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Family Trees Grow More Tangled

A family tree used to be a simple affair: mother, father, kids, their spouses and eventual children. People were linked on a family tree by blood or marriage. While that never accounted for everyone – there have always been children born outside of marriages, adoptions, and family secrets – it gave a decent facsimile of a family’s history.

These days, it’s become much more complex.

Many people choose not to marry. Over 40 percent of Americans have stepfamilies. And where do you put the sperm donors?

The New York Times reports that in grappling with these issues, some families have created separate trees: one for medical reality, and one for emotional.

Knowing your ancestry can be important not just at family reunions, after all, but in a doctor’s or lawyer’s office. As the NYT puts it:

Tracing a family tree, though, is more than just an intellectual exercise. There are medical and legal implications, particularly when it comes to death and inheritance. Families, said Melinde Lutz Byrne, president of the American Society of Genealogists, are mostly concerned with who inherits property when a biological relative dies.

People often trace their family trees for more emotional reasons, though: because they want to know where they came from. And puzzling that out can be hard for kids who’ve come from unconventional families.

The NYT focuses on two sisters and their children. One sister was struggling with infertility, so the other offered to bear a child for her. She conceived the baby using donor sperm, and her sister and her husband adopted the little girl at birth. Now she is biologically this child’s mother, but her familial relationship to her is as an aunt. Both are important, depending on context.

For the kids, this can be confusing. Another child mentioned in the story got into a playground scrap over whether or not he has a sister. He’s the only child of a single mother, but he knows his sperm donor and his sperm donor’s daughter. The girl is his sister. Sort of.

While individual families muddle through these new kinds of connections, it’s not clear yet how to think about them in systematic ways. How do you draw a chart with so many different kinds of relationships? Out of respect for diverse family structures, a lot of schools have begun skipping the exercise altogether.

What do you think? Is your family tree straightforward or does it have some surprising twists and turns?

Photo: Family Art Studio

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