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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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When you become a parent for the first time, there is an undeniably steep learning curve. Add to that the struggle of sorting through fact and fiction when it comes to advice and—whew—it's enough to make you more tired than you already are with that newborn in the house.

Just like those childhood games of telephone when one statement would get twisted by the time it was told a dozen times, there are many parenting misconceptions that still tend to get traction. This is especially true with myths about bottle-feeding—something that the majority of parents will do during their baby's infancy, either exclusively or occasionally.

Here's what you really need to know about bottle-feeding facts versus fiction.

1. Myth: Babies are fine taking any bottle

Not all bottles are created equally. Many parents experience anxiety when it seems their infant rejects all bottles, which is especially nerve wracking if a breastfeeding mom is preparing to return to work. However, it's often a matter of giving the baby some time to warm up to the new feeding method, says Katie Ferraro, a registered dietician, infant feeding specialist and associate professor of nutrition at the University of California San Francisco graduate School of Nursing.

"For mothers returning to work, if you're breastfeeding but trying to transition to bottle[s], try to give yourself a two- to four-week trial window to experiment with bottle feeding," says Ferraro.

2. Myth: You either use breast milk or formula

So often, the question of whether a parent is using formula or breastfeeding is presented exclusively as one or the other. In reality, many babies are combo-fed—meaning they have formula sometimes, breast milk other times.

The advantage with mixed feeding is the babies still get the benefits of breast milk while parents can ensure the overall nutritional and caloric needs are met through formula, says Ferraro.

3. Myth: Cleaning bottles is a lot of work

For parents looking for simplification in their lives (meaning, all of us), cleaning bottles day after day can sound daunting. But, really, it doesn't require much more effort than you are already used to doing with the dishes each night: With bottles that are safe for the top rack of the dishwasher, cleaning them is as easy as letting the machine work for you.

For added confidence in the sanitization, Dr. Brown's offers an incredibly helpful microwavable steam sterilizer that effectively kills all household bacteria on up to four bottles at a time. (Not to mention it can also be used on pacifiers, sippy cups and more.)

4. Myth: Bottle-feeding causes colic

One of the leading theories on what causes colic is indigestion, which can be caused by baby getting air bubbles while bottle feeding. However, Dr. Brown's bottles are the only bottles in the market that are actually clinically proven to reduce colic thanks to an ingenious internal vent system that eliminates negative pressure and air bubbles.

5. Myth: Bottles are all you can use for the first year

By the time your baby is six months old (way to go!), they may be ready to begin using a sippy cup. Explains Ferraro, "Even though they don't need water or additional liquids at this point, it is a feeding milestone that helps promote independent eating and even speech development."

With a complete line of products to see you from newborn feeding to solo sippy cups, Dr. Brown's does its part to make these new transitions less daunting. And, for new parents, that truly is priceless.

This article was sponsored by Dr. Brown's. Thank you for supporting the brands that support Motherly and mamas.

Jessica Simpson celebrated her baby shower this weekend (after getting a cupping treatment for her very swollen pregnancy feet) and her theme and IG captions have fans thinking this was not just a shower, but a baby name announcement as well.

Simpson (who is expecting her third child with former NFL player Eric Johnson) captioned two photos of her shower as "💚 Birdie's Nest 💚". The photographs show Simpson and her family standing under a neon sign spelling out the same thing.

While Simpson didn't explicitly state that she was naming her child Birdie, the numerous references to the name in her shower photos and IG stories have the internet convinced that she's picking the same name Busy Philips chose for her now 10-year-old daughter.

The name Birdie isn't in the top 1000 baby names according to the Social Security Administration, but It has been seeing a resurgence in recent years, according to name nerds and trend watchers.

"Birdie feels like a sassy but sweet, down-to-earth yet unusual name," Pamela Redmond Satran of Nameberry told Town and Country back in 2017. "It's also just old enough to be right on time."

Simpson's older kids are called Maxwell and Ace, which both have a vintage feel, so if Birdie really is her choice, the three old-school names make a nice sibling set.

Whether Birdie is the official name or just a cute nickname Simpson is playing around with, we get the appeal and bet she can't wait for her little one to arrive (and her feet to go back to normal!)

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Mamas, if you hire a cleaning service to tackle the toddler fingerprints on your windows, or shop at the neighborhood grocery store even when the deals are better across town, don't feel guilty. A new study by the University of British Columbia and Harvard Business School shows money buys happiness if it's used to give you more time. And that, in turn could be better for the whole family.

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As if we needed another reason to shop at Target, our favorite store is offering some great deals for mamas who need products for baby. Mom life can be expensive and we love any chance at saving a few bucks. If you need to stock up on baby care items, like diapers and wipes, now is the time.

Right now, if you spend $100 on select diapers, wipes, formula, you'll get a $20 gift card with pickup or Target Restock. Other purchases will get you $5 gift cards during this promotion:

  • $20 gift card when you spend $100 or more on select diapers, wipes, formula, and food items using in store Order Pickup, Drive Up or Target Restock
  • $5 gift card when you buy 3 select beauty care items
  • $5 gift card when you buy 2 select household essentials items using in store Order Pickup, Drive Up or Target Restock
  • $5 gift card when you buy 2 select Iams, Pedigree, Crave & Nutro dog and cat food or Fresh Step cat litter items using in store Order Pickup
  • $5 gift card when you buy 3 select feminine care items using in store Order Pickup, Drive Up or Target Restock

All of these promotions will only run through 11:59 pm PT on Saturday, January 19, 2019 so make sure to stock up before they're gone!

Because the deals only apply to select products and certain colors, just be sure to read the fine print before checking out.

Target's website notes the "offer is valid using in store Order Pickup, Drive Up or Target Restock when available".

The gift cards will be delivered after you have picked up your order or your Target Restock order has shipped.

We won't tell anyone if you use those gift cards exclusively for yourself. 😉 So, get to shopping, mama!

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