Up A Tree With The Times

Originally this post was a bit of a screech.

In “Who’s on the Family Tree? Now It’s Complicated,” the New York Times mused upon genealogy in the post-test-tube-baby age. Marian at Roots and Rambles also noticed this article, and pointed out its very interesting finding that birth certificate questionnaires are starting to catch up to the new realities, including questions on reproductive technology. Which was all good.

But something about the tone of the piece got under my skin. I really was irritated by the sense that the Times team found the new family realities kind of … icky, messing up the genealogy software and the school family tree projects and all that.

Thus, I ran on for a bit. Great length ensued.

I decided to reflect a bit more. I am still irritated, but at least I am able to boil my original post down to much shorter bullet points:

•  The piece was largely written from the assumption that the default family-study mode must be mommy+daddy+bio baby. In reality, genealogical studies almost by definition branch out into collateral kin and relationships through marriage and adoption. That is nothing new. Reproductive technologies are new, but is it so hard to encompass them within existing research techniques? Somehow I don’t think it would take that much imagination.

• Related: The piece ramps up a wistful nostalgia for a good old days in which we never had out-of-the-box genealogy cases. Nice try, but family realities (and cultural taboos) have been warring with the family tree forms for quite a long time. For instance, without formal record-keeping prior to the 19th century, adoptions often are inferred, but of course they are there. As seasoned researchers often point out, a strikingly “late in life” baby who pops up in a census might have been birthed by someone other than the listed mother.  I would think a matter-of-fact approach to the newer, technological realities would only help us by helping us be more expansive and forthright about our trees.

•  I do think the Times was onto something with the observation that “Some families now organize their family tree into two separate histories: genetic and emotional. “ If you’re doing this work to get into the DAR or a similar lineage society, you’re going to be approaching things differently from a person who sees themselves purely as a family chronicler. When you deal with the lineage societies, it’s a matter of their group, their rules.

•  But I think the basic genealogy techniques of researching, citing and reporting remain the same, either way.

•  Maybe the essential question is not “How do I fit my sperm-donor baby on my tree if my software doesn’t have a spot for that?” The deeper question is whether we’re comfortable with the way our families came to be, and whether we’re willing to stick up for that.

• If not, maybe family history research is something to be avoided. But I would find that outcome sad.


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