It’s a family affair
I’ve recently surveyed friends and colleagues on what appeals to them, if anything, about researching their family history.
Here’s a spread of initial reflections on how respondents viewed their family research:
“There’s a clock and everybody’s life is counting down, and when it’s counted down, it’s run out.”
“I don’t think of family tree research as a hobby, it’s more of a project. A hobby is something I’m good at and do long-term. This is more like a need or a responsibility. I’m also really bad at it.”
“I started a few years ago when my kid started school. I managed to go back six generations but now I’m hitting brick walls.”
While my sample was small, nearly everyone who responded talked about the personal significance of family trees and family histories. Quite a large number of respondents then highlighted the obstacles, both practical and psychological, to researching these histories.
There were a number of obstacles survey respondents perceived:
Some were concerned they’d simply started their family trees too late, and too many of the relatives they wanted to talk to have now passed
Some were concerned they didn’t have the time, money, or sufficient motivation to complete a family tree (or family history) with the rigour they wanted to apply to the task
Some commented on family trees as a priority, but never enough of a priority, and it simply gets too late to do anything meaningful with your family history once you “make” the time
Some were concerned they weren’t sufficiently skilled or competent to undertake the necessary research to deliver a comprehensive family tree (or family history) – they would talk about how ‘overwhelming’ starting the task would be
Some were concerned they’d be prying and uncovering family histories that remained covered up for ‘good reason’ and shouldn’t be uncovered now
Some were concerned that since their family histories will be contained in archives in countries other than the UK, and often in languages other than English, they won’t have the support or the means to effectively research and obtain records.
That’s quite a lot of obstacles!
And yet, again and again, I heard participants taking an interest in, and keen to commit themselves to more detailed work on a family tree or genealogy.
Adding stories to facts
Digging deeper, the survey revealed that for most people it’s not satisfying or enriching enough to find out “dry facts”, such as dates ancestors were born or died.
Instead, I heard how people wanted stories. They wanted to be intrigued. For some, it’s the surprise of learning major new things about their families that really motivates their interest in family history.
People wanted “answers to questions” and a few participants talked about adding ‘stories to facts‘.
For one person, this was about trying to try understand what their father did in the war.
One individual wanted to move beyond what they already knew – their grandparents’ lives. They wanted to trace people they didn’t know.
For one respondent, the research to date has sparked so many ideas and thoughts, they want to draw breath and seek validation that their research to date is correct. They want somebody to check what they’ve done for accuracy.
Others talked about a sense of healing or a need to reconcile themselves to past family traumas from Irish and Indian history.
And I was struck how one individual talked about their marriage to someone from an entirely different ethnicity, with a different national and cultural identity, and while they’re not that interested researching their own history, now they’ve had kids, they want to understand their spouse’s family history, so they can better understand it for the sake of their children.
Above all, I heard that survey respondents wanted their family tree research to provide them with a deeper sense of connection. They wanted to examine their place in the world.
In one of my first interviews to follow-up the survey, I heard one respondent talk about how potentially transformative family research can be on a personal level. They’d lost a parent at a young age and it’s only in recent times, now they’ve had children, they’re trying to piece together their personality and whether it was this parent’s family that shaped their traits and idiosyncrasies.
But it was something else they said that really grabbed my attention. They talked about the sheer mystery and indeed awe one can feel when you begin to piece together your history. They said:
It’s like Indiana Jones when you get going; you put the desk light on, start to find things out, dive in, and then the sand blows away from the tablet and something new appears. It’s magical, really.
The three stages of family history research
I have to thank this particular respondent, who I’m not naming, because I promised everyone’s identities would be kept confidential. They told me that for them – and they imagine for others immersed in family research – they see work on family trees consisting of three main stages.
While I need to conduct more research to determine how representative their account is, this seems to me to be a useful opening framework for our discussions about research on family histories:
- There’s the initial stage of committing to do something with the few facts you do have, the readily available information, or indeed committing to find out anything at all, however random, about one’s family history (they referred to this as the ‘Turning on the Desk Lamp’ -phase). Crucially, they highlighted how to reach this phase, someone normally needs to have converted a belief that family trees/family histories are ‘a priority’ into action, and this is sometimes dependent on a major life event, like bereavement, a change in one’s personal life, having children, or seeing older relatives age and become more frail. Quite literally, they see the ‘clock running down’.
2. There’s a much more prolonged phase, which isn’t linear, and can consist of great revelations and disappointing setbacks – the ‘hitting of brick walls’ – which sees the person involved in family histories piece things together. Sometimes these are totally incoherent and discrete facts, and it can be hard for someone in this phase ‘to see the wood for the trees’. But this is where the initial commitment to conduct family research, or to develop a family tree, turns into something with an energy and timetable attached. There’s a new impulse to find out more. This is the Finding Your Story phase and it can both be hugely enriching, but also enervating, depending on luck, the quality of records on your family, and the support you’re getting with your research. Like an author writing a book, this is the phase where many people come unstuck as they struggle to see an end in sight.
3. The next phase can come quickly or many years after beginning family tree research, and it’s often not even a conscious state of mind. It’s when an individual starts to connect what they’re finding out about their family history to their own life – and that of their current family – today. It can be quite emotional as new stories and facts collide to reveal profound or hidden psychological truths about one’s family, and by extension, their own identity. This phase can bring a wide range of emotions, such as a sense of closure or regret. Some are left with a curiosity to answer questions that are hard to resolve, and others find in their completed family tree, a calm sense of acceptance. This can be the phase to ‘call it a day’ and recognise some facts and stories will never reveal themselves, at least not fully. Or that while one version of their family story may be accessible, this may present a partial picture of what really occurred in their family’s past. This may well be the point to ‘wrap things up’. For others, however, it’s the launchpad to think more deeply about their own life, their current reality, and the legacy they wish to have when they come to reflect on the life they’ve lived. This phase is the ‘Making Sense of Your Story’– phase.
Our family histories – Our personal stories
On my LinkedIn profile, I have had a go at describing what I do:
Coaching individuals processing their past so they can understand, own and take pride in their story.
Not exactly something you’d say at a dinner party when asked, ‘What do you do?’.
But then I’m not here to be conventional!
You see, the past two years, I’ve seen from my own life and hearing from colleagues and friends too, how linked our family stories are to our own personal stories. And while this seems glib and obvious, I don’t think people always reach the next logical conclusion, which is that to truly understand our story – and sometimes even improve it, if life isn’t working out how we hoped for example – we need to draw on the lessons from our past.
In our family’s story we find the roots for our own story – good and bad. We can take strength from our ancestral history, but we might want to deconstruct that story, and consciously move beyond anything that no longer serves us in the present day.
There’s a lot of emerging interest in inherited trauma. I’m not saying we need to have experienced trauma in our lives to consider looking back, such that we can then move forwards.
I think there’s a simple strength in creating a family tree and researching our family history, and what’s more, it’s not just adding lines and dates to a piece of A4 paper.
We can use the research to better appreciate who we are, warts and all, and what it is about our families’ past we wish to celebrate and cherish, and what, if anything, we feel is holding us back and we might wish to release.
Returning to LinkedIn, I say (as a starter for ten) I help individuals with an interest in their family history, who are processing their past, but are hitting a brick wall. I add that my coaching helps them to better understand and tell their story by unlocking their creativity through life maps and life writing.
Essentially, I use storytelling prompts and narrative tools – even memoir – to assist clients as they plot their next step in their very own story. Essentially, I am here to help connect individuals to their real story, the one they know at a deep level, but don’t reflect on a great deal. I help clients own what’s unique about their story, and take pride in their past and how it’s shaped who they are. I see the great strength individuals can draw as they look back, reflect on their past, and build on their history to confront challenges in their life now.
My offer to you – my new services
I’m a big believer in the power of storytelling. As part of a new service I plan to deliver this autumn, ‘Your family story, Your personal story‘, I’ll be providing a wide range resources to help people feel clearer about their past story, what it means for their lives now, and how it might act as a guide for their future.
For those who want something more bespoke? I’ll have tailored services too…
This will range from mentoring to help you reach beyond brick walls with your family tree research; through to support with exploring life writing as a means of sharing what’s individual about your story.
I’ll be providing a premium service facilitating people to better tell their story, be it in an important interview, in a crucial presentation, or a speech, media appearance, or even in a book.
Through my ‘Your family story, Your personal story‘ service, I am also working with individuals to co-produce their ‘life story’ – their real story – to date through a series of structured interviews and prompts.
Available over a series of Zoom sessions or through audio, this is for individuals interested in recording the main events, or some key events, in their life. This can help individuals, especially in mid-life, to find value and meaning in what’s happened in their life so far. It can help them look to the future with fresh determination to live their life without regrets. These “audio life stories” can be a nice keepsake for families to treasure for future generations to have a loved one’s account of their life.
In the meantime, I’m offering coaching conversations now. And for the month of June I am offering three – free – 1 x hour introductory storytelling coaching conversations for the first three individuals who contact me and express a firm interest.
Just summon the Indiana Jones spirit. Whatever else might be on your agenda, there’s always time to channel your inner curiosity…
I look forward to hearing from you!