June 16, 2010

Book Club: Lifegivers

Lifegivers: Framing the Birthparent Experience in Open AdoptionBook club time again, this time organized by Lori! This time around I read Lifegivers: Framing the Birthparent Experience in Open Adoption by longtime social worker and open adoption advocate James Gritter. I've found him to be one of the best at giving a basic philosophy of open adoption. Although he and I differ on some points, I've appreciated his insistence on child-centeredness and the high standards he sets for all of us--adoptive parents, first parents and adoption workers--who bring these adoptions into being. (I picked up his newest adoption book recently and I'm really looking forward to talking about it with you all.)

Lifegivers was aimed at adoption professionals, to help them reframe first parents in their adoption practice and bring them out of the margins of adoptions into a center shared with their children and their children's adoptive parents. Gritter dismantles the unfair concepts of birth parents as The Other, whether that Other is undeserving sinner, unapproachable saint, little more than a baby-maker, or dysfunctional person to be kept at arm's length (or further) from adoptive families. He shares what he's heard from years of listening to birth parents talk about their ambivalence, grief and regret and how those intersect with their open adoptions and ebb and flow over time. Finally, he offers up an ideal model of how birth parents can be affirmed and respected as an ongoing part of their children's lives.

Speaking as an adoptive parent, I think it's a worthwhile read. The chapter on creating an adoption process that values expectant parents as equal participants would especially be good for prospective adoptive parents (and expectant parents!) to read while in the agency/facilitator research phase.

I have a few questions to answer that were posed by other book club participants:

Gritter carefully describes many negative stereotypes about birthparents. What implicit expectations or pressures do these stereotypes place on adoptive parents? (For example, if birthparents are perceived as "heartless," then must adoptive parents be cast as "heroes"?)

There have been some pressures (mostly self-created) that I've felt to varying degrees over the years:
  • Reluctance to share with friends if I'm going through a time of feeling less connected to one of my children or frustrated in my parenting, lest it feed into the myths of adoptive families not forming real bonds.
  • Self-pressure to be an exemplary parent, especially in areas I know are important to the kids' first parents. For instance--and this is an intentionally ludicrous example--if one of their birth parents placed them in part to keep them away from canned soup, then I kick myself every time I am tired and lazy and open up a can of soup for lunch. There's a little voice in my head that says, "I'm supposed to be the one who doesn't serve canned soup!"
  • An unspoken pressure for my marriage to be rock solid, since my kids were deliberately placed in a two-parent household by their first parents.
Like I said, I recognize that these are mostly internal expectations that I'm putting on myself. I don't know that they are reactions to negative birth parent stereotypes for me. I think the root of them is the sense of responsibility I have from Kelly and Ray and Beth entrusting us with their children. Trusting us to create a stable family with real bonds and to give our best to the kids. So they are rooted in a positive view of the kids' birth parents as people who made careful, deliberate choices about their beloved children's lives, not a view of them as my opposites.

In the end, the point Gritter kept coming back to about first parents being regular people in unusual circumstances doing the best they can is something that can also be said about adoptive parents (although obviously our experiences are much different). That point is really the best way to fight against both negative and positive stereotypes. We are ordinary people who are going to have ordinary strengths and faults. The sooner we can see ourselves that way--and let others know that's how we expect them to see us--the better off we'll be.

In discussion of adoption we often hear about the difference between infant adoption and adoption from foster care. In his introduction Gritter discusses feedback he received about distinguishing between "voluntary" and "involuntary" birth parents. What do you think about making this distinction? Is it helpful? harmful? neither? How so or why not.

I can understand why the author's first inclination was to distinguish between voluntary and involuntary termination of parental rights. They seem like such starkly different experiences on the surface. And no one wants to lump together abusive or neglectful parents with those who aren't. He wrote that he got a lot of feedback from first mothers to drop the distinction, in part because their voluntary relinquishments didn't always feel so voluntary. None of them wanted to join the ranks of birth parents, even for those whose circumstances may have made it the right choice for them at the time.

Thinking about what I've learned from reading foster care blogs and trying to look at it from my children's perspective, it sure seems to me that all kids benefit from openness about their personal stories and actual connection with birth families when both possible and advisable. The shape of that openness and connection might change because of the circumstances of the adoption (and the needs of the individual child), but the value of the connection doesn't. So while there is lots of discussion to be had about how to bring openness to life in all sorts of different scenarios, starting by dividing birth parents into "voluntary" and "involuntary" camps doesn't seem particularly useful.

(For what it's worth, he may have dropped the distinction, but this book more or less assumes you're talking about voluntary infant placements.)

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/should play an active ongoing role in your child’s development and well being? What has been your experience and opportunity to fulfill the role described by the author?

This question came from Gritter's breakdown of parenting roles into life giving (done by first parents), life sustaining or care giving (done by adoptive parents), and life affirming (done by both sets of parents). In a healthy open adoption, each set of parents respects the unique life giving/life sustaining role that the other set of parents holds. And they all value the way they share in the life affirming role, cooperating to create an overlapping family in which their child is loved, celebrated, supported and affirmed. For that to happen, adoptive parents and first parents alike need to view birth families as more than just sources of medical history or players whose active role ended at placement.

For all my frustrations with Agency #1 (and, oh, are my frustrations many), this is one thing they actually did. We jumped into that first adoption gung ho for open adoption and the ways we that ongoing, nurturing relationships with his birth parents would benefit our son throughout his childhood. Agency #1 definitely sold us all on the possible benefits of fully open adoption. I am grateful that they started us down that road. What they didn't do--and what Agency #2 did much better--is acknowledge and prepare us for the fact that open adoption isn't always an easy road, especially for birth parents. A worthwhile road, but sometimes not an easy one. Rather, they communicated that if an open adoption was "successful," any jealousy, regret, ambivalence, or anger wouldn't be an issue. They gave us none of the tools or support we needed to sustain that open adoption they helped start. There was a lot of scrambling and self-educating (and self criticism) on my part. Puppy is the one ultimately paying the biggest price for that, because I think that lack of preparation and support has at times kept Ray and Kelly from fully playing that life affirming role in his life. I know I'm always harping on this, but helping parents--both kinds--get ready for the lifetime after placement is so vital, regardless of how open the adoption is. And I fear that gets lost as we adoptive parents get caught up in evaluating agencies based mostly on their price structure, average wait time, and whether or not we think our interests will be protected throughout the process.

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

[Disclosure: links to Amazon are part of its affiliate program.]


I am said...

Hi there. Great post! I'm new to the "blogosphere" and am very glad I happened upon yours. I had a few thoughts I wanted to share on your book Q&A.

"the point Gritter kept coming back to about first parents being regular people in unusual circumstances doing the best they can is something that can also be said about adoptive parents (although obviously our experiences are much different)."

-One very common assumption is that birth parents' lives are unstable and chaotic as a result of poverty. There is often a tacit assumption that "if you could afford to parent you would." Any time I tell someone my partner and I chose to make an adoption plan because we didn't want to parent I'm met by a blank stare. If I mention that she didn't have a job at the time suddenly understanding and empathy begin pouring out. That assumption places a burden on the adoptive parents to provide more and better than the birth family could financially. Essentially if there aren't toys, new clothes, and vacations galore you're not living up to your end of the bargain. Similarly it sets the expectation that the birthfamily will remain in the role of the supplicant.

On the notion of voluntary vs involuntary surrender I think there is still merit to differentiating. The heart of both experiences is loss which will drive those capable to serious self inquiry. The results of that inquiry will be very different. No doubt the experience of inadequacy, shame, loss, and sadness will be very much the same. However the distinction I feel is still worth making is how one accepts and processes the pregnancy/parenting/adoption experience as a whole. To steal your own terms, the value of these experiences doesn't change, but the shape may be altered drastically.

sara said...

I have fleetingly felt those same self-created pressures, but couldn't express it as well as you did. My daughter is still very young, but those pressures are buzzing around in my head already...

Andy said...

Thanks so much for sharing, it is always so interesting to get everyone else's perspectives.

Megan said...

You've articulated pressures that I feel very often. It's good to know I'm not alone.

Deb said...

Your pressures rang true with me. My biggest is that things changed and I now have to work outside the home for awhile. I feel tremendous guilt over that one, knowing that she wanted that for her daughter.
'For that to happen, adoptive parents and first parents alike need to view birth families as more than just sources of medical history or players whose active role ended at placement.' Powerful statement. One of those I wish every adoptive parent could understand, even those that don't have an open adoption.

Great review. Hope you don't mind I'm going to reference your pressures in a post.

Lori Lavender Luz said...

I especially liked your thoughts on the first question. I hadn't been conscious of the same pressures, but now that I see them spelled out, I can say they are familiar.

So now I know what's for dinner tonight ;-)

Tonya said...

I'm glad I'm not the only one who sometimes feels I have to "measure up" to birthparent expectations -- when they're really my expectations. You captured this wonderfully.

luna said...

excellent contribution. I love how you summed up what the book covers in a paragraph while I went on for a page...

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