The summer holiday season brings up a host of issues for mums and dads taking kids away on their own. We talk about the psychological and practical hurdles – and how to overcome them
I am aware of how humbug the following sounds, but I hate bank holidays. Christmas, which is a difficult time for many, I find no problem. But for some reason, the long weekend makes me feel more like a single parent than any other time of the year.
During the June bank holiday, for example, I had to ban myself from scrolling through Instagram, as it made me feel as if literally the rest of the world was a family of two parents and several kids having the time of their lives on a beach somewhere.
The rational part of me knows this is not the case, and that in fact many of those parents would relish what my bank holiday weekend included: an entire day to myself when I lounged in the sun in my back yard, napping and reading.
But for some reason, holidays make me feel a little raw about how the lives of my seven-year-old daughter and myself have strayed from the 2.4 family unit we once enjoyed, in a way I never usually do.
Holidays can be tricky as a single parent. It is easier when you’re on the relative gerbil wheel of school term time not to notice the moments when you fall outside the norm of family life. The occasional Saturday evening can feel lonely, but mostly things are so busy you might barely notice.
But holidays are different. Somehow, as a single parent, you feel exposed.
Until this year, we’ve been incredibly lucky. The last few summers my daughter Sarah and I have shoehorned our way into family holidays with my parents – a state of affairs they have accepted with good grace.
This year, though, Covid restrictions and the pandemic meant the annual Spanish fortnight wasn’t an option.
“I’ll leave it,” I thought. “One year without a holiday is no big deal.”
And then my daughter began to talk with huge anticipation about the trip we would take. Her big post-Covid focus was a holiday of some sort and, of course, all the kids in her class were talking about their holidays.
I don’t normally succumb to feelings of failure around the fact our family don’t all live under the same roof, but I spiralled, and soon I was trying to convince myself a staycation holiday home, which cost almost €2,000 for a week, was both a possibility and a good idea.
London-based Irishwoman Zoë Desmond created the location-based networking app Frolo (an amalgamation of the words “friend” and “solo”), for single parents, after being struck herself by the loneliness of those loose-end Sunday afternoons and school holidays.
“Going on holidays as a single parent comes up all the time as a worry and an issue in the Frolo community,” she says.
“Holidays were one of the challenges which inspired me to create Frolo,” says Zoë. “As well as the loneliness of weekends, suddenly the thought of going on holiday was daunting.”
She identifies some of the issues single parents deal with around holidays.
“There is the financial aspect, obviously. In a lot of places, prices are based on families where there are two parents, two kids, type thing.
“As all parents of young children know, it’s bloody hard work. If you’re doing it by yourself, especially with a younger kid, you’re coming back from holiday and thinking, ‘oh my gosh, that was actually more admin than it was at home’.”
Since Frolo launched, members have planned trips together through the Meet Up forum in the app, including a camping trip with 60 parents.
“It was amazing,” Zoe says. “Someone commented afterwards, ‘I didn’t know anyone going, I was so scared about taking the plunge, but I just forced myself to. Now I’ve got tonnes of new friends for life, and the kids had the best time.’”
The group came across several single parents at the campsite who were holidaying alone and took them into “the Frolo fold”, she adds.
Zoë herself has holidayed with two friends she met through Frolo.
“Two nights, three single mothers with the kids. We took turns to get up and make each other coffee in the morning, one of us made breakfast, the other made lunch, the other one made dinner. ‘This is what it would be like to live in a Frolo commune,’” she recalls them saying.
To any single parent, she advises just taking the plunge, reaching out.
“Obviously what I’m going to say is go on Frolo and connect with other single parents; use the Meet Up section,” Zoë says, adding that the app will soon launch a directory function, where members can recommend holiday places they have tried.
“It just makes it easier to go with others, more fun, and less admin.”
Finding the right kind of place for your family is key to enjoying your holiday. Mother of one Aoife Desmond (no relation to Zoë), a sales manager at Google, and an empowerment coach, describes how her first holiday as a single parent proved quite stressful when she booked a stay in a large resort.
“My daughter was eight, and I found I was quite nervous. There was a lot going on, I just found it very overwhelming.
“Also, you’re on your own, and you’re seeing all these seemingly happy families around you. I found it quite challenging mentally. But afterwards, it wasn’t ‘OK,
I’m never doing that again’, it was, ‘how do I do it?’”
For their next holiday, Aoife chose a much smaller resort.
“That was brilliant. I was more confident about letting her go to the bathroom by herself, whereas the first time we had to pack everything up from the pool every time we wanted to go to the bathroom.
I met a single dad who was having a similar issue only more difficult, as his daughter had to go to the gents with him.
“Look for a smaller place,” she suggests. “Don’t go to a bustling resort that’s going to make you feel you have to go and do archery and tennis, and all these things that just put extra pressure on you. Be in a calm place, maybe where there’s a lot of retired people. You don’t feel that different.”
Aoife and her daughter’s father did try what she describes as “a kind of co-parent holiday” one year, where he joined them halfway through a holiday in Greece. All three of them spent a day together, then Aoife’s daughter stayed with her father, while she had some time to herself.
Like all things to do with co-parenting, it is what works for your family, she says.
Cork-based Alex Slye, who works in addiction services and is the host of My Yellow Couch podcast, has always been a single parent to her 19-year-old son Noah.
“There are two times in the year that I feel the weight, or the loneliness, of being a single parent,” she says. “Christmas, and holidays. The rest of the time, perfectly fine.”
When Noah was small, Alex was happy to go without a holiday, but when he started at primary school that became more challenging.
“Before that, he didn’t really know that’s what people do. Then he hits primary school and starts saying, ‘well, how come they do this?’ I felt pressure to take him on a sun holiday,” she says.
The success of a trip comes down to who you meet, Alex says. On their first holiday away they befriended a family with one child; the mother had been a single parent herself until two years before.
“So she got what it was like. We became this lovely blended family for the week.”
Unfortunately, subsequent holidays were not so successful. “I used to cry every night. The next holiday Noah did make friends, but nobody spoke to me.
“The expense is so prohibitive,” she adds. “Especially as he got older, and couldn’t get a free seat, I was essentially paying for two adults to go on holidays.”
This year, with her son old enough to go on holidays with his own friends, Alex has, for the first time, booked a trip to Toronto for herself.
“I never got a break for myself, we’re such a duo the two of us. Now it’s different.”
Budget and mindset coach Santis O’Garro is a single parent with two children, aged three and five.
“Do your research as to what amenities there are where you’re going to stay,” she advises for those trying to stick to a budget.
Make a big deal about what is available, but be aware of over-promising, she says.
“Tell your children you are going to a waterpark, for example, and make this the big thing to do for the week. The less you say to them, the less accountable you are, and you don’t have to break their hearts if you find things you have promised are too expensive or not available for some reason.”
Children take great joy in the simplest things so you needn’t spend a fortune. For example, she suggests researching any nearby walks, or organising a low-cost outing that children feel invested in.
“Plan a really lovely picnic, something special that makes the kids feel proud. Use individual containers, they will feel a sense of importance having their own boxes.”
Travel can eat up your budget too so research your options, says Santis, and book well in advance if you are using the train to get the best value on tickets.
“If you are a single parent on a tight budget, trains can end up costing a lot,” she points out.
For Penny Wincer, author of Tender: The Imperfect Art of Caring, the situation is somewhat more complex.
A mother of two children, now 11 and nine, her eldest child, Arthur, is autistic. As Penny’s family live in Australia, it was of particular importance for her to build the network most single parents rely upon.
She found that going away with other families was the answer and they now have two annual holidays with friends.
“It’s really difficult to meet [Arthur’s] needs when we’re not at home. My daughter needs somebody she can play with when I’m helping him. They all know
Arthur really well, and Arthur knows them,” she says of her “incredible” friends.
“I couldn’t have done half the things that I’ve done with my children if I didn’t have their support.”
When they holiday alone, Penny recommends Center Parcs.
“The staff are incredible, they’re very non-judgmental. The thing I love about it as well is that you are never the only family with a disabled family member. The way it’s set up, it’s so accessible it really attracts families that need accessibility and that’s really wonderful to be around.”
Finding time for yourself on holiday as a single parent can feel next to impossible. Betsy Cornwell, originally from New Hampshire, has been living in Ireland for the past eight years. Her marriage broke down nearly four years ago.
At first she had no home to go to and was dependent on friends, then she stayed in a hotel, an experience that, understandably, left a mark. It incited a desire to create both a permanent home for herself and her four-year-old son, and a retreat for other single parents, who might want to work on creative projects.
As a writer and a teacher, Betsy describes how she has struggled herself to find time between making ends meet to work on her own creative practices.
“I started imagining a place that could be a home for my child and myself, and a space that I could offer to other single parents which would provide childcare, and give them time and space to make their art.”
She came across an old knitting factory in Carraroe, Connemara, which had been on the market for a few years. The owner agreed to let her rent it while she raises funds to purchase it. So far she has raised over €17,000 through crowdfunding (see @oldknittingfactory on Instagram, or betsycornwell.com/the-old-knitting-factory/).
There’s an extra layer of complexity for those single parents who have fraught relationships with their former partners. Many such parents will face issues around access as not all access orders will include agreements around holidays.
Shared parenting officer Sam Dunne of Treoir, the information service for unmarried parents, points out: “Where parents have a voluntary agreement in place, and they’re not getting on very well, it can be quite difficult deciding what week to take.”
Another common contentious issue is securing consent to travel, says Sam. “One parent gives verbal permission for you to take the kids away. And then a week before the holiday, they withdraw that consent. So then the parent taking the children away is left with a very short space of time in which to apply to the courts under a guardianship dispute issue, to look for consent to travel.”
Treoir’s advice is that if you feel there is any possibility that the other parent might remove their consent, circumnavigate this issue by applying well in advance to the court for consent. Lead times for court dates at the moment are up to six months, Sam warns.
Passports can be another tricky issue, if one parent refuses to give their signature.
“The best thing to do if you want to go on holiday, is to try mediation to organise an access arrangement that covers the holiday, get written consent from the other parent and sort out the passport issue.
“If that doesn’t work, you have to apply to the court to have an access arrangement put in place to have consent to travel, and have the passport organised through the court,” says Sam.
Problems can also arise when a new partner comes on the scene.
“That’s often difficult, even when the access arrangement is legally there. What’s best really is for the parent who wants to go on the holiday with the children to be open and upfront about who’s going and where they’re going.”
Many single parents opt, where possible, to be self-employed, as flexible working hours makes single parenting much easier. However, it can make taking holidays
Landscape gardener Mike Carberry has two children, a son and daughter aged 16 and 14. He has been separated since 2014, and the children spend 50pc of their time with him.
The agreement between him and his former partner allows for each parent to take two weeks holidays with the children each summer. In Mike’s line of business, it can be difficult to take time off during those months.
“I work in horticulture, I work for myself, and that would mean me taking holidays at the busiest time of the year.”
Instead, he found scheduling long weekends worked better: “I took short breaks.
I might just grab a couple of days and stick them on the long weekend.”
He tends to take camping holidays with friends or family; the kids love them, he can include lots of activities, and they’re more affordable.
As for Sarah and myself? As has so often happened since I separated several years ago, my wonderful friend Sophie has stepped in.
“Have you decided what dates yet?” she called to ask one day.
“What?” I replied. It turned out she had assumed we would be joining her and her boys, my daughter’s great friends, on their holidays.
As I put down the phone, I may just have shed tears of relief. And we had a ball.