Adoption Day: To Celebrate or Not

You see these pictures every day on social media. “Gotcha Day!” with a picture of smiling kids holding balloons, eating ice cream, or jumping for joy. As an outsider, these seem like such sweet pictures, and how special to have an extra day to celebrate your kids! So fun. It wasn’t until I was a more seasoned adoptive mom when I started to cringe when I saw “Gotcha Day” or “Adoption Anniversary Celebration” or some other cutesy name. Why? Because as it turns out adoption is a complicated, emotional, multi-layered thing. 

To be clear, we mark the day, we buy ice cream and make it a point to tell the kids how happy we are that they are in our family now. It just isn’t a big thing for us anymore, and this is why: What is a beautiful, amazing day for us–the parents–marks the day, for our kids, that they lost their biological family. Since our kids were adopted from foster care, it marks the last time they’ll see a beloved caseworker regularly. It marks the day their heart was broken by the realization that their biological parents didn’t get their act together enough for them to come home. I had no idea. I cringe now to think how callously I marched on, making them smile for the camera after we left the courthouse. Insisting we made a big deal that first year as we marked their adoption-versary. I just didn’t know. Or if I knew, I didn’t want to think about it. 

In the adoption world as a whole, this has become a major topic of debate. As adoptees grow up and form their own ideas about the world, they are beginning to share their thoughts–thoughts about how grateful they are to have a family that loves them and about the paradoxical grief they feel every time they remember the last day they had a direct link to their biological family. Adoptees’ voices are getting stronger as time marches on. Many will say now that they resent the term “Gotcha Day” because it sounds a little bit like they were snatched from someone else’s arms. I had never, ever thought of it that way. I can’t imagine how it would feel to grow up being told to be grateful about a situation that means their relationship, identity, and heritage was snatched away. Yes, as adoptive parents we do our best to make sure some of those things can remain intact. We read books, attend seminars, and earnestly pray that we are doing the right thing for these kids. Unfortunately there is no perfect solution. In a perfect world, adoption days just wouldn’t exist. There would be no need for substitute parents to step in with open arms and open hearts to love a child. There would be no need for a mother to make the gut wrenching choice to allow others to parent her beloved child. However our world is far from perfect. Those choices need to be made. No one is saying they don’t. What the adult adoptee community is railing against is the insistence that they were “better off” with the adoptive family than they could have been with their biological family. In many terrible instances, that was not the case.  So for those adults, who as children  grew up in a family that disregarded their heritage and background, it is more than sour grapes to be forced to accept their adoption day as one of celebration. 

The flip side of this is of course there are families who absolutely have embraced biological family, their adoptee’s heritage, and all of the nuances that make their adoption, while not the ideal situation, a good compromise for everyone involved. These families want to celebrate their family becoming one. They want to shout from the mountain tops how happy they are that these precious children belong in their own family tree. There are families that would never for a second deny that adoption is a less than ideal event but would still love to have an excuse to give their cherished child another day where they can be the center of attention. These families rejoice over their child’s uniqueness, over the blessing of their story. They are oozing gratitude for birth families who made their own heartbreaking sacrifice so they could adopt. 

I sit with one foot in each camp. I am spectacularly grateful that my kids are mine. And make no mistake, I could not possibly love them more if they were biologically mine. I want to shout and sing and clap about how thankful I am that my precious ones belong in our family. However, my oldest children remember their biological family. While they resent their first parent’s actions, they deeply grieve over the severance of the relationship. It is complicated. I won’t lie and say that I understand because I really don’t. These kids came to me malnourished and abused. The idea that they would miss their abusers is so foreign to me I don’t know what to do with it. However, I have read time after time how this is true for many adoptees. Add to the fact that oftentimes adoptees will fantasize about what their lives could have been like with their first parents, and the idea of a celebration of the event that finalized their situation seems ludicrous. For me, it would be like having a party the same time every year I was hospitalized. Yes, I’m glad there is technology and medicine to keep me alive after being very sick. I am thankful that the doctors, nurses, and techs worked so hard to make me well. However, it was a pretty bad time in my life. It would be ridiculous for me to celebrate that. Sure, it might make sense to get some ice cream with my spouse to celebrate the day I got to come home, but it would absolutely not make sense to post pictures on the internet, and smile for the camera about it. 

Given that perspective, adoption days seem like a terrible idea. I feel like I can better understand an adoptee’s feelings about it. I better understand why they might sabotage a celebration–why they might be uncomfortable remembering that day. I think the voices of adopted adults are critical to helping adoptive parents make good choices for our kids. There is no question that the way things used to be isn’t acceptable. It is in no way okay for a family to pretend they haven’t adopted at all. It isn’t okay to keep that kind of secret from anyone. It isn’t okay for adoptees to be told they need to be grateful. I would not be grateful for being taken from my first family and put in another where I don’t know the rules and customs, at least not at first. I don’t think it is fair to ask it. 

So, if you’re an adoptive parent and you are wanting to celebrate, perhaps it can be a celebration between you and your spouse. Maybe it can be a small event, like a trip to an ice cream shop. If you want to celebrate the fact that your child is in your family, maybe pick another day that is not so emotionally linked. You could start a “Family Celebration Day” where everyone in the family gets to participate, adopted or not. If you have multiple adoptees this might actually simplify your life since there are fewer days to make a big thing of. 

The decision is ultimately up to you as the parent. I would suggest you ask your adoptee how they feel. If they love their “Gotcha Day” celebration, by all means, celebrate with them. If it makes them feel bad, stop. I have read too many letters, books, and blog posts written by adult adoptees and their grief over the way things worked in their adopted families to think this is just another example of cancel culture. I work hard to help my kids have the best life they can, and I never want to cause them emotional harm. 

If my waxing philosophical doesn’t mean much to you, here are the words of an adult adoptee: 

“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’….

“I understand why parents practice it, and I think the heart behind it 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, or upset about their adoption.”(Riben, 2017)

Another point made that breaks my heart in this same article is that some children are adopted and then a few weeks later find themselves looking for another family. Their day that was supposed to mark their forever family coming together is now a painful reminder of another broken relationship. Further, the actual term “Gotcha Day” seems to have started in the pet adoption world. It makes it seem like the children are objects, not people. Even more disturbingly Merriam-Webster online defines “gotcha” as “an unexpected problem” or “unpleasant surprise.” The fuller definition describes it as an “unexpected usually disconcerting challenge, revelation, or catch; an attempt to embarrass, expose, or disgrace someone.” Why would someone call a celebratory day something that means “unpleasant surprise”? 

Karen Moline, author and the adoptive mother of a child born in Vietnam wrote, “Get Rid of ‘Gotcha'” for Adoptive Families magazine, says this: 

“‘Gotcha’ is my typical response when I’ve squashed a bug, caught a ball just before it would have rolled under the sofa, or managed to reach a roll of toilet paper on the top shelf at the store. It’s a silly, slangy word…” (Riben, 2017)

Sophie Johnson, who was adopted from China, also has thoughts: 

“…sometimes while adopted kids are processing it, their feelings of loss override their feelings of happiness. Gotcha Day is one of those times when we think about our past and how little some of us actually know about it. We think about our biological parents and wish we knew them and could ask them why they didn’t keep us. We think about what our lives would be like, where would we be, what our futures would look like, had there been no Gotcha Day….” (Riben, 2017)

As an adoptive parent I am often grieved by how I managed to be insensitive to my children by simply not paying attention to what they were saying to me with either their words or their actions. If my child is acting out on the anniversary of our adoption, could it mean that they are feeling pain? Are their hearts breaking and they feel like they can’t say anything out of fear of hurting my feelings? I wonder now, if my son flipping his chair over and yelling was less about his feelings over his chicken and more about his grief. Thankfully, I know better now. Moving forward, I hope to find myself making better choices in regards to my kids. I hope that I can take their needs into account over my need to feel in control. I know I still have a way to go before I am doing everything mostly right. I hope that my kids will be able to forgive me when they are grown and ruminating over what their childhoods are like. 

For the moment though, we are absolutely throwing out the term “Gotcha Day”. 

Considering adoption? Let us help you on your journey to creating your forever family. Visit Adoption.org or call 1-800-ADOPT-98.