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What We Learned About Being Poor From Living in a Camper Van

We’ve been on the road for 61 days and it looks nothing like the #vanliving photos we’ve seen on Instagram.


It’s not about the fact that we’re traveling as a family with a toddler, which limits the backroad freedoms we once had to go 4x4ing with reckless abandon. It’s because the rig we drive makes it look like we are poor, and we are now being treated very differently by the people we encounter.

While the point of the trendy move into tiny homes is to learn to be happier with less, could we learn to be happy as less? 

My husband, 18-month-old daughter, and I moved into a 1990 Toyota Winnebago Warrior camper van because we wanted to go on a grand adventure and spend more time together as a family. In a three-day long garage sale, we sold all the possessions we had on Kauai to start living in a rig only 12 years younger than I am.

We named our rig “Summer,” a nod to “The Endless Summer” movie and to the idea that we could discover our own road to happy. What we’ve actually discovered is the raw truth about how to be a good human being and, more importantly, how to truly be a good example for our daughter.

***

The maroon upholstery on the inside of our rig is a few shades darker than the Winnebago logo sticker falling off the side of our car, which now reads “INEBAO” as though it’s a brand you’ve never heard of.

Summer’s weathered beige exterior is accentuated by the missing battery compartment from the time I hit a pile of rocks coming out of Mission Lion Campground near Ojai in California. I covered the gaping hole with rows of black duct tape a few days later.

We’re nothing fancy compared to the other RVs we’ve seen on the road this summer, those sleek, shiny modern rigs with big-screen satellite TVs. Yet, it’s precisely because of what we drive that we’ve had the opportunities to see who we really are and to see how many judgments we carry around with us.

Summer, in all her aging glory, invites a different socioeconomic class of people to connect with us than we’re accustomed to. We’ve gone from being on an island that charges $6 for a bottle of kombucha, and where Mark Zuckerberg paid $66 million for a plantation near our previous home, to leaving unfinished meals on the hood of our truck longer than we intended to because our active toddler required us to pay attention to her immediate needs.

Occasionally, we’ve even had to live on the streets.

There’s a phenomenon in vanliving called “boondocking,” in which you clandestinely find a place to park overnight for any number of reasons: the campgrounds are full, you’re looking to save money, you’re tired and just need a place to crash.

One night, we spontaneously decided to leave a campground outside Atascadero, California, because the temperatures were so high, none of us were able to sleep through the night. It was late as we headed northbound. Shortly into the drive, our daughter woke up in her car seat, inconsolable.

We realized we had to stop. But, where?

My husband pulled off the freeway on a random road in a nondescript town. He drove for a short while until he found an auto mechanic shop. When he parked, I looked out the side window, wincing at the blaring industrial lights cut only by neon signs. Most of the words on storefronts were in Spanish.

“There are a few other cars parked here,” he whispered. I followed the direction he was pointing and saw a number of broken down cars. “I don’t think we’ll get in trouble if we stay here overnight. Besides, there’s another old RV over there and, well, Summer blends right in.”

As I made my way to the back of our rig to set up our daughter’s bed, I saw a young man holding what looked like a beer can approaching our passenger side window.

Oh no, I thought, making quick judgments about him and what he wanted with us.

“You guys gonna park here overnight?” he peered in.

My husband quickly got out of the RV to speak with him. Our daughter had just fallen asleep and we didn’t want anything to wake her up.

A few minutes later, my husband returned.

“What did he want?” I asked, worried.

“He wanted to let us know that the shop opens at 8 a.m., so as long as we leave before then, we’ll be fine,” my husband said. “He told me he’s parked a couple of cars away, and that he has a daughter sleeping in his car, too.”

I felt sheepish. Judgy. Ugly inside.

“He was out there looking for a cat that won’t stop meowing,” my husband continued. “He was afraid it would wake his daughter.”

“Oh,” was all I could say. This stranger and I wanted the same things. He was looking out for his daughter, just like I was doing with mine.

That night in the parking lot the three of us slept more peacefully than we had at many of the campgrounds we’d stayed in.

***

When we arrived in Ashland, Oregon, my husband drove our daughter around for her afternoon nap. When she woke, he could see her face was flushed. He parked Summer beneath a tree-lined street in a lovely neighborhood, then went into the back of the rig to unbuckle her so she could get some air. She was sweaty in his arms.

A few minutes later, a woman came out of her home. “Are you planning on staying here?” she called out. “Because that’s illegal and I’ll call the police.” 

“We’re just stopping for a few minutes,” my husband said, calmly. As a Waldorf teacher, he’s accustomed to diffusing potential conflict with ease.

Moments later, another woman came out of a nearby home. “Are you staying here overnight?” she demanded. “Because you’re not allowed to do that!”

“No,” my husband responded, more adamantly. “My daughter is hot and I’m just trying to cool her down. We’re about to go to the park!”

They looked into the window of our rig and saw our daughter, her big brown eyes and caramel hair. “Oh,” they replied, obviously softening their temperaments. “It’s okay for you to stay for a little while then.”

They nodded to one another in approval, then went back into their homes.

***

We’ve now arrived at a run-down motel and trailer park in Sandpoint, Idaho, once named one of the most beautiful small towns in America. We’re helping my husband’s friend manage his motel that’s fallen into disrepair.

Given our surroundings, Summer fits right in. Do we? Actually, yes.

Because now we’re working on replenishing our savings after spending a large chunk while on the road. We shop at the thrift stores. We bring our daughter out into nature, because it’s a free activity. By any appearance, we are the same as the people staying in the motel.

One of the RV renters comes in to our manager’s office regularly. He has a bulbous nose, and it is apparent he has not showered in a while. Whenever he shows up, he offers something he has: tips on when the library bookmobile will be in town, a candle for our daughter, popsicles from his own freezer.

“I can take you guys to the local food bank and show you around there,” he told us when we first moved in. He is friendly and considerate, and wants nothing from us in return.

When our daughter sees him, she shouts, “Unko, Unko!” It’s her toddler way of saying, “Uncle, Uncle!” She has no judgment about him or anyone else we’ve encountered, and she is teaching us how to do the same.

The currency that matters most to our daughter is love and the ability to be together as a family. For every mile we travel, we get closer to realizing that if we truly want to pursue a real adventure, we need to go beyond the places we thought we would see and become different people than we thought we would be. Otherwise, we’re missing the most beautiful sight of all: a genuine connection to humanity.

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Going back to work after having a baby is hard. Regaining your footing in a world where working mothers are so often penalized is tough, and (just like most things during the postpartum period) it takes time.

The challenges we face as working women returning from a maternity leave can be so different from those we faced before, it can feel like we're starting over from scratch. But mothers will not be deterred, even if our return to the working world doesn't go exactly as planned.

We are resilient, as Serena Williams proved at Wimbledon this weekend.

She lost to Angelique Kerber in the final, just 10 months after welcoming daughter Alexis Olympia and recovering from a physically and emotionally traumatic birth experience.

Williams didn't get her eighth Wimbledon title this weekend, but when we consider all the challenges she (and all new moms) faced in resuming her career, her presence was still a huge achievement.

"It was such an amazing tournament for me, I was really happy to get this far!" Williams explained in an emotional post-match interview.

"For all the moms out there, I was playing for you today. And I tried. I look forward to continuing to be back out here and doing what I do best."

The loss at Wimbledon isn't what she wanted, of course, but Williams says it does not mean there won't be wins in her near future.

"These two weeks have showed me I can really compete and be a contender to win grand slams. This is literally just the beginning. I took a giant step at Wimbledon but my journey has just began."

When asked what she hopes other new moms take away from her journey, Williams noted her postpartum recovery was really difficult, and hopes that other moms who face challenges early in motherhood know that they don't have to give up on whatever dreams they have for themselves, whether it involves working or not.

"Honestly, I feel like if I can do it, they can do it. I'm just that person, that vessel that's saying, 'You can be whatever you want to be.' If you want to go back to workand to me, after becoming a mom, I feel like there's no pressure to do that because having a child is a completely full-time job," she said.

"But to those that do want to go back, you can do it, you can really do it."

Thank you, Serena. You may not have won, but this was still a victory.

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Since baby Crew became the newest member of Chip and Joanna Gaines' family three weeks ago, his proud parents have been keeping the world updated, sharing sweet snaps of their youngest and even giving us a glimpse into his nursery.

Now, Chip Gaines is showing off a pic that proves there is nothing cuter than a floppy, sleepy baby.

"My heart is full..." the proud father of five captioned the photo he posted on his Instagram and Twitter accounts.

Earlier this week Crew's mama shared how she gets him so sleepy in the first place, posting an Instagram Story showing how she walks around the family's gardens on their Waco, Texas farm to lull her newborn boy to sleep.



The couple are clearly enjoying every single moment of Crew's babyhood. As recently as 7 days ago Chip was still sporting his hospital bracelet. Joanna says with each child he's worn his maternity ward ID until it finally wears off. We can't blame Chip for wanting to make the newborn phase last as long as possible.

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It was a changing table must-have a generation ago, but these days, many parents are forgoing baby powder, and now, the leading manufacturer of the sweet smelling powder was dealt a big financial blow.

Johnson & Johnson was just ordered to pay almost $4.7 billion to 22 women who sued, alleging baby powder caused their ovarian cancer.

A St. Louis jury says the women are right, but what does The American Academy of Pediatrics say about baby powder?

It was classified "a hazard" before many of today's parents were even born

The organization has actually been recommending against baby powder for years, but not due to cancer risks, but inhalation risks.

Way back in 1981 the AAP declared baby powder "a hazard," issuing a report pointing out the frequency of babies aspirating the powder, which can be dangerous and even fatal in the most severe cases.

That warning didn't stop all parents from using the powder though, as its continued presence on store shelves to this day indicates.

In 1998 Dr. Hugh MacDonald, then the director of neonatology at Santa Monica Hospital and a member of the American Academy of Pediatrics Committee on Fetus and Newborn, told the Los Angeles Times "Most pediatricians recommend that it not be used," adding that the consensus at the time was that "anybody using talcum powder be aware that it could cause inhalation of the talc, resulting in a pneumonic reaction."

Recent updates

A 2015 update to the AAP's Healthy Children website suggests the organization was even very recently still more concerned about the risk of aspiration than cancer risks like those alleged in the lawsuit. It suggests that parents who choose to use baby powder "pour it out carefully and keep the powder away from baby's face [as] published reports indicate that talc or cornstarch in baby powder can injure a baby's lungs."

In a 2017 interview with USA Today, Dr. David Soma, a pediatrician with the Mayo Clinic Children's Hospital, explained that baby powder use had decreased a lot over the previous five to eight years, but he didn't believe it was going to disappear from baby shower gift baskets any time soon.

"There are a lot of things that are used out of a matter of tradition, or the fact it seems to work for specific children," he said. "I'm not sure if it will get phased out or not, until we know more about the details of other powders and creams and what works best for skin conditions—I think it will stick around for a while."

Talc-based baby powder is the kind alleged to have caused ovarian cancer in the lawsuit (which Johnson & Johnson plans to appeal), but corn starch varieties of baby powder are also available and not linked to increased cancer risks as alleged in the case.


Bottom line: If you are going to use baby powder on your baby's bottom, make sure they're not getting a cloud of baby powder in their face, and if you're concerned, talk to your health care provider about alternative methods and products to use on your baby's delicate skin.

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In the days since a The New York Times report revealed a resolution meant to encourage breastfeeding was blocked by U.S. delegates at the World Health Assembly, breastfeeding advocates, political pundits, parents, doctors—and just about everyone else—have been talking about breastfeeding, and whether or not America and other countries are doing enough to support it.

The presidents of the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American College of Obstetricians say the controversy at the World Health Assembly reveals that mothers need more support when it comes to breastfeeding, while others, including The Council on Foreign Relations, suggest the national conversation needs more nuance, and less focus on the "breast is best" rhetoric.

The one thing everyone agrees on is that parents need more support when it comes to infant feeding, and in that respect, the controversy over the World Health Assembly resolution may be a good thing.

In their joint letter to the editor published in the New York Times this week, the presidents of the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American College of Obstetricians, Dr. Colleen Kraft and Dr. Lisa Hollier urge "the United States and every country to protect, promote and support breast-feeding for the health of all women, children and families."

The doctors go on to describe how breastfeeding "provides protection against newborn, infant and child infections, allergies, asthma, inflammatory bowel disease and sudden infant death syndrome," and note the health benefits to mothers, including reduced risks for "breast cancer, ovarian cancer, diabetes, hypertension and heart disease.

"Helping mothers to breastfeed takes a multifaceted approach, including advancing public policies like paid family leave, access to quality child care, break time and a location other than a bathroom for expressing milk," say Kraft and Hollier.

Certainly such policies would support breastfeeding mothers (and all mothers) in America, but some critics say framing the discussion around domestic policy is a mistake, because the World Health Assembly resolution is a global matter and women and babies in other parts of the world face very different feeding challenges than we do here at home.

In an op-ed published by CNN, Gayle Tzemach Lemmon, an adjunct senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations suggests the laudable goal of breastfeeding promotion can backfire when mothers in conflict-riddled areas can't access formula due to well-meaning policy. Lemmon points to a 2017 statement by Doctors Without Borders calling for fewer barriers to formula distribution in war-torn areas.

"International organizations like UNICEF and the World Health Organization (WHO) promote breastfeeding ... and provide infant formula, but only by prescription. We believe that distributing infant formula in a conflict situation like Iraq is the only way to avoid children having to be hospitalized for malnutrition," Manuel Lannaud, the head of Doctors Without Borders Iraq mission wrote.

The various viewpoints presented this week prove that infant feeding is not a black and white issue, and policy debates should not be framed as formula versus breast milk—there is more nuance than that.

A recent study in the Journal of Pediatrics found opting to supplement with formula after first breastfeeding improves outcomes for infants and results in higher rates of breastfeeding afterward, and while the benefits of breastfeeding are numerous, they are sometimes overstated. Another recent study published in the journal PLOS Medicine found breastfeeding has no impact on a child's overall neurocognitive function by the time they are 16. Basically, parents should not be shamed for supplementing or choosing to use formula.

This, according to Department of Health and Human Services says national spokesperson Caitlin Oakley is why the HHS opposed the original draft of the breastfeeding resolution at the World Health Assembly (although critics and the initial NYT report suggest the United States delegation were acting in the interests of infant formula manufacturers).

"Many women are not able to breastfeed for a variety of reasons, these women should not be stigmatized; they should be equally supported with information and access to alternatives for the health of themselves and their babies," Oakley said in a statement.

That's true, but so is everything the presidents of the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American College of Obstetricians presented in their op-ed, and that's why the U.S. should support breastfeeding policy.

Here's another truth: This is an issue with many perspectives and many voices. And we need to hear them all, because all parents need support in feeding their babies, whether it's with a breast, a bottle or both—and we're not getting it yet.

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