Give thanks for family history

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Give Thanks for Family (History)

Five steps for helping you use the holiday season to gather critical information about your own health and future

by Margaret Farrell


Since 2004, the Surgeon General has declared America’s favorite turkey-centric holiday National Family History Day. It might seem strange to spend part of your Thanksgiving talking about health conditions, but really there’s no better time. With hours to spend together — and the desperate need for topics other than politics, the weather, or what weirdo your cousin is dating this month — the holidays offer you a great opportunity to ask big questions and connect about the things that matter to you.


If you want to plan ahead for future children, asking about your family’s past is a great place to start.


While you may already know about your family history of conditions such as cancer, heart disease, and diabetes, chances are you haven’t spent much time talking to the women in your family about their reproductive health and fertility.

Whether you’re unsure about having kids, certain you want kids but not sure when, or are already trying with or without the help of a fertility specialist, your genetics can play an important role in how you approach your plans for the future. Understand your family history, and you’ll be one step closer to understanding your genetics, too.

It may seem like a sensitive topic, or maybe it just never come up, but if you want to plan ahead for future children, asking about your family’s past is a great place to start.

Here are three steps you can take to make the conversation easier.

1. Prioritize who to talk to

You don’t have to broach the subject with the whole dinner table at the same time. Your closest biological family members’ health conditions are the most likely to shed light on your own.

Here’s who you should prioritize:

  • Your mother

  • Your sisters

  • Your maternal grandmother

  • Your paternal grandmother

  • Your maternal aunts

  • Your paternal aunts

Don’t forget the women on your dad’s side of the family. Half of your genes come from him.

2. Take the plunge

We get it. Asking your mom, grandmas, and aunts about their fertility may feel invasive. But you don’t have to get into the nitty gritty of menstrual cycles and miscarriages as you pass the stuffing.

Find an appropriate time and start small. Ask how long a family member spent trying to get pregnant before it happened. Ask if they had any struggles along the way.

Because certain reproductive conditions can be passed down from generation to generation, having open and honest conversations may shed light on the prevalence of these conditions in your family.

Maybe that sounds scary. Maybe you feel like you don’t want to know. But the more information you have about your body, the better equipped you and your doctor will be to make informed decisions about your future.

Once you’ve found the right time and identified the right people, start by explaining why you’re asking.

Need some help? Here’s an idea to get you started:

“I read that my family history can help me understand a lot about my fertility, and I was hoping you could tell me a little about what you went through when you were thinking about having kids or trying to get pregnant.”

3. Ask the right questions

Once you’ve gotten started, it’ll be easier to go into more detail. Use this Family History Worksheet to help guide your conversations and record what you learn.

Some of the questions that you may want to ask include:

  • Have you ever experienced irregular periods?

  • Did you have difficulty getting pregnant?

  • Did you have any miscarriages? How old were you?

  • Did you experience any complications during pregnancy?

  • When did you have your first child?

  • When did you start going through menopause?

  • Were you ever diagnosed with a reproductive condition?

  • Do we have a family history of genetic disorders?

  • Have you undergone a carrier screening? Would you be willing to share the results with me?

4. Talk to your doctor

At your next appointment, share what you earned with your doctor. This information can provide them with important insight into your risk of developing certain conditions in the future, which in turn may help you make more proactive health plans that are tailored to your biology and family-building goals.

5. Pay it forward

What you learn could be important to other women in your family. Once you’ve talked with your older family members about their histories, ask permission to share some of what you’ve learned with your sisters and cousins. By offering them insights they might not have gotten on their own, you’ll be empowering them to make more informed decisions about their futures, and giving them one more thing to be thankful for.

Did you take the plunge this holiday season and talk with your family about your health history? Join the conversation on Twitter with #NationalFamilyHistoryDay