How Early Motherhood Led Queen of Soul Aretha Franklin to a 'Life of Silent Suffering'

Franklin — who died on Thursday from pancreatic cancer — had her first son at just 14 years old

Among the mysteries of Aretha Franklin’s life and her preference for “extreme privacy,” her role as a mother was one the superstar typically kept private.

The Queen of Soul, who died Thursday at the age of 76, had four children — her first, at only 14 years old.

“She had a tough childhood,” David Ritz, who wrote multiple biographies on Franklin’s life told PEOPLE before her death.

The “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” singer’s childhood was marked by the separation of her mother Barbara and her father Clarence LaVaughn, whom she named her oldest son after, according to Respect, Ritz’s book on Franklin’s life.

Portrait Of Aretha Franklin & Family
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Franklin’s mother left the family when the singer was only 6 years old because of her husband’s infidelity. “She put out a picture of her having a happy home and happy children and everything was rosy, and any stories to the contrary really got her mad,” ghostwriter Ritz previously told PEOPLE.

While she never publicly confirmed who fathered her older children, Ritz revealed in his book that the father of her oldest son, Clarence, 63, was Donald Burke, whom Franklin knew from school.

“Aretha went back to school after having Clarence,” the musical icon’s sister Erma said in Respect. “She was an excellent student who did well in all her classes.”

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In 1957, Franklin welcomed her second child, Edward, who turns 61 this month. Franklin would then drop out of school to focus on her musical career, leading her to live a life of “silent suffering,” as her sister Erma describes in Respect.

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“We were part of that generation of young female singers who definitely sacrificed time with our kids to attend to our careers. We did so knowingly,” Franklin’s eldest sister said in the book. “We also did so with heavy guilt.”

Care of her two eldest children fell heavily to “Big Mama,” Franklin’s grandmother, according to the 2015 biography of Franklin’s life.

“I still wanted to get out and hang out with my friends,” she told Ebony in 1995 of young motherhood. “I wanted to be in two places at the same time. But my grandmother helped me a lot, and my sister and my cousin. They would babysit so I could get out occasionally.”

At 19, Franklin married Ted White, and had a son with him, named Ted “Teddy” White, Jr., 54.

Ted and the singer divorced in 1969 after reports of domestic abuse surfaced, and a 1968 Time article described how White “roughed her up” more than once.

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White, Jr. would go on to play backup guitar for Franklin before pursuing his own musical career under the name Teddy Richards.

Franklin’s youngest son, Kecalf, 48, was born in 1970. His name is an acronym of both his father and mother’s full names — Ken E. Cunningham (the star’s road manager) and Aretha Louise Franklin.

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Franklin died on Thursday at the age of 76 after battling pancreatic cancer, her publicist confirmed to PEOPLE.

“We have lost the matriarch and rock of our family,” the singer’s family wrote in a statement. “The love she had for her children, grandchildren, nieces, nephews, and cousins knew no bounds.

“We have been deeply touched by the incredible outpouring of love and support we have received from close friends, supporters and fans all around the world,” the family wrote. “Thank you for your compassion and prayers. We have felt your love for Aretha and it brings us comfort to know that her legacy will live on. As we grieve, we ask that you respect our privacy during this difficult time.”

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