The Likely Future Demise of ‘Gotcha Day’

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I’m a linguist, but I work with sounds, not words. And I mostly work on describing patterns of pronunciation that already exist, rather than making too many predictions about the future. When I do make predictions, they’re on the order of, “Look how this pronunciation is being used more and more by younger and younger people; it’ll probably continue that way until eventually everyone’s doing it all the time.” That kind of prediction is a pretty safe kind of bet. But this post is about another kind of prediction: a lexical one. And it’s not based on any usage data, but rather on social critique. It’s about the term ‘Gotcha Day’. My prediction is that no one will be using this term in a generation’s time. Here’s why.

The day that an adopted child comes home to their forever family is a day worth commemorating every year. It’s full of mixed emotions, since while the homecoming of a child is itself joyous, in adoption contexts it also necessitates a deep loss for the child. (People often talk about the loss of the birth family, but in many cases, especially in the UK, there is also the loss of the foster family who is the only family the child’s ever know and loved.) The day a child comes home can be frightening, confusing, and overwhelming, at best. But it’s also the beginning of something very beautiful.

Parents choose to call this day by a number of names. The ones I’ve seen include Family Day, Homecoming Day, and Adoption Day. And, of course, Gotcha Day. The term is meant to evoke the expression of love that happens when a parent and child play the ‘gotcha’ game (the kid runs playfully, the parent chases playfully and catches the kid and everyone giggles). As far as I know, this term is really only used in the United States, but it’s worth talking because it’s impossible to avoid in English-language discussions about adoption on social media.

Wikipedia’s entry is mostly about the ‘controversy’ around the use of the term, noting that the “International Association Of Adopted People discourages the use of the term because of the recent history of kidnapping and forced adoptions.” But Wikipedia also notes that the term generated a cottage industry of material celebration. Here’s a screenshot from Google Images:

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And here’s a screenshot from Pinterest:

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Both, of course, representing millions more similar products and designs. Putting in any of the other alternatives basically just brings up photos of real people. “Family Day” is not obviously adoption-specific, so I added the search term “Adoption” and got photos of people plus one image about pet adoption. “Homecoming Day” is similar. “Adoption Day” does generate a similar set of material products to “Gotcha Day.”

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However, the original justification for the term Gotcha Day was that for many families the day of legal adoption is very different from the day the child comes home. This was true in my family’s case; the two were nearly nine months apart. Nevertheless, although Gotcha Day is handy in terms of being (1) adoption-specific and (2) not the same thing as Adoption Day, I will never use it in my family. Indeed, it’s difficult for me not to take offence when I even hear the term.

The Wikipedia entry gives one reason, succinctly. Here are two other blog posts about why families do not use the term:

“Why We Don’t Celebrate Gotcha Day”

Snippet: “For adopted children, sometimes celebrating a new family is a stark reminder of the family they lost. Often, the times we think will be most joyful — birthdays, holidays, ‘Gotcha Day’ — actually bring up the deepest pain.”

“One Year Anniversary – Why We’re NOT Celebrating ‘Gotcha’ Day!”

Snippet: “It blatantly disregards everyone’s feelings except those of the adopters. And I cannot condone that, I cannot be apart of that. I love Hannah and her birth mother too much to disrespect them in such a way.”

But my favorite piece of writing on this topic was a comment recently left on a Facebook post. I asked the author, T. Gidseg, if I could post her words here, because I feel that they ought to be shared more publicly. She graciously agreed.

“I know we don’t know each other very well so I hope I don’t overstep but I can explain why our particular family avoids that term. It’s because adult adoptees I’ve spoken to or read articles by, both white and especially of color (disclaimer: I’ve always considered adult adoptees to be the real experts on this adoption stuff, not adoptive parents) have expressed being very disturbed at its implications. ‘Gotcha!’ is a word that’s used when we’ve pulled the wool over someone’s eyes or played a joke on them. It’s a word we use when someone runs away from you and you catch them (you can probably see the racial undertones there). It also has a STRONG implication of deception and child-stealing, which sadly are actually potentially part of many of our kids’ stories or that of their parents/siblings/orphanage-mates, etc… or at the very least, they’re part of a widely told narrative of adoption as a whole that our kids will hear over and over in their lives even if it doesn’t pertain to their personal story. And that is where I think it is most problematic when it comes to white parents and Black children. Because in reality, over the trajectory of time the history of transracial adoption HAS largely been one of the government essentially stealing babies of color from their families to “save” them from being raised by “savages”, by poor people, by the “degenerate”, etc. It is only in the past 30-40 years that Native American kids are no longer forced away from their families to boarding schools and/or white urban adoptive families where they were forced not to use their language (and you can see in some recent high-profile cases that they are still frequently removed unjustly from their culture and their tribe’s legal right to have jurisdiction). Black children continue to be routinely removed by CPS for what essentially boils own to poverty, not child abuse, in too many cases. International adoption continues to often involve agencies that use language and tactics of orphan-rescuing, colonialism and white-saviorism to recruit (by and large white, class privileged) adoptive parents. Even domestic private adoption involves a lot of loss and racial and class inequity even with the most ethical agency. It is sad and upsetting and hard to look at, especially as people who have benefitted by building our families through transracial adoption and have obviously all tried to make the most ethical choices we can and wanted to do something positive in the world, but the overwhelming history of adoption has been people of race and class privilege essentially feeling entitled to taking/buying/rescuing babies of color. It’s a harsh reality but it’s the reality of our past, whether or not it feels applicable to our current personal adoptions.”

I agree. And I think it holds regardless of if the adoption is transracial or not. This line of reasoning, plus the other opinions expressed in the blog posts linked to above, combine to make it very clear to me that the term Gotcha Day has Got to go. It’s worth not having a convenient term, if it means respecting our children. Last week, in my family, we celebrated the one-year anniversary of the day my daughter came home. But it was low-key, quiet, and a generally private affair. When my daughter gets older, she can decide how she wants to spend this day. Because it’s her day.


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One Response to The Likely Future Demise of ‘Gotcha Day’

  1. Heidi says:

    Very well put. We, too, avoid “Gotcha” day–we call it our Family Day or Familiversary. The girls get to choose what we do that day. It usually involves going to an Ethiopian restaurant to celebrate family and heritage and discussions of family in Ethiopia. The “G” word is flippant and disrespectful–just like when people ask, “When/where did you get them?” So much language surrounding adoption needs to change–and even though we’ve rescued dogs, it drives me crazy how the animal rescue community has started to heavily co-opt adoption language.

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