Recently, 10 people from all corners of adoption read LifeGivers: Framing the Birthparent Experience in Open Adoption. They then submitted questions to each other, answered a sampling of those questions, and shared their perspectives on the book. Please click to read these thought-provoking posts, even if you have not read the book.
We are fortunate to have author participation. James L Gritter is answering the questions that were put to him. Here is the last in the series.
In the decade since you wrote the book, no doubt you have gotten both praise and criticism from the birthparents themselves, especially being outside the adoption triad. If you were updating Lifegivers today, what changes would you make, if any?
Gritter: You’re right, Lifegivers has drawn its share of praise and criticism. I take that to mean the book has something to say, that there’s substance to it that folks can react to. Maybe I’m nuts, but I think I could probably write about adoption in a way that would make great numbers of people happy and sell a lot of books.
Here’s the formula: Coach would-be adoptive parents how to appeal to potential birthparents, give people permission to do whatever the heck they feel like doing in order to accomplish their purposes, and tell lots of happy stories.
That’s not my calling. The reason I write is to try to clarify my thoughts. Sometimes I’m able to get a bit of a handle on things. When that happens, it occurs to me that these observations might be helpful to others as well and I make the effort to put them out there. I’m pleased that Lifegivers has stimulated thought and made a positive difference for at least some readers. Most of the criticism I’ve heard has to do with the tone of the book. Too dark, say some, and maybe they’re right. My goal is to be as honest as possible, and it seems to me that the reality of adoption — particularly for birthparents — is difficult. I just know I can’t be a sugar-coater and live with myself. The book is what it is, but I think it will affect people in different ways at different moments in their journey.
I also think we are much too gun shy about the taxing aspects of adoption. It’s not exactly delightful to ponder the difficulties of the experience, but I think these ruminations can help us discover depths and possibilities that may have otherwise eluded us. In The Spirit of Open Adoption I share a quote from Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes. He wrote, “I would not give a fig for simplicity this side of complexity, but I would give my life for simplicity on the other side of complexity.” I think that is beautifully stated. Borrowing his format, I suggest that I would not give you a nickel for joy this side of pain, but I believe the joy on the other side of pain is a priceless blessing. To get to the genuine joy of adoption, we have to pay our dues.
As the question implies, quite possibly there are birthparents who discount the book because I am not one of them. It’s a discouraging line of thought that took the wind out of my writing sails for quite awhile, but eventually I got over it. Fact is, there’s not much I can do about it. Further, I don’t think this criticism holds much water. It’s the sort of thinking that shrinks the conversation. Shall we restrict baseball writing to players? Shall we insist that only astronauts write about space travel? I’m left handed. Shall I dismiss out of hand any observations that come from righties? (My tennis buddy tells me that lefties are “sinister.”) I’ll grant that there is some added credibility for insiders and greater access to other insiders, too, but the truth is many insiders are working from an especially vivid sample of one. That can be an advantage, but it can also cloud one’s objectivity. Some of the least openminded folks I have come across work from a sample of one, as in “I know all I need to know about this. My Aunt Gertrude is adopted and she says…” Ultimately, I think the way to test any book is to ask, “Does it ring true?”
For the most part, the book still makes sense to me. I think the discussion of image, necessity, ambivalence, wistfulness, and optimal outcomes remain useful. People have told me that “a light bulb went on” when they read about the three dimensions of parenting: lifegiving, care giving, and affirmation. When I do workshops I continue to read aloud the “cascade of questions” regarding dysfunction (pages 61 and 62).
If I had another shot at it I would I certainly do more on birthfathers. And as I’ve come to think of the language of the “triad” as limiting and inhospitable, I’d include much more about extended birthfamily. They are integral to the story. I would be more outspoken regarding the potential biases of programs and practitioners and shout a loud “Heads up!” to expectant parents exploring their options. Although I touch on it in Hospitious Adoption, I would add material on entitlement (In the hospitality book I also write about prenatal connections, gentle transition, and “change of heart” circumstances). Far too many birthparents continue to struggle with their standing in ongoing relationships. They wonder if they are sufficiently important to stay involved, and they sometimes doubt that they deserve to remain involved. I think important ground is gained when the issue is framed in terms of the child’s interests and needs. Lots of handwringing is set aside when we recognize that the adoptive person is entitled to her birthfamily. He or she has done nothing that ought to cost them the satisfaction of knowing their first family.
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