The Evolution of Trees

by Carolyn on March 12, 2010

Today, families come in all shapes and sizes. Same sex couples with children, step families, single parent households and extended family households are becoming a larger demographic than ever before and their numbers may even be eclipsing those of the traditional nuclear family. We are no longer a culture of Cleavers living as husbands with wives with 2.2 children who have two sets of grandparents, and a handful of aunts and uncles each donning their own little brood. But somehow, although this is no longer the norm, it is still considered the ideal family structure within our culture.

You want to know one of my biggest pet peeves as a child of divorce? Family trees. Or as I like to refer to them, the embodiment of familial discrimination. You know the ones:

Why is it that these pesky things have not been forced to evolve? To accommodate the myriad of families that exist?

I remember being charged with filling one of these out a few times in school. I’ve also been faced with them in my wedding album along with the memory books I keep for my two children. You know why I hate them so much? Because my family doesn’t fit. I need more than my share of boxes and then there’s some I can’t even fill out. It’s a one size fits all approach to highlighting a family’s history. And the perfectionistic nature of most children of divorce can’t help but be tortured by the blatant illustration of their family’s apparent flaws.

I usually squeeze two names into each of the parent boxes and then double up again on the grandparent boxes. Aside from my stepfather’s branch of the family, I don’t even know the names of my great grand parents, so most of the highest boxes usually remain blank. I’ve been known to draw arrows up to those ones in order to fit the names I couldn’t below. And don’t even get me started with the sibling boxes! It seems somewhat wrong not to delineate where each group of siblings stems from, but I’ve never seen a family tree that comfortably allowed for that. Man, I hate those things. And I wish that my children didn’t have a lifetime ahead of contending with them also.

I have read that the nuclear family is the basic, most widely accepted unit of our culture’s social structure. That is why it was entitled ‘nuclear’*. Because every other structure is born of that simple building block. We all hail from a woman and a man. It is the nucleus of our humanity, our very existence. And that basic reality will exist no matter how families continue to evolve. It’s part of why us children of divorce tend to grieve it’s loss so deeply.

And yet, the trees remain. Taunting us in all of their ‘nuclear’ glory. Like a slap in the face saying “See? Look. Yours is broken.”

In general, I can’t say that’s how I usually perceive my family. When I’m not trying to squeeze my square peg in a round hole, I am usually proud of what I’ve got. An interesting family and a whole lot of it to love is a gift, not a curse. And one day someone very smart is going to revolutionize the family tree template into something that celebrates our differences instead of giving us headaches. So that one day my children won’t be sitting in classroom staring a worksheet like I did, thinking “Now how am I going to make this work?”

*Murdock, George Peter (1949). Social Structure. New York: The MacMillan Company.


{ 14 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Peggy March 12, 2010 at 4:40 pm

I redefined the tree on my own terms. And drew in more branches and added more boxes. Even today’s software lets you do that :-) How else can I explain my family and all those marriages between him and my mother.
.-= Peggy´s last blog ..What I Do To Others, I Do To Myself =-.


2 Urchin March 12, 2010 at 6:47 pm

Being the child of adoption and knowing it, I refused to do a single tree. By the time we got around to them in school I knew my biological mother, her husband, my aunts and uncles on that side, my grandmother had been remarried, and I had two half brothers. So my solution? I made a Family Forest with just a sheet of paper and my name on it in the center. (Because obviously the whole project revolved around me, now didn’t it? :P)

I have no idea what happened to the foam-core I glued everything to all nice and scrapbook style, but I remember getting comments on it from the teacher, several other teachers, and some kids who were in similar situations (divorce, adoption, foster care) who loved my take on something that would have otherwise been wholly uncomfortable for them to do.


3 Carolyn March 13, 2010 at 11:42 am

Why am I not surprised that you would find a completely unique and creative and graceful way to tackle this uncomfortable situation. I never thought to ask for another sheet. Or a foam core! :) I hope that this assignment has either gone by the wayside or that everyone now gets multiple sheets and foam cores to work with.


4 Urchin March 13, 2010 at 12:04 pm

It’s just another example of why Conan firmly believes that I was an unrecognized gifted child.

I didn’t exactly *ask* for the foam core or extra sheets, but knew where such things were kept in the classroom so helped myself. Probably not the most moral of ways to go about it, but at that point I didn’t care.


5 Tiffany March 13, 2010 at 8:14 am

Happy SITS sharefest day! :) My stepdad and Mom are getting a divorce after 24 years…so I’m a lucky girl who is now going through a divorce for the 2nd time in my life. YUCK. I think my head would explode if I had to do a family tree!!


6 Carolyn March 13, 2010 at 11:44 am

Oi, I hear you! I can’t imagine how difficult that must be for you to be going through. My parents have both been remarried for over 25 years and I know it would be quite a blow if something like that were to happen.

Thanks for stopping by, Tiffany!


7 Linda March 13, 2010 at 8:20 am

My problem with the family tree assignment was that I didn’t have enough family to fill up the boxes. The kids always teased me. I had to explain that we didn’t have family that we could trace. So, the family tree assignment was the worst.
Happy Saturday Sharefest…..


8 Carolyn March 13, 2010 at 11:46 am

It truly is a discriminatory assignment. I’m so sorry you got teased! For me, I don’t know who one of my grandparents is and I don’t know who any of my biological great grandparents are either. I hope this assignment has changed. I should probably talk to my son’s teacher about it.


9 Jennifer March 13, 2010 at 8:26 am

I agree. Whenever I’ve tried to complete one of these I try to make it look more like an organization chart and less like a “tree”. Maybe because that is my background, but it helps. In my mind at least.

Happy SITS Saturday Sharefest.
.-= Jennifer´s last blog ..Talking with Baby Girl =-.


10 Carolyn March 13, 2010 at 11:47 am

Great approach. I wish somehow they could redesign these darn things!


11 Urchin March 13, 2010 at 12:12 pm

I was curious so I did a search. I found this ( which may or may not be helpful. The “Hedgerow” example is a lot like my “Family Forest” idea.


12 Angelia March 15, 2010 at 2:30 pm

You know, I always hated those things but never really thought about why until your post. Now it makes perfect sense! I have several unfilled out ones from Sydneys baby book. Heck, I didn’t even know my paternal grandfathers name until a few years ago. I thought his
name was Paul, but that’s actually what I called him
(Pa). His real name was Leroy. Lol.

I agree, family that is large and overfills the boxes – what a gift of love from the heart. I am rejoicing for that and forgetting the boxes. :-)
.-= Angelia´s last blog ..Farm in the City =-.


13 Sherri March 16, 2010 at 3:19 pm

I’m with you. Those darn family trees need to evolve. Between my stepson, my stepparents, and my stepsiblings (and then do you mention their other biological parent to show where they came from?), not to mention a couple of adoptions in the family, I just can’t figure out where to start (or where to end if I do start).


14 Carolina September 28, 2011 at 4:51 pm

Does anyone have a template or picture? I’m trying to do one in my classroom, and I have a child who has had 2 brothers adopted out, both parents re-married, step brothers and sisters on each side, some whom have married and had kids of their own. I’m confused of how to help him with a family tree, so any pictures would be a help!


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