Tuesday, 8 July 2014

Happy Families

The issue of how to handle unusual or exotic families is a frequent one in genealogy, and especially when trying to enter data into a software product or into an online tree. I want to examine some of the common questions, and try to inject some clarity into the subject.

Last month, I was a participant in an exchange asking whether a particular software product[1] could represent a legally married lesbian couple. That exchange looked at some of the practical aspects before considering more unusual combinations of people.  One of the main sources of confusion — in this exchange and in other threads — is our innate tendency to conflate a number of different concepts, such as marriage and family. This tendency is a natural consequence of our own cultural upbringing and of our desire to document “family history” without questioning what a family actually is.

Once we understand that certain concepts are actually independent of each other then we’re less mired in our own cultural norms, and any unusual scenarios become clearer. In terms of digital representation, this amounts to a “Just right” as opposed to a “Too parochial” or a “Too complex”.

Although this software could accommodate a same-sex couple, it retained the concept of a father and a mother tag in the context of an associated family. Rather than this being an attempt to impose traditional structures, it was required in order to control how the couple were represented in charts. For instance, who is on the left and who is on the right, or possibly who is coloured blue and who is coloured pink.

This requirement raises an interesting question of whether such a chart would be showing biological lineage or a family unit. With biological lineage then the sex of the parents (male/female) is important, and could be used as the basis for colour-coding. With a family unit then gender roles are more important and such a colour-coding would be too simplistic — the difference between sex and gender often being confused[2].

This same software uses the terms “Partner 1” and “Partner 2” in reports, as opposed to charts, but this is unnecessary. I originally used this same approach in STEMMA® for the roles of marriage events until I tried to address cases with more than two partners; I now just have a single role of “Partner”.

Polygamy is a marriage that includes more than two participants. When a man has more than one wife then it is called polygyny, and when a woman has more than one husband then it is called polyandry. In both cases there is no marriage bond between the multiple wives or multiple husbands. If polygamy is illegal then such a relationship is termed bigamy. Polygamy has traditionally been associated with positions of wealth or power. Although historically not uncommon, the practice has been outlawed in many countries – some quite recently (Hong Kong in 1971). It was widespread in African countries and, although now in decline, it is still performed.

There are some technical categories of a family unit[3] but does a polygamous group even have the concept of family? Are all the adults considered parents of all the children, or are there sub-families?

We should all know that a marriage doesn’t automatically define a family unit, nor create a framework for one. The parents may be unmarried, or not the biological parents, but we still fall into this trap. It’s also a dynamic concept since people enter and leave a family group. If your software provides such a concept then how does it handle a scenario where the parents have died, or where the children were forcibly separated from the parents? I am personally very cautious about attaching this tag to any group of people since it needs more supporting evidence than any official record can provide. Proof of co-residency is not proof of family. Unless you have first-hand knowledge, or some written/oral testimony, then it’s a presumptuous label. You might make a case for it being obvious in the case of biological parents but this breaks down in the exotic cases, and if it’s so obvious in those simple cases then why do we need the label.

Going back to the original lesbian couple, if one of them was the biological mother of their child there might have been a sperm donor, assuming that the child wasn’t from a previous relationship, and so the biological connections are obviously different from the family connections. Even this attempt at objectivity can break down, though, and there are cases where the donor male forms part of an extended family, and might even be included on a combined birth certificate[4].

What about information on the biological parents? Surely that part is straightforward since we all have just two biological parents; one of each sex. Well, the future may change this as it will soon be possible to have three or more biological parents using a mechanism known as “mitochondrial transfer”. The technique is intended to prevent mitochondrial diseases including muscular dystrophy and some heart and liver conditions[5]. There would still be just one couple contributing to the child’s XY sex chromosomes but some other type of connection would be required for the secondary genetic contributions.

So what’s the best approach?

If representing biological lineage then a child can only born to one genetic father and mother, irrespective of whether they were both present at the conception, and ignoring the possibility of "gene injection" from a secondary genetic donor. The latter scenario can be handled by a diminutive form of the normal biological-parent links.

Separate from lineage is the concept of a family unit, whether it includes adoptive/foster parents, guardians, same-sex couples, or something more exotic. This can be modelled using a Group entity to connect specific people.

Separate again is the concept of a bonding ceremony (e.g. marriage), whether it include same or dissimilar sexes, or more than two partners. This can be modelled using an Event entity.

All three of these are independent concepts. If we try to merge or confuse them then it will ultimately run into cultural and life-style differences that we will find hard to represent.

For any software people, a STEMMA example may be found at Nature and Nuture.

[1] Gramps – Genealogical Research Software ( : accessed 7 Jul 2014).
[2] See “No Sex Please, We're Genealogists!”,, Parallax View, 10 May 2014 (
[3] See “Family Units”,, Parallax View, 13 Aug 2013 (
[4] Catherine Rolfsen, “Della Wolf is B.C.'s 1st child with 3 parents on birth certificate”, CBC News, 6 Feb 2014, online ( : accessed 7 Jul 2014).
[5] "Three-parent baby", Wikipedia ( : accessed 7 Jul 2014). Press coverage: Ian Sample, “Three-person IVF: UK government backs mitochondrial transfer”, The Guardian, 28 Jun 2013, online ( : accessed 7 Jul 2014). Matt Smith, “FDA considering 3-parent embryos”, CNN, 28 Feb 2014, online ( : accessed 7 Jul 2014).