What is a family? For generations, Ireland was very clear that there was only one answer. The “natural primary and fundamental unit”, as identified by our Constitution, was the family led by two married, opposite-sex parents.
Every other form of family was seen as a threat to the Constitutional ideal, and Ireland became a world leader in bundling unmarried mothers out of sight. Between 1920 and 1998, 56,000 women and 57,000 children were shunted off to mother and baby homes, and a further 25,000 women were sent to county homes. Lack of societal and financial supports meant the children of separated and bereaved parents sometimes ended up in these places where, as one survivor put it, ”you were reminded every day that you were a sinner”.
These days, that feels like a very distant past. Our understanding of the many different things "family" can mean has broadened by beyond recognition. Solo by choice, separated parents, bereaved parents, cohabiting couples, same sex parents, blended families, foster parents are all part of the rich tapestry of Irish families.
Life is still sometimes challenging for parents raising their children alone, particularly during in a pandemic, but rarely, these days, are the challenges due to shame or stigma. The mother and baby homes report provided a stark reminder of an older, crueller Ireland. To mark the passing of that Ireland, The Irish Times spoke to five of the country’s 189,000 women who are raising children in a one-parent family, some through choice and others through circumstance, about their lives as single mothers.
Deborah Somorin on being a foster mother: “It’s a house filled with love”
Deborah Somorin had her son, Liam, when she was 15 years old, and in the care system. Now she is in her late 20s and a management consultant. And over the last year, she became a foster mother to a 16-year-old girl. “It’s a house filled with love. Obviously with two teenagers, it’s not smooth sailing 24/7. We agreed on some family values. I run my house like a company,” she laughs.
The values they agreed on are “around respect, empathy, accountability. The empathy and the respect are the two big ones we end up drawing on. They’re both really similar type kids, and both are really lovely and empathetic. So we sit down and have a meeting. They talk about how they both feel.”
She was introduced to her foster daughter initially so that Somorin could mentor her and provide support and friendship. When the girl was at risk of going into the care system, she immediately offered to become a community foster carer. “We are thick as thieves. When I was in care, I’d be moving to different places a lot. You just really feel like you never have time to click with anyone, or that people get you.” She wants her daughter to know that there is always someone who gets her.
Along with juggling being a mother to two teens; moving to her new job; and continuing to build Empower the Family, a charity she founded to provide accommodation for student parents, Somorin has also been writing her memoir, which will be published in the autumn.
The research meant accessing her old files, an experience that was traumatic. “There are certain things I would have blocked out. It was really tough. You’re reading about yourself in these incredibly impersonal reports – you’re just another kid in care that a social worker is writing about.”
Having experience of teen parenting and of Ireland’s care system, Somorin found reading about the Mother and Baby Homes report equally difficult. “It’s weirdly scary thinking how different my life would have been if I was born in Ireland 30 years earlier. Your heart has to break for every single one of those children who won’t get to grow up with their parents, especially knowing that I did it [solo parenting] and I was fine. Liam has brought me so much happiness.” The thought makes her voice crack with emotion. “Those women have been to hell and back. And how it’s being handled now, just makes everything worse. It’s like they’re being robbed of their humanity again.”
Given how children in some residential care settings are still treated, “we can’t pretend that we are a million miles away now from where we were then as a society.” We need to have better mechanisms for children in care to have their voices heard, she believes.
As a woman of colour who was also a teenage mother, she has experienced some legacies of that old Ireland firsthand, such as the time when a former partner’s parents suggested “I was some sort of gold-digger”. “It really took me aback, but I don’t think it was unique.”
Being a foster mother, as well as a mother to Liam, has been healing. In the same weekend her daughter came to live with them, they also got a puppy. “I wanted it to be like, okay, we’re resetting. This is our family now.”
Olive Foley on parenting through grief: “Catastrophic loss teaches you that you have to treasure what you have”
Many of us can remember exactly where we were on October 16th, 2016, the moment we heard Anthony Foley, the Munster head coach and former Munster and Ireland player, had died in Paris at the age of 42.
His wife, Olive, has previously described the shocking details of that day: the tough time he’d gone through in the two years previously as Munster coach; the conversation they’d had that weekend, where they both felt things were looking good; how she’d been out for a walk and seen multiple missed calls on her phone; the sense of absolute unreality as she was told he had died. “Things were really beginning to turn around, we believed. As far as our lives were concerned, the kids were on track. Two bright little fellas, into sport, full of life and energy. We lived in a beautiful place. It was all very rosy in terms of our family life. And then, after Anthony died, we were hit by a bolt of lightning.”
It was family, friends, the rugby family and the community in Killaloe who held them together at first, until they learned to stand again. Foley also credits her religious faith with playing a part. “We spent the first maybe four to six months in complete shock. The suddenness of it had spent us spiralling. We were propped up, and I think that really goes for a lot of grieving families, by family. Anthony’s family were magnificent. My own family was magnificent. My sister had to leave her own family in Galway and move in with me for the first few weeks. I’ll forever be grateful.”
Four years and a half years on, if she could go back in time and hold her own hand, what she’d want to tell herself is that her little family would find a way to be happy again. “You think you will never find joy again. You think we may as well all have died in Paris; that it’s all over. But that’s really” – she stresses the word – “not the case. You do find joy and you do find happiness. That’s such an important message: that there’s joy to be taken in every day.”
In the beginning, she would be surprised to find herself sitting at the kitchen table with a friend having a giggle at something. “The joy does come once the fog lifts. And you’d hear yourself laughing, and you’d think, am I able to laugh again? It does get easier. Catastrophic loss, too, teaches you that you have to treasure what you have.”
Raising their two, active, sport-mad boys – their sons, Tony and Dan, are now nearly 16 and 13 – without Anthony has been one of the most difficult parts of parenting alone. “I had a very hands-on husband. He loved bringing them to training, doing everything with them. Decisions were made by the two of us. When he died, all of a sudden, I’m the top of the food chain, and that’s a little bit terrifying.” But again, their families rallied. “Anthony’s father would be very hands on.”
And when it came to helping the boys with their grief, “I got huge help from the Children’s Grief Centre in Limerick”, run by Sr Helen Culhane. “They will say things to Sr Helen that they would never say to me, because they’re protecting me. They don’t want to see me crying anymore. They don’t want their grief to upset me. So they could say things to her. That level of support was so important.”
Her advice to anyone who finds themselves parenting alone after a catastrophic loss like the one her family suffered is to ask for help. “From the second my mother came and told me Anthony died, I asked for what I needed – a priest, my best friend, my sister. People are amazing. People want to help,” she says. Now, as a kind of repayment of some of the kindness she experienced, Foley is raising funds for the development of a new building for the Children’s Grief Centre, which has a waiting list of more than 300 children as a result of Covid. “Now, in turn, I want to give something back.”
You can donate to the Children’s Grief Centre at www.childrensgriefcentre.com
Clodagh O’Hagan on being solo by choice: “I always knew that I wanted a family. I just never knew how much I needed to be a mom.”
All through her 30s, Clodagh O’Hagan, who works in PR, “really wanted a family. You’re in your 30s, and relationships do or don’t work, but the want for a family or a baby is omnipresent.”
Her own parents had separated when she was six months old. “Growing up in the 80s, I absolutely would have felt a stigma attached to that side of it…[that sense of] being very different from everybody else’s families and teachers asking inappropriate questions. Some of that stigma stuck with me.”
So, when it came to having a family of her own, “the stakes are a bit higher. I felt a huge responsibility” to get it right.
She was reluctant to have a child in a relationship that might not work out. At the same time, “nobody thinks, I’m going to grow up and have a baby on my own. The hardest part was making the decision [because] you’re accepting you’re not going to fall in love and have your first baby with them”.
A conversation with a GP in the autumn of 2018, when she was in her early 40s, made her realise that she couldn’t put “sometime in the future” off forever. The GP very bluntly told her that “if you want to have a baby, you need to go for it now”. She pointed out that the chances of success would decline with every year. “She said, ‘do you want to be 45 or 46 having your first baby? And it was actually that last point” that hit home.
Decision made, O’Hagan told her friends and her family. “And they all said, ‘Great. Go for it. Whatever you need, we’re here.’”
Over the next few months, there were some difficult moments when she realised her chances of conceiving naturally, even with donor eggs, were much lower than she had been led to understand. She decided to try intrauterine insemination (IUI), which involves inserting sperm directly into the uterus at the most fertile point in a woman’s cycle, combined with drugs to stimulate ovulation.
The selection of a sperm donor from a website “like an old-fashioned online dating website”, was “overwhelming. You’re like, where am I going to start? So I invited a couple of friends over one night for pizza and a couple of drinks, without telling them what we were doing. And I had a friend design up bunting for me with ‘Spermpalooza’ all over it.” She ultimately made her own choice alone the next day – someone who matched her physical characteristics and “just seemed like a nice guy”.
O’Hagan had been given a three to five per cent chance of IUI working on the first attempt. “And it worked. I was pregnant 16 days later.”
Her son, Frank William, was born in May 2020. When Frank is old enough to understand, “I know I’ll be extremely open, but I don’t know what I’ll tell him. That will be my own little journey, I think, over the next couple of years.”
She finds herself “practising the conversation” with other parents she meets in the park. Nobody ever bats an eyelid. At the start of 2020, she decided to share her story on Instagram and launched a blog, babyfrank.co. “Generally, the response from people is phenomenal. It’s a real kind of zeitgeist moment. I have a lot of women thanking me for normalising it.”
Right now, “I don’t worry about anything lacking for me or for him because I don’t have a partner, because it’s just absolutely amazing. I’d hate to have to share him, to be honest. I’ve never been so content my life. I always knew that I wanted a family, I just never knew how much I needed to be a mom.”
Laura Cunningham on happily co-parenting: “There’s lots of reasons why you may not want to have kids. Worries about doing it on your own shouldn’t be one of them.”
Laura Cunningham is a journalist, editor, digital marketer and mum to eight month old Ziggy. “He is being co-parented lovingly, and very harmoniously, by myself and my ex-partner. We weren’t together since before he was born, so it has been this way from the start. And that has made it a little easier. I’m sure there will be challenges ahead, and right now it’s working really well.”
Cunningham started sharing her story of raising Ziggy on Instagram, partly as a response to the “negative connotation even the name single motherhood still has, I think, a little bit. I feel like when you talk about single parents, it’s often just about the challenges and how difficult it is. So I’ve just been really happy to share our little journey and show that this is totally fine”.
She has spent a lot of lockdown staying with her brother and his family in Cavan, where their daily walk “around the block” takes them through a spectacular forest. “It’s certainly saved me from having a lot of Fomo [Fear of missing out], not having to watch my mates at all these live gigs and festivals while I was breastfeeding.”
Being a mother has been, in many ways, easier than she expected. “We’ve been really lucky. Like, he’s not a bad guy,” she laughs. It’s busy – “I haven’t had a night off”, she says – “but I wouldn’t have it any other way. I come from a family of absolute grafters. I get it from my mam. She reared me and my brother, she worked, and she was a single parent.”
When the mother and baby home report was published, it shocked her to “think about how recent it is. It does bother me that people go, ‘that was then; this is now’. If It was some corporation who had done this, they’d be cancelled and gone. But because it was the Church – and the State, they didn’t do it alone – people can just turn a blind eye.” She’s not convinced society has changed completely. “This generation’s mother and baby homes is the direct provision system.”
Raising a baby today in a co-parenting situation is something “I just can’t recommend enough. All you hear is you’ll never sleep again. It is hard, but it’s every bit as brilliant as they say too. All of the things people tell you about it being this overwhelming love, and the best thing they’ve ever done, are completely true. And no amount of tiredness even touches the sides of that. There’s lots of reasons why you may not want to have kids, but [worries about] doing it on your own shouldn’t be one of them.”
Siobhan Murray on being a single mother: “I knew if the relationship didn’t go anywhere, I could support myself.”
“For the first time, when the mother and baby homes report came out, I thought that I am not just a single mother, I am an unmarried mother. All of those terms that came up in the report – all of that ‘your b******d child’ – in essence, that’s my kid,” says Siobhan Murray, a psychotherapist and author, who has been parenting Sean (15) and Charlie (14) alone since Charlie was born.
“It wouldn’t even dawn on me ever to say I was an unmarried mother. I would say I’m a single mother, or that I solo parent.” Neither she nor her boys have experienced any negativity about their family. “I don’t know what it would have been like even ten years earlier.”
She makes a point of being very open about the circumstances of becoming a mother. “I got pregnant three weeks into a relationship. But on the other hand, I was 36, I had a house, I had a job, and I kept thinking, I may never have this opportunity again. It wasn’t like the biological clock was ticking or anything. But I knew if the relationship didn’t go anywhere, I could support myself.”
The challenges that she experienced were more to do with the shock of the adjustment to motherhood, and the difficult of doing everything on her own, as she was living apart from her son's father. Her first month as a mother was “traumatising, and I don’t use that word lightly. I was pushing this buggy, and I felt like I was walking down the road naked".
By the time, Charlie came along, she was parenting completely two babies born 18 months apart alone. But “I didn’t have time to think about how alone I felt.”
“When people say now ‘I don’t know how you do it on your own’, I’ve no point of reference. I’ve always done it alone. It’s relentless. I don’t get a night off. There is no one else to take them to a match, and you’ve two of them vying for your attention for the same time slot.”
With teenagers, you’re also double jobbing – “you’re working hard to keep the lines of communication open, and also being the disciplinarian”.
But there are so many “lovely bits”, especially now they’re teens. “Whatever is going on in our lives, at least five nights a week, we all have dinner together. It’s at that time you get the conversation, and you find out what’s happening in their lives.”
Solo parenting “is absolutely doable. But you have to ask for help. You have to have a support network, so you can make time for yourself”.