The Joy and the Grief of Gotcha Day
Tomorrow is “Gotcha Day.” Honestly, I’ve never been wild about that title, which denotes the day when an adopted child was placed in the arms of a waiting mother or father. The term has always seemed a bit casual, almost flippant, and somewhat insensitive to the birthparents. But I digress. We observe it, albeit nominally, because for Alison the day after Gotcha Day is the real celebration – birthday. She is ALL about the birthday. Even Christmas, with all it’s kid-centered hoopla, is anti-climactic compared to the intoxication of birthday. It’s ironic, really. We have no stories about the day she was born, but we can tell endless stories about Gotcha Day.
So in honor of the day that means little to Alison and everything to us, here is the short version of our Gotcha Day 2001 story:
The four of us (two kids, Kyle, and I) ate Spaghetti Bolognese with a few other families in the lobby of the Majestic Hotel in the Gaungxi Province capital of Nanning. We counted down the time until 8 p.m. when nine babies were going to be carried into the hotel lobby by nine orphanage workers and placed in the arms of nine families. The workers were driving the babies five hours from the city of Guiping. They were late.
While waiting, we were treated to several China adoption formalities: we listened to a speech by the orphanage director, which I’m certain was wonderful, but I can’t remember one word of it. We filled out more paperwork to top off the reams of paperwork we had already filled out in the past 18 months. We presented to the orphanage director a collective gift from our families – an air-conditioner, which seemed appropriate. Still, we waited. We sweated. We smiled at the Chinese adoption officials who were there. We watched the door.
Time continued to pass and we engaged in more mindless activities: checking our cameras, chatting with one another, spending time rearranging items in the bags we brought. The bags were stuffed with toys, pacifiers, blankets, burp cloths, bottles with formula, bibs, and anything else we could think of to offset the moment of hand-off. These were not infants, but rather 12-15-month old babies who would surely know the difference between a familiar Chinese face and a strange white face. We all knew that the moment of “gotcha” might not be so pretty.
More time passed and the door opened slowly. It was a hotel maid who looked at us in horror as several people stood up with their cameras pointed at her. She turned abruptly and left. We sat back down and continued to sweat.
Sometime long after 8 p.m.,the door opened again and a parade of orphanage workers carried in nine black-haired baby girls who were dressed in matching outfits: a vest, a long-sleeved shirt, long pants, and socks. Some of the outfits were blue, some pink, some yellow. The babies looked stunned. I quickly found Alison, but she looked nothing like the content, chubby five-month-old in the referral photo. On Gotcha Day she was thin and wide-eyed. Immediately the adoption official and our Chinese guide began calling out names and handing a baby to each new mother.
“Momma!” the official would shout at the baby, pointing dramatically at each mother as the orphanage worker placed a daughter in waiting arms. Husbands and family members stood by taking photos and trying to catch the baby’s eye. It quickly became a chorus of wailing and soothing voices. The woman who handed Alison to me did so slowly and with tears in her eyes. I’m not making that up. She watched us as we walked into a corner of the conference room with our new daughter. I handed Alison a toy, and she grabbed it and held it without taking her eyes off mine. I was waiting for her to explode, but she just stared at me. She looked sad and confused, and in a few moments tears welled up in those black eyes and spilled out and down her cheeks. She never made a sound. Just cried silently. I can’t remember when I’ve felt so inadequate and unprepared.
“It’s okay,” I whispered and gently guided her head against my chest. “I love you.” I could feel her crying, but she still didn’t make a sound.
What, I thought, have we gotten ourselves into?
After a few moments, my new daughter fell sound asleep and didn’t wake up until we took her back to the hotel room. Her screams during her bath were comforting. I wanted to know she had a voice. And she does.
For the parents, “gotcha” may seem like the pinnacle of the adoption experience – before the parenting begins. While we wait, we envision the moment in a hundred different ways. For the child, however, “gotcha” is something very different. All of our adopted children will grieve the loss of their beginnings, whether they are infants or older children. What we view as a glorious moment is the same moment that a child is torn away from everything they have ever known. For them, while we are joyously receiving, they are inwardly grieving. For many children, this grief is short. In fact, by Day Two, Alison was comfortably settled into her new family and the strange new world around her. She was passed from mother, to father, to brother, to sister and then back, multiple times over. Her cries were now louder and more demanding (good sign) and she opened her mouth to eat anything and everything we offered her (another good sign).
For other children, the grief of Gotcha Day lasts longer. But experts that know much more than I do about raising adopted children tell us that with enough love, patience, and diligence on the part of the parent, children can overcome the grief of loss. All children are waiting to be placed – and kept – in loving arms, even if they don’t act like it, and even if they cry silently for a while. We are all created to receive love. We all long for home.
So I celebrate Gotcha Day, remembering the day my daughter was placed in our arms. I respect her moment of grief, but it is overshadowed by watching her grow into an amazing young lady full of life, joy, curiosity, and love. This is the beauty and mystery of adoption. We take into our arms children who have beginnings in other places; children who may not look like us, and children that do not share our genes. We take into our arms children who have been waiting all their short lives for the moment that someone wraps them in an eternal embrace and joyfully declares, “I’ve got you.”