For many of us with school age children we are all too familiar with the family tree project that happens in elementary school. It is often done at the last minute by frazzled parents who heard about the project the night before it is due. The house is searched for family photos and memorabilia of generations past. Poster board, paint, and a lot of time go in to making the family tree the shiny successful project your child will carry off to school in the morning.
What happens when your child is a adopted, and adopted from foster care, without a clear history of their past? They have no photos, no memorabilia, and no family stories to share. They don’t have red hair like grandma Pat or a wiry frame like papa Joe. Often, we do not know about their past. They are our child, a very important part of our family tree, but they are an equally important part of another family tree - one we don’t know much about. It is complicated, and it is important to represent the whole of who they are. A single tree is not enough.
This is a very real and complex challenge for all adoptive families. Honoring who your child is, is important and critical in their development and sense of self. This family tree project usually happens at an age when the child may be too young to clearly articulate the importance of including their first family or bio family.
As the mother of a child adopted from foster care I was faced with this reality and had no clue where to start or how to do this. I started by looking on Etsy and Pinterest thinking someone must have figured out a solution to this by now. After hours of searching those and other sites, I came up empty handed. There were no pre-made charts or pdfs I could download to solve this dilemma.
I have childhood friends and family members who are adopted and through their experiences have always known that being inclusive of the birth families is so very important. They are as much a part of who they are as the families raising them. And as such it was extremely important to me to represent the birth family as part of our family on the family tree. Through my son I am connected to his birth family, we are all family.
In the end, it was Martha Stewart that saved the day. Her company sells a family tree stamping kit that allows the user to create a tree that fits their family by using different stamp shapes to create as many branches as needed. It’s a good thing! My son and I got to stamping and in the end created what we refer to as our family shrub. It has a tree trunk for his bio parents as well as for me. He is the joining point of all the trees. This way we are all represented on the tree, his cousins, aunts, grandparents - from all of his family. We may not know names for all of his bio/first family but they have a place on our family tree and in our hearts.
When we have family come to visit, my son shows them where they are on our family shrub, it is always such a sweet moment. Someday, hopefully, he will be able to do so with his bio-family as well. They are always there on the wall as a reminder that we are all a part of the family that makes my son the amazing special and wonderful kid that he is (not that I am biased or anything).