"I was 19 when I got pregnant on my son Eoghan," says the Senator, singer and Rise Foundation founder, Frances Black. "Obviously, it wasn't planned at 19. I wasn't expecting it. When he was about five months old, I married my son's father and then, quite quickly after that, I had Aoife, my daughter, and that was a shock as well. So I had two children by the time I was 21.
“By the time I was 25, the marriage had broken up. We were just too young. We hadn’t a clue. But I got two gifts of these amazing children who changed my life for the better.”
Society was a very different place back in 1980 when she was unmarried and pregnant, Frances explains. Her mother was 64 at the time and her father was in his 70s. “My father would have been very old fashioned. It was a real crisis in the family,” she says. “Back then, there’s no doubt about it, young women were going off to convents to have their babies and their babies were being taken off them. So it was a very tough time, but I was determined that wasn’t going to happen to me.”
I think of all the jobs I've ever done, being a mother is probably the one that I feel has been the most precious to me, and it's the biggest privilege to be the parent of two amazing human being
Frances moved in with her sister Mary during the pregnancy, “just because my parents couldn’t handle it”, she says. “I did stay with my parents for a while, but the pregnancy, as I got on, they were just kind of: ‘Listen, this is too hard for us and we’re just worried about what people will think.’ It was just the time. It wasn’t that they were bad people, they were gorgeous people. They just couldn’t handle it.”
Like winning the lottery
Up until the point Frances became a mother she says she always felt “very unlucky. Everything always went wrong. I hated school, was brutal in school, left school early. Then I had a little boy and it was like winning the lottery. Then I got pregnant again and I said ‘It’ll probably be a little boy, and that’d be lovely.’ I’d be delighted and all that, but I was really hoping for a little girl. And then when I had a little girl, I could not believe I was that lucky. I felt like I had just everything I’d ever wanted in my life.
“It changed my life a million times for the better. Don’t get me wrong, it wasn’t easy because I was alone then. Times were hard, no money, had a little job in a coffee shop just trying to make ends meet, hadn’t really anywhere proper to live.
“I never planned anything. Nowadays everybody has to plan to go to college because they have to have this type of career. I didn’t have any real goals in life. Mary and myself, my mother reared us to be wives and mothers. That’s the way we were reared, so school wasn’t a big deal. There was never any talk of college. Mary did her Leaving, I didn’t do my Leaving, but I was thinking it doesn’t matter because you end up getting married and you have kids. And that was the thinking.”
Frances says her drinking started to become a problem after her marriage broke up. “I think that’s probably for me when I started to drink more to try to get through, I suppose, the pain. Just being on your own and realising you’re on your own and having two small kids, it was tough. It was really tough. It was tough financially, not having a real proper place to live. Kind of homeless, staying in Nuala’s [Frances’s friend] house, and then I stayed with Mary for a while.”
She then moved in with her brother.
“When I drank, my personality changed. I realised that I didn’t like myself when I was drinking and I have no problem in saying I’m in recovery from alcoholism. I wouldn’t have been drinking every day of the week. People in their minds think an alcoholic is somebody who wakes up in the morning, drinks a bottle of vodka and is locked by lunchtime. I wouldn’t be drinking Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and I probably wouldn’t even be drinking Thursday, but when I drank on Friday and Saturday and Sunday, and I’d start in the evening time, I didn’t like my personality. And if I could have drank the other days I would have.”
By this time Frances had met her partner Brian.
“At the time I probably wasn’t very trusting of men in general and then this man came into my life and he was just the nicest person you could ever meet in your life, kind, thoughtful. He was like my knight in shining armour and he adored the kids. I knew that if I didn’t stop drinking I was worried I was going to lose this amazing man.”
I struggled when they both left school. I actually think I went into a bit of a depression
Frances says she was never really aware of the impact her drinking might be having on her children until after she sought help. “I’d have my glass of wine, while I was cooking the dinner. But that bottle of wine would be drank and there might be another bottle of wine half drank. I drank I suppose to sleep a lot of the time. I thought it was helping me sleep.
“I’d get into bed and right enough, the next morning, I’d be like a crab apple. I was cranky, you know ‘g’wan get out for school’. And I wouldn’t have noticed that about myself, the impact of my drinking on the children, even though I may not have been drinking that much in front of them, but it was the following day.
“The kids would go and stay with their dad at the weekend, and if I was out at the weekend and I was out on the tear, I would be in the depths of despair on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday and then I’d probably start drinking on Thursday again.”
Frances says she’s not sure her kids “would have noticed it that much”.
“I’d open the bottle of wine and they’d be in bed by 8 o’clock, and I would have had maybe two or three drinks at that point and then the drinking would have continued when they go up to bed. But they probably would have noticed that I was cranky.”
Frances says her partner Brian, as her children’s stepfather, “was and is an amazing father to the kids. He took on the role of bringing them to school, picking them up from school, bringing them to football. He would have done a lot of the homework as well, because I was brutal at the homework.” Her children still continued to see their dad and “kind of had two dads”, she says.
A form of grief
Coping with her children growing up was a challenge for Frances. “I struggled when they both left school. I actually think I went into a bit of a depression. I felt it was kind of like a form of grief I suppose. Because you’re letting go of your babbas, your children. I wouldn’t have realised at the time, it’s only when I look back. I remember the feeling. I remember watching Eoghan graduating from school and, oh my God, the sadness that I felt when I should have been celebrating. I’m so proud of both of them and I was a very proud mammy, but there was a sense of sadness and a little bit of grief.
“I know they were in sixth year, but they were still going to school and I still had to drop them to the bus stop, and there were still things to do. There was still structure and now it was different and I grieved, I definitely grieved for Eoghan. And then when Aoife left, that nearly killed me altogether. I was grieving for that era, I suppose, the era of school.
“The emotion of letting go can be very hard. It can be very hard to let go of your kids and to let them live their own lives and go off and make their own mistakes.
“I think of all the jobs I’ve ever done, being a mother is probably the one that I feel has been the most precious to me, and it’s the biggest privilege to be the parent of two amazing human beings.”
Both of Frances’s children have followed their mother into the music business which has been severely impacted by the pandemic.
“I’m just blown away by their resilience and their courage,” says Frances, who recently turned 61. “The biggest high is being a grandmother. It’s just unbelievable. It’s like you’re getting a second chance with your kids. Because when you’re young and all that and you’re busy, busy, busy, you just go and you’re getting on with it.
“You think they’ll never really grow up or they’ll never really become adults so when you have grandchildren it’s like wow, I’m going to spend as much time with these kids as I possibly can. And when you’re sitting on the floor with them, playing the most ridiculous games and you’re in this imaginary place, it’s just incredible. I’m just delighted I’m a grandmother.”
Parenting in My Shoes
Part 1: Vicky Phelan
Part 2: Lynn Ruane
Part 3: Keith Walsh
Part 4: Victoria Smurfit
Part 5: Billy Holland
Part 6: Joanna Donnelly
Part 7: Eileen Flynn
Part 8: Matt Cooper
Part 9: Hazel Chu
Part 10: Ciara Kelly
Part 11: Dil Wickremasinghe
Part 12: Alison Curtis
Part 13: Dáithí Ó Sé
Part 14: Brendan O'Connor
Part 15: Anne Dalton
Part 16: Gary O'Hanlon
Part 17: Paula MacSweeney
Part 18: Stephen McPhail
Part 19: Michelle O'Neill
Part 20: Jacqui Hurley
Part 21: Colm O'Gorman
Part 22: Mario Rosenstock
Part 23: Micheál Martin
Part 24: Frances Black