Adoption in Family History

My grandson has six grandparents, only two of whom he is biologically related to. Sometimes I wonder how he might handle a family history assignment a teacher may give in school. Let me explain his family situation since adoption and blended families are increasingly common.

Adoption and Larkin family

Larkin family

My partner and his former wife adopted and raised a boy, now a married adult with a beautiful young son. After they divorced, she remarried. My partner and I have been together for over twenty-five years, although we are not married. Legally and biologically, I’m not related to my step-son or my grandson, but we still claim each other as family, which for us is the important thing. My grandson, because his father was adopted, is not biologically related to his father’s parents, although he is biologically related to his mother’s parents.

It is estimated that about two percent of the U.S. population is adopted. About one-quarter of the adoptions are from other countries. According to the Department of Health and Human Services, about 40% of adoptions in the U.S. are transracial, the majority involving international adoptions. These statistics bring to mind many families in my own life, such as my biracial (white-African American) step-son; one of my niece’s sons, adopted from Guatemala; two daughters adopted from India by a Jewish couple; and two white sons adopted by a white couple that is now divorced. Adoptions, a common part of increasingly nontraditional family structures, can pose challenges to family historians. 

Before returning to the question of what the teacher or family historian might do, we should acknowledge that adoption is by no means a new arrangement. Indeed, in my own family tree it took me a while to work out what at first appeared to be the puzzling situation of a couple past child-bearing age with three young children during the 1800s. It turned out that the three children had been adopted by their grandfather and his second wife after their father died.

Genealogist Maureen Taylor explains that adoption has always played a part in family structure, although historically in the U.S. it was not widely discussed. Until the nineteenth century, adoptions were more informal than today, often taking the form of apprenticeships or guardianships. For example, relatives might take in a child whose parents were not able to care for the child, or if they were seeking an additional laborer in the household. Some of the ways historic adoptions may be identified in records include “AD” in the relationship column of census records, wording in probate records (including wills), the legal section of newspapers in which cases having to do with adoption or parentage are posted, or records of agencies (including churches) that were involved with adoptions.

It is beyond the scope of this blog to provide strategies for locating birth parents today. Processes vary somewhat from place to place, and there are websites such as Find My Past, and other resources, that focus specifically on locating birth parents. I will say that sources recommend starting the process by talking with members of the family that adopted you, to gain some idea of where to look. Also be aware that biological parents may not wish to be found. For the family historian, tracing a birth family tree may prove very difficult, perhaps impossible, particularly if birth parents wish to remain anonymous.

The issue of adoption raises a larger question concerning what makes a family, and why a person might be tracing one’s family tree. If one’s purpose is to understand the origins of physical characteristics or the likelihood of genetically-transmitted diseases or other characteristics, tracing blood relationships makes sense. If, however, one’s purpose is to understand one’s place within a web of family relationships that have a history, adoptive relationships may be more important than biological relationships. In her novel Lock and Key, Sarah Dessen has this to say about family:

What is family? They were the people who claimed you. In good, in bad, in parts or in whole, they were the ones who showed up, who stayed in there, regardless. It wasn’t just about blood relations or shared chromosomes, but something wider, bigger. We had many families over time. Our family of origin, the family we created, and the groups you moved through while all of this was happening: friends, lovers, sometimes even strangers. None of them perfect, and we couldn’t expect them to be. You can’t make any one person your world. The trick was to take what each could give you and build your world from it.

In other words, family historians working with adoption or other nontraditional structures or relationships need to think about what makes family “family,” in relationship to why one is interested in investigating family history.

To return to the classroom, teachers contemplating activities that involve family structure and family history should be clear in their own mind about the purpose of the activity, and assume that a variety of structures that may well include adoptions will be represented within any classroom. The website Adoptive Families shares several responses by parents of adopted children whose teachers assigned activities related to family; while some teachers showed interest and empathy when finding out about varying family situations, others did not. Family Tree Templates provides a useful array of family tree diagrams including adoptive family trees, step-family trees, blended family trees.

In other words, adoption is one process that has always been used to constitute family. It isn’t a process to ignore, but rather one to approach with some sensitivity, and with respect for the relationships make family.

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