Saturday, November 6, 2010

thinking before we speak

I am really annoying and nit-picky about words. I think maybe I always have been. According to my mom, when I was 2 or 3 years old and she tried to pull off the classic parent trick of skipping words on a page of a book I would have none of it. "You skipped a word Mommy!" My voice is probably slightly less grating now, but I am every bit as militant about words today as I was then.

Every subculture has its own language and adoption is no exception. My word-loving brain has had an absolute field day over the past year learning (and unlearning) all the lingo, and sometimes finding out the hard way which words get which groups of people all worked up. I think adoption language has become particularly important for me because I believe that words have the power to shape our attitudes, our self-concept, and how we see the world, and therefore words about adoption have power to shape my child's attitudes, self-concept, and worldviews. This is critical stuff, deserving of our careful thought and attention.

I don't want this post to turn into a rant about all the adoption wording/language that frustrates or angers me (though that temptation is strong!), but I do want to use one example of how I see language as a powerful tool to set the tone for a child's identity. [Disclaimer: I am not trying to condemn or judge anyone here. I am just sharing my perspective on language in adoption, one that I know some might disagree with and that is OK. Yep, talking to myself here as much as to anyone reading this.]

Gotcha Day. I read this phrase on adoptive parent blogs all over the internet. For the uninitiated, this phrase is used to mean the day that a child joins their adoptive family. I believe this phrase is an example of language having the unintended-but-still-significant power to influence the perspectives, identities, and attitudes of not only a child, but the family and community surrounding the child. What are the implications of the phrase "Gotcha Day"?

1. The child is objectified into something that can be "gotten".

2. The phrase is inherently adoptive-parent-centered, because the adoptive parents are the ones "getting" the child.

3. "Gotcha" is a word used in other contexts to mean that someone has been tricked or that someone else has gotten the better of them. How does it feel for an adopted child the first time they hear the word used that way?

4. Gotcha Day is cute and catchy, making it appealing for parents of young children. But these young children will grow into teenagers and then adults. Does a 15 year old want to celebrate "Gotcha Day"? Does it still feel appropriate at this stage to talk about the parent-child relationship as the parents "getting" the child?

5. The phrase allows friends and family to continue to view the adoption only through the lens of the adoptive parents who "got" a new child.

Let's compare this to another language option for the same event: Family Day.

1. The phrase does not contain implications about transactions, commodities, or other negative aspects of the adoption industry.

2. The phrase is more neutral in terms of perspective - the adoptive family is adding a child and the child is becoming part of a new family. However this phrase might not be a wise option in domestic open adoptions or some foster-to-adopt situations because it implies that this child is only now part of a family because of adoption. If the child was very much part of a family before the adoption then this would be an insensitive choice. On the other hand, for a child who has been without parental or familial care for the majority of their life this phrase might be appropriate.

3. The word "family" has a fairly unambiguous meaning, therefore a child will not hear another opposing meaning that could muddy their understanding of adoption.

4. Family Day is something that does not feel silly or hokey to celebrate with teenagers or adult children.

5. Choosing a phrase like Family Day sends a message to friends and extended family that this adoption was not just about parents getting a child, but about a significant event in the life of the whole family, which in turn affects all its members.

My least favorite thing about language is that it is always imprecise and imperfect in some way. There is no perfect way to talk about adoption. I'm definitely going to mess it up, both in my own home and on this blog. But that is not an excuse to say that language doesn't matter. It does. Again, I'm not judging - I'm simply saying that we need to think it through and we need to do so with a long view of our families and our kids. How will this sound in 5 years? 10 years? 30 years? What will this mean to their friends at school? What message does this send to our community? How will my child reinterpret this when he or she reaches adulthood? We can't do it perfectly, but we can be intentional and thoughtful and, call me an optimist, but I believe that will make a positive difference in both our children and our communities.


  1. Thanks for another thought-provoking post. You put into words my unexamined feelings regarding the term "Gotcha Day." When something makes you a bit uncomfortable, then it's okay to skip it or change it.

    We should all choose our words carefully. This reminds me of a verse in Proverbs 25 regarding our words:

    "A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in settings of silver."

  2. Once again, you have an eloquent way of expressing your thoughts. I couldn't agree more. Ideas and words have consequences; we must choose them carefully. For us, since we were going from a couple to a foursome - the term "family day" fit us best. We emphasize the word "family" a lot in our daily conversation too.

  3. Loved this one Haley. I have been meditating on the meanings and implications of the phrase "Gotcha Day" myself and have come to similar conclusions.

    To expand on one of your points, to celebrate it as "Gotcha Day" is not only adoptive-parent centered, it seems to completely ignore the extreme disruption and sometimes fear, this creates in a child's life. On this day, the language, country, nationality, and name of the adopted child-- everything they have that makes them who they are until that point-- is stripped from them and replaced with a brand new identity. To simply focus on the parent's perspective by calling it "Gotcha" anything, seems insensitive at best.

    With our own family, because we may add children after this adoption, calling it "Family Day" also doesn't seem right. Seeing as it is not necessarily the day our family becomes complete. The Lemanski Household will be working on just exactly how we will memorialize this day.

  4. Agree about words. I dislike gotcha day, although, my immediate reason is because I hate how "cutesy" it sounds. We use family day, and hopefully some day we will have many "family days" to celebrate. It is appropriate in Tommy's case, as he spent his entire life in an orphanage. I think you could argue that the child is also "getting" or "gotcha-ing" a family in such cases, but it still sounds absurd.

  5. Great post! I flimmin-flammin HATE that phrase.

    We just had our first anniversary as a family. I still don't quite know what to call it. We ate pizza and drank milk, since that's what we had on the fateful day a year ago, and I'm thinking we might keep on doing that until the babies get too embarrassed by it as they grow up. So maybe it will just end up being pizza day. I think maybe I can live with that. (This is something I've been meaning to post about, by the way - if I get around to it, do you mind if I link to you?)

  6. Thanks for all the comments friends. I appreciate your perspectives. Jon and I were talking about this the other day and he was like "Why do we have to name it something at all?" Good point, my dear. I think you guys all understood that my aim in this post wasn't necessarily to advocate for one name over another, but rather to encourage all adoptive parents to be intentional about our language choices. It is awesome to hear where you are each coming from in that regard... feels like I'm in very good company!

    Claudia, link away - I'd be honored. :)

  7. I totally resonate with this... I've always hated that term but never really knew why. Since we've had T-man since the day he was born, we don't celebrate that day - it's just his birthday.

    Not sure what we'll do with G-man since it's such a unique situation (fost-adopt from a family member) but my hunch is we won't celebrate that day either.

    In both cases there is just a lot of loss involved. I think I'd rather just incorporate remembering those times into our day to day life, looking at pictures and talking about it regularly than on any one particular day.

    Sometimes I think we adoptive parents try so hard to make our adopted kids feel special/celebrated that we totally over-do it. Just my opinion :)

  8. Yours might be my new favorite blog and I've only read this one post so far. I made the mistake of telling my husband in passing before we adopted that people call the day you pick up your child "gotcha day." (Not saying that I wanted to use it.) After we got home we were celebrating Ariam's first birthday with a huge group of friends. Someone asked when we picked her up and J turned and asked me "what was her gotcha day date exactly?" (because we had several days we visited her and we were in the country for 3 weeks so apparently he was feeling confused.) It was horrifying to hear it said outloud in relation to MY child. Ick ick ick. We had to have a little regroup after the party to talk about language and how just because adoption lingo exists, it doesn't mean we need to use it! Anyway, thanks for a great post. :) Amanda

  9. Haley, fantastic post! I found you through Claudia. This is the first post I've read of yours, but I dare say that if all of them resonate as much and are just as thought provoking, I'll add you to my blogroll so I can keep coming back!

  10. Thanks Mark/Wendy! This post may have been a fluke in terms of being thought-provoking and I'll probably be boring much of the time... haha. :) But I'd still love to have you stick around!