Single parents of children of the opposite sex face unique challenges

Karen Engelter of Fargo has been raising her 11-year-old son, Gabe, on her own for his entire life. "We make it through, and we have found our relationship," she said. She plays baseball and football with him, takes him to ball games and has alre...

Karen Engelter and her 11-year-old son, Gabe
Karen Engelter is a single mom raising her 11-year-old son, Gabe. (Carrie Snyder / The Forum)

Karen Engelter of Fargo has been raising her 11-year-old son, Gabe, on her own for his entire life.

"We make it through, and we have found our relationship," she said.

She plays baseball and football with him, takes him to ball games and has already had the sex talk.

"I don't know if it's the same talk a dad would have had," Engelter said, adding that her conversation included things about being nice to girls and communicating openly.

Raising children as a single parent is difficult enough, but raising children of the opposite gender alone adds its own set of challenges.


Even though Engelter does her best to take on the roles of both mother and father for her son, she sometimes she needs to call in a pinch hitter.

"Sometimes I joke that I need the voice of a father standing behind me, that stern, strong, confident kind of voice," she said. "I think that I'm a pretty good mom, but I think you get a different kind of confidence when you have that male role model."

Engelter has a father in Bismarck and brother in Minneapolis who take Gabe fishing, to baseball games and shopping when he needs athletic equipment Engelter knows nothing about buying, she said.

She also enrolled Gabe in The Village Family Service Center's Big Brothers Big Sisters program, which links children with adult volunteer mentors, two years ago to give him more frequent access to a positive male role model, she said.

"We were really, really fortunate because we got a spectacular match for Gabe," Engelter said.

Because Gabe's father has been absent from his life, Engelter didn't want Gabe thinking men didn't have to be around, she said.

"I wanted him to know that there are men out there who are really good," Engelter said, adding that Gabe's "big brother" has been a great role model.

In addition to taking him to ball games and ATV riding, Gabe's "big brother" also does homework with him and talks to him about the importance of college.


"I really appreciate that backup from a man," Engelter said. "It's good for Gabe to have that reiterated from a different point of view, from a man's point of view."

Susan Smith, program director for Big Brothers Big Sisters of The Village Family Service Center, said the majority of the children they serve come from single-parent families, especially single moms raising boys.

"It's just amazing to see the difference it can make in how something as simple as an adult spending time with a child can have a huge impact on their lives," Smith said. "Some of our longer-term matches where they've been together for years, they really become part of the family."

Volunteers must be 18 or older and pass a thorough screening process, Smith said.

"We're really focusing on the relationship formation," Smith said. "It's helping with their self-esteem, which in turn helps with their academics, their ability to make good choices and decisions. We've seen improvements in peer relationships and family relationships as well as being able to avoid some delinquent behavior."

For Bob Stein of Fargo, whose children are now in their 30s, his challenges went beyond the difficulties of raising children on his own.

Stein's children were 11, 13, and 15 when their mother died. His oldest two were girls, so not only did he have to help them through their teen years without a mother, but he also had to help them through the loss of their mother.

"That was the overriding thing in our lives, the event that happened that just changed our world," he said. "I felt one of my responsibilities was to give them the best memories of their mother that I could without her being there. We talked about her a lot."


Stein's responsibilities kept him going, he said. In addition to household tasks, there were the physical, emotional and social changes his kids were going through.

"There was always the sensitivity of wondering if I was dealing with girl things properly and well enough," Stein said. "I still don't know."

He talked to his daughters about things like menstruation. Even though it was uncomfortable, he said he wanted to make sure they understood what was going on and how to deal with it.

"There were things that weren't comfortable to talk about," he said. "There were things we look back at now and get a pretty good laugh about."

Overall, he said he was fortunate because he had really good kids.

"They had a good mother," Stein said. "She was a good influence on them even though she wasn't there."

As the child of a single father, Jessica Abel, of Breckenridge, Minn., understands how difficult it can be going through things like puberty without a mother figure at home.

She said she did a lot on her own - like planning her prom and senior pictures.


And while Abel had women, like her grandma and aunts available, she wasn't as comfortable turning to them for help and advice as she was going to her dad, who knew her better, she said.

"I have never felt more loved in my life than with him," Abel said. "I look back, and I see all that he did, and although it might not have been perfect at the time, it was as much as he could do. I could never express how thankful I am that he was my dad."

Even though he's more of a practical person and not as emotional as a mom would have been, Abel said he's always supported her, especially last year when she found a lump in her breast.

"He's softened throughout the years," Abel said. "I think he's realized how to handle situations with a female."

Abel said she loves the memories she has with her father.

"I'm definitely a Daddy's girl," she said.

Derrick Hansen of Fargo shares custody of his daughters, 3-year-old Sailyr and 1-year-old Portia, with his ex-wife, so while his girls still have a female role model in their lives, he also understands what it's like to be a single dad.

There are simple things that can be a challenge, like potty training and doing their hair, Hansen said. But he expects bigger challenges to come along as they get older, he said.


Hansen and the girls' mom have made a commitment to work together on how to talk to their daughters about difficult topics, and he plans to be just as involved as she is in talking to their daughters about issues like the consequences of being sexually active at a young age, he said.

"I really want to foster open communication," Hansen said.

Because his time with his daughters is limited, Hansen said he cherishes the time he does have with them and makes the most of it.

"Every time I get them I cannot wait to take them somewhere to go do something with them, to try to teach them different things and really enjoy them for who they are and bring positive experiences into their lives," he said.

Karen Engelter and her 11-year-old son, Gabe
Jessica Abel of Breckenridge, Minn., was raised mostly by her father, Dan Abel, also of Breckenridge. (Special to The Forum)

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