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Multiple Marriages and Step Children

Reflections on the meaning of Family

Genealogy Essays:

Recording Adoptions
How do you draw adopted children in a family tree? (2011)

Those Elusive Edes
9 lessons learned about finding people in the census. (2009)

The Joys of Inveterate Button Pushing (2004)

Who's Your Daddy?
Genealogy versus family history. (2004)

Suspicion Meters
Your program doesn't have one, but you do. (2004)

Estimating Dates (2002)

A cautionary tale (2002)

Count Your Blessings
1988 and now (2002)

The Grand Chase
How my individuals connect (2002)

What makes a family? (2001)

A genalogical detective story (2000)

Eben J. Cady
Musing about a tombstone (2000)

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(Posted on GenForum.com General Topics, 26 May 2001, in response to a question about multiple marriages and step-children by Lori Linstedt. She asked where to put step parents and parents who remarried on a family tree chart.)

Lots of people married twice, especially before 1850, when women died in childbirth and men didn't know how to cook. In the worst case, Abner is born in 1822. His mother dies a week later of something we can cure today with a $2 pill. Six months or a year later his father remarries, to have someone who knows how to keep house and mind the young'uns. A couple of months after that Dad gets eaten by a bear, or the Indians object to his trespassing, or his horse runs amok, or he comes down with a fever and doesn't get up again. A year later - maybe 6 months, if the crops are heavy - the widow remarries. Abner is two years old.

The man she marries does the right thing. He raises Abner as if he were his own, teaches him to stand tall, work hard, shoot straight and tell the truth. Abner calls him "Dad" (or "Sir") and his wife "Mom" for the rest of his life. He has no blood relation to either of them. Only by careful research in the church records will you find his biological parents.

In genealogy, as opposed to real life, a family is a man, a woman and the children they bring into the world. They don't have to live together. If someone marries twice and fools around on the side a lot, you would have many "family" group sheets. If his wife gets even with a fling, you'd have another FGS. Most genealogy programs let you associate as many "spouses" as you want with a given individual, and enter children for the two. You can enter a marriage fact or not, as you see fit. All "spouse" means in this sense is that their union, however brief, had issue.

The common instances when you enter multiple spouses are people (divorced or widowed) marrying again, affairs of the heart, slave owners abusing their slaves, and royalty trifling with anyone female who will hold still long enough to be trifled with. (That last is why so many of us can trace back to Charlemagne, if we keep at it long enough.)

Your step-parents do not go on your family tree chart, but your parent who remarried and had children by a second spouse goes on two charts, with an asterisk or something by his/her name to indicate multiple marriages.

Finally, your question brings up a good question for people inclined to ramble; what is a family?

Genealogically it is as above; man, woman, child(ren). In real life it may be different. The most extreme example I can dream up is two casual acquaintances, Frankie and Johnny. He treats her wrong, she reciprocates. They get snockered one night, couple without protection, and produce a child, Angela. They live together for a year, bickering constantly and slapping Angela when she whimpers. They break up when Johnny goes away to do twenty years in a federal pen. Frankie seeks pharmaceutical consolation. She scores some heroin twice as strong as she expects it to be and dies with a smile on her face.

Angela is a problem child. She gets adopted by a same-sex couple. They already have a Bosnian orphan, Boris, and Mike, a child from Northern Ireland whose unmarried Catholic mother gave him up for adoption because his father was a Protestant. The five of them grow tomatoes in the back yard. They read together; Dr. Seuss, then Beverly Cleary, Harry Potter and Voyage of the Basset.

SSC Adult #1, Pat, teaches the kids to ride a two-wheeler and hit an outside curve. SSC Adult #2, Sandy, lets them help in the kitchen, even though they make a mess and it takes longer. They let the dinner dishes soak while they talk about things around the kitchen table. Pat and Sandy are there when Angela breaks her arm falling out of the apple tree, gets first place in the three-legged race at the church picnic, falls in love for the first time and gets accepted to Stanford.

Boris becomes a mechanical engineer. Mike, after a stint in the Air Force, flies for United Airlines. Angela, since her hands are small, goes into pediatric surgery. She fixes hearts the size of a walnut for a living. Every year they come home to Pat and Sandy, who are older and greyer now. The first night of the week, every year, they go into the back yard, join hands around the apple tree, and thank the Lord that there is more to "family" than whose loins you sprang from.

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This page updated: June 21, 2014