Documenting under special circumstances
When a living relative is adopted
I’m an adoptive parent. I have adopted friends and cousins; our extended family creates a beautiful rainbow. Adoption is also tricky, a fact I well know. Perhaps because one of my children is adopted, I’m somewhat equipped to tackle this often sensitive subject. I don’t, however, pretend to know it all; bear with me as I share my thoughts on being inclusive.
When I began delving into family history and the boxes and piles of photos, I realized there wasn’t anything to represent my adopted child. Even though she’s been a member of our family since she was four months old, I had nothing to “show” when chronicling her history.
There are different ways to look at this.
“Every family has to start somewhere, so why can’t your family start with my family?” This is a parental view.
“These ancestors are not blood related, so why should I care?” This is the child’s view.
“No one chooses their family, and you are no different.” Parental view.
“You aren’t adopted; you have no idea how I feel.” Child view.
Every single point here is valid, so what now?
Similar to my concern about making an ancestor or heirloom mean something to my children, I cannot force my children to feel the way I do about anything or anyone, or their or my history. They will care if they care, period. My job is to research, compile, profile, organize, label, and present our history in a manner and format they will enjoy (or not).
I must also make a crucial choice. I can include or exclude non-blood relatives in my efforts. In my heart, there is no choice. It’s more about attachment than blood.
Points to remember: The adopted relative can be asked whether or not they choose to be included, such as in lineage charts. If they are in their 20s, however, and are less likely to care about family history, it’s wise to remember they may change their mind later. In this case, it’s better to include than exclude.
If there are issues of being “found” such as after appearing in a chart (online), I feel the relative’s wishes should take priority. As noted, this can be tricky. One can also keep hard copy, or paper records, for non-blood relatives.
When a deceased relative is adopted
This is exactly the case with my great grandma, Bertha. Our first record of her is when she was six. The Kansas census states she is adopted. Having given various birth years throughout her life, her adoption status increases the difficulty of tracing her origins. I’ve hit a brick wall with Bertha.
Regardless of the fact that the people who raised her were not her birth parents, Bertha is still my great grandma, her parents my great, great grandparents. Her parents would never be excluded from our charts, even if we learned the names of Bertha’s birth parents.
Points to remember: Consider your goals. Are you hoping to provide a pure blood line? Are you more interested in genetics or what constitutes a family? In this case, it may be a good idea to define “family” before tackling the issue.
Consider others’ feelings. While there are places on ancestry charts to show biological relative or not, doing so (or not) might be hurtful to some people. Family means different things to different people. For me? The old adage blood is thicker than water has no place here.
When a relative is excluded by others
I contacted a cousin recently and learned something shocking. I discovered that my great uncle, a man I never met but whom my mother remembers fondly, had a daughter he chose to shun. It’s very important to never assume, but the circumstances indicate he was unable or unwilling to care for his infant daughter when, after the child’s birth, the mother died. The daughter was adopted and raised in a loving family. The daughter tried several times, however, to initiate contact with her birth father and was repeatedly shunned.
The cousin I spoke with is the granddaughter of the shunned woman. This cousin wants the extended family to know her grandma, and asked me if there had been an awareness of her grandma among family members. Sadly, they knew, but there was no relationship and the woman died having never met her birth cousins.
In this case, I respected the wishes of my cousin and included her grandma in my charts where she will stay. I mentioned the woman to other family members who would have known her, and I feel good that those conversations have been started.
Points to remember: We don’t know what the uncle was up against, if anything. Times were very different in the early 1920s. I don’t want to excuse “bad behavior,” but I also want to include a known blood relative, especially if this supports the family’s wishes. This is tricky. Tread lightly.
Step relatives, half siblings and such
Can you guess who these men might be? They are the men I call “grandpa.” Of the four, I was only lucky enough to meet one, and the one I knew is not “biological.” Does it matter? Not a bit.
Whether a parent or step-parent, each of these men had a significant influence on my parents; therefore, they are important to me. Herman died when my mother was 18; Primo married grandma a few years later and was a good step-dad to the Appell children. Carl and my grandma divorced when dad was three; Eddie married grandma in the early 50s and was “Pop” to my dad for many years.
Eddie was the only grandpa I knew, and my memories of him are wonderful. He has absolutely earned the right to be in my charts and history for my children.
Points to remember: This will feel different to each person compiling family records. Adding half-brothers or step-mothers to a chart may not feel right, or accurate. The definition of family must be reconsidered. Tread lightly. Try to consider all points of view.
Happy profiling! ❤