adoption book tour: lifegivers

The topic for this Open Adoption Book Tour is Lifegivers: Framing the Birthparent Experience in Open Adoption, by James L. Gritter (2000). What follows is my take on the book and answers to several questions. Click through to read along the rest of the tour.

A long-time social worker in Traverse City, Michigan, author Jim Gritter helped structure some of the first open adoptions in the early ’80s. As we prepared to adopt, I read two of his books. A collection of stories by families in those first open adoptions, Adoption Without Fear (1989) is intended primarily for prospective adoptive parents but is somewhat dated and infused with religious themes for my taste. I much preferred The Spirit of Open Adoption (1997), written for a broader audience with its child-centered approach and focus on the benefits of openness. An OA practitioner for decades, Gritter has listened to hundreds of birthparents with a compassionate heart, and cultivated new awareness and understanding of the open adoption experience.

In Lifegivers, Gritter re-frames the often misunderstood experience of birthparents. The focus is on birth mothers simply because birth fathers are often (not always) absent. Part One begins by discussing the public’s misperception and taboos; Part Two covers key themes of the birthparent experience; Part Three offers valuable insight as to why and how birthparents should be treated with respect as valuable ongoing participants in adoption, and in the life of the child they brought into being.

Few among us can imagine what it would be like to forever place a baby in another family’s care, or fully appreciate the reasons for doing so. Unless you have made such a decision yourself, you can’t truly know the life altering impacts it may have.

Rather than compassion, understanding, and respect, however, women who place children are often judged by society. Deemed guilty until proven innocent (p61), they are the subject of stereotypes (e.g., sinners and saints), myths (e.g., “they don’t love their babies”), and taboos (e.g., “how could she?” or “I could never…”). Plagued with judgment, the question “What kind of woman…” often arises, even if unspoken. As Gritter points out, the more compassionate query is what dire circumstances led to such a difficult and life altering decision (p27). Gritter suggests the question How could you…” may only be appropriate when posed by an adoptee. “A question from his soul deserves an answer from hers,” he writes, even though it is “an experience for which there is no adequate language” (p31). Imagining such an encounter in our own adoption between two people so dear to my heart brought a big lump to my throat.

In highlighting themes of the birthparent experience, Gritter does a service for anyone connected to adoption. The chapters on the “circumstances of necessity” (ch. 5), exploring “reasonable ambivalence” (ch. 6), “distinctive grief” (ch. 7) and regret (“the persistence of ambivalence”) (ch. 8 ) may affirm the birthparent experience and promote understanding in adoptive parents, adoptees and others. Adoption professionals would do well to examine their own practices regarding these issues to better serve the needs of expectant parents as they consider placement and beyond.

Misunderstood by society, too often birthparents are also marginalized by the adoption profession. Expectant mothers are treated as (and called) “birthmothers” long before relinquishment. I think many are poorly served when it comes to sorting through reasons for ambivalence, preparing for the persistence of grief, and exploring potential alternatives. Reform is needed, as this could lead to subtle coercion and deep regret. Disturbingly, Gritter reports that many women feel as if they had no real “voice” in the adoption process. “To varying degrees, adoption feels like something done to them rather than something they chose,” he explains, which can lead to anger and resentment (p123). In worst case scenarios, they may be treated like “suppliers” for the industry, with children as “commodities” and prospective adoptive parents as “consumers” (p54-56). Sadly, rather than being regarded as an ongoing important part of the child’s life, birthparents can be dismissed as “irrelevant” once they’ve signed legal papers relinquishing parental rights (ch. 3).

Another chapter outlines how and why birthparents are of enduring importance and how they “fit in” open adoptions (ch. 9). I think this should be required reading for anyone considering adoption. Perhaps more parents (expectant and prospective) would commit to openness if they realized the significant benefits. Birthparents provide more than just a genetic link. They can help the child develop and affirm his/her identity. They can explain their decisions and answer questions. They can support caregivers to help the child feel secure and stable. Their involvement can eliminate mystery. They can express love, interest and care. Ongoing birthparent involvement can help normalize the adoption experience.

The author describes three “vital dimensions of parenting” — life giving, life sustaining and life affirming. While the first two are exclusive to birthparents and adoptive parents respectively, the last is shared among both (p152). Such a fundamental concept — i.e., that love, interest and care from both adoptive and birth parents can “affirm” the child throughout life — highlights the significance of ongoing contact. There is no confusion when each is secure in their roles. Gritter suggests that the most healthy open adoptions are those in which the parents recognize this interdependence and create cooperative, loving circumstances in which the child may thrive (p162-162). This makes perfect sense to me. What do you think?

And now, the questions…

Regarding the exclusive roles of parents (birthparents as life givers, adoptive parents as caregivers), Gritter says (p. 153), “Open adoption recognizes the deep sadness associated with not being able to provide a vital dimension of parenting.” How did/will you work through this sadness in your own triad?

I had to overcome feelings associated with my inability to conceive and give birth to my child before we pursued adoption. I had to let go of that possibility long before our daughter was born.

I was fortunate that our daughter’s birthmother K shared part of of her pregnancy with us. One morning she called to tell us about the baby’s first movements. She invited us to midwife appointments where we charted the baby’s growth and heard her heartbeat. When K said she wanted us there for the birth, we were thrilled. (Of course we invited her to change her mind too, at every step.) Witnessing the birth of our child was such a magnificent experience that we were so privileged to share.

While I did not give life to our daughter, I was there when she took her first breath. I held her as she emerged into the world, before passing her to K. I am so grateful that M and I could share those first sacred moments of awareness in our daughter’s life. Plus we experienced a beautiful home birth — gentle, loving and safe — something I never could have done, had I given birth myself.

But our child’s birth was only the beginning. The “lifegiver” role is not merely a one-time event. There is more to lifegiving than giving birth.

At times I’ve had to acknowledge the loss of “lifegiver” status. I had no control over the prenatal environment, for example. Sometimes I’ll see a breastfeeding mother and wish I could have done more to nurture our baby’s life. Those issues, I have learned to let go. I am grateful for the opportunities I have had.

As to the future, maybe someday I’ll wish we shared a biological connection, or maybe I’ll feel jealous that others get to share that with her. Yet I can embrace the connections we do have with her family of origin and remember that each of us has an important role in our child’s life.

The main issue I face concerns our daughter’s future well being. I know I will never be able to fulfill all of her needs. No matter what a wonderful Mama I may be, naturally she is bound to have a primal curiosity about her birthparents, with interests that I simply can’t satisfy. I hope to make space for her to articulate and explore her thoughts and feelings, and create opportunities for her to get what she needs from her family of origin. I will encourage her interest, support her desires, and affirm her feelings as real and valid.

We are working to maintain relationships with Baby J’s family by birth and consider many as extended family. Each of us has a uniquely vital role in our daughter’s life. Only K can provide that connection and love that comes from bringing another being into the universe. I hope we are able to share the “life affirming” experience with K as our daughter grows into a young woman. As she matures, she may develop her own relationship with K, which I hope to nurture with grace.

Rather than sadness over loss of a vital dimension of parenting (i.e., lifegiving), I accept this aspect of our family for the unique richness it provides. Yet I also hope to cultivate a sense of normalcy. If we can integrate our daughter’s family of origin into the every day fabric of our lives, maybe she will too.

While certain dimensions of parenting are exclusive, our child need not choose among us. There is no competition. Loving K does not mean she will love me any less. Love is not  limited by function or status. Maybe if our daughter is able to express interest in and love for each of us, that alone could help lessen some of the loss we all may feel.

To what extent were you informed before placement about the importance of birth parents in the child’s life? If you are an adoptive parent, were you educated about the significant ways in which birth parents could play an active ongoing role in your child’s development and well being? If you are a birth parent, were you counseled about the importance of open adoption to your child, or was openness minimized? What has been your experience and opportunity to fulfill the role described by the author?

Our pre-adoption education was extensive, but mostly because we sought out information ourselves. I read many books and articles, especially on the benefits of openness. I read blogs from all members of the triad, including some difficult ones. We found a counselor who specializes in child-centered open adoption and her service focuses on education. We attended monthly meetings with birth parents and families living in open adoptions. We heard firsthand stories about the challenges and benefits of openness. We heard from adoptees and birthparents in closed adoptions.

Through this education, we decided we wanted a fully open adoption for our child. Not just photos and letters, but real ongoing contact. We wanted to establish and maintain a connection. Whatever concerns I may have had about openness were transformed into a fear that we could be faced with a closed adoption. Even if openness was going to be harder for us, we wanted to try to make it easier for our child later.

While our agency focused on open adoption, it seemed to downplay the option of a fully open adoption. Apparently their belief is that openness is good in that it’s important for the child to know about his/her biological parents, with basic information. In other words, minimal open adoption requirements — i.e., photos, letters, annual visits. Unfortunately I think this stems from the general fear that many prospective adoptive parents have about openness, so agencies downplay it in a misguided attempt to serve prospective rather than expectant parents.

Because we worked with an independent consultant, we did not “match” through our agency or write our contact agreement through them. They did require PAPs to attend four workshops with all members of the triad, including those in closed adoptions. But when a birth mother from our consultant’s service presented about her extensive ongoing contact with her daughter’s family, the social worker afterwards tried to appease many in the room by suggesting that such a level of openness was “highly unusual.” To me, it seemed rather dismissive of the benefits that such contact can have for everyone in the triad, most importantly the child.

Finally, when we were drafting our outreach materials, I was concerned that our desire for a fully open adoption might scare away an expectant mother. I even proposed changing a line from “We are committed to developing and maintaining an ongoing relationship..” to something like “We are open to whatever level of contact makes you comfortable.” Yet our advisor strongly encouraged us not to make that change. She  reasoned that openness is not always easy or comfortable, but it is critical for the child’s benefit. When we reconsidered, it became clear that we really did want that opportunity to build a strong relationship to serve as the foundation for our child.

To continue to the next leg of this book tour, please visit the main list at The Open Adoption Examiner.


~ by luna on June 15, 2010.

13 Responses to “adoption book tour: lifegivers”

  1. “Gritter suggests that the most healthy open adoptions are those in which the parents recognize this interdependence and create cooperative, loving circumstances in which the child may thrive (p162-162).” Agreed!

    I know what you mean about the sacredness of those early moments, where the whole room full of you are joined inextricably and forever.

    Your advisor sounds like a very wise person, remaining “real” at all times.

    And I love this, Luna: “Rather than sadness over loss of a vital dimension of parenting (i.e., lifegiving), I accept this aspect of our family for the unique richness it provides. Yet I also hope to cultivate a sense of normalcy.”

    (Thanks for the link tip — I’ve fixed it!)

  2. Thank you so much for writing about this process Luna. I was totally ignorant and this has been very informative for me.

  3. […] adoption book tour: lifegivers « life from here: musings from the edge […]

  4. Great post! Thanks for sharing

  5. […] Damn, that last post was long. Sorry y’all. I probably wouldn’t have read it either. Someone asked me what […]

  6. Luna, thank you for sharing these thoughts. They are immensely helpful. xox

  7. Dear Luna,

    I’m a casting director working with a documentary series about adoption, and I thought you might be able to help me. Please get in touch!


  8. This is a great post. So far my favorite on the book tour. “If we can integrate our daughter’s family of origin into the every day fabric of our lives, maybe she will too” I think we all hope for that.

    Thank you for sharing your experience. It’s invaluable to learn what it can be like on “the other side.”

  9. Great post! Simply amazing!! Thanks for sharing,

  10. […] We also wanted to ensure that any expectant parents we met would have adequate support. While we liked our agency social worker and case manager, it was unclear how they might serve the needs of expectant parents. […]

  11. […] adoption are not well supported to build a strong foundation for a meaningful ongoing relationship. With few exceptions, I think most adoption professionals fail to educate expectant and prospective parents about the […]

  12. […] think about birthparents as “lifegivers” and the importance of ongoing involvement. While some birth parents do have less capacity for […]

  13. […] about a child-centric approach, about grief in adoption, the significance of openness and the inherent value of birth family remaining a significant part of the child’s life. If we met a woman — or couple — who didn’t want the same level of openness, then […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: