In praise of my real father (who isn't my biological father)
I can still remember my parents wedding. Yeah, that’s something a lot of people don’t get to say. I was 4 years old, the flower girl, and the man my mom was marrying was technically NOT my father.
. . . Yet. Let me explain.
My mom was a single mother at the ripe old age of 18—I know, a scary time to have a child, even in the days when women were having babies at a much younger age than they do now. She went through the terrifying process of telling her parents and trying to figure out what to do, along with the many other details you have to worry about in a situation like that. My biological father, on the other hand, didn’t have to figure any of it out. His decision was to. . . not. To not marry my mom, to not be a part of my life, to not even see me when I was born or support my mother through it all. Looking back, I am in awe at the fortitude of my mom and grandparents. I lived a blissfully happy childhood in the spare room of my grandparents’ home while my mom worked three jobs to support us. When I was 2, she met the man who, two years later, would become my father.
I don’t remember a time I didn’t know my dad (for future reference in this article, when I use the term “dad,” it is referring to the man who raised me, NOT my biological father). Again, he came into our lives when I was 2 years old, and I had always been surrounded by a host of loving, caring family members before then. My mom, my darling grandparents, my aunts, my godparents—I was never wanting for love and attention.
I DO remember knowing the difference between a biological father and un-biological father, however. I was blessed to grow up in an environment where we talked about things openly. My mom’s “out of wedlock” pregnancy and everything that went along with it wasn’t a secret to me. I grew up with it as a fact, just something that WAS. I remember lying in bed one night, asking my mom when she was going to marry “Tom.”
Fast forward to the wedding day, I’m all dressed up and ready to go (though slightly upset that my Sleeping Beauty Barbie, aka the best thing to ever happen to 4-year-old me, had been taken away for the ceremony. Psh). I distinctly remember walking down the aisle and tossing petals (only on the right side, because it was my favorite side, duh). But eventually, I ran out of petals. I had not been prepared for this in all my Flower Girl Training. Apparently, it broke my brain. I looked up, panicked, and tried to figure out what my next move was. I think that’s when I noticed “Tom.”
I imagine he must have been looking at me with loving pity, because it was then that it hit me: I had a dad. For the first time ever, I had an honest to goodness dad. I was WINNING today. I shouted, “Daddy!!!” as I ran down the aisle and leapt into his arms. Needless to say, there were many tears shed by all at that moment. My mom is overly fond of telling this story to a point where it embarrasses me, but I get it. In that one moment, all her years of struggling to do the right thing were validated. I think we all won that day.
When I was in the 1st grade, my dad officially and legally adopted me. At the time, all it meant to me was that I went from writing “Arielle Vanover” on my school papers to “Arielle Nieshalla.” He was already my dad, and always had been—no amount of papers was going to change that.
Other people seemed to take issue, though. They referred to my dad as my “stepfather” and my siblings as “half-siblings,” something that had never occurred to me. I will never forget the first time a friend of mine referred to my younger sister as a half-sister. I was angry, and hurt. To put any separation or difference between us simply because a man I had never known happened to be my biological father seemed ridiculous. Love doesn’t make that distinction, and it doesn’t need to.
I think it’s beautiful that I was raised with such a healthy perspective of it all. I’ve never felt damaged, or that anything was lacking from my life. I was always more than welcome to ask about my biological father, knowing full well my mom would answer honestly. But I wasn’t interested in something so obsolete to my life.
When I was 20 years old, my biological father contacted me for the first time. I was just checking Facebook before dinner when I saw the message from him and felt like the world was crashing around me. It was surreal. And not the I-just-stepped-from-a-wardrobe-into-a-magical-land surreal, but more my-worst-nightmare-came-true surreal. I had constantly been plagued by this fear my entire life, that this stranger would try to force himself into my heart as my father. In the message, he proclaimed feelings of life-long guilt, and then went on to tell me about all the “family” I had.
This, of all things, still infuriates me. One of the things that well-meaning but uninformed people would tell me growing up was that “blood is thicker than water.” That I would one day wake up and have this burning desire to meet my “real” dad because it was “in my blood,” that I would feel a hole in my heart otherwise. But I think that’s such a shallow and limiting way of viewing family and love in general. Love is something that grows, when nurtured and tended gently. It’s not automatic, nor do I think it necessarily should be. We have a natural tendency to love our parents because they are our first source of love and continue to be so throughout our lives.
My dad is my REAL dad, not because we share the same blood, but because he’s the one who brought me ginger ale when I was sick. He’s the one who went out and bought me my first pack of tampons. He paid for my braces and fought with me over math and taught me how to play soccer. He supported me dropping out of college to pursue acting because he BELIEVED in me. That is a father. A father is someone who stays, who loves you unconditionally. Who looks fear in the face and keeps going regardless. Love is also a choice. It’s a daily commitment to keep pursuing that initial feeling of unconditional affection. You do not “owe” your love to someone simply because you share their DNA if they haven’t put any of the work into giving you the love that you deserve.
All this to say, I DO think that, for some people, finding their biological parents can be both important and fulfilling. Believe me, I’ve watched August Rush one million times and cried every single one of them. It’s a beautiful picture of the unexplainable bonds the human heart is capable of. But let’s not put bounds on that love. Let’s widen our view on what a family can be and celebrate in the fact that, if we choose it, love can grow anywhere.
Arielle Nieshalla is one of those actors living in LA. Yes, she’s aware of how unoriginal this is. The Arts are her passion and forte, whether it be acting, dancing, singing, or writing. If you give her books, coffee, and/or dresses, she’ll be your friend for life. Arielle is weirdly obsessed with cheeseburgers and has been known to eat two in one day. She would love to include websites showing off how awesome she is, but The InterWeb is really hard to figure out, guys! But you can follow her and her kitty on Instagram at Aribelle89.