“Gotcha Day” and other ugliness

I read this essay a week ago via Harlow’s Monkey and have not been able to shake it from my mind ever since.  I’m not going to summarize it here, because it would be impossible to convey the profundity of Jane Jeong Trenka’s essay in short paragraph form.  Go read it for yourself, and come back.

Adoption is a beautiful thing.  Sometimes.  But in many ways, perhaps in even more ways than not, it is complicated, tragic, and ugly.  It is a result of inequity, desperation, privilege, and money, among other things.  The thing is, though, that the people who have the shitty luck and the desperation and the poverty often lack a voice.  If they don’t have money for food, shelter, and medicine, then they most likely don’t have money for a computer on which to keep a blog devoted to their side of the adoption journey, or edgy t-shirts with messages like this.

There are times when I am appalled by the blindness of the adoptive parent community.  I am disturbed by the dehumanizing Madonna/whore depiction of “birthmothers” who have carried, birthed, breastfed, loved and cared for their children; the innumerable ways in which APs desperately try to claim every aspect of parenting *including pregnancy* for themselves ( “paper” pregnancies, sonograms of foreign countries, “Born in My Heart!” accessories); and the rewriting of the adoption narrative, transforming it from a complex process of loss and grief to a simplistic act of gift-giving between a grateful “birth” mother and an eager “real” mother.

As an AP I understand that adoption can bring a tremendous amount of joy.  The process itself can be exciting and overwhelming, and sometimes the lack of excitement and understanding from those around us as we are in a long process filled with unknowns leads to overcompensation at the expense of the very same people who make our adoption possible.  I’ll admit it: right here, on this very blog, I once titled a post “Paper Pregnant.”  It was my way (and I think this is very common in AP-land) of indicating that we were waiting, and that our wait was for something very exciting and valid.  Did I intend to hurt the feelings of the women who are pregnant with children that they are placing for adoption?  Of course not.  But it still did not give me the right, especially after I realized the problematic nature of the saying, to use the language.  Along with the other parts of the adoption process- the unknowns, the excitement, and so on- comes the obligation to educate one’s self about all aspects of adoption.  As an adoptive parent I can never stop reading, listening, and learning; it’s part of the job description.  So I learn, I change, and I use the information I gain to be a better parent.

I don’t understand the complete and total lack of perspective that is so widespread in the adoptive parenting community.  I’m baffled by this inability to step into the shoes of another member of the adoption triad for even a moment to consider how hurtful and ugly their “celebration” of adoption can be.  It’s hypocritical for adoptive parents to demand that everyone respect their feelings and their families when they can’t do the same for the first families of their own children.

We don’t celebrate “Gotcha Day” in this house.  In fact, we didn’t really celebrate the anniversary of our adoption.  We acknowledged it, with a fair amount of ambivalence all around.  It some ways it was a happy day last fall when we met Sula and Dawit.  Happy for us, anyways; we got to meet the kids whose pictures we had been staring at for months…and that’s pretty much where the joy stopped.  Dawit remembers feeling excited, but was also nervous and nursing a bad cold.  Sula doesn’t remember, but she was frightened and confused and didn’t want anything to do with us.  Looking back, I guess it probably did feel a whole lot like “Gotcha Day” to Sula, who viewed us as abductors more than parents.  I’m no kiddy snatcher, but if I were, I’m pretty sure that the word I’d utter upon capturing a child would be “Gotcha!”

It’s an ugly word, with ugly connotations, and it- along with all of the other ridiculous phrases that have come to be associated with adoption- should be banned.  Our children may not be able to “hear” the voices of the parents who gave them life, but they can hear ours, and we should not use our powerful voices to denigrate their life histories with fantasies that suit our needs as adoptive parents.

My children are people, not flowers that blossomed or Ethiopian princes and princesses that grew in my heart.  They were not a gift from an impoverished donor to our relatively wealthy family.  They are a blessing to me, but I recognize that this blessing was the result of a tragedy.  I am their Mom, but I share that title with another Mom who also loved them.  This is not a zero-sum game.  We are both “real” mothers.  We both love our children.  Only one of us has a voice.  I will be careful how I use mine.
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10 responses to ““Gotcha Day” and other ugliness

  1. This post brought tears to my eyes! Sula, Dawit, & Bo are all so, so, lucky to have you. Your writing is flawless as ever, I wish this post was an op-ed piece in the New York Times!

  2. Bravo!

    The day after I received a referral for a little girl from Ethiopia in September, I went into a deep funk about her family’s situation – how could I be happy that people had gone through what they had gone through, and still go through, so that I could be a parent?

    I wish more APs had your perspective.

  3. I love your thoughts and agree about how languague like this can hurt. I don’t love the term Gotcha Day in general.
    I’ve had two bio kids and now wait for a referral for two Ethiopian children and I am struck with the difference of people “caring” because of the pregnancy. The kindness a belly brings out in other people. The interest it generates. (Granted, in a few months when the kids are in our family I might prefer to have very little interest.) I have found a big drop off of friends who can relate to me in this “waiting.” It’s understandable the adoptive world tries to related the process to pregnancy because that is what people know.
    It isn’t ugly or terrible to want a support network of people to understand the legitimacy of your family.

    I agree that we must include the first parents into our family. I do not think it’s ugly to celebrate the day a child joins a family. Even if it is born of tragedy. What if a child’s mother dies in and because of childbirth? Does the now single father refuse to celebrate her brithday because her entering his life was a result of something horrible? Maybe there is a way to show joy at children joining a family, and still acknowledge and honor the first family. Not sure how yet, still figuring it out.

    • theberberediaries

      Staci, I can completely relate to the difference in interest from others during our adoption wait and my pregnancy, and I don’t want to minimize the stress of the wait. It was upsetting, and reading back on my posts from the time, one can detect the bitterness in my voice. But in hindsight (which is always 20/20, of course :)), I’m not sure it really mattered- once our kids were here, friends and family were VERY excited and eager to be involved in their lives. Also, I am really glad that the wait brought me together with other PAPs and APs who could completely understand the waiting process, because they “got” it in ways that even our most supportive friends and family couldn’t, and now we have a whole network of friends that we wouldn’t have had otherwise. So I guess this is all to say that maybe as APs we just have to accept that those who have never been involved in an adoption will just not get it, no matter how many comparisons we make to pregnancy, and we should try to find other ways to wait that don’t involve co-opting something that isn’t ours.

      Also, I don’t know that we can ever compare a biological family to an adoptive one- in the scenario where a mother dies giving birth, the child is remaining with their biological family; they aren’t suffering the loss of their entire first family, and perhaps most importantly, the birth is not caused by the death. There’s a correlation but not causation. In adoption, a death (or poverty, or illness, and so on) does cause the adoption. Adoption is a direct consequence of death. Something tragic happens to the first family, and a different family ends up celebrating. That’s where I see a problem.

      I wish I could offer more ideas on how to rejoice over adoption while acknowledging the loss to their first family. But I think the adoption community needs to do a major overhaul of adoption language, and rethink the phrases that bestow APs with absolutely every aspect of parenting from pregnancy to “real”-ness.

  4. I moan and complain all the time on my blog about how hard this is for me…thank you for making me stop and realize that is not really about me at all.

    Like Liz, the day we got our referral I felt more sadness than happiness because of our soon-to-be son’s circumstances and I think of his birth mom everyday.

    It is time I stop thinking about hard I have it…cause really I don’t have it hard at all.

    • theberberediaries

      Rana, moaning and complaining is a requisite aspect of the wait between referral and travel! No one benefits from the time spent waiting to pass court, and knowing that your child would be better of with you than waiting in an orphanage is absolutely maddening. Mulling it over a bit, I’m now wondering if passing court is a better occasion for adoptive parents to celebrate because it’s not the actual day that a child is essentially torn away from everything they’ve known. It’s more neutral, in a sense, than the day a child meets their new family. I need to think some more 🙂

  5. This is beautifully written. I hope you don’t mind if, since your blog is public, I link to this post.

    PS-that shirt is so crass. i’m glad they’re not selling it anymore, and I’m glad it was on clearance. Maybe that means no one wanted one.

    • theberberediaries

      Hah! I didn’t even notice that it was on clearance. And feel free to link! If enough APs get on board, maybe I can look back on this post in thirty years and think “How quaint!”- the way we view adoption practices (Love is enough! I’m colorblind!) from the 70s…

  6. Well said! Ever since I started the adoption process I have hated the term Gotcha. At the emotional center of this adoption is a birth mother and the fact that she lives somewhere where she has no power is…of deep concern to me, a thought I visit daily…I will never be willing to paint an easier picture of this process…I’m going to explore your refreshing blog a bit further- Amanda

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