AT FIRST, Catharine Robertson wasn’t sure if she should message her birth mother on Facebook. After all, they’d never met—never made contact—and general bio family search etiquette dictates offspring ought to call or write a letter. In an instant, though, she decided to initiate her look-alike mother Susan Mathews’ Facebook friendship. In a couple of hours, they were linked online—within a week, they embraced at Susan’s place of business in joyful tears.
Born “Sarah Mathews” on July 24, 1969, in a facility for unwed moms, Catharine, now 44, was adopted and raised by a doctor and his wife in Richmond, Va. As contractually agreed, her birth mother Susan took care of her newborn girl for four weeks’ time before giving her baby up to the adoption agency to whom her own parents paid monthly tuition. These four sweet weeks spent with her child, Susan says, probably saved her life. She still refers to the August date she said goodbye to her little girl as “The Terrible Day.”
A casualty of the Baby Scoop era, the age of closed adoptions, which lasted from about 1940 to 1970, Susan, now 66, was one of roughly 4 million such expectant young moms. Programmed by the prevailing culture to surrender children many of them authentically wanted, these women were told from day one, “This baby you’re carrying is not your baby.” (After Roe v. Wade in 1973, these numbers thankfully plunged.)
For her part, Catharine never stopped dreaming she’d find her birth mother. (All told, she spent about 30 years hunting leads, following every miniscule biographical element Susan had been allowed to leave on file.) Meanwhile, Susan never gave up the dream she’d be found. Today—almost a year after their summer 2013 reunion—they consider each other a true best friend.
We asked Catharine and Susan to interview each other for STYLE. They made a master list of mutual questions and spoke casually. It was a pleasure to share a seat at their table.
Did you anticipate our meeting one day?
Susan: Absolutely, I always saw you as a little baby. I thought you’d look just like me. But I wished longer legs for you, which you got!
Catharine: For a while I thought I’d find the author I liked so much, V.C. Andrews, who wrote ‘Flowers in the Attic.’ Long story, but as a kid, I thought she was my mother. Once I got over that, I could not picture anything. I did anticipate meeting you, but I had no way to conceive of what you’d look like because I don’t look like anyone else. Not until last June when I suddenly looked like everybody in our family.
What was your state of mind between our first email contact and first meeting?
Susan: I got numb; I couldn’t cry; I couldn’t laugh. I didn’t even want to talk to anybody about it. I’d waited so long, I thought, ‘If I say anything, I’m going to hex this.’ I just wanted my hands on you.
Catharine: Once I found your Facebook page, I went from being terrified you wouldn’t answer to not being able to wait. I told one of my adoptee friends and she said, ‘Go do it now!’ So I emailed. I decided I was going to lead with vulnerability.
Susan: How did you become so strong and positive?
Catharine: I’ve learned a lot of lessons from the behavior of other people toward me that was less than ideal, and also from my own behavior. I probably couldn’t have been so positive in my 20s or 30s.
Susan: Searching for me for 30 years took a lot of guts. I don’t think you would have blossomed the same way if I’d raised you. You write well; you look like a million bucks; you’re terrific on your feet—I will claim only about 5 percent credit for these things.
In what ways do you think we’re alike?
Susan: You’re so much more like me than my other two children! We like to act and sing…
Catharine: We have the same sense of humor! We have the same hands and feet. We have the same laugh and the ability to laugh really loudly at anything and everything. Also, I’m now convinced it’s possible to inherit the trait of swearing all the time. I told you that when we first spoke by phone.
Susan: I said, ‘Does that mean you use the f-word all the time? You are definitely my child.’
Are you still scarred by what happened to divide us?
Catharine: Since I’ve told friends, they say, ‘This explains things.’
Susan: ‘Now we know why you acted like that,’ people tell me. I have been one of those crazy people: bad faith in men; decisions made not in my best interest. I went to Alaska and got married; I bought a Harley…
Catharine: I’ve always felt different. Eventually, I took it as a point of pride.
Susan: I always felt like I was damaged—because I thought everyone thought I was.
Catharine: Is it OK to ask about the way you felt during your pregnancy? And on The Terrible Day and beyond?
Susan: Yes, I can talk about that. I was a sheep and I followed the rules—you’re going to go here and you’re going to have this baby, but she doesn’t belong to you…and you’ll never be able to find her. Every day from the time I left you in that cradle, I said, ‘Sweet baby Sarah, Mommy loves you wherever you are.’ I said that every day to myself without fail for 44 years.
I always did a cupcake and a candle and wished you a happy birthday. I wonder if somewhere in the universe that might have plugged in to you.
Catharine: (tearful) Well, it’s possible. People say you have to prepare for rejection in life—or prepare for the worst, as you expect the best. But I never anticipated rejection. I thought, ‘I’m a good person; I have to come from good people.’ You were putting it out there, and I was feeling something.
Despite the tragedy of lost time, do you think there’s an advantage to meeting each other now, as self-actualized grown women?
Catharine: I never went through a period of hating you or straining against the strictures of the household rules; I never saw you having a difficult relationship with anyone. Plus, I’m in my 40s, and I’m in a good place.
Susan: For me, not only have I now gained a daughter, I’ve gained a mature best friend. You’re my closest confidant. It’s amazing to have a girlfriend you actually birthed.
How has your life changed now that we’ve met?
Susan: My whole outlook has changed—it’s like the final puzzle piece got popped in. Everything’s got a shine it didn’t have before. I love to sit on the couch with you and talk. The wonderment will never subside.
Catharine: I will never stop being astonished when I see you standing at the stove. The way you’re stirring something in a pot will make me tear up. Every time I register something physically specific, there’s another piece of my puzzle, from the way you pronounce a certain word to the way [your son] says something. These physical manifestations are helping to make me emotionally whole.
Susan: I was told for so long ‘No, you can’t.’ Now it’s ‘Yes, I can.’ I want to see you every holiday and birthday!
Catharine: (laughing) I’m the one who told you to move to Baltimore.
What connotations do you have with the word mother?
Susan: Mother’s never been a real warm and fuzzy word to me. When we first met, you asked, ‘What am I going to call you?’
Catharine: And I call you Mommy. We tried out your college name, Sunny, but it sounded weird to me. I grew up in the South where everyone said Mother after a certain age. It makes me feel warm saying it this other way.
Susan: I love to hear you call me Mommy—it’s like a frisson zinging through me. And I call you FB, firstborn.
What would you like other children and birth parents in this searching scenario to know?
Susan: I would like for adoptive mothers to understand we didn’t give our babies to them. These babies were taken from us.
Catharine: I would tell other adoptees that, no matter what state you’re in, don’t listen to the authorities if they tell you to forget your original identity. You do have a right to it, and many states agree with me. If you want to find someone, there are ways to do it.
Susan: Never give up.
Catharine: Maybe our story could be made into a movie like ‘Beaches.’
Susan: Well, I can guarantee you I’ll never go see it. I hate chick flicks. I want ‘The Godfather,’ car chases, blood and guts and gangsters.
Catharine: Actually, my comfort movies are ‘Jaws’ and ‘Ronin.’
Susan: Mine: ‘Die Hard,’ ‘Jaws,’ and ‘Goodfellas.’
Catharine: I haven’t seen ‘Goodfellas.’
Susan: What? I made your siblings see all those horrible movies. We’ve got catching up to do.
Soon after this interview, Catharine, along with her husband, Ron Spencer, met Susan in the Florida Keys for Susan’s younger daughter’s wedding. The two women plan a mother/daughter vacation for early June, the one-year anniversary of their 2013 reunion.