Single, no children… married, no children… The land of genealogical research is fraught for people without progeny, especially those of the female persuasion. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve read or been told by others that they are exploring their family roots for the sake of future generations, for the children and grandchildren.
And if you don’t have any?
Please Define “Family”
When I first discovered that I had a far-flung group of relatives, I also discovered that one of them, Leonard Schneider, had created an award-winning genealogical study tracing the Kornmehl family back to 18th-century Poland. Upon learning about the existence of my mother’s family, a Vienna branch heretofore unexplored, Leonard updated the family tree to include us. Although I was awed by the amount of research that went into the family tree I received and fascinated by my rich family heritage, I was also shaken to see my name dangling out there at the end of a branch.
The only other people who didn’t have branches next to their names were dead.
Maybe worse, sharing the little box with my name was the name of my ex-husband. Oops. I forgot that, at one point, I had sent in the information about my marriage so I wouldn’t seem like a loser to a group of people who, I surmised, would judge me on the basis of my relationships — or lack thereof.
I’d considered sending in the name of my dog, Frankie, with whom I have a far deeper bond than I had with my ex. And, as I wrote in my farewell post to my dog blog, my fellow animal lovers have been a family to me for more than three years.
But I couldn’t expect others outside that world to understand, and I didn’t want to insult people who didn’t know me. (I figured that there was plenty of time for me to do that — accidentally of course — when we became acquainted.)
Mind you, I now feel that I’m wrong about acceptance. I’ve felt nothing but welcomed during my short virtual acquaintance with my new family members, even when I sent them a picture of a dog wearing a yarmulke for the Jewish holidays.
Nevertheless, that tree — and the constant thinking about extended family that this project has engendered — have given me pause. As comfortable as I feel with my life choices, I’m always aware that women tend to be judged by their progeny, or lack thereof, no matter what other successes they achieve. This was proved by this past summer’s discussion surrounding the hiring of Yahoo CEO Marissa Meyer, which brought up the age old debate about whether women can have it all.
The Goldilocks Philosophy: Just Enough
I never wanted it all. I just wanted enough. And although a little more money and recognition could never hurt, I have more than enough: a career I love, wonderful friends, a home without a mortgage in a beautiful, warm city, and a dog who adores me.
Children? I never wanted them and I don’t regret not having them. My mother once confided to me that, if she had it to do over again, she might not have had me and my sister. I admit that it hurt a little to hear her talk about my nonexistence in a dispassionate tone — as opposed to an emotional “Oh-my-god-what-a-huge-gaping-hole-there-would-be-in-my-heart-if-I-hadn’t-had-you” context — but, philosophically and politically, I have no problem with that. If my mother hadn’t had me, I wouldn’t be here to know about it, and I wouldn’t miss myself.
And I think I understand what that reluctance might have been was about. Having had everything she loved wrested from her when she was forced to leave Vienna without her parents, it must have been difficult for her to trust that this kind of loss wouldn’t happen again if she allowed herself to build a new family.
But even though my mother wasn’t initially sure about having children, having had them, she wanted grandchildren. I was lucky to be off the hook. My sister had two children who in turn have had two children each. I love them all though I don’t see them as often as I would like. But I’m not pursuing my family history for them.
So Why Explore My Family History?
I’m doing it for me. Because I’m interested. And I’ve been lucky enough to be able to pursue my interests and get paid for it, from poetry to travel and food to dogs. If you’re a writer and discover your great uncle’s butcher shop is an art gallery in the Sigmund Freud Museum and you can research meat and Freud and Viennese history and genealogy and lots of other topics that you think are likely to be fascinating while exploring your mother’s past… well, the real question is, why wouldn’t I look into my family history?
And How Does That Make You Feel?
I already had this piece in my drafts file when I read Thomas MacEntee’s wonderful post, Unhiding the Past: Gay and Lesbian Ancestors. He not only talks about his gay and lesbian ancestors but also discusses his own sexual identity in honor of National Coming Out Day. As he puts it: “I make an effort to honor those in my family tree who are not-so-easily found because of their sexual identity. I also ‘come out’ to the genealogy community as a self-identified gay man.”