by Lisa Ritter Starr
Jim Gritter's Lifegivers: Framing the Birthparent Experience in Open Adoption, is a must-read for all who have a birth parent in their lives. Whether you are part of a child's birth family, adoptive family, or are an adopted person yourself, you will find something enlightening among Gritter's long experience as a counselor and pioneering advocate of open adoption.
Chapter headings in the book, such as "Why the Public Dislikes Birthparents," "The Pursuit of Worthiness," and "Pathways to Irrelevance," hint at Gritter's straight-forward approach and clarity of communication. These aspects combine with the author's genuine and gentle concern for birth parents and children of adoption to form the best literary representation of open adoption I have ever read. Many statements from this book struck me so positively that I would like to share them here.
Because of adoption's still-influential past, in which closed adoptions and the shaming of birth parents prevailed, Gritter begins the book by taking on the heavy, difficult subject of birth parent stereotypes and myths. Regarding the reason why many dislike the idea of birth parents in the first place, Gritter explains that those people probably would distrust anyone who has a child, but does not want to parent. They may wonder why "the birthmother has seriously underestimated the primal appeal of parenting" and worry "that eventually she will change her mind" and "make trouble" (13--14).
Gritter makes a valid point in saying that, for many, it is easier to distrust a birth mother by assuming that all are untrustworthy, rather than to understand the many complex situations that can give rise to an adoption. Complexities and variations are infinite, and the human brain is averse to contemplating the infinite. Most families histories in general comprise very complex situations. For example, my grandfather's siblings and parents left Norway without him. He was sick and rejected from boarding the boat that took the rest of them to America. He spent a year in the care of family friends and, by the time he arrived in the United States, he had a new brother, his mother had died, and the family was split up. For an outsider looking in on this family situation, it would have been very difficult to guess the reasons that gave rise to it.
Birth mothers these days, and even in recent past, are usually simple, loving people who end up facing a situation that they unintentionally helped create. It is no one's "fault," and (I believe) on a larger scale is never an "accident." Their common groung is that they choose adoption out of love for the life of their child. Nonetheless, many people either conclude or are brought up to believe that birth mothers are troublesome, dangerously rebellious, careless, or myriad other judgments. Such beliefs are unfounded. Still, as Gritter states: "The birthmother is much more likely to be seen as a threat to the stability of adoption than as the courageous person who makes it possible in the first place" (14).
Not all unplanned pregnancies are caused by carelessness. I know of one birth mother who used three forms of birth control when she conceived. Many unplanned pregnancies occur despite the use of birth control methods, and many others begin despite unlikely odds, because of youthful inexperience, or a combination of the two.
Some methods are better than others, but no method is failsafe. Some would say the spiritual belief in and practice of abstinence comes closest, but we simply cannot impose this belief on everyone. Just as there is no one religion, this single belief is not necessarily suitable or destined for every person. Some simply do not believe in it, and even if they do, this does not prevent situations like date rape, which may also become the cause for an unplanned pregnancy and reason for an adoption.
Families are all different, and they all come from unique origins. Like it or not, and even within those families that never intended to break up, these things can and do happen. People face unexpected situations that they never thought could happen to them. For example they may, for various reasons, end up divorced and remarried. This complicates the family situation in sometimes undesirable ways. Yet parents, counselors, social workers, and others agree that divorced parents should make the best of it. They should respect each other and never speak ill to their children about the spouse they divorced, or about the new step-parents.
It is the same with adoptive and birth parents. Positive communication is important, and respect and acceptance are key elements in the new family, which includes both adoptive and birth family members. In Gritter's words, "Negative stereotypes of birthparents can undermine the children's self-image. The children may infer they are from substandard origins and function accordingly" (18--19). If adoptive parents show no that they are uninterested in, or fearful or disdainful of the child's family of origin, the child may also conclude that the adoptive parents feel that way about her or him.
Proponents of open adoption believe that families can do much more than simply not stereotype birth parents. In fact, they can open their doors to them. Birth parents can be trusted, loving extended family members who only add depth and love to a child's life, if given the chance.
Many adoptive parents have positive feelings about the child's birth family. Even if mistrust of the birth parents is not an issue, it is still possible to dislike the idea of open adoption. Having birth family in your and your child's life, in some respect, means facing another side of the child's birth - as a loss and reason for some sadness or depression. The birth mother may not always feel as happy and positive about the child's adoption, because it may remind her difficult times. She may re-experience feelings of unworthiness, personal failure, or the loss of the parenting role. The child's accomplishments, while positive, may hint of loss, especially if the birth mother hears of baby's first step, first word, and first tooth, without getting to be there for them. Therefore, "because her anguish ruins a happy story, most people wish the birthparent would just be quiet" (15). They may wish not to think about her too much, or not to think about her at all.
For most people, the birth parent experience in open adoption is a foreign concept. However, it exists, even if many aren't interested or choose to forget about it. Gritter's book on the birth parent experience is quietly eye-opening and informative. It is concisely worded and the author does an excellent job of framing the complexities and nuances of the birth parent experience. It is an illustration of our amazing ability to understand and accept one another, if we only try, and a testament to the richness of the human experience.
Gritter, James L. Lifegivers: Framing the Birthparent Experience in Open Adoption." Washington, DC: CWLA Press, 2000.
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