It wasn't supposed to be like this, an annoying little voice hissed inside my head as my trusty Honda started the ascent into the Berkshire Mountains in western Massachusetts. The summer morning was a fine one and I should have felt ebullient that first day of vacation: the aromatic mountain pine forest, the glorious views and an actual quiet moment to myself, since my 3-year-old had dozed off in her car seat. Still, I wasn't content. I wasn't -- how do the New Agers put it? -- in the moment.
The reason: I was taking my first official single-parent vacation. Sure, I had been excited to learn that there actually is such a thing: this particular one a getaway hosted by Eastover Resort in Lenox, Mass., for single parents and their kids to bond with each other and nature. Yet here I was, beating myself up about my singlehood and letting my inner bully nag me about the vacation I had really been destined for: the two perfectly behaved kids (and non-slobbering dog) in the back seat; the elaborately outfitted camper towed by my funky but stylish car; the handsome husband beside me, a man capable of making witty car conversation yet not too proud to ask for directions ... Well, it simply wasn't going to happen, I reminded myself.
Then I pulled into Eastover, a picturesque thousand-acre estate with a rambling old Georgian mansion nestled against rolling hills and misty mountains. And I remembered that the week-long program offers five hours a day of free child care for kids 3 and up. I began feeling better about this singles vacation thing. Single parenthood is no longer a pitiable lot! I argued back at myself. Widows and widowers have always been with us, divorce is as prevalent as ever, and now there's something new: men and women who have chosen to become single parents via donor insemination and adoption. In fact, there are enough single parents with middle class incomes to deserve products and services all our own.
The answer is: yes and no. There's no denying that middle-income single parents are a growing segment of the population. According to census data, the number of single head-of-household families with incomes of $35,000 or more increased from 1.5 million in 1994 to 5.3 million by 1997 -- with the most dramatic increases among single mothers. A recent cover story in American Demographics magazine noted that there are 10 million single mothers overall in the U.S. today, nearly triple the number in 1970. Most remarkably, a Census Bureau study found that for the first time in the agency's 60 years of tracking family data, the majority of first children -- 53 percent -- were conceived by or born to unmarried women.
And since "Murphy Brown," unmarried mothers are no longer scorned -- in fact, we're something of a pop cult phenomenon. On television, Lifetime's "Oh, Baby" features a single woman who sets out to be a mother. It will be joined this fall by "Safe Harbor," about a Florida sheriff and widowed father of four, and "Once and Again," a drama about divorced 40ish men and women trying to begin new relationships. There is also the well-received documentary "And Baby Makes Two," about a single mothers' group in New York, and the best-selling novel "About a Boy," Nick Hornby's amusing tale of a London bachelor who suddenly decides single mothers are an untapped and attractive source for sex.
Still, marketers don't seem quite sure what to do with this new, more affluent group of parents. "It is a big enough area for marketers to care, but the question is whether or not marketers will find [single parents] on their radar screen," J. Walker Smith, president of the marketing research outfit Yankelovich Partners, told me when I began to look into why. There are so many kinds of single parents, he added -- divorced, never married (the largest growing segment), those living with parents, those living with roommates -- that marketers are confused about how to target them. "It's just this phenomenon of diversity that is hard to process from a marketing standpoint," Smith said.
This diversity was well-represented by single parents at Eastover. During the week, while our kids splashed in the pool and my urban daughter tested out walking barefoot in the grass, I asked some people what brought them here. Mary, 38, a divorced mother of preteen sons from Worcester, Mass., explained, "I thought it'd be better for them to see other families with only one parent." Dawn, 43, an unmarried substitute teacher from Connecticut, added that single-parent weeks seemed more relaxed than the usual family weeks at Eastover and, besides, during the latter, "kids from single-parent families feel out of place." And according to Paul, a 44-year-old architect in Boston, it isn't just the kids who feel uncomfortable. A father of two and frequent guest at Eastover, he said he had felt strange being the only single dad at one of the resort's nuclear family weeks.
Eastover has been hosting single-parent weeks for just four years. Originally built as a summer home for Wall Street titan Harris Fahnestock in 1910, it became a boys' school and singles' getaway before expanding to families in the 1950s. Today the resort has 15 weekends or weeks devoted to singles without children, 16 for couples and ten "family" events, including the single parents week in July.
Yet the single-parent business isn't exactly booming here. While the guests I spoke to certainly saw the need for a separate single parents' week, Eastover's owner, Rob McNinch, agreed that the group is nevertheless "a tough market to target. Every year it grows," McNinch noted, "but it hasn't grown that much." At this year's getaway, there were only about 20 families -- although McNinch had not aggressively marketed the event, either. I was lucky to spot the small ad for it in a local parenting newspaper.
Clearly, the concept of single-parent vacations is only beginning to catch on. After searching the Web and contacting the Travel Industry Association, I found very few other options. There are "family-friendly" resorts that make a point of offering kids' "clubs" or "camps," to allow parents sports or leisure time alone, an even greater attraction for single parents. One, Club Getaway in Connecticut, even offers roving nighttime counselors who check rooms to make sure the kids are asleep and safe while their parents dance or socialize with other parents. A Web site, rascalsinparadise.com, also offers family-friendly travel tips.
For single parents, the Jewish "Y" of New Jersey offers a woodsy retreat in Pennsylvania twice a year. Parents Without Partners groups hosta variety of excursions, and at least one B & B, Bay View Hotel in Santa Cruz, Calif., makes a point of welcoming single parents, perhaps because manager Gwen Burkhard is one herself. "With a single parent, it's a different dynamic," Burkard says. "The parent seems to focus more on the child, and vice versa. There isn't another parent to take away attention."
At Eastover, the lack of "another parent" to drain our attention wasn't a problem, as we families whiled away the week with organized lawn games and sports such golf, volleyball, tennis, hiking and horseback riding. There were indoor and outdoor pools, family dances at night and great amounts of food, always buttressed by kid-friendly dishes like french fries, chicken fingers and hot dogs. It was all what it was supposed to be: fun and relaxing.
Still, in the quiet moments at sunset, I would find myself gazing at the rolling vistas and wishing for what Eastover didn't offer. That is why it's particularly weird to be a single parent at any resort: You're a hybrid. You're not a carefree single, but you haven't given up on romance either. And in this area, I'm sad to report that Eastover fell short. Linda, 44, a photographer from New York with a 4-year-old son, seemed to speak for several of the guests when she said that the dating prospects there were "disappointing."
Others, however, told me they were relieved that Eastover wasn't a meet market. "You don't have to impress anyone," said Dawn. Paul and his friend, Steve, concurred. One night, as the musty old dance hall was readied for yet another hokey but fun evening of karaoke and chicken dance and macarena, of moms and dads swinging delighted children across the dance floor, Paul said he simply liked the equality of Eastover and saw it less as a place to find something than to leave behind the self-absorption of Cambridge. Steve, a father of two, flat-out stated: "I didn't come here to meet a woman."
Ah, well, so much for romance. So much for my idealized two-parent family vacation. So much for the memories of my own childhood vacations, when my parents drew huge circles on maps of the United States, then set out with me and my sister on elaborate three-week adventures to the Old South, the West, New England. We may have stayed in Holiday Inns every night ("you always know what you're getting," my mother said), but the sights we took in along the way -- from chain gangs to segregated bathrooms to deserted mining towns -- have stayed with me to this day.
Now, as a single parent, I'll have to create my own vacation rituals with my daughter. I just hope I'll have some help along the way, some travel options, some company. "Marketing groups don't see single parents as a 'stable population' that they want to advertise to," said Paul one evening. He and Steve and I were lazily sprawled across the top of a picnic table, looking at the stars and listening with one ear to the crickets and with the other to snatches of music from the dance hall and our children shrieking happily over a new game proposed by the kid-friendly DJ. "Advertising caters to people's fantasies of what life should be, and nobody looks at single parenthood as the way they want to be." True enough, yet as he said this, I realized that we were all smiling into the night at that moment, happy with our lives and content with where we were. "They'll find us," Paul said. "In the meantime, we'll come here."