{Honestly} Gotcha day

This is (finally, officially) the first post in a series called {Honestly}. These posts, by other adoptive parents and myself, explore the darker emotions, the questions and the struggles in any adoption — what happens outside the highlight reel. Please join the conversation by leaving a comment with your experience. If you’re interested in guest posting, please contact me.

First moments


I used to cry over other adoptive families’ “gotcha day” videos.

These slideshows, posted by families who had finally reached the pinnacle of the adoption process — finally meeting their child face-to-face — are a series of photos and video capturing the emotions of the momentous day, set to stirring music. I knew, intimately, the anticipation on the parents’ faces. I could taste their joy when they caught the first glimpse of their longed-for child, which is what usually started my own tears flowing. I could almost see our own moment, our own child, in our arms at last. I nodded, choked up, knowing. Our moment was coming soon.

My tears were the surface of a deep, unquestioning belief in the story each video presented, because it looked so much like our story and so much like I imagined our ending, too. All those months of paper chasing, all the money spent to process every piece of paper, the nights I’d awoken at 2 a.m. to check my email for news, the weeks that would tick by in agonizing silence … for me, those gotcha day videos represented a shining hope that one day, we’d have our happy ending, too.

I couldn’t have known how wrong I was. Not about the “ending” part, though that wasn’t accurate either — but more glaringly, the “happy” part.

The reality

At first, our gotcha day looked every bit as much like the first half of the videos I watched. My husband and I arrived in Africa late one night in late February, the humidity sticking to our stretched-out travel clothes as we smelled the dust and diesel and peered out into the continent, shrouded in darkness, for the first time. I couldn’t stop tapping my foot and fidgeting in the tourist visa line. We practically ran to baggage claim where our suitcases were waiting, and then started the 50-foot walk to the doors where we saw the crowd of people waiting for arrivals. We knew our son was in that crowd, with his foster parents, looking for us.

We stopped no less than four times in that short walk, hands shaking, knees buckling, laughing nervously as we rearranged the luggage so we could both pull our bags, my husband could hold his phone up to take a video, and we could both have an arm free to hold our son for the first time. Finally ready (were we?), we walked breathlessly though the sliding doors, as my husband started to say, his voice choked with emotion, “I see him…. I see him!”

Are you starting to tear up?

Because I wasn’t.

My main emotion? Fear. Heart-pounding-through-my-shirt crazy fear.

Then my fears were realized when I finally held our son for the first time and felt… nothing.

Well, that’s not exactly true. I felt disoriented. I felt odd, like I wasn’t in the right place. I felt too close to the moment, because it couldn’t be happening to me, not like this. It felt wrong. I looked in his face, a moment I’d imagined so many times, and I didn’t have the feeling, that one I was sure would come: Where was the love-at-first-sight? I didn’t feel warmth or light and I didn’t hear a small voice inside saying, “yes, this is my son.” It wasn’t magical. I couldn’t hear the soundtrack. I was looking into the face of a child I didn’t know, and he was looking at me like the stranger I was to him. I remember a desperate feeling, trying to conjure tears, emotion, relief, anything, trying to feel what I was supposed to be feeling, according to all the videos.

This is the moment I was waiting for?

What then?

I hadn’t felt it when I saw his photo for the first time, so I thought surely I’d feel it when I held him. Then, I thought surely I’d feel it after jet lag wore off and we got into a good rhythm. Then, I thought surely I would feel it after our first court appearance when the judge reassured us that our case would end positively. Then, I started to feel panicky.

As I held him on my lap in the paradise of Uganda and he gave me those big beautiful smiles, I just felt guilty. I didn’t deserve them. When he grieved in the middle of the night for the first week, screaming and pushing us away, I had to retreat and ask Nathan to just handle it. Even though I knew that might happen, when it came down to it at 2 a.m. in Africa with dogs barking outside the window and the fan moving the humid air around the room — I could not cope with those cries. Not then. Not when I didn’t even like him yet.

My initial fears about the process — that our case would be denied and we’d return home without our son — started to reverse.  I started fearing that he would come home with us and be stuck with a mother who couldn’t love him. How was that fair to him? My heart broke as I realized he deserved better than me. (I now look back and see that I was starting to love him. I wanted better for him.)

After finally confessing my fears to myself, God and my husband, I could let them go little by little. I got good advice from a friend who said that the actions of love need to start now, but the feelings sometimes come later. I decided to love with every feeding, every kiss, every time I laid him down to sleep. And little by little, we grew that love out of nothing. Months later, it finally felt like it had been there all along.

Letting go of the fairy tale

Like most hard lessons that are terrifying and agonizing at the time, now I can thank God for our gotcha day. Because now, when I see a seeming fairy tale, I find myself wondering what’s on the other side. Like when a friend’s new marriage seems perfect. Or when a woman with no children listens politely in a room full of women talking about their labor and delivery stories. Or when a family with the American Dream smiles like everything is fine. I know now that it can’t be that simple.

We’re all engaged in our own great struggle. You have to know that you know it’s true in any adoption — even if it’s gorgeous and carefree and perfect in the beginning, the challenges always come. This is the messy, life work of relationship, parenting is a humbling, heart-on-your-sleeve endeavor, and sometimes it’s hard to see the grace.

While we were still in Africa, I couldn’t watch the gotcha day videos anymore. I’d see them posted and had to move on, not seeing my reality in them. And now that we’re home, I’ve watched a few and I could feel happy for the families. But I don’t cry anymore.

Maybe because I don’t have to imagine our gotcha day. Maybe it’s a post-traumatic response and I don’t want to feel that fear again. And maybe it’s because I’m looking beyond the smiling faces and tears of joy and wondering what’s behind them. But each time, I whisper a prayer for strength and love that cannot come from ourselves alone. Because no matter how long the paper chase and the Long Wait seemed, gotcha day is not the ending. It’s a single step on a thousand-mile journey.

Of course the full color isn’t going to be complete on day 1. On our next gotcha day, I will loosen my grip on expectations and look to the Source of light and life to guide me into love. Eventually.

Linking with Emily.

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8 comments on “{Honestly} Gotcha day

  1. brian miller says:

    this is a beautifula nd real post…i am working with a team creating pathways for people in our church that desire to to adopt…if it is ok with you i will share this with them…

  2. Renee says:

    Aloha, as someone who was adopted almost 58 yrs ago… {geez, how time flies} the best thing my parents did was to tell me ALL the time that I was chosen. Never once did I feel “less than” the other kids, those who tried to tease me that I didn’t have real parents. Blessings on your journey.

  3. i love this. it’s so… human. 🙂

  4. sarahdaisy says:

    Kim, I found your blog through Rachel Held Evans’ blog and I’m so glad I did!! My husband and I are just a couple of months away from our new daughters, ages 2 and 4, coming home. We are so excited to be adopting at last. It’s been a long journey through infertility treatments, one failed adoption, and being foster parents to get us where we are today. I love reading your Honestly posts. I can’t wait to be mommy to my daughters, but I’m kinda scared too. Thank you for writing honestly about your experience and sharing the reality of life as an adoptive mom with us. THANK YOU!!!!

    • Sarah, I’m so glad you stopped by! How amazing and exciting and incredible about your adoptions — I wish you the very best. The most important thing is to just be honest. All the time. About everything. Not with everyONE, but find someone you trust and let them have it. I’m sure you know this, but I needed someone to give me permission. I’ve learned a lot about expectations and trust through my adoption experiences.

      I hope you’ll come back and join in the conversation when you can. So fun to connect.

  5. Amelia says:

    I love this post! Thank you for your honesty!!! I actually imagine our day with serious trepidation. I think I need a few more doses of excitement and a few less of fear. But I appreciate how you articulate the reality of the day–fear and joy and confusion.