Reconnection: My story

By Sarah Cecilie Finkelstein Waters

Reunification is the process of rebuilding a broken relationship between a parent and a child. It can be difficult but with love, patience and perseverance, it will be the most rewarding work you have ever done.

After 14 years apart, my mother and I were in no way prepared for the pain, the issues that would arise, and the pressure and torment we would both feel while in the early stages of rebuilding a relationship. And we had no roadmap or support to help us back in 1988, which is when we met for the first time after 14 years living on different continents. It would have been a big help if we had guidance or advice from others who had been through something similar. At least we would have had some idea of what to expect. So much grief could have been avoided. But there was nothing out there for people like us, so we had to deal with things the in the best way we possibly could. It was a really lonely road for a while. For both of us. Everyone thought that now that I was “found” we would live happily ever after, not understanding that a whole new set of issues and struggles was about to begin. These issues had all been dormant, lying just under the surface for many years. They needed to be brought out into the open, but it was painful to do so. I had wondered for years what my mother looked like, whether she missed me, what my life would have been like if I grew up with her. I wanted to know who I looked like, why my father always wanted me to sing songs to him (he said that my mother sang like an angel), and why my father’s sister, in hushed, whispered tones, urged me to contact my beautiful mother. I wanted to know why I had thin hair, why my nose was so different from most people I knew (it’s a Scandinavian nose), and what being half Norwegian meant. I wanted to know if she missed me, and if part of me was “bad” because I was a part of her. I wanted to feel whole again. I wanted to make peace with that unknown part of me. It was frightening to open the door to that unknown; to something so intimate, yet so foreign, that it was impossible to reconcile the two. It was something I had lived in dire fear of. I was always wary, wondering if the woman on the check out line in the grocery store was her. I worried that I would lose myself, all that had become precious and familiar, if I was forced to move in with her. I didn’t want my father to go to jail. I loved my father, and he loved me, even if his actions were immature and self-serving.

The good news is that my mom and I survived, and we are a real mother and daughter today. We do the things mother and daughters do best, like talk for hours on the phone, shop together, and argue occasionally. The relationship feels normal today, rather than like something strange, threatening and pressured, which it felt like for a long time. I learned that I didn’t have to lose myself, sacrifice my identity, to have a relationship with my mother.

I share the fears and the process in the hopes of helping others go through similar processes less painfully. Letting my mother into my life meant confronting the fact that my father had done something terribly wrong, and that 14 years of running and hiding had been in vain. My father had led me to believe that my mother was a bad person, and that he had to abduct me to save me from her. When I began to realize that this was not the entire truth, I felt a terrible sense of pain and betrayal. Through no fault of her own my mother was a reminder of my confusion about my relationship with my father. This alone made it hard for me to connect with her. Letting her in would mean that I was accepting that what my father did was wrong, and that was hard. But the hardest part by far were the expectations, the pressure to connect, and dealing with my mother’s huge sense of loss and desperation. I had a hard time dealing with it when she cried on my shoulders after seeing a little jacket of mine from around the time I was abducted, and when my culture and beleifs stirred criticism and a sense of estrangement from her. I did not want to leave my entire life for something strange and new. I felt guilty, overwhelmed and objectified. I was supposed to make it all better, but I couldn’t. The cost would be that I lost everything all over again. It took a long time for me to contact my mother after being abducted, almost fourteen years. I was four when I was abducted and nearly eighteen when I called her for the first time. I was terrified when I picked up the phone and said “Hello, this is your daughter calling,” to the person who answered the phone. I had absolutely no idea what to expect. “Are, are you okay?” preceded by a long stunned but joyful silence, were my mother’s first words to me. It was good to know that she cared. We talked for a little while, both of us tentative and unsure, and arranged to meet a little while later.

That first meeting was really hard. My mother was devastated at the loss of a child and the years of searching. I was devastated by the betrayal of my father and life on the run. Both of us were depressed and had unrealistic expectations of one another. I wanted my mother to be cheerful all the time, untroubled by the past and accepting of the emotional walls that I put up. My mother wanted to shower me with love and be a part of my life. She wanted to give all the pent-up love she had inside. But I wasn’t even sure I wanted a mother. After our first meeting I wrote my mother a letter asking her for some space, saying that I needed the relationship to go more slowly. It was very hard to accept my mother’s love and interest. In my eyes she was loving a fantasy, the 4-year-old who had been abducted, and I was a very different person from that little girl. I felt like she loved someone else, not the person I had become. It was really confusing. I felt bad about who I was, guilty, confused, torn apart. I wasn’t sure who I was anymore, and what I was supposed to believe about my very own self-defined self. It had all been turned upside down.

I had the uncomfortable feeling that I was “supposed” to be someone else. If I hadn’t been abducted my name, religion and language, to name just a few things, would have been completely different from what they were. Meeting my mom confronted me with the fact that if I hadn’t been abducted I wouldn’t be who I was. I worried that my mom wasn’t happy with who I had become, or that she wished that I were someone else. I know that my mom thought that I felt the same way, that I wished she was a different person, more like me. It was really painful for both of us.

We did have some culture clashes in the beginning. I was raised in America, my mom is Norwegian. Even though my mom speaks English really well, we had trouble understanding each other’s contexts, frames of reference, nuances, at times. I remember telling my mom that she is “special.” She seemed a bit sad when I said that, but said, “yes, I am very special,” which confused me. The seeming arrogance & sadness combined was impossible to fathom. It turns out that in Norwegian, the word “Spesiell” has a negative meaning, sort of like, special in a strange way. It would be used to describe an eccentric neighbor who never talks to anyone and wears clothes 20 years outdated, or such. It took me a few years, and a Norwegian course, to understand that one! Until we felt more comfortable questioning one another and asking for clarification, we got into hot water at times. I felt threatened by my mother’s questioning of my religious beliefs and practices, and I was sure that my mother hated Jews because my father is a Jew. My mother was sure that I held it against her that she was non-Jewish. It turns out that neither of our assumptions was true. We value one another regardless of our belief systems, and there is ample room to learn and grow together in our differences.

With the years against us, it was going to take a long time for my mom and I to build a relationship! To put it mildly, there were issues to deal with. But in spite of it all, my mom and I are doing fine today! It wasn’t easy, but it has been well worth it. At one point we almost gave up. One day, after the wall between us had gotten so thick that neither of us could bear it, my mom turned to me and with tears in her eyes asked me if it would be easier not to have her in my life at all. I was shocked, but realized that she had reason to ask this. Things had been getting worse and worse between us. I also felt hopeless about our relationship, but after doing some soul searching I knew that I couldn’t live life without her. There was an emptiness in my life that could only be filled by her. I needed my mom.

There were times that I resented my mom’s push for closeness. It would have been easier had my mother been prepared for the feelings of rejection that she felt from me at first, and to have been able to let go a little, and if I had felt less guilty for needing as much time and space as I needed.

Things changed once we began to go to therapy, both together and individually (something I highly recommend). We were both so focused on the past, and so hurt by it, that it was hurting our realtionship. It was all we had to connect us at first, but was too painful a connection. We needed to connect in other ways. Once we started healing, we were able to move forward and start building on the present.

My mom and I are close today, although we still struggle at times. She is a wonderful person. I only wish she didn´t live in the pain and self-doubts as much as she does. It´s painful to feel like the source of so much pain. I understand that I didn´t cause the pain, but on an emotional level it´s hard not to take it personally. Please, parents, take care of yourselves physically and emotionally and don´t be afraid to ask for lots of help and support!

Why did it take so long for me to call home?

I was traumatized and needed time to sort things out. I worried about feeling manipulated into giving up too much of myself and my identity. It was a coping or survival reaction. Contacting the left-behind parent required challenging everything I had beleived, which can be very painful. My mother was a wonderful mom to me for the first four years of my life, yet it took me 14 years to call. I had been insidiously yet powerfully brainwashed against my mom. First, I was told she didn’t care about me, that’s why she wasn’t coming to see me. I must have felt abandoned and angry at her. Then I was converted to another religion and alienated towards hers. To cement the negativity towards her, the simple passage of time, especially in the life of a little child, caused memories of her to fade away. She became little more than a stranger, one whom I grew to fear as the person who would take me away from everything that had become familiar…

I couldn’t have called earlier. I wasn´t ready. It had taken me until then to begin to question the abduction and my father’s motives, and to summon up the courage to deal with what might end up being a big event

See my blog for more on my journey:

A Letter From Norway

Here’s a letter from my mom, Tone, about some of the things she has experienced…

It is almost impossible to find words to describe how it felt to lose my child, not knowing anything about her well-being or where she was. It was constant worry and torture mixed with hope that her father soon would let me get in contact with her. But days, nights, weeks, months and years went by. And I received not more than four cards in all those years, in three of them a small little picture and a few words. I gave those pictures and envelopes to the detectives in the hope that they could have a way to trace the address, but they did not succeed.

I did everything in order to find her, and when she was six, I did find her in New York. It came to a court case. The result of this hearing was that I was granted the right to see my daughter two times each week until the school year was finished. Then I was to take her for a summer visit to Norway, and bring her back to New York in the fall for a final custody trial.

But one day, when I came to pick her up for a visit, she was gone again. her father had taken her and left. No one knew where they had gone.

When I finally got in contact with her again she was a young, independent woman of 18. I had the great pleasure to meet the most wonderful young daughter a mother can dream of. It is now my hope that I can do something good for her in the years to come.

It was not easy for either of us at first. But we worked hard at it, and our relationship is now a warm and open one.

It is heaven for me to finally have the opportunity to be with her and to speak with her. I love her just the way she is! She is fighting for what she believes in, and in doing so she makes the world a better place to live in. I wish there were many of her kind around.

It is hard for me to think about what she has gone through all these years. She has lacked the stability that every child is entitled to benefit from, but she came out of all these difficult years with dignity and strength.

My precious daughter; I respect and love you very, very much!

You are wonderful!

I am very lucky and thankful to be your mom,

Tone Finkelstein

P.S.-We must appeal to the national and international community to take these cases much more seriously. Otherwise, there will be an increasing number of children around the world not getting their born right to have contact and care from both parents.