In genealogy, three events form the basis for all individuals' lives
birth, marriage and death. Of course marriage has always been optional,
but our ancestors who produced children almost always tied the knot.
Today, marriage seems to be less of a "must" with 50% of children
born in the U.S. having parents who are not married. Does this mean the
end of genealogy as we know it? How will our software programs handle
couples living together, but not married? What about mothers who do not
live with their children's father? Will we have to devise a new system
for keeping track of people?
Genealogy purists have always followed the bloodline, so in that sense
marriage really isn't relevant. A child has two parents whether those
individuals are married or not. However, marriage, with or without children,
has always been a clearly-defined event that we could add to our family
trees. Informal live-together arrangements, on the other hand, are something
new. Some of these relationships may be stronger than some marriages,
but should they be recorded in your genealogy? And what do you do about
domestic partnerships involving same-sex partners? These questions are
a little more complex. Before we answer them, let's look at the history
Origins of Marriage
Marriage, in one form or another, has been with us for thousands of years.
For Western civilization, morality played a large part in justifying marriage.
You simply did not produce children without marriage. Society frowned
on unmarried mothers and their children and often banned them from society,
although seldom the fathers. Very wealthy unmarried mothers, however,
and rich illegitimate children as well, suffered little disapproval.
While people were urged into marriage for mainly moral reasons, economics
also played a part. Until the 20th century, making a living
was quite a bit different. Providing food or earning money to buy food
was usually a physically demanding job. Plowing fields, felling trees,
raising sails on ships, and fighting in an army all required physical
strength, and a lot of time. Women also had to work childbearing into
their lives maternity leave was not an option.
For these reasons, a partnership between men and women worked beautifully.
Men worked from dawn to dark to provide the raw materials. Women worked
the same amount of time preparing and preserving food, making and maintaining
clothes and other necessities, plus bearing and raising children. If a
mother or a father died, the surviving partner usually remarried fairly
soon, as it was an economic necessity.
Insisting on marriage before childbirth also greatly simplified the life
of "village elders." After all, if a woman had a child and could not support
herself, the support of the new family fell to either the local church
or civil government. A woman who was married became the responsibility
of her husband and did not draw on the local charity funds.
Economics in the form of inheritance also made marriage important. For
the most part, only men could own property and possessions and pass them
on to heirs. A man wanted to be sure these went to his heirs, not someone
else's. About the only way he could be reasonably sure that he was the
father of the child was if the mother was legally bound to him from at
least nine months before the heir was born. (This, of course, wasn't foolproof,
as some babies were "premature"!)
Around the beginning and middle of the 20th century, several
changes occurred: 1) Women found they were as smart as men if they had
access to an education, 2) Work became less physical, especially with
the invention of modern machinery and tools 3) Appliances became available
to do household chores and 4) More ready-made products were available
at lower prices. All of these improvements meant that men and women no
longer need each other to survive. Another significant factor was the
invention of the birth control pill. Without the worry of unwanted pregnancies,
women were no longer insistent on marriage before sex. Thus, while a lot
of people still choose marriage for many reasons, in modern times it is
no longer an economic necessity.
With this new reality, how should you record a child in your genealogy
if the parents are not married? Hopefully, your program does not announce
that X was the illegitimate child of Y. However, it is generally
safe to say that you can put in your genealogy whatever is a matter of
public record. If the birth certificate names the father then you can
include his name in your database. If the parents sent out a birth announcement,
then both names can be recorded.
However, if the father's name is not on the birth certificate and the
mother makes no mention of the father, you should be careful about what
you record. You may know from family gossip the identity of the father,
but this may be best left unsaid. Many family "secrets" are
well-known, but it is not your place to make them official knowledge.
Remember, the first rule of doctors is "Do no harm." Genealogists
might do well to adopt this motto also!
There is one long tradition involving unmarried partners: If a man and
woman have lived together for some length of time, which varies with the
legal jurisdiction, it is considered a common-law marriage. Some genealogy
programs recognize this, otherwise you may need to come up with your own
Modern Complexities and Children
Unmarried parents are one thing, but where it really gets complicated
is when today's technology comes into play in the production of children.
For example, what if the sperm or eggs that created a child are donated
to a family member? Fortunately, most of this is covered by medical ethics:
donors are usually anonymous so putting a name in your genealogy is not
an option. However, in cases when these persons are known (perhaps a family
member or close personal friend), you need to handle this with kid gloves
and find out the parents' feelings first.
Surrogate mothers, where a fertilized egg is implanted into another woman's
womb to carry during pregnancy and then given up, are also not covered
in current genealogy programs. Technically, they are not part of the family.
They are more like foster parents who have taken care of the child for
a period of time.
And here's another interesting twist: men can have sperm frozen for later
use. This would mean a child could be born years after the father died.
It would be his child according to the blood line, but your genealogy
program would probably protest!
Sometimes people live together for many years and wish to be known as
a couple. It has been proposed that there should be some label in a genealogy
program for such cases. Possible labels which can be substituted for "husband"
and "wife" in Family Tree Maker are "significant other,"
"companion" or "POSSLQ" (a term coined by the Census
Bureau meaning "Persons of the Opposite Sex Sharing Living Quarters").
Personally, I am very wary of including such relationships in my tree
unless I receive a request in writing. While two people might be very
much in love when asking to be included as a couple, they may have a falling
out and split up. Without a legal record of the union, they can deny they
were anything but casual friends and demand you remove such libelous statements
in your family history. (I know one woman who wanted her first marriage
removed from the family history!)
Some jurisdictions also allow couples (male-female or same-sex) to declare
themselves domestic partners, allowing them to be covered by a working
partner's health insurance and giving them the same rights as a spouse
for making emergency medical decisions. Presumably there is a record of
such a declaration, but I don't know if this is considered a vital, public
record such as a birth certificate. Same-sex unions are becoming more
common, having just been legalized in Vermont. If there is a record of
some sort and you want to enter this in your history, you will need to
come up with a label to cover this and work it into your program. As with
other delicate family situations, perhaps you should determine the couple's
and family's feelings before adding to your genealogy.
What to Do?
If you don't want to deal with these modern complications, you can decide
to only record marriages and leave out all other arrangements. However,
you do need to record any children born of these unions, including the
parents' names, if known. This strategy works if you do not intend to
publish or otherwise circulate your genealogy, because you do not have
to worry about offending anyone. However, if you plan to create a family
book or print a wall-sized tree for the family reunion, it might be wise
to take family feelings into account. Some programs allow you to code
sensitive information so that it can be deleted from the chart for the
family reunion. If your program doesn't have such a feature, you could
create your own codes, such as enclosing the information in symbols you
don't use for anything else. Even names could be coded in some way (middle
name "Sensitive" or "Censor" or "YZ") so
that you can appropriately edit your tree for family gatherings.
Times Are Changing
I recently saw in the newspaper a picture of a gay couple and a lesbian
couple. They wanted children, so one of the men donated sperm to one of
the women. Now they all consider themselves the child's parents. What
complexities modern life brings for genealogists. I don't think the genealogy
program to handle that situation has been invented yet!