It can be difficult and painful to love someone who is unable to receive love. This is the story of a girl who thought that no one could love her, and of her mother, a bearer of God’s unconditional love.
Marianne starts with asking the audience in advance to bear with her through her tears. She will get very emotional, but is still comfortable and used to being on stage. It is a Jesus Women meeting in Alesund, where Marianne and her foster daughter have been invited to speak about the life and knowledge they share.
“I haven’t always been Lisbeth’s mom, ” says Marianne as she exchanges glances with her daughter who is standing beside her on stage.
The two met each other for the first time when Lisbeth was six years old, and full of fear. Together they stand this evening, as they tell about their lived experience, and about hope.
Marianne Borgen, 46, is a public health and psychiatric nurse. Lisbeth, 21, with the same last name, lived with her father until she was eight years old. “The system” had given up on her; nevertheless, she was fortunate to find a new home.
When they thank the audience 40 minutes later and step down from the podium, around the room there are few dry eyes and many touched hearts.
Around the breakfast table
The next day, before their flight home to eastern Norway, I meet with them for breakfast. Yesterday has started to sink in, and the two of them have gotten a good night’s sleep. Lisbeth admits that she could have slept even longer. It has only been three days since she finished her year of folk high school*, and she would have understandably gotten little sleep the last days there.
*Folk high schools in Norway are one-year boarding schools for adult education that offer a variety of non-traditional and non-academic subjects, as well as academic subjects. They generally do not grant academic degrees, but here is a high level of pedagogical freedom, often with a focus on self-development.
“What was it like to talk in front of so many people yesterday, Lisbeth?”
It was her first time to stand before a large gathering and tell her story.
“It was scary and good at the same time”.
Even before she said yes, she knew that she was going to be nervous, but that she would experience a greater purpose in doing this. She knows from firsthand experience that her story and her scars can be used to help others.
A guarded heart
“As I walked off the stage and sat back down it hit me: ‘Oh that’s right, people usually want to talk with the speakers afterwards. Ask questions, share their own stories.’”
She searches for words that can explain why it felt scary to imagine taking questions or feedback from strangers immediately after having shared personal things from her life.
“It’s like, I felt extra vulnerable, and wanted to protect myself.
Even though it was scary, it ended up being a good experience for her to stand together with her mother, both on stage and in taking feedback and questions afterwards. Lisbeth has worked a lot on recognizing feelings that come up, and finding the right tools to process them.
An anchor in life
Marianne says that when fear was at its worst at their home in Lillestrom, and they were worn out and did not know what else to do, they would just lie down together, Lisbeth in Marianne’s arms, and listen to worship music. That’s how they ran to Jesus. That’s how the fear went away, time after time.
“Sometimes we would actually keep the music playing all night long. Through worship we’ve felt loved, and felt healing on a deep level.”
Lisbeth agrees with what her mother says. Music has been a place for her to go when she wants to be close to God. Songs that convey truths from the Bible, that comfort and lift her up, have been good to take refuge in.
A New Season
The past year has been a new season for them both. Lisbeth tells how much she has grown through her experiences from music—and from the discipleship course at Hedmarktoppen Folk High School. Now she is getting ready to move in to her own apartment and look for work.
“Lisbeth’s year at folk high school—how has that been for you, Marianne?”
She says that for most moms it is more of a scary and painful process to send their kid off for a whole year, and that it can be a tough transition for many parents to suddenly be sitting home alone.
Tears start to well up. She smiles and acknowledges that the question gets her crying.
“For me it’s kind of been the opposite. When I saw how Lisbeth tackled going off on her own, I was just so touched and proud, like ‘Wow! Look at her facing life head on! She’s going to folk high school. All by herself! And she’s handled herself well.’ That would have been hard to believe just a few years ago.”
The Battle Against Fear
The relationship between the two is strong. With Lisbeth by her side, Marianne tells more about the battle against fear that her daughter has fought and continues to fight now.
“Just three or four years ago, you couldn’t be alone for one second.”
Lisbeth nods slowly, and says that her mother could not even make a quick trip to the store to buy milk. She has joined Lisbeth on lots of class trips, and slept on a mattress in Lisbeth’s room for months at a time.
“Lisbeth has gotten to a point where she’s able to give God the place I’ve had as I’ve stood by her and given her that security. Over this past year we’ve been far apart from each other, but Lisbeth hasn’t felt alone. She has lived close to God, one way being through worship songs. And she has had an assurance that he is there for her, and that he’ll never leave her.
This was something Lisbeth also touched on when she spoke at the Jesus Women meeting in Alesund.
“It’s still sometimes hard for me to believe that I’m loved. But I can always go to God. He will never let me go.”
Marianne has, as a part of her job, held many courses on care for trauma victims, and explains that it is not at all strange for Lisbeth to have difficulties in really internalizing this truth.
“For me, having grown up with good parents, and never having doubted that they love me, the foundation is completely different than with Lisbeth. I’ve always had an assurance that I am worth loving, and that’s why it’s easier for me to believe that Jesus loves me too.”
She explains that this is exactly what has been so crucial for her in her role as a foster mother.
“If we want to go out and win people for Christ, people who are really wounded on the inside and want to know what we’re really made of, we have to be willing to endure hardship, endure injustice, endure not being liked, and being rejected. And when Lisbeth couldn’t let me in and love her, I would start feeling doubts of my own about the very thing that forms the foundation of my life: ‘Marianne, do you believe that you are loved?’ It hurt, but I had to just believe in that truth myself, that I am loved too, to be able to stand on that and to pass on God’s unconditional love.
Privileged and thankful
Marianne used to hear Lisbeth say things like “Why are you wasting your life on me? You deserve better!”
She is quick to point out that she feels privileged to have been able to get to know Lisbeth, and that she is deeply thankful for all she has learned through getting to live together and grow close to her.
Marianne then takes us back to when she was 32 years old and had a very social life, lots of freedom, and plans for the future. She put her education to use at her job in child welfare services, and also poured her heart into volunteer work on a “farm”. She describes the farm as a home, a home for vulnerable children, kids who have had it rough and come for respite on weekends and holidays.
Marianne already knew at this point that she was called to bring the good news of Jesus to these children. “He has come to set free those who are oppressed”, as the Bible says in the book of Luke. She wanted to give them the unconditional love of God.
Given up on
One of the children who came to visit the farm was a six-year-old Lisbeth.
“At that place I felt safe, for the very first time in my life,” Lisbeth chimes in. “Someone wanted me around. They actually wanted to be with me there, and they looked past all the strange things I did.”
Marianne says that before the visit, “the system” had described Lisbeth as a girl who was impossible to like.
“I couldn’t believe it! They had given up on her!”
However, from the moment they met, Marianne started to really feel a special place in her heart for Lisbeth. After her visit to the farm, the girl went back home to her father. Later on she was removed from her home, because it was not a good place to live. Lisbeth says she remembers very little from that period in her life.
When she was taken from her home, she was just too wounded to even be able to function in a home. She had to be placed in an institution.
“The Safe Place”
Lisbeth desperately tried to tell the adults about the new place she had been to, the place where she felt safe.
But it was not easy for the little girl to remember the name of the place. Fortunately she was taken seriously by an adult, and at long last they found the place Lisbeth was talking about—which she would get to go visit again.
Two years had gone by since they last met, and just the thought of giving up on an eight-year-old and placing her in an institution broke Marianne’s heart. “I can take her instead,” she blurted out. She was taken up on it, and soon after received a formal inquiry. “Could you see yourself being a foster mother to Lisbeth?”
“I always thought I would have a husband and family before I could have said yes to potentially become a foster mother to one of the kids at the farm. But even stronger in me were thoughts of my life’s purpose, what my future was really supposed to be. I knew the path I had set out before me. I was, and am, a bearer of God’s unconditional love, called to bring the good news to those who need it.”
For that reason she said right away, “I’m going to need some time before I can give you a final answer”. After half a year she felt confident that she was ready to take on the task. Marianne also wanted to make sure that Lisbeth was ready—ready to join the life she could offer her.
“During those six months I spent a lot of time praying over the situation— ‘God, I can’t say no, but I have to bear it.’ When I answered the child welfare agency and said that I would be a foster mother to Lisbeth, I made it clear that I would be putting my faith on display, and sharing Jesus with her.”
When being a good mother isn’t enough
“I can be a good mother,” I said to the agency, “but that won’t be enough to ‘fix’ her.”
“Something happens when you face vulnerability, you become vulnerable yourself. So I have to have Jesus with me in this. When there’s so much pain inside on the inside of such a small child, bad things are going come out—and I have to be able bear it.”
“Have you ever been a version of yourself that you weren’t proud of?” Marianne asked the audience in Alesund. Hands went up around the auditorium, and others nodded. “Me too. I have hurt Lisbeth at times, and have not always been a good mom. I never would have been able to see this through without being a carrier of his unconditional love.
A story they could relate to
Lisbeth has gone from staying at the farm as a kid, where she met Marianne, to now being one of the leaders there herself. She is certain that she will be involved with this place for the rest of her life.
“The place and the people there have helped me to be at peace, and to become who I am today. There’s real love and security there. The farm is a part of who I am, it’s my home away from home. The kids who stay there now are actually little brothers and sisters to me.
Marianne tells groups of children there the story about the girl who thought nobody could love her”. That grabs their attention right away. Just the title sends a strong message to them.
The girl in the story hit and kicked, was so afraid, and couldn’t sleep at night. Further into the story the children find out that the girl has actually been to this farm herself. A picture is held up of the bed she slept in. The kids are hanging on to every word as they can hardly believe what their little ears hear. “She’s been here? Has she slept in my bed?” They’re given a few hints.
“You all know this girl.”
Towards the end of the story Lisbeth comes up and quietly sits beside Marianne who tells them the answer. “The girl who thought nobody could love her is Lisbeth.”
A Silent Thanks
Lisbeth gets through to these vulnerable kids in a completely special, unique way. She can put complicated feelings into words, and give them security and hope for the future in a way no one else can.
And not only does she give hope to many foster children—parents and other adults also learn a great deal from her story. She frequently gets questions from people who have been moved by her story.
“After the Jesus Women meeting in Alesund, I got a silent thank you from across the auditorium. A woman made eye contact with me, mouthed the words to me and held both hands up over her heart. The 21-year-old finishes, “it meant so much.”
Author & photography / Mirjam Ulstein
This interview was published in the JK magazine in june 2019