21 January 2013

A Rose by Any Other Name...

It's a brave new world out there and it's always evolving. When my father was a boy, children were expected to be raised by their mother and father in one house. By the time I was going to elementary school, there were books and after school specials talking about the many forms of family that I would encounter. I remember one that told me that being raised by one parent, grandparents, aunts and uncles, or even a foster family was normal. Divorce and blended families were on the rise, so it was becoming more likely for children to be raised with unrelated (or only half-related) siblings. I also remember a show, My Two Dads, that had a girl raised by two men. But because it would still be a few years before television was comfortable openly talking about homosexuals, these two men weren't gay. They were two ex-boyfriends of the girl's mother and one of them was the father. When the mother died (to conveniently remove her so audiences weren't confused or upset at her absence), the men were expected to raise the daughter jointly. Today we have the show Modern Family where two homosexual men raise an adopted daughter. These past few decades, I have watched as we have become more comfortable with talking about single-parent households, couples that never marry yet raise children together, adopted and step children living in blended families, and finally the same-sex couple. Not everyone agrees with or accepts all of these family styles, but the fact is that they do exist. And when dealing with something as traditional as genealogy, there are unique problems that arise.

My Story
My parents divorced when I was 11. My father was given full custody of both my brother and myself. While still a child, I was aware of a few challenges with my new family unit. First, this was the early 90s and most of my friends still had married parents. Granted, I wasn't the first kid on my block with a divorce (and this was my father's second marriage), but I now found myself part of a select group of children. Baseball games, PTA events, even visiting friends' houses meant that I would have to explain to other children why my mother wasn't there. It seemed to catch them off guard that my dad was the one baking cookies and checking for monsters under the bed. Second, other adults didn't know what to make of my parents' divorce. Most of the time, the mother had received custody of the kids. I think for the first year or so after the divorce, my dad was the only single father with custody that we knew. This made it difficult with making play-dates as the mothers had some aversion to letting a man watch the kids. I remember one friend who spent the night on a Friday and was expected to stay until we dropped her off at church on Sunday. Her mother found out that my father was the only parent in the house and picked her up right after lunch Saturday. We were both very upset (partly because we didn't understand her anxiety, mostly because dad promised us a trip to the park). After the word spread, I was invited to my friends' houses, but rarely did they accept invitations to mine. And the number of women that tsk-tsked the "tragedy" that I was a young girl without a woman's influence in the house was overwhelming. I actually made one woman cry when I assured her that my dad had told me he would be "both mommy and daddy". She scared me.

Which leads to my number three "challenge": dad's girlfriends. For those first years, he'd date a woman and eventually she'd leave saying his kids were tearing them apart. I know for a while that dad was convinced we were trying to keep him alone or force him to get back with mom. Neither of these were true. My brother and I were smart enough to 1) see the divorce coming and 2) know that both mom and dad were happier away from each other. The truth was that his girlfriends had it in their heads that they were now "mom". Almost immediately upon introduction, they would tell us what to do, how to act, when to go to bed, what to eat, and how to treat them with the respect they "deserved". I had such an aversion to women authority figures for a while that, when I started to develop, I would talk to no one but my dad. Again, while not that long ago, men weren't commonly in charge of their children (at least, not where I lived). So there's dad trying to look comfortable while sales people act like they are forced to help this poor man understand enough about bras to help his daughter. (I'd like to note that he was extremely helpful and made the experience a lot of fun for me.)

The fourth challenge was my stepmom. She's actually not my stepmother as she and dad never married. On the other hand, she's been his stalwart companion for almost 20 years (and a family friend since they were in high school). So calling her my stepmom only seemed natural and right even if they didn't marry. I remember when they first started dating, she didn't want to be called his girlfriend. She was too old to be a girlfriend or have a boyfriend, she said. So dad called her his "significant other". All well and good for them, but most folks still called her "Lou's girlfriend". And til the day he died, grandpa called her "Louie's wife". It was a near constant struggle to get others to use the "right phrase". At one point I wondered why they bothered and was told that it was the principle of the thing. No matter how they put it, I thought it was much ado about nothing.

"Traditional" vs. Reality

We all know what has been termed the "traditional family unit" by a great many folk. That's one man married to one woman who produce genetically related children. It's the vanilla in our Baskin Robbins. And just like that deliciously ubiquitous ice-cream shop, there are several other flavors to choose from. For the US: In 2011, 69% of children (aged 0-17) lived with two parents, 27% with one, and 4% with neither parent. Of the 4%, half were raised by their grandparents. 7% of children lived in a home of "cohabitation" (either both parents unmarried, or one parent and their unmarried partner). In 2010, 40.8% of births were to unmarried women. Only 48.4% of all U.S. households had married couples and 0.6% were same-sex unmarried couples.

Now, genealogy (from Greek words for "generation knowledge") started in Western Civilization as a way to prove kinship and pedigree for ruling classes. Because royalty used pure blood lines and divine right as a reason to rule, many pedigrees traced themselves back to a god or heroic (yet, mythical) figure. The United States didn't standardise genealogy research until the early 19th century. Even in it's infancy in the states, genealogy was about tracing one's family to a prominent figure in the eyes of other Americans. Eastern Civilizations created pedigrees long before the 16th century in order to avoid incestuous relationships (like the Panji of India) or record the descendants of prominent figures (like the family tree of Confucius which was started over 2,500 years ago and is still updated to track his descendants). In all of these early beginnings of genealogy, the point was to know what man (and occassionally, woman) had created what child and follow that child's decendants to the present time. The timeline of "invention" in genealogy is lost to the ages, but I doubt it took long to note an adopted/step child vs. a natural heir. I have seen histories that mention adopted children taking the seat of power from their "parent" and continue the cultural line even if not the blood line. Even still, royal pedigrees are notorious for leaving off illegitimate (or disowned) children in order to keep the lines of ascension clean. And I have seen many early 20th century documents that leave out or sideline nonblood relations, so there was no hard and fast rule about how to deal with those who didn't carry that genetic connection from the progenitor even 100 years ago. Even my Kemper book published in 1899 leaves out the stepchildren for many of the family groups. I suppose to the authors of that book, the stepkids didn't "count". Considering how young some of them were when their parent married into the Kemper clan, I wonder how they would feel about that.

So while genealogy has tried to keep to the standard of documenting blood connections, the reality of family dynamics has already required exceptions to the rules. 2001 saw the first country to recognise same-sex marriage (the Netherlands). And the 2010 census was the first time that the percentage of married couple households dropped below 50% since they started tracking it in 1940. Single parent and cohabitation households are on the rise and, for the genealogist, they must be recognised. But how?
Let's Not Get Bogged Down in Semantics
For a long time now, I have seen complaints on the Ancestry.com facebook page (or on forums about other websites and software) with the labels given by default to many family ties. A man and woman connection invariably leads to the label of "spouse" regardless of marital status; some systems won't recognise a same-sex union; adopted or step children want to make it clear that their biological parent(s) aren't their "real" parent(s) with a special label; and there are no special labels for pets. The complaints usually start with "How dare you tell me how to live my life" kinds of rants that suggest that the poster assumes Ancestry is trying to force them into a "traditional" lifestyle. Usually the problem is an emotional one. A woman who is no longer with her boyfriend, but has a child with him, doesn't like the thought of him being listed as her spouse. A man celebrates his state's acceptance of his marriage by adding his new husband only to find the system label the other man as his "wife". A man who doesn't recognise his abusive father as his parent resents that there is no "sperm donor" label to make it clear how he feels. A couple that never had biological children wants to show the deep connection and love they have for their dogs by listing them as children, but there is no clear label or page to dedicate to the "fur babies".

Now first, for what you can already do: Ancestry.com already allows you the option of adding "preferred" parents. You can enter biological parents, then adoptive or step parents and chose which ones will be "preferred" and show up on the profile and tree pages. The other parents are still on the tree, but are "hidden" on the relationships tab for the child. The parents' profile pages will still show their relationship. While there is no clear indicator on the website for the relationship, there is a dropdown menu on the relationships tab (found by clicking "Edit the Person" on the profile page) that allows you to chose birth, step, adopted, other for the parents and children. As for same-sex unions: recently I accidentally attached a man to another man as a spouse and the system accepted it. I know it used to change the gender of one of the profiles, but I noticed it didn't do it this time. Either I had a computer glitch, or Ancestry finally coded the site to accept the same-sex option. And while personally I think adding pets as children is silly, I have seen many trees doing just that despite the human-centric system. And all of these are software issues. If you have a paper system, or write a family history book, then you can do as you please in whatever form you please.

What you can't do: The profile page always says spouse. So if you're one of the unmarried masses who don't want your significant other labelled a spouse, you're out of luck. Just like parentage, you can use the dropdown menu on the relationships page to define the union as married, divorced, partner, other.... but for some, just seeing spouse on the profile page is enough to send them off. And then there's the relationship calculator. It labels spouses as husband or wife, so same-sex couples can end up with the wrong gender identifier (and again, unmarried couples are given a marriage identifier). Now, that one I think should be changed, but the problem is how. If we use "spouse", we run into the same problem we face on the profile page. If we use "partner", then there will be those (gay and straight) who disagree with using that word to describe someone they are legally married to and plan to live with for (hopefully) their entire lives. "Significant other" works for my dad, but I don't see that as a solution for genealogy for the same reason that "partner" doesn't work. Not to mention the small group of people who use "significant other" to define people who are of importance to their lives regardless of a sexual or marital relationship (my uncle considers his neighbor a "significant other", because the neighbor often checks in on his well-being and has been a confidante for over a decade). And then there's my personal favorite: "consort". It comes from the Latin word "consors" which meant "sharer". The dictionary defines a "consort" as a marriage partner, particularly of a ruler. Even if we start using it as a common partner, there's still those bitter bitter people who won't agree that it's a good term for ex's since they no longer share their home or responsibilities. Now, the dictionary defines "spouse" as a marriage partner as well. Then it goes on to say it's from a Latin word (spondere) that means "to pledge". I get that. You're pledging yourself to one person. Seems to work for me. If we ignore the more modern assumption of a marital connection, I still like this word the best to define a union between two people. To be honest, even if the union ends, for a brief period of time, you two were pledged (either by word or action) to each other.

When I first started this article, I had planned to just tackle the spouse issue. And it has taken the bulk of my post. On the other hand, I think that all these little nit-picking complaints all come round to the same thing: individual emotional attachment. I understand the need to personalise something as personal as your family history. On the other hand, websites and software can only do so much. Heck, genealogy can only do so much! I'd like to come back now to the pets thing as it illustrates my point quite well. When you find a tree that has pets as children, there are no indications that this is not a human being. Why? Because genealogy has from it's inception been about human beings. Software and websites are all making that same assumption. Is this not fair to pet owners? Um, who cares? I have three cats. I love them to death. My brother even more so. I call them his kids. When I go to pick him up from work, I tell them I'll be home soon with Daddy. I believe they are intelligent creatures capable of love as much as they are deserving of it. Even still, neither of us would put them on our family tree. We don't want to confuse other researchers. I mean, let's be honest here. The majority of trees online are filled with perpetuated errors because one person wasn't smart enough to recognise a mistake and hundreds of others weren't smart enough to read what they were copying to their tree from that idiot. Unless y'all believe Jesus was born in Bethlehem, Ohio........ So you put your pets on your tree and some idjit puts them on his tree as your blood children. Then several someones copy that "fact". Hundreds of years from now, your great great grand nieces and nephews are saddened that of your 6 children, none lived past 13. Now they're looking for birth and death records to find out if it was a genetic defect! They're looking for burial markers! They're looking for what doesn't exist.

And there is going to be someone that reads that paragraph and tells me I'm mean and terrible and don't understand (the first person to say "bully" gets a black eye!). Now, just like I said about fantasy trees that have gods and people from antiquity on them, if you want to add pets to your tree, that's your business. Please make your tree private so it won't sully the online community with misinformation. Because that's what we're really concerned with here: the community. So you hate your mother and want a label to reflect that; does the community benefit from it? You had a falling out with your boyfriend and are so filled with repulsion that seeing him labelled as your "spouse" turns your stomach; does the community need to be dragged into it? More than that, do website and software developers need to spend extra time (and with it, extra money) to give you those personalised options? How about how much more time the community will need to learn how to use this beyond politically-correct system of "anything goes"? If you spend any time on a forum, you will notice how many people are still confused as to whether or not a woman is listed by her maiden or married name (it's maiden by the way). Now you want them to worry if they are using the correct labels for everyone. And what if other suggestions like specialised fonts and colors, icons for profession and military service, and A FREAKING ANIMATED TREE THAT INDICATES WHAT SEASON IT IS FOR THE PERSON'S PROFILE BASED ON THEIR LOCATION are added? Seriously, people. Some of the specifics that are asked for would clutter profiles and confuse new people. (Hell, people are still complaining about a blue "Is so-n-so on Facebook" link and you want to add all this?) Other requests are for things that are available as fact dropdowns (civil union vs. marriage, professional associations, and "custom events" like the date you started dating your unmarried whatever-you-want-to-call-them) and separate pages (you can make a military page for any relative and add photos and service history).

And so we give you these options on your tree, because it's your tree and you don't care about the community's feelings/needs. Okay. What happens when your relative makes a tree and doesn't use the same phrase you do? Your aunt lists your biological mother as preferred (or omits your adoptive/stepmother entirely). Your ex has his own tree and is comfortable using "spouse" to define you. Your parents don't list your pets as their grandchildren. Your brother is fine with you being homosexual, but doesn't recognise same-sex marriage as part of his personal faith. He doesn't add your spouse to his tree (or if he had the option, he labels your spouse as a "partner" or "other"). Is it their business because it's their tree, or yours because it's your information? If the forums are any indication, you want to have your cake and eat it too. They can't impede your tree, but you want to change theirs. Sorry, but you get one or the other.
Here's my solution, take it how you feel:
  1. We change all coupling identifiers to "spouse" accepting and perpetuating the Latin definition of "one who has pledged".
  2. You already can indicate preferred parents, so no changes needed there.
  3. Pets can be added to a tree, but we need to either do it in a story format or make a separate page option to keep the tree standard for everyone. I also like the idea of a website PetAncestry.com or something to trace pet breeding and the like.
  6. We each grow a little bit thicker on our skin and get over ourselves. Each of us needs to accept that the world doesn't revolve around us.
  7. We must accept that other people have different experiences and that what works for us may not work for others. In a global community like genealogy, there are no wrong ways to compile our history. Even so, we can't impose our needs/beliefs on others.
OR we all get over ourselves and stop trying to reinvent the wheel. I don't know about you, but all this getting lost in the "thick of thin things" is distracting me from what's really important: connecting my family to history and myself to the world as a whole.



  1. Yay! claps furiously......

    1. I will take that as an approval of my post, lol. Thanks for reading, steptrig.

  2. I just came across this post and love it. I love it so much that I would put it in my tree as a cousin if the software makers would let me do it. :)

    I especially love you're number 5 solution. I had someone recently decide that she needed to add an obnoxious green question mark image to every ancestor whose entry doesn't have a photograph. Her new uploads set off my Ancestry alerts for some apparent common ancestors. Do you know why she doesn't have a photo of these people? Because they were born around 1750. Even as I ignored the new hints, they still show up in that damn "member connect" section. Lord help me if she starts changing out the question mark color to fit the seasons where the people were living.