One of my favourite things to talk about is adoption, and one of my favourite things about adoption is Gotcha Day.
Gotcha Day is the day you bring your child home, usually from the hospital, or from overseas or a foster home. Both my daughters came to us from foster care where they each received loving and bittersweet send offs from the people who cherished and cared for them before their adoption. Our Gotcha Days were all about cake, presents, tears, nervous laughs and promises to visit. Also mild panic, and a lot of “oh my God this is really happening!”
Gotcha Day is the closest thing many adoptive parents will have to experiencing the day their child is born. If you weren’t there for his birth this is the day it all becomes real. It isn’t usually the first time you meet your child, but it might be the first time she sleeps under your roof and wakes up with you. It might be the first time you tuck him in, read him a story or fall asleep beside him. If you’ve adopted an older child, Gotcha Day might even be your first foray into the chaos that is bedtime: What do you mean you have to tell them seven times to put on pajamas??? Welcome to parenthood!
When you adopt through the public system, or Children’s Aid in Canada, as we did, Gotcha Day doesn’t mean you’re all of a sudden on your own. Usually there’s adoption probation, which lasts a minimum of six months and includes scheduled home visits with an adoption worker who checks in to make sure everything is going well.
With private adoptions, Gotcha Day usually comes shortly after birth, when the baby is discharged from the hospital. Because birth mom has 28 days to change her mind about placing her child for adoption, many new parents choose not to celebrate Gotcha Day until after that time has passed.
With international adoptions, Gotcha Day is often celebrated in a hotel room or on a plane heading home. In addition to navigating paperwork, language barriers, international travel and nerves, these parents might also be committing every single detail to memory so they can explain it to a child who might never return there.
By the time our family celebrated Gotcha Day, we’d had multiple night sleepovers with both our girls. With our second adoption, when the girls became sisters, Gotcha Day seemed a little anti-climactic because they’d already met and started carving out bedroom real estate and ownership of their (now mutual) toy collection. But the beauty was in the fact that we were no longer on the clock. This was the first time our youngest girl wasn’t expected anywhere else. It was the first time we didn’t have to say goodbye.
In the world of adoption, nothing is simple. There are forms, procedures and long waits; fear, uncertainty and feeling like you’re at the mercy of forces you can’t control (which you often are). If you’re lucky enough to conceive a child at the time of your own choosing, and using the method of your own choosing, you’ll never know what it’s like to rely on so many seemingly random and complicated factors that can determine not only how and when, but whether or not you become a parent.
For many reasons (most of them good and logical, some of them ridiculous), adoption can be a long and arduous process. Gotcha Day is significant because that’s the day the stress and fear of “will it ever happen?” and “when will it happen?” falls away. It’s the day you can clink glasses, congratulate yourself on having made it this far and start becoming a family.
But for the adoptee, Gotcha Day isn’t always a cause for celebration. Holidays and milestones, such as birthdays, Mother’s Day and Gotcha Day can surface feelings of sadness, confusion and loss. While adoptive parents are celebrating, adopted kids are working through complicated questions, like: why did my birth parents give me up? Where are they? Do they think about me? How would my life be different if none of this had happened to me?*
And like the idealistic young bride who doesn’t think about marriage beyond the party and the dress, Gotcha Day is sobering because it’s also the start of Real Life. Capital R, capital L. And for many, the road to family bliss is long and elusive. Gotcha Day is a bit of an oasis, the calm before the storm of figuring out how to be a family and how to meet the complex needs of a child you barely know. For the rest of your life.
My kids are still young and to them, Gotcha Day means extra hugs, ice cream, lots of “remember whens” and being fawned over (more than usual) by mommy and daddy. But we’re careful not to treat it like a birthday because we don’t want to minimize that celebration just because it didn’t involve us.
As they get older, more curious and more aware of their past, my children’s needs and the nature of our Gotcha Day celebrations might change. If this happens, we’ll have to evolve and roll with it; our parental needs and wants will take a back seat to those of our children. We’ll look at each other and think “Okay, so this is new” and chart a new path forward, just like every other parent does, every other day, everywhere around the world as their child passes through different stages of development and life. In this way, families formed by adoption are no different than any other. We just get more cake.
*The best and most informative thing I’ve ever read on the adoptee’s perspective of Gotcha Day is by a 17-year old girl adopted from China. You can read her story here: https://www.huffingtonpost.com/sophie-johnson/gotcha-day-isnt-a-cause-f_b_6094206.html