To be a mother is to be intimately involved in something bigger than oneself. Mothers are often attributed as being the supportive arms that encourage a child to grow and the gentle strength that holds a family together.
This is a story of three single moms: Rosemary Ptacek, Darcy Buntrock and Jennifer Gangloff. Each has a unique reason for parenting solo—whether by adoption, divorce or tragedy—but all three have overcome adversity and mothered their children exceptionally well through difficult trials.
As a close-knit family living in a trailer home for six years, Rosemary Ptacek’s seven girls and two boys learned to share more than just meal times around the table. Cecilia, Rose Ann, Kathryn, Patricia, Pauline, Francie, Michael, Margaret and Raymond intimately shared space, routines and life with their parents. Joseph and Rosemary Ptacek felt blessed by their large family. Life was good in Preston, Minn.,…until the evening of August 12, 1976.
Rose Ann and Francie had been sent on bicycles to get sweet corn and berries; Patricia was making chicken and dumplings to enjoy with iced tea.
“I heard the sirens at 5:30 p.m., and my husband would have been just getting off work,” remembers Rosemary. “That’s when two police officers pulled into our driveway. They told me that my husband’s brakes had gone out on his truck, and he had been killed. It was a horrible day.”
The accident forced Rosemary into single motherhood overnight. With nine children, no driver’s license, no life insurance and no income, there was hardly time for processing the intense grief. Rosemary suddenly needed to work outside of home, which she did as the head cook at Preston-Fountain High School.
Margaret recalls her mother making a promise that she would keep them all together and that they’d all survive, but they would all have to help. Keeping boundaries was important; curfews had to be respected, and consequences always made an impact.
“Respect and responsibility—that’s just the way things were,” says Cecilia, Rosemary’s oldest. “I always felt like we were mature young adults. It sure helped Mom after Dad was gone.”
Financially, Rosemary simply put priorities first on the list. If there was any money left over, something else could be purchased.
“Never once did we get food stamps, WIC or other assistance,” says her daughter Margaret.
It was not uncommon to find a measuring cup next to the Lucky Charms so that there would be cereal left for the girls after the boys got up.
Lessons on Love
At one point there were seven teenagers in the house, and it was one of the most challenging seasons of motherhood.
“I used to sit in the front window and think there wasn’t anyone who cared a darn about me,” says Rosemary, who condensed her life to faith, family and work because there was no time for anything else. “I had to make so many decisions by myself.”
While grief and fatigue could have easily defeated Rosemary (she was also diagnosed with cancer three times), she has always been quick to count her blessings: “I could have had a mess, but my kids were very good. We have always had togetherness, and I am very fortunate,” she says.
“Mom always said that what got her through was her faith,” adds Cecilia. Several of the children remember that when their mom used to get frustrated or upset, the car would disappear. Margaret always found it parked in the church parking lot. To this day, Rosemary readily credits her faith and family for holding her together.
Once all of her children graduated, Rosemary moved to Rochester and worked at Olmsted Medical Center for 11 years. Now retired, she enjoys reading and playing cards and solitaire on the computer. Rosemary and her nine children, along with their families, gather for holidays, themed girls’ nights and 50th birthday parties. It’s bittersweet time because there’s still an acute awareness that Dad should be in the picture, too. “On Mom’s coin purse there’s a photo of her family,” says Cecilia. “That pretty much says it all. We were her whole life—she’s so unselfish. It’s always family first.”
“They think too much of me, really,” says Rosemary with a humble wave of the hand. “I just did what I thought was necessary to raise the kids to be independent. That was my main thing.”
There’s a loving warmth that washes over Darcy Buntrock when she thinks about her two daughters. Along with her full-time job teaching seventh and eighth-grade science in the St. Charles School District, Darcy is also a 46-year-old single mother of Ahna, 18, and Emmy, 14.
Divorce is never something that young moms expect will happen to them. Darcy’s daughters were just 2 and 5 at the time. Though the divorce was challenging, Darcy remained positive for her girls and herself: “In my mind, there was a transition and realization, though. It was another whole new chapter of life.”
Darcy remained busy as she assumed the role of a single mom.
“There was no time for ‘woe is me,’ because we had ten minutes to get this done and that done,” she says. “I was making checklists and go, go going. There was no time to process, and suddenly a year had gone by. In some ways, keeping busy and keeping my mind occupied became a coping mechanism. But, the reality is that there were a kazillion things to do and nobody else was going to do them.”
Darcy’s church supported her through the transition.
“The people at Ascension Lutheran were wonderful,” says Darcy. “Faith is what made this easier than it could have been. I wouldn’t wish divorce or single parenting on anyone, but the benefits of a spiritual life are amazing.”
Darcy’s faith got her through some difficult times, including her role as caregiver for both her father and mother who lived with her during their final years.
“I witnessed so many modern-day miracles,” Darcy says. “My checkbook should not have made it month to month, but it did. I was the $500 winner of our hockey calendar contest at the exact right time. When the girls’ jeans were two inches too short, a great bag of donation clothes was given to me. I’ve been so much happier and accepting because of my faith. I just know we’ll be taken care of.”
Like most single moms, the biggest challenge for Darcy has been finding time.
“Time for myself doesn’t happen too often,” says Darcy. “I have to schedule in fun because there’s always so much to do. I tell the girls that we need a game night or movie night. One night I put the girls to bed in their pj’s and then said we were going to Dairy Queen just to be spontaneous.”
Raising Women of Character
Ahna and Emmy are now in high school.
“They are growing up and each new stage is exciting,” says Darcy. “I look at how they’ve grown, each part of their life, and I never want it to end. But then the next part is even better! They are so much fun to be with. I love to watch them making good choices and being true to their words. They’ve had to rely on each other, and that has really made them best friends.”
Darcy enjoys being with her daughters, and they gravitate toward relaxing outdoor activities like gardening, camping, hiking and biking; even yard work on their small acreage has become a hobby.
Life as a single mom may not be a road paved in relaxation, but Darcy feels content as she reflects on each day.
“Life is like a fine tuned orchestra,” says Darcy. “I look ahead at the day and wonder how to accomplish what needs to be done and do it well. I work hard, take someone where they need to go, do this and that. It’s comparable to the woodwinds entering, then the brass, then the strings exit and re-enter. It’s kind of messy, but at the end of the day I look back and realize that it really did go smoothly. At the end of the day, my perspective is ‘Wow! That really came together!’”
There was no particular point in time when Jennifer Gangloff decided to leap into motherhood. For this mother of two girls, it was more of an evolution: “I always just assumed that at some point I would get married and become a mom.”
A self-described military brat, Jennifer grew up all over the country, including several years overseas. She became a writer and editor for national and regional books and magazines. Life threw her a curveball in her early 30s when she was diagnosed with leukemia.
“My plans were derailed,” recalls Jennifer, who was living in Connecticut at the time. “My initial prognosis was three to five years. When you’re given a prognosis like that, your life is put on hold and cancer becomes the priority.”
Despite extensive familial and worldwide searches for a bone marrow match, none was found for Jennifer, but a new medication proved lifesaving.
“It’s a type of oral chemotherapy, and it was still in clinical trials at the time,” explains Jennifer. “I was able to participate in the trials, and it became FDA approved one year after my diagnosis. Not only did it change the course of treatment for that type of leukemia, it essentially changed the course of my life.”
Jennifer went into remission within a couple of months, and 13 years later she experiences only minor side effects from the medication she still takes to keep her leukemia under control.
Though gifted with a new lease on life, the lifelong desire to become a mom and have a family was challenged on several levels.
“I survived the prognosis, but my dating relationship did not,” Jennifer says. “Another challenge is that my oral chemotherapy is not recommended for pregnancy because it can cause birth defects. Stopping the medication is just not an option for me; I’d have a full-blown relapse.”
So she looked to adoption.
“I wasn’t married, and I wasn’t dating anyone, but I wondered if adoption was a possibility for me,” says Jennifer, who had friends that were adopting as single parents.
Some agencies were reluctant to work with Jennifer because of her single status and cancer history—even though her prognosis had changed to a normal lifespan—but in March 2008, Jennifer became the adoptive mother of a newborn baby girl born in Utah. The next year, Jennifer decided to adopt another child, coincidentally from Utah, in December 2009.
Single Parent, Double Duty
“There’s no one to trade [parenting] off with,” says Jennifer. “When the kids are sick, there’s nobody else to step up when I’m exhausted. There’s no one to bounce concerns off. I expected challenges, but the expectation is not the same as living the reality.”
But she can’t imagine her life without her daughters Kiki, age 3, and Emmerson, age 5.
Jennifer describes her life today as crazy in a good way. She just completed her master’s degree in health journalism last year. She’s not currently dating because she hasn’t had the opportunity. Her kids are the top priority for any free time she has. After that comes the typical household chores (but by herself)—everything from cleaning to taxes to fixing leaky toilets.
“It’s all worth it,” says Jennifer. “I love my kids so much, and I can’t imagine them not being part of my life. They bring me so much happiness and joy. But this is also a bittersweet time because I know that two other moms made the very painful decisions that allowed me to become a parent.”
Ironically, the painful trials that could have ruined Rosemary, Darcy and Jennifer were catalysts that shaped them as steadfast, loving mothers. They rose up after divorce, tragedy and cancer. Surely, the best reward will be the evidence of strength and resilience reflected in their children.