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How to Handle Adoption in the Family Tree

Do I Trace My Adopted Family, Birth Family or Both?

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Almost every adoptee, no matter how much they love their adopted family, experiences a twinge when faced with a family tree chart. Some are unsure whether to trace their adopted family tree, their birth family, or both - and how to handle the differentiation between their multiple families. Others, who for various reasons have no access to their own personal family history prior to their adoption, find themselves haunted - by the family whose names will never be documented in their genealogy, and the family tree somewhere in the world with an empty space on the branch where their name should be.

While some people insist that genealogies are only meant to be genetic, most agree that the purpose of a family tree is to represent the family - whatever that family might be. In the case of adoption, the ties of love are generally stronger than ties of blood, so it is absolutely appropriate for an adoptee to research and create a family tree for their adopted family.

Tracing Your Adopted Family Tree

Tracing the family tree of your adoptive parents works pretty much the same way as tracing any other family tree. The only real difference is that you should clearly indicate that the link is through adoption. This in no way reflects on the bond between you and your adopted parent. It just makes it clear for others who may view your family tree that it is not a bond of blood.

Tracing Your Birth Family Tree

If you're one of the lucky ones who knows the names and details of your birth parents, then tracing your birth family tree will follow the same path as any other family history search. If, however, you do not know anything about your birth family, then you will need to consult a variety of sources - your adoptive parents, reunion registries, and court records for nonidentifying information that may be available to you. See How to Find Your Birth Family for tips to get you started.

Options for Combined Family Trees

Since the traditional genealogy chart does not accommodate adoptive families, many adoptees create their own variations to accommodate both their adoptive family as well as their birth family. Any way you choose to approach this is just fine, as long as you make it clear which relationship links are adoptive and which are genetic - something that can be done as simply as using different colored lines. Other options for combining your adopted family with your birth family on the same family tree include:
  • Roots & Branches - A slight variation of the typical family tree is a good choice for someone who knows little about their birth family, or who doesn't really want to trace their genetic family history. In this case you can include the names of your birth parents (if known) as the roots, and then use the branches of the tree to represent your adopted family.
  • Double Family Trees - A good option if you want to include both your adoptive family and your birth family in the same tree is to use one of several variations on the "double" family tree. One option includes a trunk where you record your name with two sets of branching tops - one for each family. Another option is the double pedigree chart, such as this Adoptive Family Tree from Family Tree Magazine. Some people also like to use a circle or wheel pedigree chart with their name in the center - using one side for the birthfamily and the other side for the adoptive or foster family.
  • Classroom Alternatives for Young Children - Adoptive Families Together (ATF) has developed a series of free printable worksheets for teachers to use in place of the traditional family tree for classroom assignments. These alternative family trees are appropriate for children of all ages, and can more accurately accommodate a wide variety of family structures.

    • My Family: People Who Make Me Shine
    • My Family: People Who Help Me Blossom
    • My Neighborhood
    • Rainbow
    • Constellation
The most important thing for you to keep in mind when faced with creating a family tree is that how you choose to represent your family really doesn't matter that much, as long as you make it evident whether the family links are adoptive or genetic. As for the family whose history you choose to trace - that's an entirely personal decision best left up to you.
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