I can tell you right now, I LOVED what I learned from this home tour. It’s like nothing I’ve really seen — although it did remind me a tiny bit of my adventurous friends at Blue Lily! — and it will most likely open your eyes to a way of living with kids you may never have considered. At least, it did for me.
Laura has a thoughtfulness and humility that just drew me right in, and I hope you feel the same way. She makes such a positive, community-strong case for her unique way of living as it applies to her and her family, so-much-so that it prompted me to stop and consider the housing trends and plans we’ve all been following as a society. Could I ever live in a Vandura with six kids? Probably not. But there’s so much more to this tour than that fact. So much more. You’ll see.
Hi everyone! I’m Laura. Our family is comprised of me, my partner Jeff, and our 21-month old son Henry. We are full-time musicians who play in the indie pop band Ok Vancouver Ok. We spend up to half of each year on tour driving, flying, and taking trains around the world to play concerts.
When we are not on the road we call Vancouver, Canada home. I was born and raised in this beautiful city and feel excited to watch Henry grow up here. In addition to being in a band, I work as an assistant and contributor for the award-winning Eco-parenting website The Green Mama. In between drumming and breastfeeding, I am toiling away on my laptop trying to research environmentally conscious alternatives to the often toxic trappings of parenthood.
An unconventional fact about our life is that we live in a roomy 1982 GMC Vandura that we have converted into a tiny home on wheels. We bought it on Valentine’s day last year and gut renovated it right away. The van had already been stripped of its original interior and had an after-market raised roof and cool vertical windows. The previous owners were unable to finish the renovation they had planned, and sold it to us in pretty rough shape. It was a rusty, moldy, blank slate. For 1200 Canadian dollars we figured we could gamble on it, and with some time and TLC our investment paid off.
Vans aren’t built to live in; they have little to no insulation and are filled with synthetic materials like plastic and foam. This is an indoor air quality nightmare! Our first order of business was to detoxify, insulate, and build out the interior with wood. We also laid down a new floor and built a raised platform in the back.
For me, the height of the bed platform is crucial to van-dwelling success. It needs to be high enough from the floor to provide ample storage beneath — this is where our clothes, kitchen supplies, spare tire, camping equipment, and musical instruments live — but enough headroom above so that you can sit comfortably on the bed. We were able to get the van organized for living in only a few weeks thanks to the help of my father, who happens to be a carpenter with lots of expertise and tools.
Our van doesn’t have many things that traditional homes do. We don’t have a kitchen, electricity, a shower, a toilet, running water, storage, or heat. This means that we need to take more effort to accomplish daily tasks. Some issues, like washing clothes have a simple solution like a laundromat. Other problems, like going pee at 4:00 am, need to have more creative solutions. People are often astonished that we exist without WiFi or a place to recharge our electronics more than the fact that we live in Canada with no heat! (Don’t worry, Vancouver has a mild climate like Seattle and rarely experiences freezing weather!)
Our family eats a plant-based diet with lots of raw elements, so refrigeration and cooking isn’t as much of a concern as it would be with a more animal intensive eating plan. In the winter we can keep fresh food on hand in our cool Canadian climate for a few days, and in the summer we tend to only buy what we will eat for the day. We get to try lots of great restaurants around the world when we are traveling, and have become pros at eating out with a toddler. (Go at non-peak times, order as soon as you sit down, pay before your food comes, and get the heck out of there as soon as you are done!)
Sometimes we need to get very innovative with our home-cooked meals. I have found myself making organic nut butter with my Vitamix in a gas station restroom, or pre-soaking grains on a long haul drive so we can have sprouted quinoa for dinner in the green room. My Julienne peeler is my most coveted tool; zucchini noodles in a flash!
Living in the van and traveling a lot has the unexpected advantage of helping me be really diligent with toilet learning and elimination communication. Not dealing with diapers and accidents is really incentivized when you don’t have access to laundry! I am proud to say that at 21 months, Henry is nearly out of his cloth diapers and has no problems asking to go poo in a punk bar in Berlin or on the side of the Interstate in California.
We began living in our first van long before Henry was on the scene. It was 2010. We camperized our Ford Windstar Minivan to go on a seven-month music tour around North America. We removed the bench seats to make space for our instruments and amplifiers, and built a platform we could use as a makeshift bed.
When we returned to Vancouver after our trip, the housing market had shifted because of the 2010 Winter Olympics, development, and demand. We had the hardest time finding a new rental — let alone an affordable rental — so we just kept on living in the van. Since then we have renovated three vans and never looked back!
It is hard for me to discern if we fell into our lifestyle, chose to live this way, or were forced due to the extreme housing crisis our region is facing. I think many will agree our lives are a complicated mixture of circumstance and choice. When faced with limited affordable housing stock, I chose to embrace living in a less conventional way. The tradeoff of living in our van has allowed us to stay close to family and friends, have less hours spent at work and more time available to be with our son, keep pursuing our careers and passions, travel the world, and save money for Henry’s future.
Living in a van has also instilled more empathy in us for those who are currently marginalized with regards to housing. Vancouver has a large visibly homeless population concentrated in a single neighborhood. There is constant dialogue about this issue and its resolution.
Outwardly I appear to be traditionally housed and am therefore privy to conversations about ‘homeless people’ that make me feel ill. When people say that they hate rainy days because ‘the homeless loiter in cafe’s and make it smell bad’ my response is often sobering.
I think that we need to rethink The North American Dream we have been fed. It is not sustainable emotionally or environmentally to all strive for single family homes in the suburbs. The notion that success is reached when every family member has their own bedroom, in suite laundry, many bathrooms, and a big yard with an emerald green lawn is simply outdated. My take is that we are on the verge of a new reality and there are many examples of alternate norms around the world that we can look to. Extended families living in one home, dwelling in one-room buildings, having public baths, and not using electricity are all totally acceptable in other cultures. Why is it so hard to adopt some of these ideas in our own?
It’s also worth stating that this is not my dream home. Ideally I would be living in a cabin-like home I built out of trees I felled myself on a gorgeous island in the Pacific Northwest. I would be growing all sorts of heirloom vegetables and homeschooling my pack of smart and spunky offspring. We’d have a big happy dog and an orchard. Living in our Vandura is a stepping stone on the long path of our life, and for right now it has been a magical moment.
Last year we were away for seven months on tour. We got to drive from coast to coast across Canada. All the way down to Los Angeles and over to Europe. When we travel, we are accompanied by our amazing bassist. She is an important part of Henry’s life and an indispensable asset to our modern family. Sometimes I wonder how I would be able to survive each day without having a ‘second mama’ on hand?!
When we are on tour, every day looks different. We usually wake up and hit the road right away to make our way to the next city. We plan our path so we don’t have to drive more than five hours a day so that Henry doesn’t have to endure long durations strapped into a car seat. We stop often to let him go to the bathroom and stretch his legs. We eat lots of snacks and listen to music and talk and do crafts.
When we arrive in the new city for the show it’s usually lots of looking at maps — we don’t have GPS or smart phones — and trying to sort out parking. We load in and sound check around dinner time each day. This can be stressful. Everyone is weary from the drive and then there’s the task of getting to the gig, then we have to meet new people and old friends, carry heavy equipment, liaise with the sound person and other performers, and set up everything to make a great concert later that evening. Then we eat dinner and get psyched for the night.
Henry usually goes to bed between 8:00 and 10:00 pm. In North America, we bring a nanny with us. Lots of the venues are 21+ or unsuitable for children so we need to have someone there who can take care of him and put him to sleep while we work. But in Europe there are different laws and we are actually able to bring Henry into all of the shows.
On this past tour I would strap him onto my back in an Ergo carrier with his sound silencing headphones and he would sleep through our concerts! I found it is actually easier for me to have him right there with me. I can hear his heartbeat and he can hear mine. We both feel calm and contented knowing each other is happy. It has also made me an excellent and adaptable drummer!
After the show is over we go to bed! This is usually arranged by the person who booked us. Our accommodation is anything from living room floors to apartments atop the venue to bed and breakfasts to swanky hotels. After living in a van with no amenities, a couch with a toilet down the hall feels pretty deluxe! On our days off I would always elect to go camping versus staying in a hotel. We don’t sleep in the van very often when we are on tour. On long tours we try to play shows every day for a few weeks and then take some time off in a favorite city or in a place where we have friends or relatives to visit.
Touring is actually a tricky way to get to know a place! We are usually driving during business hours and miss out on daylight, museums, and attractions. We only see the night life and get glimpses into certain enclaves. Taking days off lets us experience the other side of the cities we play.
When we are back in Vancouver, our days have a much more predictable rhythm. Each day ends up revolving around the seasons. In the summer our baths usually happen in bodies of water. In the winter we tend to go to bed earlier, just like the sun. We take advantage of public amenities like swimming pools, the library, community centre craft drop-ins, and free events. I do my freelance writing from cafes. We enjoy a slow pace, and have more money and time to give to local businesses and events.
I make our van feel like home with beautiful bedding, strategic minimalism, and lots of plants!
Since over 50% of our living space is a bed, I make sure that it is cozy and beautiful. I have hand quilted many blankets since becoming a van dweller. I love the methodical and tedious nature of collecting little scraps of fabric from thrift stores and giving them new life by stitching them together. A queen sized blanket can take me months to complete. It is the perfect electricity-free hobby.
Minimalism is also key for living in a very small space. I have found out that I actually don’t like objects as much as I thought I did! I feel most at home when everything is streamlined and in its place. This can be tricky with a toddler. I am ruthless about passing on items we no longer need. Sometimes it feels like we are giving Henry’s toys, books, and too-small shoes away the second he outgrows them.
Let’s just say The Marie Kondo movement was not an a-ha moment for us! We’ve been living that truth for years. My whole wardrobe fits into a suitcase and nothing needs ironing or special washing.
Having plants inside the space helps purify the indoor air and makes it feel like a real home! It’s also fun to drive around with a potted plant on the dash. Makes me smile every time.
The only thing I truly miss from a life indoors is the ease of entertaining. I love to cook and bake and feed everyone I love. Having long meals with great wine and tasty snacks is something that we can achieve in the summer at beaches and parks, but in the winter it is hard to invite people over.
I also miss having my own garden. The wait lists for community plots in Vancouver are insane! And our touring schedule usually means that we are out of town for either planting, tending, or harvest. One day when I ‘retire’ I will have the garden of my dreams.
Our house doesn’t feel too small for us. The van is like our bedroom and the rest of the world is just a very long hallway away. We get to spend so much more time experiencing people, places, and things!
We feel really blessed to spend our days in Vancouver parked in a diverse and open-minded neighborhood close to the city centre. Our neighbors (both those that live in traditional houses and those that live in vans) are so welcoming and accommodating of our somewhat unique housing strategy. We also have a great extended network of bands, promoters, artists, and fans all around the world.
We currently live within driving distance of Henry’s four grandparents and three great-grandparents. We couldn’t ask for more intergenerational support. It is so wonderful to give him the gift of their involvement in his life.
It can be alienating and isolating to be a new mom. Everything is unfamiliar and it seems that the world wasn’t designed for crying newborns, leaky breasts, and diaper blowouts. A simple trip to the market becomes the event of the day and many mothers end up inside their homes, alone. Being a mom who is traveling with her baby and living in very small space means that I am always out and about, confronting society with my breast milk covered reality. I have found some amazing solidarity and community in this circumstance.
I see living in a van at this stage in Henry’s life as a decision that comes with both positives and negatives. That being said, I can’t think of a version of my life that wouldn’t come without some concessions. Right now I am taking each day as it comes. Our debt-free, freelance situation has left us able to evolve. I don’t worry too much about how living in a van will impact Henry as he grows because I am confident that we will reshape our lifestyle to meet his needs.
Just as parents switch schools when they find out about their child’s new learning challenges, I am ready to make necessary adjustments to give Henry the best life. My maternal Grandmother lost her husband when her kids were very young. I always keep her advice to live in the moment and not take things for granted with me. I feel grateful to have a partner with me that feels the same way and I am excited that we are building this life together.
When I found out I was pregnant I was…you guessed it…on tour! We were in Switzerland when I finally took a pregnancy test, but I had known in my heart for a few weeks that I was most likely expecting. I even bought folic acid at a chemist in Serbia and began taking them just in case. I knew that I would have to seriously reorganize my priorities and rearrange my plans to accommodate this new being. And I began to realize that it wouldn’t be as simple as setting up a crib in the guest bedroom. I became acutely aware of the fact that I had no idea who this person would end up being and therefore couldn’t really plan for what was to come.
I often joke it’s like choosing a roommate for the next 18 years (at least) without even bothering to interview them. Would the baby be fussy? Shy? Outgoing? Big? Small? Would he or she have a physical challenge? Would my labour be complicated?! What about breastfeeding?! I surrendered all my expectations and opened up to the possibility that this could be the end of my life on the road. I was totally ready to become this baby’s mom through all the ups, downs, and transformations.
Lucky for us, Henry has been a happy healthy baby from day one. I was playing concerts right up until my due date and began again a few months after he was born. He is very outgoing, social, and adaptable. He LOVES the drums and singing into the microphone. At 21 months, he is now able to tell the difference between certain cables and instruments. He is a treat to watch at shows. He is so authentic in his joy! I hope he maintains his enthusiasm forever. So far he seems to have no issues with our lifestyle, and on the contrary manages to thrive in our somewhat unconventional tour schedule.
I know that I can’t expect him to vividly remember all of the amazing moments and places he has seen in his first 21 months of life. But everything I have read on the topic of parenting has stressed that although kids don’t remember exact details from the first three years of life, the experiences in this window shape who they are forever. I want Henry to remember that I loved never having to spend a day apart from one another. I want him to know that home isn’t a building, but rather the feeling of being safe and supported by people that love you. I want him to keep his open heart, mind, and free spirit.
I am not sure what I hope he remembers about me as a mother. In a way, I hope he sees a side of me that I don’t even know about! I have an image of myself as a strong and confident artist who is trying to fill the mom-shaped hole in my music community. I would love to have him shatter my notion of myself with a surprising answer. I believe that children are here to teach us just as much as we are meant to teach them.
I wish that someone had told me that these is no right way to mother. I am just 21 months into my lifelong adventure as a parent and I have already received my fair share of condemnation and criticism. I have also found myself turning the tables to judge other parents.
By standing on a stage night after night, I am putting myself in a position to be photographed, videotaped, and critiqued. There is rampant sexism in the entertainment industry and I had been desensitized to people forgetting to focus on my musical abilities in favor of commenting on my weight, outfit, hairstyle, and personality. However, I was unprepared for how bringing Henry into my life and my work would open the door for criticism on my ability to parent and raise a healthy child.
In a digital age where it is so easy to comment on others’ lives, I am trying to reflect on the power of words and the homogenized face of normalcy perpetuated by the media. There are so many diverse and wonderful ways to be an excellent parent. I want to hear a chorus of strong radical mamas speaking openly about success and failures. We need to end the erasure of the ‘unconventional’ narrative. I wish that someone had told me sooner that the only way to achieve this is to be authentic and share with one another.
Where do I start? First, I’d like to thank Laura for her fresh perspective. It was glorious. Second, this: “On this past tour I would strap him onto my back in an Ergo carrier with his sound silencing headphones and he would sleep through our concerts! I found it is actually easier for me to have him right there with me. I can hear his heartbeat and he can hear mine. We both feel calm and contented knowing each other is happy.” Talk about bringing your baby to work! Again, pretty glorious, right?
There’s almost too much to love in this one. But I can’t forget to mention her hopes that her Henry will shatter her notion of herself with a surprising answer. I had never really considered this concept, have you? It’s kind of life-changing.
P.S. – Are you living with your own kids in a unique way? Are you interested in sharing your home and experiences with us? Let me know! We love to be inspired! And it’s a lot of fun…I promise! I should also mention, I have a goal to bring more diverse points of view to Design Mom this year. So if you don’t see yourself or your community reflected here, let’s make it happen — send in your details, or recommend a friend! Take a peek at all the homes in my Living With Kids series here.