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Reminder to Single Parents: You're Not Alone : Vacationing with children can seem daunting. Start small, advise experts, and keep a sense of humor.

April 04, 1993|EILEEN OGINTZ

That first brief vacation after her divorce, Suzy Yehl Marta was terrified the entire time that she would have a flat tire. She didn't. She thought people were staring at her and her three sons. They weren't. She worried that the boys would have a miserable time.

"But we all had fun," said Yehl Marta, who founded and now heads Rainbows, a nonprofit nationwide support organization for single-parent families. "It was so important for us to take that step and say, 'We're still a family.' That trip, just a weekend in Springfield, Ill., reassured the boys and me that I could do things on my own."

Yehl Marta went on to take her boys on wonderful vacations--to Disney World and on a particularly memorable camping trip to Colorado. Now remarried and with her sons grown, she can laugh at the anxiety that their first weekend trip provoked.

Anxiety is all too common among single parents traveling with kids. Experts say that single parents are often reluctant to venture from home because they're afraid they won't be able to manage alone or they can't afford to go.

"My advice is to go, even if you do it on the cheap," says Yehl Marta, who lives in suburban Chicago. "Start small and do something just for a day or a weekend. It's OK if you don't have all the answers. Just keep your sense of humor, and you'll do fine."

"Do it," agrees John Boal, a divorced public relations consultant from Burbank. "Traveling with my daughter is the most fun I've had as a parent--to watch her see new things for the first time." Boal currently is planning a Las Vegas trip with his 15-year-old daughter and is thinking about taking her to Hawaii, too.

These days, single parents have plenty of company wherever they go. The U.S. Census Bureau reports there are more than 10 million single-parent families--almost a third of all families in the nation with children. A Census Bureau demographer notes there are millions more non-custodial single parents. And these numbers are continuing to rise as one out of every two marriages still ends in divorce.

Even with what the statistics show, however, "I just don't think the travel industry has realized there are so many of us," laments Ilene Deak. The mother of five, Deak is national president of the Chicago-based Young Single Parents, which is trying to organize a trip for single-parent families to Disney World later this year and also is working to interest hotels and resorts in offering special weekends or weeks for these families. Her survival tip: "Structure in some quiet time for yourself every day so you don't take the stress out on the kids." (For more information, call the Young Single Parents hot line, (708) 296-5510.)

If you're nervous about taking the kids somewhere by yourself, consider an organized tour or a resort. Club Med is a popular choice among single parents who can afford it. Premier Cruises is another because it offers special single-parent packages. So are ranches and camps because of the planned activities and the guarantee that other children will be around.

However, don't go with the kids to a resort and expect to find romance. "A single friend went with us to Club Med," recalled Chicago attorney Lynn Hiestand, who has one son. "I always had to go back to the room at night. She didn't."

Still, single parents say, traveling with kids is sure to work as an icebreaker. "You're relaxed and can have a totally relaxed conversation with other adults you've just met without it being loaded in any way," explains Julia Markham, a New Yorker who loves to travel with her 14-year-old son. "It's not like you're picking someone up."

Markham, an administrative assistant, adds that she finds that trips provide a good opportunity to talk to her son as well. "He'll settle down when we're driving and open up in ways he doesn't at home."

To guarantee some adult companionship--and to save money--many single parents team up with other single parents or another family when they travel. "I go to visit friends a lot," says Mary Ellen Strote, a book editor who lives in suburban Los Angeles. "It's affordable; the kids do what they want, and it's a great way to keep up contact with old friends. And that's important when you're single."

Wherever you decide to go, make sure to involve the kids in the planning, especially if they don't live with you, suggests Dr. Judith Wallerstein, a nationally known expert on children and divorce who is also director of the Center for Families in Transition in Corte Madera, in Northern California. She also warns you to be prepared for the children to miss the parent and siblings they may have left at home. Encourage them to call home regularly or send postcards, she says.

Wallerstein recalled a father who took his flute-playing, museum-loving daughter on a hunting trip. It was a disaster. "Just spending time together is sentimental nonsense," she says. "It's spending time that's congenial--doing things the child likes as well as what you like."

Forgo the quaint bed and breakfast for a motel with a pool. Head for the art gallery while your teen-ager spends time in a nearby science museum. Instead of taking your younger kids shopping, take them to the playground.

You don't necessarily have to take your kids out of town to have a good time either. "A little vacation goes a long way," acknowledges Dallas aerospace executive Dave Bauer, the single dad of two young sons who live in Albuquerque, N.M.. "I try to be a Disneyland dad," says Bauer, who took his sons on a cruise over Christmas and got mixed results. "But a lot of times the boys don't want to go and do. They just want to hang out at home."

Taking the Kids invites reader questions and comments about family travel. Address them to: Taking the Kids, 2859 Central St., Box 119, Evanston, Ill. 60201.

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