This month our Wikizine Parent team look at the challenges and rewards of taking the kids on holiday as a solo parent...
Think of a single British bloke holidaying in Europe and you could be forgiven for conjuring images of a boozy weekend in Prague, or a messy 5am stagger back to the Magaluf hotel room. A quick web search for holiday opportunities offers an array of such alcohol-centred trips. But for me, the pre-holiday web browsing had to include the key phrases “on a budget” and “family friendly facilities”. For I was going to holiday with my two daughters.
Gone were the promises of “sizzling nights followed by lazy days”. Rather I was led towards a series of safer looking and altogether more pedestrian camping and caravanning options. The photographs on various holiday company websites invariably displayed happy smiling parents with two children. Single Parents (of which there at least 2 million in the UK) did not really feature in any of the marketing material I saw.
But by this stage I was already asking myself not only where to go on holiday but whether to go at all. The more I thought about it, compelling reasons began to take shape persuading me to stay at home. Obvious reasons like cost, inertia, and the simple hassle factor in packing for a family. Men are notoriously bad at packing, and when you have two daughters who are a bit too young to pack for themselves, the whole thing can become a nightmare – but no, my real hesitation came from a gut feeling that my rather amateurish parenting skills would be put under the microscope for a whole week, and that would result in increased pressure. Pressure I could best do without.
In running www.onlydads.org I come into contact with loads of dads who genuinely struggle with full-time child care. The dual role of being both mum and dad is alien to the majority of us men, as I’m sure it is for many women too. That said (and if this comes over as sexist I wouldn’t disagree), many women, through a combination of nurture and nature are brought up to look after children. I have yet to meet a single dad with that same head start in life. I thought about this some more – our own homes offer safety and a place to hide for us single dads. Our children will know the neighbourhood. They can pop over to the shop, scooter around the block, or go and visit a friend and if we are really lucky, get to stay there for an hour or two. They have their bedrooms, where for part of the day at least they might stay and play with stuff. All of these home-based blessings allow us dads to “get the children from under our feet”. At home, we do get some time-out. But take us abroad with our children, with unfamiliar geography and no local friends, and the thoughts of 24/7 parenting can sweep over us like a rather dark cloud.
And yet it’s more than that. Single dads don’t tend to adopt the same rules as Mums. We get far more relaxed, both with our children, ourselves, and our homes. Men in relationships live within boundaries. Men on their own (with or without children living with them) will eagerly let these boundaries drift off into the sunset. And without the safety of home, our liberal, disorganised and altogether ad hoc approach to parenting and domestic science will be put on public display for the whole holiday park to see. One can almost hear the quiet muttering of the other parents...
But the real truth is this: If I was asked, what would make for a really good holiday for me, round the clock child care would not be at the top of my list! At my age (40s), I am not suggesting that getting messy and guilty in Magaluf or spending a night locked up courtesy of Prague’s Old Bill would be either, but time on my own or with some friends, would be. Such is the lot of single dads though – we can’t have everything!
Decision time. Having taken a few virtual tours of various holiday parks, the girls settled on a static caravan at La Pignade on the French Atlantic Coast, north of Bordeaux. Who would be first down the blue slide became the subject of much pre-holiday heated debate. Excitement levels were rising. Theirs I hasten to add, not mine.
Flying from Bristol to La Rochelle (I played safe and packed just about everything I could find) was the easy bit. So too picking up our hire car. Getting to the Parc is another story altogether, based loosely on not having a wife to map read (or drive), male arrogance at not wanting to ask for directions, and two tired girls in the back of the car, bored stiff with the blue slide debate, each other, travelling, and I dare say an increasingly grumpy dad!
Reaching our destination was a massive relief. It had been a long day but the initial inspection of our caravan (huge), and the parc itself surpassed all our expectations. The focal point of the holiday was always going to be the large heated outdoor covered pool (and adjacent water slides!).
Having holidayed with my daughters in the UK (Holiday Cottages in Cornwall, Alton Towers etc...), there were glaring differences with this holiday parc, with what we have encountered previously in Britain. Firstly, it was immaculate. The pool was gleaming, the grounds were well maintained. Our caravan was perfectly equipped. The life guards actively kept an eye on the children playing in the pool. I distinctly remember our caravans Peugeot corkscrew, which worked with an engineered smoothness! The added touch of a whole bowl of fruit, half bottle of brandy, bread, ham and cheese waiting for us upon arrival ensured our first impressions were totally positive.
It may seem odd to carry a lasting memory of a wine bottle opener, but it is those little things that change something good into something special. The whole kitchen area of the caravan was equipped by someone who cared about what their job and understood what guests would appreciate. Everything worked. Everything was clean. Simple really, but so often found wanting in holiday homes and theme park hotels in the UK.
Our hire car quickly became surplus to requirements. On our third day, I tried to extol the virtues of a day trip to a local Cognac distillery. The girls thought I was mad. “Dad, we have everything here you could possibly want” was all I heard as they ran off to the pool. Again. And in a sense they were right. A pool, a well equipped shop, a bar and a very reasonably priced restaurant all set amidst a forested landscape with the seaside less than a mile away coupled with warm June sunshine made the idea of driving off somewhere else all a bit nonsensical to my daughters. They were as happy as could be.
And basking in the light of their obvious happiness I too began to find my own peace. Meal times were relaxed. We all breakfasted together on an adjacent patio area to our “home”. We got used to buying our breakfast from the parc shop first thing in the morning. Fresh breads and hams and juices made for a relaxing start to every day.
During the week, both Priya and Anya dipped in and out of the childrens’ clubs, or just entertained themselves in the pool (or more accurately on the water slides). By the second day I found myself having those “hour-off slots” so beloved by single parents everywhere. I used them to prepare lunch or read a book or just do nothing but sit in the sun.
The local beach at Ronce-Les-Bains offers a range of facilities, but walking along the beach one evening as the tide had turned we found a young French couple digging for shellfish in the wet sand. Despite the language barrier, Priya and Anya learned in the space of ten minutes the three Golden rules of shell fishing. Firstly, spot the air whole in the sand, secondly, grub around with your hands until you find the shell , and thirdly but most importantly, put the baby ones back in the sand. Said couple were going home to cook their bumper crop (the girls went at this new “sport” with passion and found them hundreds). I picked up that when they got home they would sorte them in white wine and herbs and then eat them with Spaghetti.
When we had done, I watched the couple walk off into the gloaming hand in hand. They appeared to be a really happy couple – I guess early thirties. Relaxed with each other. Like true friends. I would be lying if I didn’t mention at this point that holidaying alone (even with children) can be lonely, and seeing that couple’s bond suddenly brought that loneliness into sharp focus. But it had been fun for the girls and by this stage they were filthy and covered in Mud. I had the bedtime routine to sort out and little time for maudlin self pity.
Like all good holidays, time sped along and we were back home all too soon. Once back at our house, both girls hugged me and thanked me for taking them on such a “great holiday”. It was spontaneous and meaningful and left me stirred up and emotional. All lone parents feel guilty at least some of the time, and when they offered me these thanks I felt some real guilt remembering the misgivings I had had before departing.
It struck me then that like all things in life, you tend to get out what you put in. The girls knew I had gone the extra mile (literally) for them during this holiday and I found then that I was able to replace my feelings of guilt with a sense of pride that during this holiday I really had put them first, and in so doing gave the girls and myself a week to remember, and budget permitting repeat as soon as we can.
Who are holidays for? With 7 years of single parent holidays under my belt I’m inclined to think they aren’t for the parent, for sure. The return of my 19 year old daughter from uni confirmed this view when she came back and spent four days coughing and recovering from end of term excesses and... well, spread. Every room she has access to is littered with her ‘stuff’ - books all over the dining table; files all over the living room floor; she eschews the ‘kids’ bathroom and instead leaves all her jewellery in mine; she takes my towels and jumps on my laptop every time I take my eyes off it; she re-configures my speakers and probably takes a peep at my e-mails. That’s when she’s not borrowed my car...
But....I also have someone who willingly helps with the weekly shop even if it will be to make sure large quantities of fruit and veg, coke and cereal are bought. She will be nagging me to get some more exercise when I complain of putting on weight over the winter and will set me a good example by jogging every day – and won’t say no if I want to join her. She’s even promised to take me trekking in the summer if we can find dates to fit her schedule (and I can get fit enough) and she’ll play tennis with her younger brother and offer him her politics books when he’s stuck on an essay. And her work ethic is amazing - she’ll be working most days, as a waitress or a life guard or on her revision. She’ll also be challenging me to earn more when I complain of lean times. But just as the novelty of having her home wears off, she’s gone again, cycling off into London, to work and to catch up with friends, saying she’ll be back in 5 days time.
It wasn’t always this easy, and when the children were younger and I worked outside the home, school holidays were a nightmare with lunch hours spent trying to manage the children remotely; bribing the older ones to manage the younger; checking up they were in the right place at the right time with the right gear; wheedling extra long lunches to ferry a child around and then dash back -having not eaten - to resume work.
We didn’t have a holiday the first summer I divorced; I was too busy finding alternative schools and broke. Since then, we’ve achieved one ‘big’ holiday a year with most challenging one being the time in Majorca when I agreed to take 7 teenagers (only three of them mine) to a self-catering villa because it was the last year I could see it happening. I was right: the next year the children took themselves off to different parts of the globe and I went skiing with a friend – heaven! And this year? Whilst the kids are again intending to head off to far flung destinations, I’m contemplating Butlins, Minehead. Yes, Butlins. Not my first choice if I’m honest (that would be skiing over Easter as I write, grrrr..) but with the likelihood of a couple of foster children to accommodate too, kids’ clubs are the main priority. And I’m told there’s a vast beach, not just good for buckets and spades, but kite surfing and windsurfing too. I’ve never done the former at all, or the latter in the English Channel. But will my wetsuit still fit?
School holidays. Their approach fills you with a mixture of happiness and dread. On the plus side, it means a break from the grinding daily routine of long hours at work, snatched moments of “quality time” with the kids jammed between homework and housework and falling into exhausted sleep. On the down side it means time with the kids at home – feeling guilty about not-working and trying hard to provide exciting and educational moments that they will look back on fondly when they grow old. And all this without blowing the budget. Then, of course, is the happy horror of some time away…
Holidays with kids as a solo parent can be excruciating. Single parent stress starts well in advance of the actual holiday itself. First, of course, there are the concerns about money - made all the more complicated with single room supplements and “all inclusive” deals that omit major spend items. Second, the choice of location – do you really want to spend a week surrounded by couples who are totally loved up and into non-stop public displays of affection and frolicking two-parent families to rub salt into the wound of your single status? Thought not. Third, travel hassle. Transportation to the airport, long flights and interminable transfer coach rides in the middle of the night with grouchy, tired and hungry kids is not something you contemplate when you are a happy two-some but as a single parent you have to confront the nightmare scene alone. Then add in the desperate attempt not to lose your luggage (nor your sense of humour) and find the elusive travel rep while keeping the kids out of the way of potential airport-lurking child abductors and it becomes a grade 1 nightmare scene. Ignore the pitying looks from customs staff and suspicious looks from passport control as you trot through the barriers with your single head held high.
Holidays are a time for everyone to rest. Yeah right. When couples go on holiday, mum and dad take it in turn to watch over the kids while the other gently melts in the sun with a jolly good novel. As a single parent you have to keep one eye on the valuables on the poolside chair – which taunts you with the memory of actual relaxation time – with the other on the child splashing in the main pool while your third eye focuses on gently coaching the other child to let go of their swimming aids and apply sun cream.
The day moves towards the hotel evening meal scene. Even as a lone parent you make an effort to put on some nice clothes and make the best of your sun bleached hair (minus any cosmetics because your packing time was constantly interrupted with “Mum – I can’t find my snorkel/Ipod/DS”) – knowing full well that you could go to dinner in your nightie and no one would really notice. You try not to notice that every other woman in the place has a more up-to-date and chic outfit and co-ordinates everything. The prospect of a very large glass of anything vaguely alcoholic (which you really, really deserve) urges you on but you are ever mindful of the impact of a hangover on tomorrow’s day of poolside fun.
There is no “other parent” to take charge of the kids so you can snatch a moment of “me” time. You have no privacy as you have all squashed into one room for budget efficiency. The other families and couples ignore you to avoid catching “singleness”. But the upside is that it really, really doesn’t matter if that bikini body isn’t quite up to scratch – my God – you got those kids on holiday abroad all by yourself, and that is reward enough for anyone.