Last year, Caroline Van Hemert, her husband, and their two young sons packed up twelve duffle bags with the essentials and left their home in Anchorage, Alaska for New Zealand. For the next year, the family lived off-grid, spending eight weeks in a 1998 Nissan Caravan, four weeks in a tent, two weeks in backcountry huts, sixteen weeks on a sailboat, and the rest of the year in a remote, off-grid cabin .
Travelling and living this way with two children under the age of five is in no way glamorous, and Caroline and her husband learned a lot of valuable lessons over the course of the year. What they didn’t expect, however, was how applicable those lessons would be to today: coexisting in small spaces for a long period of time.
Living Off the Grid with Kids
In order to make their adventure a reality, Caroline and her husband rented out their house in Alaska’s largest city, Anchorage, and packed only the essentials. Caroline temporarily switched her job as a research biologist for a remote position, and her husband put his residential design-and-build company on hold.
The couple were fairly experienced off-gridders, and had previously spent months living in a tent or in a remote log cabin they had built themselves, but with two kids, off-grid living presents a whole new list of challenges.
The entire time the family was living in the van, all four of them slept on a queen-sized mattress that had to be painstakingly folded back into a bench seat every morning. The only amenities the vehicle had was a hand-pumped sink that drained into a five-gallon bucket, and a self-contained chemical toilet that was not really intended for use.
Whether they were sleeping in the back of a van cluttered with diapers, toys, and clothes, or inside a tent soaked with pee, chaos ruled their every day, and each day’s events were near impossible to predict .
Lessons learned from Van Life
Presently, the family is no longer living on the road. They are back in their home in Anchorage, living a life of “luxury”- they have indoor plumbing, a dishwasher, and separate bedrooms. But despite this, 2020 feels strangely familiar.
Living in COVID-19 era America, just like the rest of us Caroline and her family have spent several weeks in lockdown. She and her husband are now both working from home, only going out for the essentials.
As is the case with many working parents, juggling a full-time job with the demands of childcare has forced them into working at odd hours to get everything done.
“I write research papers at midnight, answer emails at dawn, and stay up until sunrise making edits,” says Caroline. “We juggle virtual meetings, often battling technology more than embracing it. There are clothes to wash, dinners to cook, teeth to brush, and sibling fights to mediate” .
No matter how hard she tries, she can’t seem to get a handle on the messes, the crowding, and the noise.
So how did van life prepare Caroline and her husband for life in lockdown? During an entire year of sharing the most cramped living conditions they could have possibly imagined, both of them learned to accept chaos.
“At first, I hated that tidiness eluded me. But eventually I stopped looking for matching socks. I made do with broken sleep and outdoor toilets. As a family, we learned to live with fewer possessions. The same three outfits sufficed, so long as they layered on top of each other” .
According to Caroline, the family adopted a “sliding scale of cleanliness”, meaning that sometimes, a dip in the ocean and a baby wipe could be used in place of a shower. At first, they missed the comforts of their normal routine, but gradually they got used to their new way of life and forgot about them.
When Carline stopped insisting on order and calm, she was able to appreciate things she hadn’t noticed before, like the wave-worn pattern on rocks, or the sky and sand, or the way her son skipped when he was excited.
She learned to accept the reality that life is, in itself, messy. This lesson has helped her immensely over the last few months as she tries to manage working, parenting, and homemaking at the same time. This, of course, does not make it easy, but remembering the lessons she learned from their year off the grid grounds her and helps her through the hardest days .
Five Tips for Parents During the COVID-19 Pandemic
Working from home can be an immense challenge when your kids are also at home demanding your attention. Many parents are feeling the stress of typing to juggle both jobs, so if you’re feeling the pressure, you’re not alone. Here are a few tips to help you get through the day:
1. Keep a consistent schedule.
This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be flexible with routines at all, but having a regular routine will give your kids some much-needed structure, which will help them maintain stable moods, and develop a sense of responsibility. Plus, when kids are on a schedule, it’s easier for you to keep to a schedule, too.
Even simple things like having consistent bedtimes and wake up times can help keep your day under control. If you can, try to allot some time every day that is designated “work time”, so that your kids know not to come to you during that time unless there is an emergency.
A schedule can still have some flexibility, however, and allowing your kids some autonomy by giving them some choice as to what activities they would like to do at different times of the day can make them feel more responsible and more committed to the choice they made .
2. Plan your time wisely.
When you’re making your kids’ schedule, be sure to plan your day as well. Try to schedule things that require a lot of your attention at a time when your children will be heavily occupied .
3. Speak with your employer.
Talk to him or her about a more flexible working schedule that allows you to plan your day around your family’s demands. This may allow you more time to work while your children are napping, or in the evening when they’ve already gone to bed .
4. Be realistic about your workload.
Not only are you still working your full-time job, you’re now a teacher and a babysitter at the same time. It’s important that you are realistic about how much you can accomplish in one day, and be gracious with yourself if you’re not able to check every item off your to-do list. Some things can always wait until tomorrow .
5. Allow for changes.
Never before have we lived in such uncertain times, and just like the situation is changing constantly, your schedule may need to change as well. Be ready to adapt your family’s schedule to whatever the current situation is, and remember that some days might end up in chaos- as Caroline said, learning to embrace the chaos allowed her to relax and put things into perspective .
The COVID-19 pandemic has been hard on everyone, particularly on families. Caroline and her family’s year living off-grid prepared them for this year in a way they never could have imagined. While most of us have not had the experiences they’ve had, we can still learn from them. Remember to take every day as it comes, to not be too hard on yourself, and amidst the pandemonium, to enjoy the little things.
Keep Reading: Stay at Home Parenting
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