For many years a holiday abroad seemed out of the question for Mairéad Lardner and her daughter, Caoimhe. As a single mother, there was not only the expense to think about but also the logistics, particularly as Mairéad had never been overseas herself.
“I used to go around Ireland for a few nights. I had never been abroad myself so I couldn’t take her as well,” says Mairéad, a special needs assistant living in Galway. But it rankled with her that she was the paying the same as two adults to stay in hotels.
However, last year she decided to take the plunge into the unknown as an 11th birthday treat for her daughter and booked them both a holiday abroad.
“Caoimhe had been asking to go away but I was never brave enough myself. I had to go through a travel agent because I wouldn’t know what to look for.”
It was lovely to get away, she says of their one-week trip to Lanzarote last August, but she did feel a bit isolated.
“There was supposed to be a kids’ club but there wasn’t, so there wasn’t much mixing going on.”
This sense of isolation is one that is echoed by other single parents when talking about the challenges of holiday time.
Stephen Barry, a divorced father of one, initially brought his son, Ryan, on holidays with extended family after the break-up of his marriage in 2007. But two years ago he booked a 10-day holiday in the Canary Islands over Easter for just the two of them, when Ryan was 10.
“I found that incredibly difficult,” Stephen says candidly.
“Here in Ireland you are responsible 24/7 but your house is secure and his school is secure so you know for that period of time you are okay. But when you are somewhere completely foreign and you don’t know how many people have keys to your room, it’s unsettling.”
In the unfamiliar setting he felt he had to be alert at every moment for his son’s safety. He couldn’t relax and read a book by the pool or on the beach because he had to be “100 per cent attentive” that Ryan wasn’t getting into trouble in the water. He didn’t feel he could drink in the evenings either.
So this year, when he stumbled across the Irish company One Parent Holidays on the internet, he decided to book a “glamping” trip to Carrick-on-Shannon, by Lough Key, for himself and Ryan this August.
In the past, Stephen had tried to see if he could organise a trip with a few other single parents who he knows around Balbriggan, Co Dublin where he lives. “But we’re all completely different people so it wasn’t as easy as I thought it would be,” he says.
With this four-night glamping trip, he is happy that all the organisation will be done for them and that Ryan and himself will both have company among people in similar situations. As a single father at the school gate he is aware that “I am not the norm,” he says.
The 2011 census found that there were 215,315 lone parent families in Ireland, of which 186,284 were mothers and 29,031 fathers. The majority, 124,765, had one child.
Mairéad White has been abroad a number of times with her son, Alex Burke (10), and while he's great company, she says, she does find it lonely at night. One year she got a great deal at a gorgeous hotel in Salou through booking.com, only to find that the guests and staff all spoke Russian and all the entertainment was in Russian, including the kids' club.
Last year they went to a campsite in Brittany in June where she was expecting there to be loads of children but it was quiet.
“It was me and him – that was it. Although we had a good time, I just thought ‘Here I am again, sitting having my glass of wine with a child.’ And I feel a lot of Irish mammies and grannies feel sorry for you when they see you on your own with a child; they are great at advice,” she says.
This June Mairéad is making sure she and Alex will have plenty of company, as they have booked a trip to Rome with One Parent Holidays. It was recommended to her by another single mother with two daughters, who did a trip with them last year and is also going on this Italian holiday.
Rose Butler, who runs the company, finds her clients have either holidayed abroad on their own with children before and have experienced some of the downsides, "or they have never done it because they have been scared to".
Although she has no children herself, Butler and her three siblings were raised by their mother on her own in Kilcullen, Co Kildare, after their Canadian father returned to Canada. She understands the challenges families can face when adults are parenting on their own for whatever reason, be they divorced, separated, single by choice, widows or widowers; she has worked with them all.
Butler, who lives in east Clare, has fond memories of the camping trips their mother, Noeleen, took them on all over Ireland during her childhood summers.
It was a chance conversation in the summer of 2013 with a friend and single mother, Aisling Heaphy, that inspired the venture.
Heaphy was complaining how she was charged the full adult rate at a hotel for her daughter who was three at the time.
Butler had worked in the hotel industry for many years and was already in the business of organising hen and stag trips, so she and Heaphy decided to start offering tailor-made trips to single-parent families that would offer not only company and support but would also lever discounts through group bookings.
On the point of single parents having to pay adult rates for a child, a spokesman for the Irish Hotels Federation points out that hotel stays are usually priced on a per room basis because the cost of servicing it is the same, whether it is occupied by two adults or single occupancy, for example.
He adds that while family deals advertised online are often based on “two adults and children sharing”, many hotels are flexible “and we would encourage consumers to contact hotels directly to discuss tailoring deals to their particular family requirements”.
One Parent Holidays has grown from a first trip to Cork in October 2013, involving two single parents with a little girl each, to eight holidays in Ireland and up to eight abroad this year. The “amazing” Efteling theme park and resort in the Netherlands has proved to be a big hit, says Butler, who has yet to get a travel agent’s licence so clients have to book their own flights.
While she is keen to grow the business and expand the community of single parents using it, she also wants to keep it personal. “Ironically”, she says, Heaphy had to withdraw from the business because she was too busy as a single mother.
Meanwhile, at One Family in Dublin, a national support organisation for one-parent families, its director of children and parenting, Geraldine Kelly, says she doesn't hear much talk about plans for holidays abroad. A break in Wexford with family or friends is more the norm, or a series of day trips, such as the ones the organisation runs once a week during July and August.
Younger children just want to get to the seaside, she says, and they don’t really care about airplanes. With older children, however, there may be an element of competition with peers.
But instead of envying families who go abroad, she encourages parents to think positively about how holidaying at home saves all the stress that comes with travelling overseas with children.
“Children just want time with you and they don’t want all the added stress factors when they are not actually getting to play with you. And if they are not valuing it, you get really annoyed because they are not appreciating what they are getting,” she says.
For lone parents of school-going children, childcare is likely to be the number one challenge of the summer, she says. Like all working parents they are faced with filling a two-month gap but there may be only one of them to come up with solutions.
Mairéad White, who is an interior design colour consultant and also does office work, says that one summer she worked full-time and it was “just crazy trying to juggle who was going to mind Alex today and who was going to mind him tomorrow. I am part-time now so it is a lot easier.”
When she is working during the summer, he goes to his regular after-school childminder in Co Westmeath and has children there to play with.
If shared parenting is working well, Kelly says it can be a great support, with both trying to facilitate each other to work during the summer.
However, when the shared parenting is problematic, all the extra contact needed for making arrangements during this break with routine “can actually be a nightmare”, she says.
It is a time to work with parents you meet at the school gate, says Kelly. Perhaps you can organise play dates that might facilitate each of you going to work, she suggests. The same goes for sharing drop-offs and collections of children attending summer camps.
“I think if you give a bit to another parent, they are happy to give a bit to you. That is what it is about.”
Here are some of Kelly’s other tips for single parents trying to cope with the school holidays:
- Check if there is a local childminder who does not have all her regular children for the summer and might be willing to strike a bargain rate.
Is it possible to move in with grandparents and commute from there rather than asking grandparents to come around to your home?
Check to see how flexible your employer could be over the summer as regards parental leave, staggered annual leave and working from home, to save on commuting time at least.
It might work better for you to ask for a day or two of annual leave each week, rather than taking two weeks off in one block.
For entertaining small children, remember they enjoy things like having a picnic in the garden, playing in a paddling pool or putting up a tent so don’t think you have to go on special outings, which can lead to behaviour problems and money being spent. The kids usually just enjoy running around the garden, with lots of cool pops and maybe sausages cooked on a throwaway barbecue, she adds, “the simple pleasures of life”.
For more information: oneparentholidays.ie; onefamily.ie