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When Your Family Tree Is Complicated

Photograph by Twenty20

In this modern age, many of us have complicated family trees. Even if your current nuclear family is two married parents and two biological kids, chances are your extended family doesn’t branch out in perfect, uncomplicated harmony. Whether it be divorce, estrangement, adoption or all three, there are things in our family’s past that might one day need explaining to our children.

For example, my husband and I were both adopted by our stepdads when we were school-aged children. We remember our biological fathers, but we no longer have contact with them. Through their own inability to show up for us as parents, they have fallen off our family tree. We both have half siblings, although in our minds there is nothing half about them. And we might even have more blood related siblings we don’t know about. Our last names don’t belong to our genetic lineage, but they do represent family connection—one forged not by blood, but by time, love and support.

My husband and I both own our complicated family trees fully, but it has definitely made for some interesting conversations as our children grow out of the baby stage.

Taking a cue from my own parents, who I feel handled these types of conversations beautifully with my sisters and me, I’d like to share how I’ve chosen to tackle this complicated subject with my own kids in the hopes that it may help new parents out there wondering where to begin.

1. Be open and honest from the start. I don’t like the idea of family secrets, especially in this case, as it can make the situation appear shameful when it's quite the opposite. I would also hate for my kids to learn this information from someone else. I can’t even remember the first time I told my children that I was adopted. Taking away taboo and being open to the questions that may follow can feel a little scary, but I found doing it early helped make it easier.

Any person who is an active member of your family is a real part of that family, some just may not be related by blood.

2. Don’t give extra information. A preschooler doesn’t need to know every detail of your family’s past. The story of your family is one that can be told over many years. Answer questions as honestly as you can, but do your best not to demonize those involved. When possible, focus on the positives and what you feel your kid is ready to understand.

3. “Real” family has nothing to do with biology. This is a touchy one for me. The man who adopted me is my real dad. If your child asks about your “real” relatives, take the opportunity to explain why you don’t use that language and give them permission to gently correct others when they encounter it in the wider world. Any person who is an active member of your family is a real part of that family, some just may not be related by blood.

4. Heritage and culture are much more than genetics. The fun thing is, it can be both your genes and your upbringing that shape your cultural identity. If your child is interested in exploring their heritage, do your best to expose them to all of it. Create your own traditions that borrow from your favorite parts of that beautifully complex ancestry.

Lastly, your tangled family tree might not be perfect, but it has borne splendid fruit. Your children will take their cue from you, do your best to show them that where they come from is as wonderful as it is complex.

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