By all accounts, legal and biological, I have had three fathers, a bounty that has left me reflecting on what it means to be a father, and maybe more so, what it means to be someone’s daughter.
The first was a “donor” – and not in the financial sense. He was a medical resident in Boston in 1968, during the early days of physician-assisted artificial insemination. Before cryobanks and record-keeping, and at a time when most donors, often medical students, could hardly imagine a world where mail-in DNA tests would uncover deeply buried secrets. My guy either nobly answered the call to help couples struggling with infertility – or just as likely, provided a sample to earn $40 and eugenically create a smart, deeply feeling, taller-than-average subspecies. What motivated him to do what he did is very likely to remain a mystery to me and the six other extraordinary siblings I have discovered through the magic of Ancestry DNA. He has told us, indirectly through a first cousin, that he does not want contact with “the offspring of insemination.”
I am still processing this bit of information, which I learned just a few months ago. And although there have been times when I want to deny the connection, I can’t help but feel it. Our college graduation pictures, which I stitched together with an app on my iPhone, look shockingly alike to me. Same squinty eyes and oval face, similar shy-looking smiles. Not to mention the parts of me that have felt untethered…was this all part of being the child of an unknown parent? I will likely never know.
But this much I do know: I am not looking for a father figure, an inheritance, or someone to spend holidays with. I should be – and most days I am – simply grateful for the gift of my life. In Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, which range from basic physiological needs like food and shelter up to those of belonging and self-actualization, my need to know him is somewhere in the middle. I don’t need his love, but maybe some sort of fundamental acknowledgement warranted by our shared biology.
The second left 20 years later. He was married to my mother when I was born and, for all I knew, he was, and should have been, my dad. My brave mother waited until the dust had settled behind him, after he had been given a fair amount of time to act like a father, and then told me the biological truth. It’s funny, really, but in that time, I draw on only one hazy, positive memory of him, that I’m not even sure is real. I can see it like I am watching a movie – a quiet pond in spring time, a father kneeling down next to his young daughter, wiping her tears, as her heart breaks at leaving behind a beautiful swan. He picks her up, tells her that the swan belongs at the pond, and then carries her back to the car.
There must have been more moments like this, but they have been drowned out by his absence. Fade out swan…fade in memories of broken promises and fear. Pulling up to my childhood home and scanning our driveway with dread of seeing his car there, which meant that he would be home on the couch, smoking a Salem and waiting for someone to blame for something. Me begging my mother to leave him, but feeling her so full of empathy that she couldn’t do it. I spent much of my childhood wishing for the strength to block him out of my heart, but I could never build a wall to protect against the danger of loving him. When I learned of his passing, it had been at least ten years since I had laid eyes on him. I remember going for a long run along the Charles River, trying to figure out if I had made my peace with him. If there was something I could have done differently to help him be a better father. If I could have been a better daughter. I still don’t have all the answers.
The man who became my dad appeared when I was 22. He had been widowed and came with a son whose heart was also open to us. He fell deeply in love and married my mother. People have always found my mother to be beautiful, but according to him, she is completely irresistible in a royal blue suit. I couldn’t blame him for loving her, which we all passionately do. But he gave me the gift of seeing her loved in the way she deserved. He also jumped right in to the chaos of us.
One summer evening, about five years later, we were at a festival where brilliant bonfires floated down a river. He had his arm around me, and we lagged behind the others. It all felt so normal and so extraordinary at the same time. I turned to him and blurted out, “You should adopt us.” Unsurprisingly, he did not hesitate. A few months later, my sister and I, both in our twenties, were sitting in the chambers of a family court judge.
He has now been my father for more than half of my life. And even though I’m 50, he still lets me keep stuff in the basement. He knows – and has an opinion about – every small detail of my life. He tells me and my sweet sister that we are stuck with him, no matter what happens with our mom. We smile at this, because he is telling us that he chooses us.
As time goes by, I am finding space for my three fathers. I understand that it is not a zero-sum game. My first father, with whom I share an uncanny physical resemblance and other forever unknown traits, held the key to my existence. The second, maybe the most challenging to find space for, was the man who taught me about imperfect love. And the man I call dad today, well, he gave me a gift I will be forever unable to reciprocate: a feeling of being chosen to be a daughter.
Lisa Freudenheim is a law professor and founder of Legal Writing Consultants, a professional writing coaching firm working with individuals and companies nationwide. After turning 50, she decided to make time for writing about things that mattered deeply to her, like her two boys, her love of the water, and punctuation.