The Minivan Stigma

It’s been a big year, y’all. Jake and I celebrated five years of marriage, continued the adventure of raising our IVF-conceived twin girls, and began planning an embryo transfer in hopes of growing our family. We even met with our fertility doctor and scheduled the procedure… only to find out it wasn’t needed. Day one of the cycle that would have kicked off our frozen transfer never came and we celebrated our little ladies’ first birthday just before announcing our miracle baby due in December. We spent the summer arguing over boy names, transforming our larger extra bedroom into the girls’ new room, and preparing to have three children under 18 months.

An incessant reader of news, it was some time in early June that I stumbled across an article declaring that while the used car market had improved, it would most certainly worsen in the fall. Jake had briefly mentioned upgrading the Kia Sorento we had bought when we found out we were having twins, but I’d brushed him off, insisting the SUV would suffice, as long as we could fit all three car seats in the middle row. The Sorento was paid for, comfortable, said to seat seven, and had relatively few miles on it. Buying another new car less than 18 months later seemed superfluous and needlessly stressful. Regardless, I decided to make sure that we could indeed fit three across the middle row, since the back would be virtually inaccessible with car seats in front of it, only to realize…

When Jake and I bought the Sorento, we’d intended it as a ten-year car, assuming a seven seater would actually, you know… seat seven. It really hadn’t occurred to either of us that we’d be in the market for a minivan when we began planning for baby number three. After the fiasco that was buying our Kia Soul in 2019, struggling to find just the right SUV in 2020, paying it off early with Jake’s lucky Bitcoin earnings, I truly did not want a new car… any new car, regardless of type.

Ever responsive toward and utterly dependent on research, however, I immediately accepted that not only was the market in the best shape we could hope for, but that it wouldn’t get any easier or less stressful to shop for a minivan later in my pregnancy. So, I texted Jake about our predicament and began searching for the best model within our price limit.

Folks, buying a minivan was exactly the nightmare I had feared, perhaps worse. Not only was I shopping for a completely different, more expensive, unfamiliar class of vehicle, in a competitive market, I was wading through a newfound swamp of Mom Snobbery. Review after review, I simply could not escape the elitism behind some of the brand names and their elevated prices. Models that seemed to offer exactly the same number of features, safety ratings, and comfort levels were tens of thousands of dollars higher. While many objective articles described the Dodge Caravan as a budget model with a rougher ride and lower mileage, listing the Chrysler Pacifica Hybrid as a top option for the fuel conscious, I never did figure out what made the Odyssey and Sienna such premium vehicles when all specs remained the same. After reading some of the reviews himself, Jake still points out every Honda Odyssey he sees, with mock awe.

Ultimately, we ended up with a black, 2019, Chrysler Pacifica Limited 35th Anniversary. It isn’t fully loaded, but does include some nice bells and whistles that are new to us, such as leather heated seats, a heated steering wheel, and remote start. Though finding it was a month-long headache, once it was ours, we were excited… and confused that when we shared the news, everyone seemed to expect us to feel defeated at having purchased a minivan. Even after highlighting the benefits of more leg room, dual climate control, flat-folding seats, and remote doors, everyone seemed to be waiting for our response to some kind of minivan stigma.

Before Jake and I had children, I actually do recall insisting that I’d never own a minivan. For purely practical reasons, I didn’t want to spend substantially more money to drive a much more cumbersome vehicle with worse gas mileage. As far as I understood, an SUV would accommodate just as many people, at a lower price. I just didn’t see the point. I certainly had no distaste for what it would say about me or my stage of life. Upon further reflection, in fact, at one time, I’d dreamt of having and eventually becoming a Minivan Mom.

Growing up in the 90s, minivans were at the height of their popularity and said something to me even then. They were a symbol of all the things I wanted as a child, gradually progressing from the frivolous to the completely justifiable.

  • Parents who owned minivans lived in three bedroom ranch homes in suburban neighborhoods with ice cream trucks and friends just down the street. We lived in a trailer on ten acres, with few children nearby.
  • Minivan moms either stayed home, worked part-time, or were teachers, so their kids didn’t have to attend daycare. The dads were home every night and weekend and in good spirits. My mother was a nurse, my father a lineman for the electric company, both exhausted after working long hours, nights, weekends, and call shifts.
  • Minivan families lived in clean houses and the children wore cute clothes and practiced basic hygiene. Even when we moved to a traditional house, it was a borderline hoarder home, only cleaned when we hosted holiday celebrations. In time, my parents became too wrapped up in their crumbling marriage to pay much attention to grooming and fashion and it showed.
  • Minivan families ate at the kitchen table, played board games together, and the kids were never allowed to watch anything beyond a PG rating. When I was nine or ten, my parents started spending evenings arguing in the garage, leaving us to call Gramma to bring fast food and entertain ourselves however we may.
  • Minivan parents took family vacations and had loving, supportive, intact marriages. My dad stopped coming along on trips when I was eight and left a month after my mom’s brain surgery when I was 10. Not long after, my brother moved in with him and I stayed with my increasingly violent mother, while my father tried to recapture his youth.

Growing up, our trailer was just down the street from a foster home, where the parents were known to be abusive to their children, so I fully understood that other kids had it worse than I did. Objectively speaking, I didn’t have a miserable childhood, and see no reason to rewrite history to better or worsen it. Still, I perpetually envied what I deemed my normal classmates, who seemed to come from happy, functional homes, lead by parents with appropriate rules and boundaries. They were good at sports, from ballet and cheer to soccer and basketball. They were never blacklisted from sleepovers, because their moms explained the purpose of edible underwear to their friends when they were nine or let them watch Leprechaun when they were ten. They were slender and sweet, wore their hair in high ponytails with big bows, and the boys thought they were cute. Their parents budgeted for the bills first, so the electricity and water never got cut off. Their moms taught them to apply makeup and talk to boys they liked… and somehow, it seemed they all drove minivans.

You also don’t walk around the block for an hour to repeatedly pass by the boy you like, when he’s outside playing basketball.

As I got older, the minivan association morphed from a symbol of the ideal childhood to that of an ideal adulthood. My southern suburbia was particularly known for its Nicholas Sparks-esque young marriages, right down to the dysfunction and drama, minus the geese.

While I was far from the only 23-year-old divorcee in Shetland, there existed many more young marriages, between high school and college sweethearts. I’d like to assume at least a few were and are still happy. Though I’m no longer active on social media, I’ll never forget the time in my life when I thumbed through the profiles of my old classmates with envy. All those years, they told me my middle and high school bullies would amount to nothing and the Mean Girls were posting photos of grand Southern weddings to oilfield men, who paid for the degrees they’d never use after having babies immediately upon graduation. They bought cookie cutter McMansions in gated communities, carried Coach purses, outfitted their baby boys in Air Jordans, and drove minivans... all while I struggled to keep my head above water, massively overweight, living off of financial aid in a seedy motel after another eviction, while my ex swore he had paid the rent with money from the job he swore he actually worked. Spoiler alert: he didn’t.

My senior year of college saw a miscarriage, my first year of grad school a divorce, while I worked two jobs substitute teaching and cleaning rec equipment at the local community center… and things started to get better. I moved into a comfortable apartment, where my ex could no longer sneak in and steal things to sell. I met the young men I was so close to in my early twenties, along with Niki, who plays DnD with Jake and I to this very day. I started working for the library system, while continuing to substitute teach and earn my graduate degree. Life was better… safer. I cultivated hobbies, lost a lot of weight, learned to dress and apply makeup. I dated on and off, as I recovered from the trauma of my first and only relationship and tried to decipher whether or not I wanted another. I worked on my credit and learned to manage my money. I grew into someone I liked, someone I wanted to be… but I still felt so far behind the classmates who’d graduated alongside me just six or seven years earlier. They were only in their early to mid-twenties, but they’d finished school, were presumably happily married, bought homes, had babies… and many of them drove minivans.

Ten years later, I of course realize how valuable those single girl years were for me. While the ages of 18-23 exist in something of a fog of memory I rarely allow to clear, 23-27 were the years those should have been. I learned to take care of and depend on myself, mentally, physically, and financially. After a near lifetime of feeling less than, I started to value and respect myself, acknowledge that the only one who had any right to decide I wasn’t worthy of more was me. I could be smart, successful, cute, funny. I could be a happily single respected academic who was really great at crafts, a worldly traveler and career woman who relocated every five years… or I could earn the minivan life I’d so envied at different times. It wasn’t about proving myself… okay, it wasn’t just about proving myself, but choosing the path I wanted, regardless of who my parents were, how I’d grown up, who I was in high school, the mistakes I’d made as a young adult. I finally realized that none of that actually mattered when it came to shaping my future. I had a right to any life for which I was willing to put in the work. I could leave the past in the past.

I’d never put much thought into what a minivan said to or about me today. It was just the obvious choice until people seemed to expect negative feelings on the subject. To them, buying a minivan meant becoming their parents with their socks and sandals, little league coaching jobs, mom jeans, and pumpkin spice. When I thought about it, it meant surpassing mine. It meant finally having the life I know my mother always wanted and was never quite able to grasp, the life my dad looks back on and wishes he’d valued more. Just as I could have been the academic, the career woman, being a Minivan Mom is an accomplishment worthy of celebration for me. Perhaps others look on and see the pretention and falsehood of middle class suburban white folks. That’s fine and I take no offense, because I wasn’t always in that class.

Twenty-five years ago, I was the the smelly kid with social and behavioral issues. Twenty years ago, I was the fat nerdy girl in overalls and a turtleneck. Fifteen years ago, I was mourning the house fire my ex started, killing all of my pets. Fourteen years ago, I was evicted in the middle of an ice storm, staying with in-laws I didn’t like until we could get into the aforementioned motel. Thirteen years ago, I was conflicted over how to feel about the miscarriage of a child that would have tied me to a sociopath forever. Twelve years ago, I was filing for divorce during my first year of grad school, wondering if I’d ever have the life I’d wanted… if that was even still the life I wanted.

After ten years in a successful career, I spend my days making grocery runs, attending library storytimes, and having dance parties with the baby girls who will never be neglected into outsider status, knowing that one day I’ll be the career mom once again. I’m happily married to a man who’s never known what it feels like to be ostracized, yet handles me with care when I feel left out. I host bi-weekly game nights with good friends and feel included with my in-laws and Jake’s high school buddies when we visit. I fit in and I’m happy. I’ve transcended. These are the best days of my life so far and unrelated or not… I drive a minivan.

Why does everyone have more money than we do?

Just recently, Jake and I found the nicest public lake nearby. Living on the outskirts of the county, it’s nearby no one else, but the exact distance to the swim beach is 18 minutes from our front door. It’s small, clean, has picnic tables, grills, restrooms, and allows for boating, fishing, and swimming. After the distance, the second best thing about this little lake, is that it costs $5 per car, per day. The nearest aquatic centers costs more than that per person.

Last Christmas, my step-brother announced that he’d booked a company-owned luxury cabin, in Crested Bute, Colorado for Labor Day weekend. The whole family was welcome, at a discounted rate, which depended on how many committed. Because the cabin could only be reserved for four days, the plan was for everyone to stay at a nearby hotel for three to four more. My parents and all of my step-siblings were enthusiastically in, without private discussion, while Jake and I offered non-committal responses, knowing we’d talk about it in the car.

Though we didn’t wish to share the details of our financial situation with my entire family, from the beginning we felt it was optimistic, at best, to think we could take a family vacation in a year when we planned an embryo transfer, which costs about $4,000. So, with the final total up in the air, we tabled the idea, under the heading of “Wouldn’t That Be Nice?” In April, Zane clarified that the cost would be $100 per adult for the full stay at the cabin. Jake and I tentatively agreed that we could probably swing that, but that the hotel was out. In May, we received the wonderful news that we wouldn’t have to pay for an embryo transfer after all. In June, however, I read an article about how the used car market was going to get bad again and finally admitted that we couldn’t actually fit three children in rear-facing car seats in my Sorento.

So, we found ourselves the proud owner of a 2019 Chrysler Pacifica… along with a $1500 pending tag and title and a $100 car payment, when both of our cars had previously been paid off. It wasn’t a lot of money, but it was $1500 on our emergency credit card. All the while, my pregnancy was progressing and we needed to move the girls into the larger bedroom, so we could ready their old one for their baby brother. After purchasing a new closet kit, wood and brackets for the 360° shelves Jake built, stain, paint, brush and roller kits, curtains, and additional shelving to make the most of their small shared room from 1980, we were easily looking at another $1200 on said credit card.

In August, I conceded that Colorado just wasn’t doable. A 12 hour drive with 14-month-old twins would be miserable. With gas prices as they were, it would cost an additional $400 just to get there, making it no cheaper than flying. Flying on a holiday weekend sounded even worse with the current transportation issues, all for the equivalent of an extended weekend. We’d already put so much on the emergency credit card, yet still felt we could pay it off completely with our tax return, avoiding any interest. While we could justify charging new baby preparations, we just couldn’t bring ourselves to put a leisure trip on credit, even if it was during my 35th birthday. Instead, we would take our girls on their very first lake trip and save approximately $1,495. While everyone else was in Colorado, our family vacation would comprise a few hours less than 20 minutes away. So, in this time of 40-year-high inflation rates at 8.4%, historically high gas prices, soaring electric bills, and general financial discontent across the country, I sent a group text bowing out of the family vacation… and I was the only one.

Y’all, I try to remember that what other people do with their money is none of my business… and I have a lot of practice doing so. Even before I quit my job to stay home, I never got manicures. I cut my hair and Jake’s. I owned one purse, a leather Fossil bag, which I’ve been carrying for three years, as I did with each of the previous three. My clothes have always been bought on sale from Kohl’s, Target, Old Navy, or Amazon. I keep the newest or last edition phone, only for the camera, because I make annual photo albums. Jake’s was five years old until he got a free upgrade. We don’t have cable and keep our streaming services to a minimum. We rarely eat out, cooking at home with groceries we buy ourselves, sans meal kits. My weekly splurge is maybe a $10 sushi bento box, with Jake’s equivalent being beer. When we do get fast food, we literally always split something we buy with a coupon.

Don’t get me wrong .We’re not destitute or struggling without. We have nice computers, a 75″ TV, and quality furniture. Jake owns the newest XBOX and I the latest Cricut machines. However, these are already paid for, so we spend a lot of time at home and rarely do things that cost actual money when we go out. When we go to the zoo, I get a free pass from the library. We go to the park, farmer’s market, free festivals, church events, rodeos with tickets from Jake’s uncle. We stream new movies or check them out from the library. We host two separate DnD games every other week to maintain a pretty decent social life for parents of small children. For fun, I do various crafts and read, while Jake works in the yard or plays video games. Our tax returns go, primarily, to pay off the 0% emergency card or home improvement projects. Our mortgage payment is a little high, but it’s most certainly balanced out by the fact that we have very little debt beyond that.

I’m not complaining about my circumstances. I live in a nice, spacious home on over an acre, in a safe neighborhood, in a small suburb, in the state with the third lowest cost of living. I love my used car and Jake has no complaints about his 12-year-old truck. I like saving money and enjoy the challenge of finding coupon codes. Target clothes are enough for me. I enjoy painting my own nails. I don’t want a new purse. I’m content to be able to buy and cook good food. I’ve done the math on meal kit subscriptions and they’re a terrible deal, only slightly worse than eating out. I just don’t understand where people are getting their money and why they have so much more than we do. No matter how hard I try to be a good and non-judgmental person, I’m frequently left scratching my head at how people are affording their lifestyles.

With Jake’s friends and family, their circumstances at least make sense. His friends have largely gotten loans to start their family farms and run cattle. His sister has land and cattle because her husband once won quite a bit of money at the NFR and started his own business. One cousin is high up in oil and another helps run the family rodeo company. They’re also all 10 years older than us and most of them can’t even comprehend the term vacation, they work so hard. It’s not these folks who are confusing me and I genuinely hold zero bitterness toward them for their success. When looking at people our age, in similar life situations, though, I’m not bitter, but I am at a loss.

I’m not even on social media, but I still see some of my own family members, who’ve just bought their first home and had a baby in the same year, taking vacations, getting manicures, hitting Starbucks every day, and trying out expensive subscriptions, knowing that how much they earn annually places us firmly in the same bracket. They make similar money to what Jake and I do now or what we did before, but while paying for daycare. Still, they buy new cars, don designer handbags and jewelry, shop at pricey boutiques, and eat out all the time. They never seem to financially struggle during the holidays, whereas Jake and opted out of trading gifts between adults years ago. They had elaborate weddings, live on just enough land to cost some serious upkeep, and own farm animals that earn no revenue and essentially amount to expensive, but Instagrammable chores. They buy hundreds of dollars in gifts for their kids, keep them in stylish clothes and the latest tech, and take so many family vacations. I don’t even like to travel, but I’m still wondering how all these middle class people with small children are affording to do so, while Jake chooses a vacation horror movie on Netflix and I Google “fun and free family activities?”

I did not rejoice in the fact that my family all had to miss their flights and sleep on the airport floor with their many babies, came down with altitude sickness, got food poisoning, and experienced several Covid-19 cases during their Colorado trip… but I did rejoice in the fact that Jake and I didn’t put $1500 on a credit card to share in that experience. Similarly, I try not to somehow console myself with the idea that all of these people are drowning in debt. I truly hope that’s not the case, because although Jake and I had to pay $30,000 to have some babies, our house payment, new car payment, and minimum on the 0% credit card are the only monthly installments debts to our name. We also have investments, outside of Jake’s retirement. While they’re not as robust as they once were, with Bitcoin having bought us our babies, they still equal around $35,000. Additionally, although I’m staying home and these other couples earn two incomes, were I still working, the cost of daycare would have voided my pretty decent earnings when our boy arrives.. Even when Jake and I were both working, earning six figures together, we weren’t even able to daydream about keeping up with the Jones’s the way everyone else seems to be doing, so effortlessly.

What is it? Is everyone investing without me? Have they all inherited money? Are they printing it? Are they somehow not paying $4 per gallon in gas and $250 a month for electricity? Are the seemingly normal life expenses Jake and I experience so ridiculous? Do other people not need to have their thermostat replaced, upgrade their car with the increasing size of their families, repaint the occasional room, and save up for a new front door? Are these people, who seem to be living so lavishly in such similar circumstances to ours, somehow living in a pocket dimension where it’s the 1990s and a bag of frozen chicken doesn’t cost $30? Are they just spending more money? Do they have no savings? Are they all drowning in debt? Am I missing something, here? Am I just blind?

Ultimately, of course, I try to remind myself that the answers to these questions don’t actually matter. I have a nice life, one I’d have only dreamt of at one time. While we do make sacrifices to allow me to stay home, they’re both worth it to us and not that much greater than what we’d have been making were I working to pay for daycare. I wouldn’t turn down manicures, fancy haircuts, and massages, but I don’t feel my life is poorer without them. My children are too young to enjoy movie theaters, eating in a restaurant, or vacations. Jake and I appreciate the option to pause the movie on HBO Max and discuss or rant. We like cooking together every night, feeling it makes our marriage stronger. As for the Colorado trip, in hindsight, it seems we had much more fun watching The Hills Have Eyes after taking our girls to our new little $5 lake.

Still, no matter how hard I try to just mind my own busines, be thankful for all of many blessings, keep from looking into other people’s bowls… I can’t help but wonder, why does everyone have more money than we do?