Sex & the Single Genealogist

Sex & the Single Genealogist

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.”

I’d be very interested in knowing how others who are not “traditional” family historians feel about their projects, whether in this comments section or in a guest post (see my Contacts form).  Come to think of it, if you’re a traditional family historian and want to discuss Freudian stuff about your mother — or father — this could be an ideal forum for you, too.

27 Responses to Sex & the Single Genealogist

  1. What a thoughtful post. I too have wondered about my role in keeping the family history as a childless woman.

    Because I studied history in school, I’ve been entrusted with some of the family genealogical records. I don’t know what will happen to them when I’m gone. I’m thinking I should connect with someone else in the family whose line can pass them on.

    But I too have found my family’s past interesting for what it tells about people I barely knew and because it gives a personal spin on history.

    My grandfather was very proud of his lineage. Although his name was Douglas (Scots), he only tracked the Meyer (German) line. He was a strong Deutschophile and I believe his service in World War I supervising German POWs in rebuilding railroads was one of the happiest times of his life. Funny how not being in a trench could make even WWI exciting for some.

    I’m fascinated seeing the many lessons you’re deriving from following your family history. I hope it continues to be a fruitful and fulfilling journey for you.
    Pamela | Something Wagging This Way Comes recently posted..Why Clicker Trainers Make Me SadMy Profile

    • Edie Jarolim says:

      And thanks for your always thoughtful response, Pamela. Whether you do or do not pass your family information along, clearly you are the right person to be the guardian of it, because you appreciate what’s there.

      As for this journey, to quote the Grateful Dead (not a band I particularly like, but still), it’s already been a long strange trip. Sometimes I look forward to see where the road will lead; other times I anticipate it eagerly.

    • Whatever else you do ensure that it’s past on, if not to another family member an archive, or local or national family history society. If neccessary have it privately published.

      Even if you have no direct descendants others will be interested in your work.

  2. Pup Fan says:

    Oh, that “have it all” debate. It is a source of endless frustration to me that no one ever wonders if men can have it all. The concept in and of itself perpetuates stereotypes (much like the rhetoric we hear from certain political figures that shall remain nameless). You’re so right that we are often judged based on whether or not we’ve had children. I’ll end that particular rant here, however…

    Putting that aside, I really enjoyed reading this post. As a woman of a certain age, I’m constantly confronted by those asking when I’m going to have children. (Interesting that no one ever asks “if”, isn’t it? Love those assumptions.) The answer to that question (and the unspoken one) is a personal one and no one else needs to know the answer to it unless I want them to. Anyway, given my current situation, this post really resonated with me. I enjoy delving into my family history (although others in my family have gone much deeper), and it’s fascinating to see where this journey is taking you. Your point about gay and lesbian ancestors is also an interesting one, and I’ll definitely be checking out Mr. MacEntee’s post.

    I realize that my comments are a little scattered… however, I’m often a little scattered. 🙂
    Pup Fan recently posted..Sticks, stones & words: The power of languageMy Profile

    • Edie Jarolim says:

      Your comments are much appreciated — and not scattered at all. (I’m a big appreciator of rants in any case). And, yes, it’s amazing how many people think it’s okay to ask personal questions and (I think) especially of women, since we’re supposed to be the forthcoming, in-touch-with-our-feelings gender.

      Yes, I’ve been on a wild emotional ride in many ways and am wondering if it will subside though I suspect not, given the nature of a lot of the research. But we’ll see…

  3. Thank you Edie for telling your truth. It’s mine too—the part about not having children, never wanting to have children and feeling perfectly fine with that—the genealogical part? Not so much. But, reading your fine blog, I might be changing my mind about that.
    Deborah Flick recently posted..Interview with Alexandra HorowitzMy Profile

    • Edie Jarolim says:

      I think it’s difficult to convince some people that having children is a choice, like other life choices, especially if you’re in a relationship. And of course especially if you’re female. There are certain life situations where one feels that skepticism (possibly a projection) more deeply than others…. genealogical research, for example. Somehow in dog blogging it was never much of an issue…

  4. Years ago I picked up the family history that my Aunt had started to see if I could dig a little deeper and find something new. It was captivating! Without those people I wouldn’t be here – and that’s a compelling enough reason to learn more about them. It was also an opportunity to sit with my Grandma and listen to her tell stories about the people she remembered, which was precious time that I’m so grateful for now.
    Amy@GoPetFriendly recently posted..A Dog Friendly Wonderland: KY’s Land Between The LakesMy Profile

    • Edie Jarolim says:

      Yes, I should have added that I’m sorry I started too late to learn my immediate family’s stories, which is unfortunate. It’s wonderful that you were able to get time in with your grandma. I feel like telling everyone to do that before it’s too late… hmmm, grist for another post, right?

  5. KimT says:

    While reading this I couldn’t help but think of how fascinating I found your information about Freud’s dogs to be. Imagine, somewhere down the road, a relative finding the stories about Frankie… I say definitely get him on that branch!

    As a woman who has had kids, I can honestly say that my genealogy attempts have been for my own interest and curiosity, quite frankly, so you wouldn’t be the only woman wanting the information for herself, not because of the progeny 🙂
    KimT recently posted..Wordless Wednesday: SunspotMy Profile

    • Edie Jarolim says:

      Ha! I hadn’t thought of reinstating Frankie to the branch, but you’re right — he has a book and a blog that were dedicated to him, which is a lot more recognition than many humans get. So he deserves a spot on the tree (which, being a dog, he will surely pee on)!

      There’s no guarantee that kids will be interested anyway, right? Great to get input from a dog person who also has children — but still considers genealogy for her own edification!

  6. Jill says:

    As a fellow family member and genealogy fan, I appreciated hearing your thoughts on being hooked up to our tree. The branches and leaves illustrate the depth and breadth of the family members.

    Crossing continents, speaking many different languages, married, single, alive and dead, we share a wonderful heritage that delights those that explore it. So come along for the ride, and if you want to shed a last name that is fine with us.
    Perhaps you may even want to add a new last name or take on a previous one to proclaim your connection to our extended family- Edie Kornmehl, sounds good to me!

    • Edie Jarolim says:

      You’re right, this is a tree — and a heritage — well worth exploring. I like the idea of adding “Kornmehl” to my name to celebrate my matrilineal line, but I would feel a little bad since my father has been neglected on this blog; at least his side of the family is represented with Jarolim. It was probably a bad sign — for my marriage! — that when my father died I decided to abandon my husband’s last name and take back my father’s because I was the last of the line. If truth be told, though, I liked Jarolim a lot better than my married name (which I will not mention…).

  7. This is a timely post for me as I mull over the future of my genealogical research. I may have children, but they show little interest in their family roots. They seem more amused than awed by newfound family connections. So, I too, research for myself, without apology. I have no illusions about passing the torch to the next generation, but I still hold the lamp high so I can see where I stand in the line of family.

    • Edie Jarolim says:

      Thanks for this, Denise. I didn’t want to be the one to say that some people have children who aren’t especially interested in their research (though I suspected it to be the case)… Good for you for not worrying about who benefits — as long as you do!

  8. marilyn says:

    I never thought about a ‘single genealogist’ before and a family tree for future generations. I too have no children, never wanted any (tho’ I do have a bit of curiosity about what a ‘little me’ would have been like…). The idea about tracing my roots and making some connection with my past is so intriguing. That history is in my DNA; I just want to know more.

    Maybe that’s because my mother, now 90 years of age, never shared that she was born in another country. It was only when I was around 17 and needed my birth certificate to go to Canada (remember Edie?) did I discover my mother was born in Poland and didn’t come to the US until she was 8. First the pogroms against the Jews in poland, then learning she lost most of her family during the war, she wanted to hide that part of her.

    It’s only recently that I’ve been able to get her to open up, and I know the time is limited. Today I told my 90 year old mother about your blog and she is looking forward to reading it when I go visit her next week!

    Edie, she sends her love

    • Edie Jarolim says:

      Marilyn, thanks for your thoughtful comment.

      Of course I remember that trip to Canada — and our quest for French boys in Quebec! — but I’d forgotten that was how you discovered your mother was from Poland. Oh, those family secrets!

      I’m very pleased you told your mother about my blog; I’ll be curious to know her reaction. I’m sure my mother would have liked my tribute to her, but not sure how she would have felt about the public nature of much of this.

  9. For me, ‘having it all’ means having all the options open to you and having a choice. You can be anything you want to be, even a single woman with no kids 🙂

  10. I am at the end of my branch as well. Although I pan on getting married in the next two years and having children someday, I am not doing genealogy for the next generation. No, it is much more selfish than that. I just enjoy the chase, enjoy adding names and dates and places and stories to my tree, enjoy sharing it with other like minded people, and going to these conferences. It really has nothing to do with my future children or the next generation.

    • Edie Jarolim says:

      Elyse, sorry it’s taken me so long to reply. Thanks for your perspective — which is similar to Denise’s. It’s gotten me wondering how many women, who don’t want to seem selfish for pursuing an all-encompassing interest, talk about doing it for the next generation instead of just proclaiming, as you do, I really enjoy doing this!

      Also… just went to your blog, — really nice!

  11. Jane says:

    Thank you for writing this. I found you via a web search, I did a spur of the moment hunt for “doing genealogy without children” and this post came up. I’m of a certain age, married, and had always planned on having children. A few losses & health problems have changed that plan. The resulting grief & “less of a woman” syndrome compounded by in-law guilt have been a huge thing to get through.

    I’ve always been fascinated by historical family stories & genealogy. I inherited a scrapbook full of photos from the 1800’s & various family news clippings from the early 1900’s from my great-great grandmother, I’ve done a lot of work on ancestry when I was a member & have even filled grave marker photo requests. But the lack of having someone to pass this all down to hit me like a ton of bricks. My work is in boxes and my motivation is at a standstill. I’ve had a huge case of the why-bothers about it, as my lone branch will be dangling there & none of my siblings have kids so it really bothers me not to have anyone who would care about this stuff when I am gone. I just don’t have the motivation to do it for myself & my own enjoyment.

    Anyway, I just wanted you to know that this post & the comments have made me feel not so alone & like there are others out there who do genealogy just for the fun of it & for themselves, not to hand down to non-existent children. Thank you.

    • Edie Jarolim says:

      I’m so glad you found this and that it helped you. And thank you very much for letting me know. Some days I wonder why I write a blog because it takes a lot of time and energy. Then I get a note like this and I remember! Good luck in your research; I hope you find a lot of interesting information and enjoy it. Maybe you should start a blog to tell your stories…

    • Dee says:

      Having kids doesn’t guarantee that they will be interested in the research that was handed down to them. This may be our life’s passion but not someone else’s. I’d rather give my research to a local historical society or extended family member whom i know would appreciate it.

      • Edie Jarolim says:

        Thank you for your nice words about my post — and for this comment. Absolutely there’s no guarantee that anyone else will be interested and offering it to the public or someone who will appreciate it is a far better way to know that your efforts will be appreciated.

  12. Dee says:

    Beautifully written.

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