Catharine Robertson’s Fight to Find Family

The MSU Spokesman

Catharine Robertson
Catharine Robertson searched 25 years for her mother.

Have you ever missed someone that you’ve never met? Catharine Robertson has.

For 25 years Robertson, who is adopted, has been searching for her birth parents. It’s been a long journey–one she shared with with an audience at the TEDx Conference on Morgan’s campus in January.

In July 1969, Sarah Elizabeth Mathews was born to Susan Mathews in Richmond, VA, but in September of that same year, she was placed with an adoptive family and given a new name, Catharine Nolde Robertson. 

Robertson grew up in a nice, loving home, but as she entered adulthood she was still curious about where she came from, so she began looking for her biological family.

“I’ve never asked myself, do I want to do this or why do I want to do this,” Robertson said when asked about searching for her biological family. “It’s just a part of me, like I need to know where I come from.”

Robertson was born in the era of closed adoptions, from roughly 1940 to 1990. Her biological mother was forced into a closed adoption and information about her was deleted from official adoption records. During this era, society focused on “normal” nuclear families with a mom and dad and two kids. Americans didn’t want complicated families. In order for them to accomplish this, they decided to take biological mothers completely out of the picture.

Government agencies, private adoption organizations and the church frequently convinced pregnant women that their children would be better off without them. The women were often sent to homes for unwed mothers where they secretly gave birth and put their children up for adoption. They were told them that contacting their children at any point would cause great harm. Robertson’s mother was one of these women. 

When Robertson went to look for her mother, information was scarce. The adoption agency gave Robertson a letter with facts that an adoptee’s birth parents would give to the agency that describe some things about them but skip identifying details. For example, Robertson learned her biological parent’s interests, education, job titles, their home state and some general information about the her grandparents–but no names. 

Still, in the material was some information about her biological grandfather, his job and where he lived. “[But] it wasn’t until last year that I had the right combination of information that a volunteer just happened to check for the 100th time over 25 years,” Robertson said. “She said one of these guys might be your grandfather.”

With the help of Google, Robertson finally found what she spent 25 years searching for: her biological mother. “It took me about 24 hours to find a photo of her and when I saw the photo I knew it was her because I look just like her.”

Robertson’s first encounter with her birth mom, Susan Mathews, was done over Facebook. After days of proofreading a message to her birth mother, she finally took the first step and sent her message. Within an hour-and-a-half Robertson had received her reply. 

“I collapsed from the most overwhelming sense of relief I’ve ever had in my whole life and I’m getting teary eyed just recounting it to you,” Robertson said. “It was amazing!”

Three days later, Robertson met her birth mother in person at a jewelry store in the hunt country hills of Virginia. A few weeks after that, Robertson contacted her birth father’s family. He died in 1979, but she reached out to his mother and sisters and they are very open to getting to know her.

Even though Robertson has successfully located her birth family, her journey isn’t over. She still wants to gain access to something else that is very important to her: her original birth certificate. 

That’s is going to be challenging because in Virginia and 42 other states, it’s illegal for children born in the closed adoption era to gain access to their original birth certificates.

When Robertson was given up for adoption a few months after her birth, her original birth certificate was taken and she was given an amended birth certificate. This lists her adoptive parents as her biological parents. The details listed on the birth certificate are completely false. 

“The only birth certificate I’m allowed to have says that my adoptive father and my adoptive mother gave birth to me in a hospital that my mom has never been to,” Robertson said.

Robertson spoke at the TEDx Baltimore Convention last month in order to raise awareness about the obstacles that some adoptees face. TEDx  is a non-profit organization dedicated to promoting innovative ideas. By speaking at these conventions, she helps spread the word about what finding a birth family is like and what hardships adopted children face as they try to get their original birth certificates.

“I feel like everybody needs to know where they come from,” Robertson said. “It’s something, I think, is intrinsic and inherent in every person as a need to know who came before them and why they are the way they are.”

She is documenting her journey to gain access to her birth certificate on her blog. Last year, she documented her journey to finding her birth family on her blog as well.