Gayle Swift here, guesting in Lori’s space. She wasn’t ready to take on another adoption expert so soon after the last one, but seeing as how I have strong feelings about Gotcha, as well as ideas on a more attuned approach, I am happy to step in with my own advice.
Dear Abby: Three Reasons to Rethink Gotcha
Abby, you recently responded to a letter from an adoptive parent who wanted to share how she informed her child about his being adopted. Her solution was to celebrate his “Gotcha Day,” the day he joined their family. By making it a party day she hoped to take the sting out of telling him he was adopted (how and when to tell are a whole ‘nother issue).
While the intent of this unfortunate term is positive, the reality is a bit off the mark. It is good that Mom wants to strengthen her relationship with her child and tell him the truth, and you affirmed her celebration of this significant day. But please consider why “Gotcha Day” needs further evaluation.
- First, “Gotcha” focuses on the parental experience instead of the child’s.
- Second, it objectifies the child, like a prized toy that was finally acquired.
- Third, “Gotcha” is often a term used to indicate victory or advantage over another person. Adoption is a life-altering experience for a child. “Gotcha” frames it in negative or depersonalizing language. This is not the best foundation for building a family; it almost certainly was not what this mom intended.
Alternatives to Gotcha
An adjustment in language can help. Some more suitable titles are: Arrival Day, Homecoming, Family Day, Johnny’s Day. They are all better choices because they affirm relationships and center on the child’s experience. Remember there are two sides to his special day: the happy part about joining a permanent, loving family, and the sad part, losing the family to which he was born. Be prepared for your child to feel mixed emotions. His attitude toward this day may evolve over time as he comes to understand how adoption delivered losses along with gains.
The intent of “Gotcha Day” has value and receives enthusiastic support from many adoptive parents. As parents, we enjoy reconnecting to that amazing moment when we grew our family. Truly it was a highlight of our lives.
But I take issue with the languaging as an adoption professional (I’m co-founder of GIFT Family Services, an adoption coach, and an adoptive parent and former foster parent and an adoption writer). I think we can use language that better fulfills the letter writer’s intention.
Words Have Power
Words can build or destroy relationships. Imagine someone commenting on an important choice you made:
- How could you have done something so incredibly stupid?
- Knowing what you know now, how might it change future decisions?
Hear the difference. Feel the difference. Imagine the impact languaging makes on our relationships. To which words would you listen more? Which words strengthen your relationship? Which words increase the likelihood that you’ll share your innermost thoughts, feelings, fears, and dreams?
Kindness in language costs nothing and reaps huge benefits. And when it comes to something as emotionally charged as adoption word choice makes a huge difference.
When it comes to “Gotcha Day” and other complex aspects of adoption, many adult adopteesvhave grabbed the bull horn and shared their first-hand experience about adoption. They’ve helped shift the point of view from a parent-centric one to a more appropriate adoptee-centered point of view.
Adoption World Has Changed
With the movement toward openness, shame and secrecy have loosened their grip on the way we talk (or don’t) about adoption. Adoptee voices have led to an improved understanding of what adopted children need in order to grow up healthy and happy.
As a result, adoptive parents have embraced openness and installed a Both/And paradigm. We have commited to Adoption Attunement and become the parents our children needed instead of expecting them to become the children about whom we’d fantasized. As parents we must provide kids the language with which they can express complex adoption-related feelings. Think about this when determining if/how your family will celebrate this life-changing day in a way that strengthens your relationship.
Deliver an unequivocal message that recognizes adoption as a Both/And relationship. Reassure children that it is possible and acceptable to have a range of feelings, some of which might include sadness, longing, anger, grief, etc. Make it clear that it is okay to have an interest and respect for one’s birth family. Without the benefit of all parts of themselves, something foundational will be missing. They might then feel incomplete, off-balance and out-of-control.
Some Kids Want to Commemorate The Day. Others Do Not.
For those who experience sadness associated with this day, parents must respect their emotions and limit any “celebration” to an internal, personal event. None of us want to extract our enjoyment at our child’s expense. Even if you adopted your child as an infant, ask him if he wishes to celebrate the day they became part of your family.
Family membership is a high stakes game for adoptees. In the absence of clear permission to express these thoughts and emotions, adoptees will often stifle their true feelings and inclinations because they fear that if they’re less than perfect, their adoptive family will “reject” them just like their birth families did.
Adoption realigns families in profound and abiding ways. Our language choices must honor the sacred promise we made to build our family on love and respect. We must commit to communication that encourages honesty and embraces the complex duality of adoption. When children get that we are willing to see the totality of who they are, what they think, and how they feel, they will be drawn to the harbor of acceptance we offer.
That is love, Dear Abby. That is the gift of family.
Gayle is co-founder of GIFT Family Services, an organization that provides coaching services to families before, during and after adoption. She writes two blogs: Growing Intentional Families Together,which discusses coaching strategies for adoptive parents, and Writing to Connect, which reviews books through an adoption-attuned lens. With her daughter Casey, Gayle co-authored the award-winning picture book, ABC, Adoption and Me: A Multicultural Picture Book. Gayle contributed to the upcoming anthology It’s Not about You: Understanding Adoptee Search, Reunion & Open Adoption. Look for Gayle on Twitter and Facebook.
More on Giving it up to Experts
- My Kids Know More Than Today Show Experts
- Dear Abby’s Bad Advice to an Adoptee
- Dear Abby Mucks it Up Again
Lori Holden, mom of a teen daughter and a teen son, blogs from Denver. Her book, The Open-Hearted Way to Open Adoption: Helping Your Child Grow Up Whole, is available through your favorite online bookseller and makes a thoughtful anytime gift for the adoptive families in your life.