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Thursday, September 8, 2011

Family Trees and Other Projects

Family tree projects often present a lot of stress to adoptees growing up.  It's a reminder to us that we have limited knowledge of our roots.  We can put down our legal family tree but discussion of the project between parents and peers reveals that what we're learning about with such a project isn't just legal or nurturing roots: it's biological too.  My friend George's* ancestry is from Italy.  He tells a story about how his last name is supposed to be pronounced but how they choose to pronounce it because his great-grandfather, upon arriving in the U.S., thought it sounded more sophisticated this way.  A girl I played softball with, Angie*, she tells of how she and her cousins have two different last names from the same ancestor.  You see, her grandfather's birth certificate was wrong.  It was supposed to say "Smiths" as the last name but the Vital Statistics Office left off the "s" and so while her great-grandfather and the rest of the family is "Smiths," her father's line is "Smith;" they chose not to fix the error.  Another classmate, Julia* comes in for Family Tree Day with a book about her family.  What a sight it was to see such a tiny little girl carrying a book that seemed to weigh near as much as she did.  She beamed about this book her "great-great, well, 16 times great grandpa!" as she had put it, had been friends with John Smith.  She descended from a lot of important people.  She carried their genes and it made her important too.  I remember contributing my adoptive parent's names and my adoptive grandparent's names.  My dad doesn't know half of his ancestry and the other half is French and German.  My mom is Welsh and German.  She's Iroquois Onondaga too but that never got talked a whole lot about in her family.

An equally irritating issue that goes along with doing family tree projects in school is that often times, it is mandated by the state government.  The very same state government that tells an adopted person they have no legal entitlement to their roots may very well be the same state government mandating that their second or third grade class do a family history project.  Family history being important to a lot of people isn't lost on adoptees yet the option of it being important to us is taken away and not enough lawmakers are seeing the contradiction.

I thought the days of having to explain my family tree to a teacher or a classroom full of people were over.  Not so.  In college, I have probably had about five assignments that have asked for information on my family/social history and family tree.  A lot of how these assignments are described are formed around the assumption that your genetic history and social history are one in the same and that you know your narrative from birth-forward.  I have a project due this semester that wants to know details about my delivery and other birth details.  We are learning how environment shapes people from birth forward.  Had I been assigned this over a year and a half ago, a lot of it would be blank.  We're supposed to incorporate what may have been recorded in our baby books.  I was adopted at 5 months of age, several milestones shared with mysterious temporary parents who never wrote them down or passed them on.

I have an "adoption book;" I don't have a baby book.

I am supposed to write about my birth.  Was it a "normal" delivery?  Were there complications?  Were there any unique circumstances?  Do I write down that no one really knows about my delivery because my mother was sedated during delivery without her consent for no reason other than to prevent us from bonding, with a white sheet drawn in front of her face so that she wouldn't see me be being born while pushing?  Do I write down that when she woke up she wasn't even in the maternity unit any more, nor was I available for her to touch and to hold?  Do I write that the next 5 months are a mystery?

As we adoptees grow up to be parents, for adoptees who are not yet reunited or given access to their roots, our children hit the same roadblocks we did.  Teachers aren't always sensitive.  We'll get the same "can't you just write down the adoptive information?!" eye roll that we got as kids.

Even those of us reunited or with our information can have issues with incorporating both nature and nurture on family projects when the project is clearly designed for just one family, not two.

What I've found myself doing is expecting others to be inclusive.  I have two families, not one.  I will not deny my reality of having two families to fulfill a project designed for people who are not adopted.  I have found myself altering projects (and my kid's baby books, even) to reflect what fits me.

How do you handle family tree stuff?

(the *asterisk means I didn't use anyones real name).


  1. I haven't been asked to do anything like this since reunion. I do have an ancestory.com account that only lists my first family. I HATED family tree projects in school. And heritage days.

    I'm doing everything I can NOW and learning as much as I can NOW so that if I ever have kids, they will know how to fill out their family tree and they will have the correct ethnic foods at their heritage days.

  2. I agree Amanda. Insensitivity about our status as adoptees needs to be changed - and school projects such as this could change hearts and minds if the adoptee is given all their information, even as children...to fill out this tree project as a child with two families....

  3. I raise hell with my kids' schools when they get the "family tree" or genealogy assignments. However, I've been yelled at by school board members and have been basically told by both school boards to just deal with it because it's good for the majority of kids and it's in the State of California curriculum.


  4. Great post Amanda,

    For your current project I would write it just as you describe it. Perhaps one small dialogue can grow into a national dialogue and perhaps that can reach the ears of legislators on the stupid laws that create this distinction for adoptees.

  5. My son had an assignment asking for date of birth (and day of the week), age when he rolled over, first word, age for first tooth, and other pieces of information. I gave my eight year old options and ideas,and let him decide how the assignment was going to be handled. He put down what we knew (he was adopted at 14 months internationally) and he wanted us to look the other info up in the baby books and give approximations.


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