Previously published in Elephant Journal (2014)
The street light over my car is keeping me awake.
I toss and turn, trying to comfortably wrap myself around the gear shift in the front seat of my car while the kids sleep peacefully in the back of the station wagon.
I sit up in the driver’s seat. I would sit in the passenger seat but I have a bunch of our clothes and blankets piled there. I try to recline the driver’s seat but remember that the back seat is folded down and it’s in the way.
I look at my watch. It’s 3:30 in the morning. I’ve only slept for a couple of hours. Kinda. I suddenly feel claustrophobic in this little car and want to get out. But I don’t. I don’t want the sound of opening the car door to wake up the kids.
I look at my watch again. I notice the date. It’s my birthday. I’m 25-years-old, I have three kids and I live in my car.
It’s not easy to be stuck in a car with three children for four days, let alone four months. But many years ago, in one of the strangest and longest summers of my life, that is just what I did. I lived for four months in my Subaru Legacy wagon with my three children, who were, at the time, one, four and five.
It was fun in some ways, and challenging and scary. The experience itself was life-changing, so much so that I wrote my first book about it. But what I didn’t talk about in my book was just what I learned from the experience. And I learned a lot.
I learned about human nature, survival and children.
1. How to live with fear.
I’m a pretty cheerful, outgoing person who likes to take chances and do new things. I like to face my fears and take a risk sometimes. However, putting my children to bed every night in the car, which was parked at the kitchen door of the restaurant, was an exercise in fear, anxiety and utter panic, even though I knew they were okay.
Going to sleep each night in public places with nothing but the car window between me and whatever might come upon me sleeping in the front seat, slumped over the gear shift while the kids slept in the makeshift bed in the back, was also a fear-inducing ritual, but an unavoidable one.
Learning to live in a constant state of fear was all encompassing. But it also meant that later on in my life, when I had to face fearful situations — like hiking in bear-ridden woods or dogsledding a steep and icy trail — I wasn’t so afraid.
2. How to live without utilities.
When you live in your car, you’re about as off-grid as it gets. Without electricity, I had to rely on flashlights and headlamps to provide our light at night. When you get hungry in the middle of the night, you don’t flip on the light and head to the cool of the refrigerator. Instead, you don’t eat because if you do you will either a.) decrease the stash of snacks for the kids or b.) crinkle a wrapper loud enough to wake a one-year-old out of a sound sleep.
Nevermind that said one-year-old doesn’t wake up when a police car with a siren goes by or when you start up the wagon lacking a muffler because you aren’t allowed to overnight camp in the area where you had dinner, but crinkle one freaking granola bar wrapper and your night is over. Good morning.
Without running water, I quickly learned that the truck stop down the road was my favorite place — next to the public library. The truck stop had pay showers and a place for me to fill up our water jugs. Every day I paid one dollar in quarters for a shower and rotated which kid I took in with me. The day I had to take Alex, my slippery one-year-old, was always a thrill.
Watching the ALS challenges on Facebook, I couldn’t help but also remember how precious every gallon of water was and how much work it took to get it.
3. How to live without appliances.
You want your leftover mac and cheese from dinner warm? Too bad. We don’t have a microwave or a stove. Want a cold juice box? Too bad. We don’t have a fridge. Oh, and here’s the kicker. Mommy has to spend four dollars on juice boxes because she doesn’t have a place to put a pitcher of juice made from concentrate that would have only cost one dollar plus water to make. That brings us to…
4. How to feed kids a healthy meal no matter where you are.
Well, I can’t afford to eat out, especially three times a day, so I have to make my kids meals. Fortunately, when you are “camping” for the summer, there are lots of places that have public grills.
I have become an expert at making a fire in a grill not with charcoal, which I would have to spend money on, but instead with sticks that the kids and I collect from around the park. I then make pots of pasta and ramen and mix frozen vegetables with them for a healthy meal (without the ramen spice packet of course).
Sometimes we make mac and cheese or pasta with spaghetti sauce. Eggs are also a great meal because they can be easily fried up on a grill and mixed with cheese and veggies, but the kids don’t always like my outdoor omelets. I could use a little camp stove and I looked at them longingly at the store, but the $40 is better stashed in my glove box “savings” account I am building up to pay a security deposit and first and last month’s rent on an apartment — someday.
When I turn on my stove or open my freezer, I remember these times, and it reminds me how much more expensive it can be to poor than to be middle class — or rich.
5. How to be cheerful no matter what.
When you have three kids under the age of five, you need to be pretty cheerful. But just being the mother of three young kids can be challenging even if you live in a house. Once you put all four of you inside a small car, well, things can get a little tight. And your nerves can get a little frayed.
But here’s the thing, you have to remember that it’s not just your nerves that are frayed. Your kids’ nerves are likely frayed, too. But frayed kids’ nerves don’t look the same as a mom who just wants a little peace and quiet and maybe a bag full of Oreos she can’t afford to buy. Kids’ frayed nerves looks a lot like bouncing off the walls, begging for candy, hitting each other with stuffed animals and playing hide and seek around the car. So, in addition to learning how not to lose my mind, I learned how not to lose my temper (well, most of the time).
In addition to not losing my temper, I had to learn how to be cheerful. Period. Walking down the street with a basket full of laundry, and three kids in tow, it’s easy to feel like a homeless bum. But I never outwardly expressed those feelings. Instead, I sang songs, skipped along with my kids and made sure they knew that everything was perfectly “normal.”
It’s been a long time since I lived in my car, but I remember those days every day and the lessons I learned while living in my car have helped and haunted me since.
My own spiral into homelessness, back in the summer of 1997, did not begin with drug use, alcohol abuse or any of the other issues we, as a society, often believe “cause” homelessness.
In fact, it was my education and my former station in life as a middle-class mom that eventually led me to rock bottom.
How was that possible? It’s pretty simple, really. I believed that, after leaving a bad marriage and finally having the courage to pack up my children — aged four, three and one at the time — finding a job was the only barrier to happiness. I believed that once I found a “good” job, everything else would fall into place.
That’s not quite what happened.
I found the job just fine, but somewhere in my formerly middle-class mind, I believed a good job equaled a decent place to live. I was wrong. Finding a good job just meant I didn’t qualify for help. So, while I worked my tail off working for tips in a restaurant, making a decent $10 an hour, my children had to sleep in my car, because I didn’t qualify for child care assistance. Or housing assistance. Or food stamps.
So my kids and I lived in a car, lucky that it wasn’t winter, lucky we weren’t in a dangerous city. I didn’t have a shelter to go to. I didn’t have someone advocating for me — showing me the “ropes” of poverty, if you will.
I wish someone had. It would have saved my children and I a lot of pain during the months we lived in my Subaru station wagon.