These Days, Family Trees Look More Like A Forest The traditional family tree has grown much more complicated in recent years. With increases in unmarried and same-sex couples, surrogates, and sperm donors, many families now organize two family trees — genetic and emotional. And some schools now skip the traditional classroom project altogether.
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These Days, Family Trees Look More Like A Forest

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These Days, Family Trees Look More Like A Forest

These Days, Family Trees Look More Like A Forest

These Days, Family Trees Look More Like A Forest

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

The traditional family tree has grown much more complicated in recent years. With increases in unmarried and same-sex couples, surrogates, and sperm donors, many families now organize two family trees — genetic and emotional. And some schools now skip the traditional classroom project altogether.


Melinde Byrne, director of Boston University's genealogical research certificate program

BRIAN NAYLOR, host: When we want to find out how we're related to a cousin or an aunt, we look to the map of our familial history on a family tree. But the traditional family tree has grown much more complicated in recent years, as the structures of families change. The New York Times reports with increases in surrogates, sperm donors and same-sex couples, some families now organize two family trees, one genetic and one emotional. And some schools are now skipping the traditional classroom project altogether.

How have you dealt with those issues in your family, or your classroom? Tell us your story. 800-989-8255 is our number, and our email address is And you can join the conversation at our website. Go to and click on TALK OF THE NATION. Joining us now via Skype from her home in Bedford, New Hampshire, is Melinde Byrne. She's president of the American Society of Genealogists and the director of Boston University's genealogical research certificate program. Sorry for the stumbling. But nice to have you with us, Melinde.

MELINDE BYRNE: A pleasure to be with you, Brian.

NAYLOR: Now, there are cases like the one in The New York Times piece, a child's biological mother can also be his or her aunt because of surrogacy. So, you know, in this - in the 21st century, how do families differentiate between mother and aunt, or even cousin or brother?

BYRNE: It really isn't a "Leave It to Beaver" world anymore, if it ever was. I think you have a wide selection of choices in how you embrace family members or exclude them. And there are very different ways of doing that across the country, across the spectrum of relationship. My feeling is that anything that defines a family as a supporting foundation for children is OK.

NAYLOR: And it doesn't really matter how they got there. The fact is that there are children there and they need to be parented, and they need to know love, and the details can be worked out.

BYRNE: Absolutely. You can have step-parents, foster parents. They can be addressed as mom or grandmother, and the child may never even know that this is grandmother by virtue of grandfather's fifth marriage, and that there's no biological connection whatsoever. The emotional one takes precedence.

NAYLOR: Mm-hmm. And, you know, can you explain a little bit about that, how different family trees differ, you know, the emotional family tree, if you will, versus the genetic family tree?

BYRNE: Well, when genealogists study identity and kinship, the methods that they use have a lot to do with their purpose. So when you're considering something like a missing heir, you'll use certain tools and certain standards - and a lot of them are legal - to follow, to define family in that way.

If you're looking for birth parents for an adopted child who's had their records closed and has always wanted to know - especially a growing number of people in their 60s and 70s who have decided, you know, I've always wondered, even though I think this person is probably deceased, I'd just like to know and I'd like to know if there are any extended family. You come into ethical questions about whether this is going to be good for the individual searching or for the people found. And the news is full of wonderful cases where this worked very well and people are thrilled. And at the same time, there are cases where it was not a good idea.

NAYLOR: Let's hear from one of our callers now, Rica in Grand Rapids, Michigan. How has your - thanks for calling us on TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. How has your family dealt with this issue?

RICA (Caller): Well, I was kidding when I called in. I said that I usually tell people just grab and pen and paper and follow along as I describe, because my biological parents, my mother and father, never got married but I know I have two half-brothers and a half-sister. My mother married my stepdad about 25 years ago, and I inherited a stepbrother and two stepsisters. When I was 13, my parents together then adopted what actually be my step-nephew. So I actually have an 18-year-old little brother.


RICA: So, really, I have no full-blood siblings, but I have quite an extended family tree, I tell everyone.

NAYLOR: Mm-hmm. And do you all get together on holidays or those of you that can that live nearby?

RICA: Well, you know, it's really interesting because most of the siblings are quite a bit older than me. And so they, you know, they have their own families, and they've moved away. I'm 32 and my youngest step, I think she's, like, 45 to 48, and so she has her own family. And I think just because when my parents got married I was kind of, like, so young that we were never really close. And now, my little brother being 18, he's off in his own world, and I'm raising my own daughter and I'm divorced. So we have a split family and it's just...


RICA: ...everybody is going every which way.

NAYLOR: And did you ever watch "Leave It to Beaver?" I mean, do you - you know, did America kind of get caught up in a false notion of what is family, do you think?

RICA: I absolutely think so. Being, I guess, that I'm divorced and I think that we are the new normal. My ex-husband has been married for seven years now. He has a stepdaughter and a daughter, so my daughter has two siblings now. And we just make it work, you know. And I think that's, you know, normal now, that's the new "Leave It to Beaver" family. It's that divorced parents can get along and put the kids first. I really think that's the goal now.

NAYLOR: All right, Rica. Thanks very much for calling us today.

RICA: Thank you.

NAYLOR: Melinde, do you think that that's right, I mean, that this is the new normal, that there is now, you know, more sort of the classic sitcom nuclear family, just - is the thing of past - if it ever existed to begin with?

BYRNE: I'd have to take the last position, if it ever existed to begin with. If you think back to what Rica was saying about how she had steps that were much older than she and she had an 18-year-old relative, that's not unusual if you go back 100 years or 150 years.

Genealogists study the unusual patterns of adoption in that timeframe where it wasn't a formal thing. And people, for the good of children, took care of them in ways that we would never have considered in the 1950s normal or in the 1970s normal and, certainly, not now to be normal. And yet, the structure that you're left with is exactly what's happening now. You also had people with great stretches of childbearing. You'd have 20 years where you'd have 10 or more children and so the oldest ones would help take care of the youngest ones. It's not unusual in the course of even just the American experience to see these kinds of very blended piecemeal families, if you will.

NAYLOR: Let me take a call from Evan in Tucson, Arizona. Evan, what are your thoughts about this?

EVAN (Caller): Well, I just wanted to ask the caller or ask the guest to maybe talk a little bit about the use of genograms, if she knows what they are. I work as a child and family therapist for a non-profit here in Tucson.

And one of the assessment tools that we use pretty extensively with families is this genogram, which is basically a structural diagram of the family where you work in the same information that's going to be there from a family tree. But then you also start to work in emotional relationships; where is their conflict, where is their closeness. You look at things like substance abuse, domestic violence. You also get the strength of the family, and it's an amazing tool for, I think, anyone who really sees himself within in the systematic context of their larger family.

NAYLOR: Melinde, something that you've used?

BYRNE: I've not used it for my clients. I've seen others use it, and it is very valuable both for the positive side of studying what individuals consider family and for the negative. I tend to hesitate a little bit over patterns that people see in things like disease or alcohol or drug abuse. I don't think they're necessarily as significant as popular opinion and some research would now suggest. But, certainly, it's a great tool.

EVAN: Thank you.

NAYLOR: All right. Thank you, Evan, for calling us. Melinde, I'm just wondering if - are you - do school - are schools still using the family tree projects or are they - have they've been kind of - have educators been discouraged from using them because, perhaps, they can leave children upset or confused?

BYRNE: From what I can tell, experience has discouraged some instructors, teachers; fourth grade teachers, eight grade teachers. About that time in the U.S. public school system there's usually a unit about your family history. And if you ask a fourth grader to explain everything to do with their family, it can be a very confusing and sometimes self-shattering experience when it doesn't measure up to what everybody else in the class has, or if the teacher by some indirect way never intentionally, but communicates the idea that the family should be a certain structure and you should have 1.4 siblings and your parents should be a certain age and things like that.

NAYLOR: Melinde, I just want to interrupt you to tell our listeners that they're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Melinde Byrne is on the line with us from Boston, where she is the director of Boston University's Genealogical Research Certificate program. I interrupted your answer. If you want to, go ahead and continue. I apologize.

BYRNE: Well, I think that was probably the gist of it.

NAYLOR: OK. I'm just wondering, is family trees play a role in not just school projects, they're medical - they have legal implications and medical implications about who inherits property when a biological relative dies. Is that, in a sense, still being worked out as the case law, as it were, still being determined on that?

BYRNE: There are some pretty interesting developments in case law, having to do with missing heirs and the standards of proof as to who individuals are. We even got cases like the Clark Rockefeller case out there, where the gentleman that he suspected of murdering was adopted, and the police having a body and suspecting that the body belonged to an individual had perfect DNA. But the way police databases and labs work, they see only matches. They don't have techniques for looking for people who aren't already in the system or who aren't already a suspect, and that's where genealogists can help.

NAYLOR: And what about the changes resulting now from surrogate motherhood to using - the use of sperm donors is - how has that changing or impacting the genealogical business, as it were?

BYRNE: Well, it makes it interesting. There are certainly more clients out there who would like to know more than what they have been given. And some people take courses, like the one at BU, to learn how to do that for themselves. There are some fabulous mysteries out there that people, when they have the time, would love to solve and that is what they go about doing. In - go ahead.

NAYLOR: No. I was just going to - I want us to read from an email that we received...

BYRNE: Mm-hmm.

NAYLOR: ...from Allen Wambach(ph) in Atlanta. He writes: It was 15 years ago when I was in a committed same-sex partnership in a large Florida city, and my partner's two biological children lived with us almost full time. Our fourth grade son was assigned an art project in which he was to show members of his family and he included me, naturally enough. We called and gave his teacher a heads up and she was fine with it. But then the local newspaper picks it up and did a front page story on us in the family section, and the teacher became less and less OK with it as the media coverage spurred other parents to ask about it.

Nowadays, the world has changed so much that a fourth grader's family tree project surely wouldn't raise eyebrows the same way I hope. Although it did ruffle a few feathers, we were both proud of our son for volunteering to set the example he did.

And I'm just wondering, coming off of that, Melinde, if you think that maybe children are more prepared and better prepared to - more open to deal with these kinds of question than perhaps us older folks are.

BYRNE: Well, I think a fourth grader is as strong as a fourth grader can be. And its past time that we accepted what is real and didn't embrace ideals that isn't out there. Those children that are asked to give presentations in class in the eighth grade are at another crossroads where, perhaps, they're examining their own identities right then and there, wondering, you know, who am I? Shall I define myself by who my relatives are, who my parents, who my family members might be? This is really significant. And, yes, it can come out very well. It can be a strengthening exercise or it can be a disaster.

NAYLOR: All right. Well, thank you very much, Melinde. We've been talking about the issue of family trees in a complicated time of family structures. Thanks very much for being with us.

BYRNE: My pleasure.

NAYLOR: Melinde Byrne is the president of the American Society of Genealogists and director of Boston University's Genealogical Research Certificate program. She joined us via Skype from her home in Bedford, New Hampshire.

Tomorrow, Neal Conan will be back in the host's chair for a conversation with the Political Junkie, Ken Rudin. This is TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. I'm Brian Naylor, in Washington.

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