If the hire car had sat nav I might have been all right. But being the only grown-up in the car – trying to find my way on the “wrong” side of the road on intersecting multi-lane freeways in downtown LA with no directions or any sense of direction – was no fun at all.
With night falling and two hungry kids in the back I exited several times, taking a punt that an exit would take us into an amenable neighbourhood, to ask directions. The jotted-down scrawls I left with only got me so far until I had to go through the whole process of getting directions again, eventually pulling into our hotel three hours behind schedule.
It’s not quite how I’d imagined our first trip to Disneyland but it’s one of the pitfalls of travelling alone with children.
I’m an old hand at travelling alone with my kids. I’d done it several times while I was still with their dad and wasn’t going to let to stop me after that.
We’ve been on countless road trips including one 12-hour journey to Byron Bay. I’ve taken them to Fiji, Disneyland, the Grand Canyon and on The Polar Express in Arizona.
We’ve been camping, erecting my first-ever tent by myself and I’ve taken my boys skiing every winter, which means lugging three sets of skis to the mountain while negotiating the requisite meltdowns over clunky boots and cumbersome helmets. But it’s worth it for the fun of skiing down the slopes together, the three of us, their arms outstretched like mini aeroplanes as they squeal with the thrill of it.
“I don’t know how you do it,” people say to me. Because if I didn’t, we wouldn’t go.
Holidaying with children is tricky at the best of times, but the complexities are magnified when you’re the sole adult bearing responsibility for planning, safety, emotional well-being and a truckload of luggage.
It’s a travel trend that’s becoming more common in Australia with an increasing number of single parent families. According to the Australian Institute of Family Studies single- parent families have increased from 6.5 per cent of families in 1976 to 10.2 per cent in 2016.
And not just through separation, divorce or death of a spouse but the many women, mainly, who choose to have children on their own. Then there’s the parents who travel solo with kids for other reasons including their spouse working or unable to get away.
In spite of it being the fastest growing family group in Australia, travel operators have been slow on the uptake, the glossy brochures still showcasing gleaming nuclear families and offering neat little packages just for them.
Signature Media, which publishes Holidays with Kids, believes operators are overlooking a large chunk of the market and has introduced a dedicated website for single parent travel.
“Solo parent travelling families come with a unique set of needs that drive their travel trends,” says Signature Media chief executive Cathy Wagstaff.
“They may have a greater need for assistance, such as in-f light nannies, kids’ clubs and porter services. Single parents also need a little holiday themselves.”
With travel costs cheaper than ever, these families are refusing to let their circumstances get in the way of adventure.
Barbara Bryan, a single mother for 10 years, and founder of Australia’s largest single parent network, Single Parent Australia and website letsgomum.com.au has taken her two girls all over the country since they were babies. She homeschools her daughters, now aged 10 and 12, so they can take off whenever they feel like it, and take advantage of cheaper deals during school term time.
“They love airports –and all modes of transport –and seeing and doing new things,” Barbara says. “If they had their way, I don’t think we’d ever be home.”
She admits she initially felt apprehensive about travelling with two small children on her own, not just because of the logistics and extra load, but because she worried she wasn’t enough, that her family was somehow deficient without a dad around.
“I thought I wanted that complete nuclear family but then it dawned on me we have that happiness already.
“What I was longing for I already had. From then on I started to take pride in our family. I love being a single parent now.”
She has pushed herself to be more adventurous for the sake of her girls but admits it’s not been without its challenges – negotiating toddler negotiating toddler tantrums at airport boarding gates, ferrying two kids up a cliff to catch a Kakadu sunset.
“Why stop doing the things you love? If you go into a holding pattern as a single parent, life will pass you by. I would love another pair of hands now and then or another adult to chat to, but sitting at home doing nothing won’t improve matters.
“I used to travel solo before I had kids. Well, it’s better than that. It’s like having little mates with you.”
Many single parents find it daunting to be the only adult on holiday, and hold off until their kids are older.
“I found it really lonely and hard,” says my friend Lara, a solo parent to two children, who once bailed on a beach holiday early because it all got too much. “I decided that, while they were young, I’m never going on another miserable single-mother holiday in a strange place and still have to do everything. It adds another layer of difficulty and it’s exhausting!”
Things have changed now that her children are older – her daughter, 13 and son, 14 – and the pressure is off a bit. She cites 10 as the key age for kids’ self-sufficiency.
“Now it’s heaps of fun. We can have a conversation, listen to music, go to restaurants. We really bond and enjoy one another’s company. There’s no school or work. We’re all available to have fun.”
Single mums aren’t the only ones facing challenges. Divorced fathers are also coming to terms with the reality of life on the other side, including travelling alone with kids, often for the first time.
It’s not just trip co-ordination they’re forced to negotiate on their own but the heightened emotions that hamper those still dealing with the pain of separation or loss of a spouse. Holidays, with all the weight of expectations, often exacerbate unresolved grief.
Father of two, Alex, has found holidays alone with his two children “bittersweet” since separating, amicably, from his wife of 13 years.
“We were at our best as a family when we were on holidays,” he says. “The first trip after we separated, I took the kids away for a weekend at the beach. It was still really raw. The echoes of family life were still so loud. It was tough knowing the four of us would never experience that again.”
Alex and his children have taken several trips since then and he says it’s getting easier as time goes on. He now appreciates the opportunity this “unfiltered” time with his two sons affords him.
“The kids are at their best, you’re at your best because you’re not oppressed by the demands of daily life. You’re the sole focus of their attention. They take emotional cues from you. If you’re happy, they’re happy. I’ve got to get my game face on.”
When widow Neen Weir went on her first trip with her three children after her husband died, she too felt responsible for setting the emotional tone, all of them rolling in grief.
“As the only adult, I knew I had to keep it together,” she says. “It was very emotional. At least one of them was falling apart at any time. I had to stay calm to diffuse the situation.”
As demanding as it can be, Neen says she’s determined to keep travelling as a family and “making memories” while her children are still young enough to want to.
“I’m showing them that we can do this without their dad. We’re one man down but Mum’s got it covered.
“I like the challenge and sense of achievement, the sense of adventure and freedom,” agrees Alex.
“We’re a happy little team just doing our thing.”
I know the feeling. Especially in moments like this: driving on the right hand side of the road into a hot pink dawn outside Flagstaff, Arizona, saguaro cactus silhouettes framing our route, my two boys singing in the back as we barrel into a new day.
I’ve got this, I thought. And we do.
This article was first published in Sunday Life Magazine and on dailylife.com.au and is published here with permission.