Living Small — mothering on a shoestring in an age of retail parenting

“Do you feel like a failure?” my friend asks.

It all started when I gave birth to my son in the bedroom of our 4-bedroom house.  From the moment his slippery little body was laid on my chest, I knew I had to stay home with him.  Even going to the shower to rinse off after the birth was too much time apart.  Then, I got pregnant again.  18 months after I’d stopped working, I found myself with a toddler and now a newborn on my breast.  The possibility of ever working again melted into the horizon like the sun at the end of the day.

If my mother had stayed home with me when I was little, I probably would have gone back to work, the way many of my friends went so easily after having their children.  But I am determined to stay home, no matter what the costs. 

One of the sacrifices we are making is not paying our rent.  With me not working and with Kim, Ely and Everly’s dad, still building his career as a TV/Film composer, $2200 per month is not realistic for us anymore.  We have to move.

After looking at our finances (this takes about 7 minutes), we figure we can now spend about $500 a month for rent if I want to live my dream of staying home with the kids and Kim continues to pursue his dream of becoming a composer.

The only places available in the entire city of Los Angeles for this price are shares but I don’t think that getting a room in a 3-bedroom apartment with a couple of university co-eds is a good idea.  Unless of course they love babysitting.

A friend tells me about a woman she knew who lived out of her car with her 4 small children.  “They were the nicest kids in the world,” she says. 

“What about a trailer?” Kim and I ask ourselves.  Could we do that?  Could we manage in such a small space?  Where would we put it?

The previous summer, we had visited Kim’s family in Ireland where he had grown up.  Campervan-ing (what the Irish call RV-ing) is something his sister does with her family and we had spent a beautiful week on the Kerry coast in a 20-foot trailer, surrounded by grazing sheep.  It was great.  We can do this, we agree.  We can do this!

I hunt down a copy of the Recycler, the RV edition, pick it up and stuff it into my diaper bag, looking around to see if anyone had noticed.  Was I becoming trailer trash?

I think back to my old life in the Hollywood Hills when I was a single, working gal.  Rent then was $3,400/month for 2500 square feet of beautifully restored living.   The place had high ceilings, wood floors, 2 bathrooms, 2 bedrooms, plus original molding on the walls from the 1920’s.  I had broken up with my then-live-in-boyfriend because “it just wasn’t big enough for the both of us.” 

New trailers can cost upward of $100,000 but used ones are anywhere from free on up.  The free ones are usually mouse-infested and moldy.  After reading through the Recycler in the privacy of our home, we find a 32-foot trailer, The Mallard, with two bedrooms (a rare find) for $12,000.  We get in the car and drive the hour to where it is parked.

On the way there, I imagine it will be like living in a train – small boxes of rooms and narrow hallways where we’d need to suck in our tummies to pass each other.  But when we get there, it is surprisingly roomy.  In the main room, which is a living room/dining room/kitchen all in one, there is a patch of floor in front of the built-in couch where the kids can play.  And bunk beds in the second “room”.  My son, Ely, thinks this is very cool and wants to climb up onto the top one immediately.  Not knowing what questions to ask when buying a used trailer, we tell the seller we’ll take it.

Now, we need a place to put it. We’ve been living in Topanga, probably the most trailer-friendly community in LA. With its hippie history, we figure we can find a spot here.  A friend offers us his undeveloped 38-acre-plot, but it is unfeasible. Without water and electric hook-up, we’d need to cart in all our water and run our utilities off battery power.  This will entail too much work and expense. 

Finally, a spot comes through.  Our neighbor, Owens, has a beautiful acre around the corner from our old house that she agrees to rent to us for $500 a month.  Our entire monthly overhead is now about $1500 a month.  We can afford this.  We will hook up to her water via a pvc-free hose and electric with a really long extension cord into her bedroom outlet.  Have we become parasites?

It’s August when we move into the trailer so it’s hot outside and in.  Ahh, reality, I enthuse, no artificial, climate-controlled environments for us.  As the bugs invade, I’m sure we’ve moved one step closer to the earth.  “Living in the trailer is good for our souls,” I tell Kim.  And with only AM stations on the built-in radio, the Carpenters croon the soundtrack to our new home and life.

But at 320 square feet, the Mallard is small.  When Kim brushes his teeth, the entire trailer shakes.

After the kids finally go to sleep in their new bunk beds, we realize how really small it is.  There’s a cupboard right over the bed that we need to duck under to lay down. The built-in closet sits against the foot of the bed, which means Kim cannot straighten his 6 foot 2 inch frame. A thin, cotton curtain separates us from our children who are sleeping 25 feet away.  If Ely woke up and stuck his head out from behind the curtain, he could see our feet and calves.  Any hopes of loud, raucous sex are dashed.  Besides, wouldn’t the neighbors see the trailer moving up and down?  We move slowly and quietly, the way you do when you’re visiting your parent’s house during college with your boyfriend.

Going from 1500 square feet to 320 square feet means we have to get rid of things.  We begin by paring down our enormous collection of plastic toys. Ely and Everly’s primary “toys” now are the things they find outside – like sticks, rocks and dirt.  (Fortunately, we live in a place where the things you find outdoors are relatively harmless).  Ely has grown very attached to a certain stick.  He carries it around constantly.  Sometimes, it’s a sword he uses to chase the rabbits at dusk.  Other days, it’s a fishing pole for catching sharks. 

Because of our limited space, we spend the entire day outside.  The yard is now our living room and dining room.

A friend comes over for dinner and we make a steak salad.  The smoke from cooking the meat fills the trailer. We lay a blanket down outside and eat our food on the ground.  Cars drive by and slow down to look at us.  Some of the people even point.  I feel like an exhibit at the zoo.

My friend says, “It’s so romantic.” I still don’t know if she was being honest or kind and I never asked because this idea – that what we were doing was romantic – rescued me many times over the year we spent in the trailer from feeling poor. My mother, a Korean immigrant, worked too hard for me to be poor. 

My son asks about our old house and says he wants to live there again.  Although he’s three, he is aware enough to notice that our home is different.  His friend, Isabela, comes over with her nanny and when she learns that our home has a name – trailer – she repeats it over and over, “Ely lives in a trailer, Ely lives in a trailer.”  It is said in a good-natured way, with the joy of learning a new word and Ely laughs along.  But I cringe underneath my smile.  Whatever pride I ever had is being chipped away by the laughter of this little girl.  I consider calling up everyone I know from my past life in television and beg for a job.

Prada backpacks, Gucci loafers, black pin-striped suits.  There should be a past-tense version of the word “I” to signify who we used to be. Now, I’m wearing flattened flip flops, jeans from the Gap outlet, and a stained aqua tanktop.  Have you ever added up the cost of everything you’re wearing?  Most days, my entire outfit wouldn’t come close to an accessory from my old life. 

What would the old me think of this new and improved one?  On the one hand, she’d envy the love.  I get more hugs and kisses in an hour than I used to get in a month.  But when I invited her over to my trailer, she’d probably tell me to get a job.

I hold on to my new label of mommy with ferocity.  But now I am a stay-at-home mom without a house.

Being home, most of my friends now are moms and have put their career aspirations – i.e. architecture school, acupuncture practice, etc – on hold to take care of their kids.  But I’ve recently reconnected with a couple of friends from my old life.  Both went back to work full-time when their kids were 3 months old.  One, a successful development executive, lives in a beautiful house in Laurel Canyon with her comedian husband.  She says by Friday, her 6-month-old son doesn’t know who she is.  The other, a writer, has just gotten a dream job at the LA Times.  On the home front (a charming house in Highland Park), though, she is divorced and for the last 18 months has her 3-year-old son 50% of the time.  She feels cheated by feminism.  “Full-time work and part-time parenting doesn’t work,” she says.  We all seem to have only half of what we want.

Unable to afford all the classes – gymnastics, swimming, dance, kindermusic, pre-reading, pre-math, pre-science – that my neighbor’s kids are taking, the days stretch before us like the open road.  If I had lots of disposable income, I’m sure I’d be running my kids ragged from one class to the next, the way I ran myself ragged.  When I was employed, I even demanded that my uncle, an executive at the phone company, develop a phone where I could take 2 calls at once, the way televisions have a picture within a picture.  But now, the question is, “What can we do that’s free?” 

At 41, I finally learn the art of lollygagging.  My kids and I spend hours looking for bugs on our walks around the neighborhood.  Having a popsicle is an activity.  We peel off the wrappers, search for the perfect place to sit outside and discuss who’s scarier – the monster in the Buzz Lightyear book or the one in the Scooby Doo story. (Even without cable, my kids still seem to know all the characters from every Disney/Pixar film.) Some moms are born inhabiting these moments but I needed to be severely dislocated to find it.

Being broke does slow one down.  It’s not original.  Everyone from the Buddha to scores of others have given it all up to live a more meaningful life. Usually, though, I don’t feel very enlightened, just tired, walking a spiritual path strewn with breast-milk stained t-shirts and sheets covered with the three P’s – pee, poop, and puke.

The neighbors are beginning to talk, though.  Our landlord has received a letter. 

“We’re sick of looking at the mess your tenants and their trailer are making on your property.

Don’t know how much rent you’re charging but we don’t get why your making money overrides our right to live in a decent looking neighborhood.  Your field is now an eyesore.

They should spend their money on finding a legitimate place to live. 

You need to solve this situation soon.”

It is unsigned.  Are they going to start burning BMW logos on the lawn? Isn’t it okay to live differently?  Is our Mallard an illegitimate home because it’s on wheels?

A picture of a duck flying through reeds is painted onto the side of our trailer.   According to some ancient cultures, the duck is one of the highest life forms because it can fly, swim, and walk.  I remind myself that we are learning flexibility. 

Being in such a small space is also bringing us closer together as a family.  Living small has opened my eyes to how the “supersize me” idea has been applied to housing in America.

On the show “Cribs” on MTV, twenty-something rappers and athletes live in enormous replicas of the Hearst castle but everything takes place in one room off the side of the kitchen where the enormous TV sits.  Really, are they using much more of their living space than we have? 

In the evening, without our outdoor living room, there is no escaping each other.  In our old house, we could have separated, Kim working in his studio, Ely playing with his cars in the living room, Everly and I reading a story on the couch.  Now, after dinner, we come together.  It’s always warm because cooking on our tiny stove heats up the entire kitchen/dining/living-room.  For many evenings, Ely and Everly build towers on the vinyl floor.  They stack the big legos one on top of the other and try and reach the ceiling, which sits only 7 feet above us.  With Kim’s help, they’ve done it a few times and then shriek with pleasure when it all comes tumbling down. 

During these moments, I love the trailer.  It’s cozy and warm and makes me feel like we’re on a permanent vacation.  Some part of my unconscious says – seeing the recreational vehicle around me – “It doesn’t matter that I have no savings or that I’m not building my resume.  It’s recess!”   

At the playground a few months later, I get a call from a headhunter about a development job at Disney.  “How did you get my name?” I ask since I haven’t worked in almost 4 years.  The guy doesn’t know and I imagine he must have wandered into some kind of resume vault by accident and looked inside a creaky, rusty file cabinet.  “Sure,” I say, “give me your email address and I’ll send you an updated resume.”  Is this my chance?  I could buy a house, go shopping, wear nice clothes, have a big closet, go out to dinner, fill my tank with gas, shop at Whole Foods instead of Trader Jo’s.  Then, my son runs up to me, interrupting this reverie, and takes my hand.  “Let’s go catch some monsters,” he yells and we go running across the sand.

One of the true perks of living in a tiny space is that there’s so much less of it to clean.  It takes about an hour to sweep the floor, run the dust buster over the small patches of carpet, and wipe down the sink and counters.  But there is a tiny river of water running from the bathroom into the living room that I cannot seem to dam up.  When we get home from the playground, I notice that the wet spot on the carpet is growing and darkening.  Will a carpet cleaning company come and clean 9 square feet of carpeting? 

I sigh, knowing I’m going to have to do this myself.  I put the kids back in the car and go to Ralph’s and rent a small steam cleaner and buy some industrial strength cleanser.  At home, none of the tubes fit together.  When Kim gets home, I’m sitting on the floor surrounded by black hoses and Ely and Everly are shooting each other with vacuuming accessories.  Can I give up now?  Can we please move into a big house with 2 bathrooms and a real shower? 

That night, I write as witty an email as I can about how although I haven’t worked in years, being a mom is just like being a development executive – the multi-tasking, getting people to feel like your ideas are theirs, resolving conflicts amongst people who are not developmentally able to consider the feelings of others – and email it to the headhunter.

The next day, I’m nervous.  I want to check my email but I can’t because I live in a trailer and we don’t have a phone line.  (I go over to my neighbors when I want to do email.)

My kids are getting whiny which they always do when I’m distracted.  I pull my focus back to them and decide we need to turn on the hose.  We walk over to the winter garden we planted with beets, kale, onions and garlic and my kids take turns watering the plants.  The water forms rivers around the rows of seedlings.  I run back to the trailer and grab the Noah’s ark toy a friend has just given my daughter.  They grab the zebras and lions and pretend they are swimming in the water.  Our feet and legs are black with mud. 

I float in and out of the moment, imagining myself spending the day in meetings, not mud.

Everly takes her clothes off and sits down in the water and in an attempt to push the hair out of her eyes, covers her forehead and cheek with mud.  She has never looked cuter.  Ely finds a red creepy crawly and struggles to pick it up with a stick.  “Why is he red?” he asks.  “Because that is how God made him,” I respond, which has become my catch-all answer when I don’t know.      

“Did God make our trailer?” Ely asks me a minute later.  I look over at our Mallard and think for a minute about this place where I weaned and potty-trained my children, then answer, “Yes, didn’t He do a good job?”  Ely looks over at it, and nods his head, yes.

  1. Dee says

    Hey there Susie, wonderful article! I’m sure the weather in Kerry would make you think, if I can do it here I can do it anywhere! We lived for 7 years in a mobile home while we built our house (in it now but still building). I couldn’t look back with any fondness until recently, three years later, now I can see that we were happy even though we were some time frustrated as the lack of space seems to invade your brain! We were lucky enough though o be in the middle of nowhere in Co. Clare so at least we didn’t have onlookers. Sending love and best wishes from Ireland! x Dee

  2. pseudonym says

    After reading carefully through this article I have come to one of my many proud conclusions. In a time where voilence runs rife in Africa and small children and being picked up everyday and molested I think the only question any parent can be asked is if they are a failure… In the case of the write I am going to have to lean to the ‘undoubtedly’ end of the spectrum.

    In the early 1950’s parents knew the correct ways to raise children and that was Father brings home the bacon whilst mother prepares the children and learns how to cook bacon. Now if you cannot afford premium bacon and purely shows your inability to parent on any level. You might want to think about getting a man who can bring in some money or putting yourself up for prostitution otherwise you will always live under the dilemma of being an average to poor parent. I can only hope you heed my words of titanic wisdom.

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