For single parents, visiting children, seasonal traditions can also take vacation


November 21, 1993|By Eileen Ogintz | Eileen Ogintz,Contributing Writer Los Angeles Times Syndicate

Everywhere they go on vacation, Frank Kniffen and his two kids get special treatment. It's not that they're famous. Nor do they ask for it, though by now, they've come to expect the smiles, the extra help in hotels, the invitations to join new-found friends.

"It's just that people think it's great to see a father traveling alone with his kids," says Dr. Kniffen, a Chicago physician who began traveling solo with his son and daughter even before his divorce three years ago.

"Too many single fathers get themselves in a rut with their kids," says Dr. Kniffen, whose children are now 10 and 13. "Travel adds a whole new dimension to your relationship with the kids. You're exploring new territory together. It's very exciting -- the best times I have traveling are with the kids."

As the holiday season approaches, millions of single parents who don't live with their children are gearing up for annual visits, forging new holiday vacation traditions in the process and becoming an increasingly visible presence everywhere from the beach resorts to the ski slopes. In fact, the National Skier Opinion Survey notes that 7.5 percent of skiers now are single parents with children.

It's no wonder. The U.S. Census Bureau reports that the number of single-parent families has increased more than 50 percent since 1980 -- to nearly 10.5 million. That's one-third of all families with children in this country, many formed as a result of divorce.

Jennifer Isham is one mother who can't wait. Her daughter lives with her in Illinois, but her teen-age sons live in New Jersey with their father and visit just twice a year. After 10 years, she's got the arrival routine down pat.

"I make sure not to give them a kiss at the airport. That embarrasses them," says Ms. Isham, president of a national group, Mothers Without Custody. "You have to give the kids a chance to get reoriented."

That's why she gives the boys plenty of time to watch TV together, play with the dog, and even accompany her to the supermarket to make sure she's stocked up on their favorites.

Her advice to parents expecting holiday visits: "Look for the little joys. And try not to hang all of your hopes and expectations on one holiday visit."

No matter how hard you try, it's not going to be perfect. Parents must struggle to get reacquainted with youngsters they may not have seen for months. Many must deal with the emotional issues raised by being part of a blended family. Kids will fight. Stress is inevitable -- especially if there is traveling.

"It can be difficult to feel the spirit of the season," says Suzy Yehl Marta, founder of Rainbows, the international nonprofit support organization for children and single parents. (For information about a Rainbows group, write Rainbows, 1111 Tower Road, Schaumburg, IL 60173-4305.)

Ms. Marta suggests paring down expectations and building new traditions with the kids. "It's a sitting-around-a-bowl-of-popcorn conversation," she says. If you're heading off on a trip, take small gifts with you. Carve out some special one-on-one time with each child.

Ms. Isham's family, for example, always takes a family portrait without dressing up. They have a big dinner to celebrate all the holidays they've missed and, rather than having all of the presents under the tree, they go on a shopping spree together.

Dr. Kniffen and his kids, who live in a nearby suburb, head to the same Colorado ski resort every year right after Christmas. "We used to have beef Wellington. Now we're in Colorado and it gives everyone something to hang their hat on," he says.

Sometimes, though, it's better to stay home. That's what Dave Bauer has planned for his two sons when they come from Albuquerque to Dallas this Christmas.

"If they have to travel to get to you, more travel is too hard," explains Mr. Bauer, an aerospace industry executive whose sons are 9 and 7. "They get sick. They get tired and crabby. They just want to hang out. And I try to give them as much of my attention as I can while they're here."

That's exactly what the kids need, especially from parents they don't see all of the time, says Dr. Barry Nurcombe, head of child psychiatry at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn., and a spokesman for the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry.

Put aside the conflicts with your ex-spouse and concentrate on the children, he suggests. If you're sending your kids to visit, try not to let your anxiety show. When they arrive, don't try to buy their affection.

"Kids want ordinary time with their parent. They want to get to know your house and the neighborhood," he says. "Cook with them, throw a ball, fix a faucet. Take some time off and do something you both like. That's when you'll really find out how their lives are going."

You can do that on vacation, too, as long as you plan with the kids' interests in mind. And the payoffs can be enormous -- long after you've gotten home.

Just ask Frank Kniffen. "When I'm fighting with them and it looks like I got sent the wrong kids, the memories of good times come flooding back," he explains. "Then you realize why they're just the right kids."

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