02 February 2019

Who to Include? Everyone, of Course!

2012 Mini Family Reunion
Some family historians wrestle with the question of how to document non-blood relations.  Should step-children go on a family tree?  How about adopted children?  As keepers of the family record, we are not just involved in the past, defining the relationships of our ancestors, we also deal in the present day.  We document today’s births, marriages, divorces, and all the other myriad life events of the present-day greater family.  In fact, one of our most important roles is to tell the detailed story about the lives of today’s family so that we will leave future family historians with a better understanding than they would be able to glean from public records alone.

There are those who question how much detail to include for either the present or past family narrative.  If there was a second marriage and step-children were brought into the fold, should the tree include those children?  How about their children when they have them?  My answer is that when documenting our family histories, we are not here to just detail the DNA line.  It is our duty to include everyone and everything.  I take this position for several reasons. 

First, DNA relation or not, step-siblings, adopted children, step-parents and the like are part of the family.  When documenting living family members in the current generations, it is in poor taste to discuss a family without including all its members.  The most important reason for including such relationships is that they are/were human beings with feelings.  If I draw up a chart showing the current living generations, everyone is included.  Step-children, unmarried spouses, adopted children, everyone.  If I were to publish a document excluding them, the result would be hurtful and imply that I believe they’re not significant to the family, which they are.

For example, my mother has a cousin whose second wife already had a daughter and son when they married.  The daughter and son have children of their own and we consider one another as simply “cousins.”   They all appear on my family charts.  They’re as much family as any other cousins in my records!  I do note the exact connection so as not to confuse future historians, but their inclusion on the charts indicate that they are integral members of the family.
My mom's cousin's 80th birthday party with family and
friends, only two of whom are actual "blood" relations

We like to think that we invented the modern family: the complicated group of extended family members who may or may not actually be truly related that make up our own messy families.  Divorces; step-parents, step-siblings and step-children; adopted children; non-married spouses; same sex spouses, married or not (and those spouses’ children); children from someone other than one’s spouse: these are just some of the non-traditional relationships we encounter on a daily basis in our lives. 

Although these non-traditional family units feel more prevalent now in the 21st century, these arrangements (and many others – remember harems?) are nothing new.  People alive today like to believe alternative or unusual relationships didn’t occur 100 years ago or 500 years ago.  But they most certainly did.  Complex and hard-to-define familial relationships have been around since relationships began. As family historians, it is not our role to hide, judge, or otherwise comment on these complex arrangements.  Our role is to properly document them.

Some amateur researchers resist including spouses (or subsequent marriages or relationships) on charts if the marriage did not result in children.  Some don’t include step-children or adopted children, reasoning that the lack of a DNA connection means that those individuals don’t factor into the family line.  There can be a mindset that only those who can trace their parentage in that specific line should be included.

Besides the fact that it’s distasteful to purposely leave people who are clearly important to the family make-up out of the broader narrative, omitting them will also cause confusion for future family historians. 

When we come across tangled webs, it’s our obligation as the family historians to untangle and explain them as best we can.  Relationships can be harder to research and figure out as time passes, so if we don’t explain today’s relationships clearly, some poor future generation family member will have to try, with the challenges of the passage of time and a lack of first-hand knowledge.

My grandmother's three half siblings were adopted by family members and friends. 
One little girl remembered that she went from calling her "Aunt" to calling her "Mother".
There are several reasons I have for being up-front about unconventional relationships and for including every spouse or significant other, regardless of whether they had children or not.

Besides the fact that it’s the right thing to do, from the perspective of the family narrative, these individuals still appear in the record.  They are listed in the census as part of the household.  They appear in yearbooks and town directories.  They appear as next of kin in wills and obituaries.  They can appear in tax records and other official documents.  They are in published accounts of the household, they factor into oral accounts and written recollections.  It is, therefore, extremely helpful for future researchers to understand their relation to the family member they happen to be researching. 

If the chart shows a male child with no spouse or children, but that individual happened to have married and adopted his wife’s children from a former marriage, well, the census report won’t match the chart.  Someone researching that individual in the future may easily conclude that the two individuals are not the same person and keep searching for one who was unmarried.  If you include every relationship, your family history will reflect the public record. Explain it now so that future generations will understand it and not try to seek out non-existent marriage or birth records.

Sailing with my cousin Kirsten.  We are not
DNA related, but cousins nonetheless
Also, the decision to exclude those who are not in the bloodline assumes that everyone else actually belongs there.  But as we see time and again from DNA test results, our ancestry isn’t always what we think it is. If there is DNA proof of a paternal line, that test proves just that one line – it does nothing to prove all the other lines that connect into that specific name.  I have much of my own pedigree traced back to Colonial America and beyond, including DNA proof of my descent from the Woodruff immigrant.  This means that I have hundreds of ancestors from the colonies, all of whom contributed to my long and rich American heritage.  Except where they didn’t. 

I fully acknowledge it is likely that there are lines that don’t reflect an actual DNA descent: perhaps one female ancestor with a child from a previous marriage remarried, but all records of the first marriage are lost, so the child has been incorrectly recorded through the years as part of the second husband’s line.  Which child? Who knows? With so many ancestors under my belt, it’s probable that this has happened and I’ll never know. 

Or what about the adopted child in the 1700s for whom today we have no record or recollection of that adoption – just of the child herself and the knowledge that we descend from her, believing her to be part of the broader ancestral line.  It is foolish to assume that there were no such circumstances in our past.  As I keep harping on, it is fine to tentatively accept the family record as you initially find it, but you should verify all that you can.

This includes all the unusual and alternative relationships you find.  For my part, I think that these non-traditional connections add to the interest of the family history.  We begin to realize that, at times, our ancestors had difficult decisions to make and sometimes made hard sacrifices or experienced tragedies that altered the family history norm.  In my mind this makes them more approachable.  I can relate to them more as the vulnerable human beings they were. 

I have been able to identify one exception to this rule of thumb with the current generation.  When the inclusion of a non-traditional family member is potentially hurtful to anyone living, then the situation must be handled with sensitivity and care.

This situation typically arises when someone in your current family structure, a sibling or cousin, for example, has had such non-traditional family members but they have not told everyone about them.  If a child from a previous marriage was too young to remember their true father and has only known their mother’s second husband as “father” and the parents have not shared the true relationship, it’s not my place or yours to educate that child. 

In my own personal life, I feel that it’s best to keep no secrets.  It’s easier to deal with life’s realities when everyone in the family has the same level of knowledge.  I also believe that most children will accept as normal whatever is presented to them as the norm as they grow up.  A child who is adopted doesn’t place any stigma on the status when they know it from the start.  But if they find out as an adult that they were adopted, they could easily think that there was shame associated with the status, so the family kept it quiet. The “harm” that might be done by being truthful from the start is, in my experience, far less impactful than the real harm that is done when a family member finally finds out they’ve been lied to over years or a lifetime.  Secrets have a way of coming out, but with that said, I do take the position that as a family historian, it’s not my place to interfere in a family’s secretive dynamics.

Whether or not we agree with a family member’s decision to hide information, if we possess or discover information that is not widely known, particularly by parties close to the situation, it’s our responsibility to honor the secret.  To do otherwise creates a whole series of problems.  First, it could disrupt the lives of those involved, potentially causing trust issues and conflict among the family members involved (I say “could” because it’s not a given that such a revelation would cause disruption – people who keep secrets often overrate the potential impact of its revelation).  Also, whistle-blowers are not always welcomed, and both parties could see your involvement as meddling and none of your business.  And finally, if you are seen by your family to have revealed a secret, the rest of the family will likely never trust you again with their secrets.
Elizabeth Rowland

NOTE: This philosophy applies ONLY to the recording of the family story.  A secret you discover that has the potential to endanger anyone is fair game for revelation and we all need to act as our conscience and the law dictate when someone is potentially at risk.

What do we do about the secrets that we do choose to keep?  As the family historians, we want to keep the record straight and ensure that future historians have a solid, correct picture of today’s family, so staying silent is a tough decision.  How can we keep the record correct and up to date if we can’t be 100% honest?

The best thing to do is to write it down and leave it with your secured documents.  If you have a “family items” addendum to your will, add this document to that addendum: enclose the explanation of the situation, a note with instructions on how to handle it (when it will be safe to reveal the information), seal it all up in an envelope, write the name of the person you’ve selected for this responsibility (and their alternate), and then secure it with your will and other important papers.

Be sure to explain the reason that the secret was originally kept and set up guidelines as to when and how to correct the record.  For example, in the scenario above, where a child believes that her step-father is really her own father, it’s important to understand the motivation for keeping the secret.  If one or both of the parents are adamant about hiding the truth, then guidance could entail not revealing the information until after both are dead or even after the child has died.

There’s a lot more to family history than drawing up the family tree!  We sometimes need to perform a balancing act to best accomplish our goals, which in this case can include:
  • Telling the truthful family story
  • Acknowledging the importance of everyone in the extended family unit
  • Ensuring that future family historians will have an accurate picture of the complexities of the family structure to keep them from making incorrect assumptions or pursuing research that will take them nowhere
  • Doing no harm

With some caring thought and careful planning, you can accomplish all these goals and keep the family harmonious.

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