In adoption speak, the “Gotcha Day” is the day when parents, after months and years aching during the adoption process, finally get to meet in person their child. It’s the day when they get to carry, hug, snuggle, high five, or simply stare at the boy or girl they’ve come to know and love through many months of pictures, dreams, prayers, and anxious nights. Gotcha Days are long-anticipated and long-agonized over. They are the days when expectations and worries and ridiculous anxieties peak to near unbearableness — when mamas are able to hold their babies for the first time, when daddys are able to shelter and protect a child they’ve been separated from for far too long, when families are finally together, in the same room, in laps and hugs and long embraces.
I don’t have any experience with this, so I’m purely speculating, but I’ve come to think of Gotcha Days as sort of like arranged marriages. You make a commitment, and you’re brought together by Something magnificent, and then you’re standing there in your beautiful outfit, because you know it’s going to be recorded and memories snapped and moments recollected forever, and you are about to enter into this amazing thing called motherhood. People are calling you mother and taking your picture, and meanwhile, you’re standing in front of a child you have NEVER met, promising him to death till you part, I will love you always, my baby. It is terrifying, exciting, and so very vulnerable.
Gotcha Days are days of remembering. I remember getting ready the morning of our Gotcha Day, having passed out in a hotel room after flying for over a day, from LA to DC to Rome to Addis Ababa, and trying to find a shirt I felt confident enough to wear. I applied waterproof mascara, because I planned on many tears. It was raining outside, and how could it be raining on my arranged wedding day? I wished I had different shoes for the muddy walk up the steep hill and around the bend to Hannah’s Hope. I could hardly believe my baby had been only 300 yards away the night before, while I slept in a hotel bed still aching with the feeling of, “Where is my baby? Where is he?” Meanwhile my Bean was just around the bend, sleeping one final night in his own crib in a room full of cribs in an orphanage with rooms full of children. He was one of many there, receiving care from several special mothers who did their best to nurture what they could en masse.
The best way I try to describe his first months is this: imagine if your baby was raised in the church nursery the first 157 days of his life. Imagine if that’s where he lived, among other crying children with runny noses and caregivers picking up whoever is most needy and trying to simply maintain — simply stall for the next hour, or two hours, while the mommys and daddys are in church just across the way. Except we were across oceans, and it wasn’t hours, it was the first 157 days, 3,768 hours waiting and waiting for mommy and daddy to walk through those doors. He didn’t know any differently, but it breaks my heart nonetheless.
When we first brought the Bean home, I thought him only being in an orphanage for 5 months was about as ideal of an adoption scenario as possible. Many of these children are parentless for years, or neglected for month after month, or living on the street fending for themselves, or wasting away in cribs without being touched at all. Many parents who adopt do not know the stories of their children prior to adopting them. Its hard to explain how hard this is, and even if we know some details, a wee bit of information that we can pass on to our children, it’s a loss to not really know, to have days, months, and sometimes years, unaccounted for. It’s a loss to the parent, but it’s especially a loss to the child. Pages and pages of baby books are empty.
My Bean was loved as best as a child could be loved as he waited — this is something that brings me comfort. Hannah’s Hope was a beautiful, tender place, just like most church nursery’s are. But then I think about a baby in the church nursery for 157 days. I think about how long 157 days are to a little baby who needs to be snuggled and held every single hour of his first days, and the chaos of a noisy nursery, and how much every child needs to know he is special. I think about how long the early days are to a baby who sleeps a lot but wakes a lot more, and how he woke to someone different all too often, and that person bounced him differently, smelled differently, talked differently, fed him differently than the person before her and the person before her and the person before her. I think of him laying there in his crib in a yellow room with giraffes painted on the walls, with a photo of us by his bedside, that tiny room heated by a pot of coals in its center, and the darkness that swallowed him while I waited, some days with patience and other days in complete hysteria.
On that 158th day, when we walked into Hannah’s Hope, that nursery where he’d been living the past five months, I expected to race up to him and scoop him up into crazy smothering kisses. I thought my mascara would be drizzling down my face and I’d be lathering mama saliva on that little crevice most babies have between their triple chin and neck. Instead, I squatted over him in his bouncy chair staring at his smiling face and chunky legs thinking, ‘Oh my gosh, is this actually finally happening? Please someone pinch me. Is this really my baby?”
I was not the crazy mama I thought I’d be. I was too nervous and scared to lose my composure. If I’m honest, all I wanted to do was race out of that orphanage and back into the privacy of our hotel room and strip him down to see every single inch of his little body. I had dreamed of his toes. I wanted to see the belly button that once attached to a life-giving cord of a mystery first-mother. I wanted to discover birth marks only mothers should know about, and put his naked body on my chest so we could start bonding this moment, so this day would be the day he would come to know MY smell and MY sounds and MY way of feeding and MY way of comforting and MY way of rocking and ME, because I AM HIS MAMA.
But because all the world was watching and this was our ‘Gotcha Moment,” I kept my composure and tried to politely enter into his world, remembering I was but a stranger. For months I had called him my baby, but he had never known me as his mommy. I had to earn this role, to step into what I was, and I needed to do it with sensitivity. I was about to rip him from the only crazy, chaotic life he knew in that crowded nursery. So I squatted beside him and studied the curves of his face. “He doesn’t look like the pictures,” I thought. “He’s so much bigger than he was in the pictures.” Because babies grow that fast. First they’re newborns all tiny and floppy, and then they’re five month olds sitting in bouncy chairs giggling. The nursery worker gives me permission to pick up my own son, and I work hard to meet eye contact. I unbuckle the bouncy chair and bring him to my chest, all the while I’m thinking, oh my gosh he’s the most adorable baby I’ve ever seen, and please don’t cry, please don’t cry, please don’t cry.
And then, after an hour walking around his home, trying to snap as many pictures as I could and ask as many questions about my boy as I could think of in such a state, our group returned to the hotel with our children finally with us. We set out to build bonds that didn’t form those first 40 weeks in utero, and those first 157 days in the nursery. We sought to know him, and understand him, and hold him, and care for him during in sickness and in health, for better or for worse, till death do we part. It was a most beautiful, triumphant, excrutiating day, his Gotcha Day. I just cannot imagine my life without my Ethiopian boy.
Six years ago.