culture. The deeper loss had already occurred when already lost the his birth family when he entered the orphanage.

Celebrating family day seems not to be a good idea and I agree with the reasons. For us it is a day of joy, but his perspective is different.

I still think it is is important to mark it on the calendar, but not to make a big deal of it. However, I am torn as I still think celebrating our family is important. Any thoughts on a Citizenship Day or Homecoming Day? These two ideas came to mind while I thought about the topic.

Families celebrate the birthday of a child, but his birthday may not be his actual birthday. This does not seem to be the right day. We celebrate birthdays with the adult children, but this not the day each joined the family.

On a slightly different topic, we are working on his lifebook with information on his history as we know it. We are NOT writing this from the point of our journey to him. We are including the information from Half the Sky along with his pictures from Half the Sky and pictures from other parents in the Yahoo adoption group from his orphanage.

I have decided that when he asks Why was i abandoned that the answer will be I do not know? No answers, but open arms.

Thanks for stimulating my thoughts.

Mila said...

Hi Michael,

I don't know if you noticed the comment my friend, Jeremy made on the first "Gotcha Day" post. He is a fellow adult Korean adoptee.

Jeremy's comment: "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."

Now, of course, that's his perspective, but I thought it might be helpful.

Calling the day "Citizenship Day" or "Homecoming Day" also has some pretty loaded connotations. As international adoptees, we actually have two homes and two nations of which we are citizens. So, calling the day "Homecoming or Citizenship Day" implies that we were not really home until we arrived in America. And that kind of stings, honestly. It implies that we must choose between one or the other, rather than be of both.

We had to be taken away from our first home and lose our first citizenship in order to come to America.

These are just my thoughts, of course, along with Jeremy's thoughts...

Michael said...

I see that my comment was confusing. Instead of celebrating the day when we first met our son, I was looking to choose another day such as the day of citizenship or the day of homecoming.

Your points are still valid, but I wanted to clarify my idea. Maybe a better day would to choose a Chinese Holiday that is around the same time of year.

Chinese Valentine's Day is the seventh day of the seventh month in the Chinese lunar calendar (August 16th in the year 2010). After your thoughts and reading Jeremy's comments -- this seems to be a better idea to celebrate family in the context of his culture without making a big deal of "gotcha day (bad name) or homecoming or citizenship day.

Two of the associations in the story work for us - The weaver and the idea of love.

Again, I appreciate your thoughts.

Third Mom said...

When we adopted our kids 21 years ago, the name "gotcha day" was all the rage. Being adoption-stupid in those days, I went with the flow. I learned over time how offensive the term is to adoptees, and more importantly why, and no longer use it. But I wish I'd been clued in sooner so my kids would have grown up knowing the day as something else.

a Tonggu Momma said...

We don't use the term Gotcha Day and we don't celebrate it. We do mark the day... I guess it would be more along the lines of honoring rather than celebrating.

But I'm actually commenting because your story about the television? That's what happened to us. The Tongginator grieved and struggled with attachment for a long time. The largest breakthrough occurred when she heard Mandarin again from a DVD she received at Christmas. The look of Absolute Joy on her face clued me in. And that's when we started changing... not just our actions, but also our ways of thinking. It was a huge wake-up call.

Thank you for this post.

Liv said...

As an adoptee who came to the U.S. at four and a half, I can say that the experience was not one of joyful "homecoming." I'm glad that "Gotcha Day" was not around back then because I'm not sure how I would've emotionally made it through such a celebration; it was difficult enough for me to get through my birthday celebration growing up.

While I honor the well-meaning intent of adoptive parents wanting a day to celebrate family, it seems to me that every holiday offers such a chance. Holidays are a celebration of family.

And I think kids (just like adults) need to know it's okay to feel a variety of things on their birthdays and other holidays. Holidays can elicit joyous but also sad feelings, too. It's natural at holidays to think of those family and friends who are not there with us. My parents would talk about their parents (my grandparents) who had passed away and how much they missed them. One thing that would've meant a lot to me on holidays was for my parents to acknowledge my birth family and culture, too.

Mia_h_n said...

I was also just about 6 months old when my parents came to Korea to pick me up. I was happy and smiling and giggling at first, but when we left Holt and the safety of my foster mom I cried and screamed and continued to do so until I passed ot on the plane from exhaustion. Surely my adoption day was very bittersweet, and the sweet part didn't come until the fear and anxiety had subsided.

My sister came when I was 3½ and she was 1½. She was picked up at the airport and was tiny (physically she was about a year behind in developement due to lack of stimulation in the orphanage) and scared and very withdrawn. For the first couple of days she would only eat when I fed her and she was terrified of our dad because he had a full beard.

As I wrote in my comment to the previous post, we never celebrated Gotcha Day or made any kind of fuss on the days. My parents know the dates but that particular day has never meant enough for me to learn the precise date.
For us birth days are special days, even if they aren't factual, and we (try to) celebrate/honour our family every day.

If I'm allowed to stick in my two cents, I'd say that if my parents would have wanted a day to celebrate our family I would have prefered (with my now adult hindsight) if they had chosen a completely random day, not relating especially to me or my adoption. That would make it a day about me and not the family. Do you see what I mean?
I'm not saying that your son will be like me, but for me the special attention and fuss would be uncomfortable. Like Melissa have said, it would have sent totally different signals to me other than what would no doubt have been my parents well meaning intentions.
Anyway, please disregard if I butted in :)

Mia_h_n said...

If it wasn't clear, I think a day to celebrate the entire family is a great idea. I just don't think it should be a Gotcha Day by any name.

Denise said...

Hey Melissa, didn't know my question was going to cause so much discussion...LOL...but I am so glad it did. Would it be ok with you if I link to this and the other post at some point? I normally don't get too controversial on my blog, but I feel that this is such an important topic for AP's. And BTW, we did not celebrate our daughter's anniversary at all this year. Not sure what we will end up doing...probably nothing...but I do know that my thoughts and feelings about gotcha day have changed since researching it with you and other adult adoptees. Knowledge is power and I think that some AP's have no idea what they are doing when they celebrate this day...I know I was clueless.

Thank you for making this a safe place for AP's to come to, even if we can agree to disagree sometimes!

Michael said...

Mia_h_n - Thanks. I welcome your two cents. I am trying to find the right path and benefit from other perspectives.

We will choose to honor the date by marking it on the calendar. I think that we will find another day to celebrate our family -- I am still partial to using a Chinese festival day such as the Chinese Valentine's Day is the seventh day of the seventh month in the Chinese lunar calendar (August 16th in the year 2010).

Margie - Thanks also for you advice and perspective.

I would appreciate anyone's thoughts on this concept and how to make this a tradition that is memorable for the right reasons instead of the wrong reasons.

It has and is a mind opening experience to get these new perspectives.

Mia_h_n said...

I'm really glad you asked and that Melissa posted. Lost of comments only means that it was a topic many can relate to or at least have opinion about.
It sure made me think about a lot of new things, so thank you :)

And Michael, I'm glad you didn't mind.

Von said...

“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)
No other family can 'become our blood' ever.Blood is blood and as many say is thicker than water.No-one replaces our parents however well intention, however much they might want to.The trauma of the adoptees loss is constantly underplayed becuase no-one wants to see the reality of what has been done..a child taken from its families, often country, religion and language often with no understanding of what is happening, with no choice and no say.Is it any wonder we feel disempowered sometimes, the whole system sets about that goal and large sums of money change hands for the privilege of recreating a child, giving a new name and identity and nationality.If that happened to any other group we'd call it immoral, inhumane even illegal.
No I'm not a 'bitter adoptee'I've run the gamut, experienced reunion and live in an enlightened country where I have access to my records.I'm realistic and should be at my age!
Gotcha Day is offensive and should be banned.America seems to be able to legislate for other things, including forcing women to have vaginal scans when they're pregnant so why not Gotcha Day?

3 Peanuts said...


I so agree with you and so appreciate your insightful perspective. You and a few others have changed the way I will parent my daughter. Many AA's seem SO angry at us adoptive parents as though we are responsible for the loss and grief. We are not. I, for one, want all the tools and strategies to help my daughter cope with the loss she might feel. I want to help her walk through the pain. I don't want to pretend that it does not exist because it is ugly or hurtful.

I am sure it is not always easy to write these posts but I think you are helping me to be a better Mom (at least I hope so).

Laurie said...

Thank you for this post...I have a while before my daughter and I reach the 'first anniversary,' and I am really working on a way to honor the day in a way that is respectful to ALL of the emotions involved. It's important to me that what we do as a family create safe space for my daughter to feel however she sees fit, and to speak candidly about it.

hrh23 said...

I have a question. I am a future adoptive parent and I have also worked at an orphanage before. From what I've seen of the older kids at the orphanage I worked at, is that some have experiences similar to those described here, where that day their new parents come is scary and hard. But for the most part the kids I know honestly are beyond joyful for "their turn" to finally come around and they run into their new parents arms and for the following days and weeks before they depart are quite happy and proud of their new family. Some respond differently to the father because they are not used to men but for the most part (not trying to generalize, just from what I have experienced) this time before they depart is joyful for them. They feel content to finally have a mom and dad kiss them goodnight and dote on them after months/years in an orphanage. They revel in the attention and they start to test boundaries. It's not that everything is perfect, it's just that they are happy their new parents have come and instead of it just being a visit where the parents leave without them, they get to go "home" too.

Some of these kids came to the orphanage as babies, some as toddlers, some school age. When the day comes for them to fly home I would say it is about even between the kids that are scared and cry when they say goodbye and the kids that seem oblivious and happily go on their way to their new life. I guess what I am wondering is that if and only if there is a situation where the day of unification as a family (I don't like the word gotcha either and totally understand why it's offensive) was joyful for the child is it then appropriate to celebrate? I can understand how when a child has been in a foster home situation like yours, that day and following weeks and months are going to be a difficult transition and why it's not a day to celebrate. But for a child who grew up in an orphanage (which even in the best ones is still an institution and still difficult), whose loss happened long before they were united with their new family, if that day, the day that they finally gain something instead of lose something, is joyful for them is it then ok to celebrate? Or would you still reccommend not to in case as the child grows up they struggle with it? I am just throwing out there that there are living situations pre-adoption (fostering, large orphanage, small orphanage, multiple foster homes etc.) that result in different attitudes and perspectives the child has in the circumstances surrounding when the adoption takes place and they are united with their new family. I am not trying to diminish the tragic loss that occurrs in the child's life I am just trying to explore situations in which the child's experience, response, and perspective is different.

Thanks for your post! Gave me lots to think about!

Mia_h_n said...


To me, in relations to celebrating it doesn't really make a difference if the child was happy on the day. A number of factors can play a role in the mood of the child on the day and a lot of it might not have anything to do with the day.
You yourself used the word oblivious and that and age could be a big part in the different responses. I also agree that the difference in care situations pre-adoption can yield different responses.

I understand what you say about some kind being old enough to be exited about getting a new family and a home and all that, but as I commented to Michael I think that would be better celebrated on a ramdom day because that would be a celebration of the family and not the adoption. You're not just happy about your new family the day you get it, it should be every day.

And don't get me wrong, I'm not saying that the day should necessarily be ignored or "forgotten" but to make a big fuss or celebration about it just feels unnecessary to me. Be happy about and use it as a catalyst for conversations with your child about his/her history.

I never missed it and I wouldn't do if I ever adopted a child no matter how happy the kid seemed on adoption day.

Just my opinion...

Mia_h_n said...

*some KIDS being old enough

Mila said...

As always, thank you, Mia, for your comment!

hrh23 said...

When you describe it as "unnecessary" that is when it really began to make most sense to me. It's not that celebrating the new family is wrong, offensive, or confusing for the child. It's that celebrating and making a big deal of that day celebrates the adoption therein celebrating the loss instead of celebrating the new family which really can take place everyday! Thank you for your perspective!

Anonymous said...

Several things you said really helped me understand better about adoption and new families.
When you mentioned the TV and Korean station. I think of my own kids, even at 6 months they know who their mother/caretaker is- the smell, the sounds, voices, touch, etc. My daughter is 16 months, many children are adopted at this age. I can't imagine how traumatic it would be for her to be taken away from her mom, dad, brothers, home- because even at 16 months she knows!! My older ones are turning 3 and 5. If my husband and I died, they would live with their grandparents or aunt and uncle. Even though they have a loving relationship with these people, who they do not see often because of distance, the grief and trauma they would deal with is immense. Yes, they could love their "new" family and have a relationship with them eventually that would be parent-child, but it still could not replace us.
The other thing was about one parent being deceased and the other parent remarrying. My sil father died a few years ago, even if her mother remarries, that man can never replace her father. Her youngest sibling was around 5 when the father died. Even now at 10, if his mother remarries, he can have a "new" father, one he can have a very loving and wonderful father-son relationship with, but it will never replace his father and no matter how much he loves his "new" father, he will always grieve the loss of his first father.

I think putting it into words like this that we, as non-adoptee's, can understand and relate to really helps us know, understand, and deals with children who at whatever age have experienced such a loss, whether it was through death, abandonment, or even just the loss of a caretaker (who no doubt loved and cared for the child very much).
Our hearts are very open to adoption and loving any child God brings across our path to the best of our ability. I think this helps me gain a better perspective/understanding on how to do that if ever God brings such a child into our lives. Thank you!

Mila said...

Thanks, Anonymous, for taking the time to try to understand and relate, and using your personal life to try to connect with what adoptees experience.

Michelle said...

Thank you for sharing these thoughts. As a newer adoptive parent (we received our daughter when she was one week old - she is now 14 months), I have felt uncomfortable with the idea of celebrating the day we got her. That day was quite traumatic for her, I know. It was for me, too. I could not process all of the emotions - hers, her birth mother's, her foster mother's, and mine. I love, love, love her with all my heart and desperately want her to feel safe expressing all her emotions about her adoption, positive and negative and in between. Thank you for helping sort through these sensitive issues. I look forward to continuing to read your blog.