“I have to leave about 4:30 tomorrow morning to make the bus,” he whispered to me over the sleeping baby. It was softly snowing outside, and we both knew it would be below zero when Big Country headed out in his snow pants and gaiters to begin his day of chemistry, physics, and kinesiology.
The pre-med experience was insidiously morphing from demanding to self-sacrificing to crushing to our finances and family life.
Despite maintaining a high GPA, it wasn’t quite enough for the rigors of the college, and the student loan interest jumped to 12%. “We’ll power through, since it’s worth it,” I told myself during those long 15-hour days of watching the baby by myself at home. Everything seemed to be swallowed within the insatiable monster of school.
But something clicked a year and a half ago that was a sort of a death of an old dream and a birth of a new one. Part of it was a conversation Big had at church. Someone inquired how long it would take to finish all the osteopathic medical training – all of it: pre-med, med school, specialization, residency, possible fellowship, continuing ed, etc. – but the crux was, this man asked pointedly how old our young son would be when all the schooling was done. Which came to the age of 12.
It was sobering. Was this really something we were working toward for our children’s sake? Wouldn’t they rather have Daddy work a labor job by day and share in a hot meal, music, laughs, and teaching moments every night? Of course they’d choose Big Country, every time, and so would I.
We always wanted to be mortgage-free, building our own yurt or hand-built cabin someday, saying we could never see ourselves bonded to a many-years “death pledge.” But this whole time we were engaged in a risky venture of mortgaging the present as an investment in the future. All the student loans and the lost hours working, we chalked up as necessary sacrifices that would be paid off expediently when the doctor’s salary arrived.
What were the true costs of this bargain? Too overwhelming to calculate, but it was always worth it to follow a passion and make lifesaving differences in others’ lives, right?
But this presumed that he would finish med school and everything would go smoothly. If anything derailed or even deviated, we could be stuck with hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt and no way to pay it off. Everyone thinks that they will be the ones to make it through, but realistically, any number of things could happen in and out of our control that could be devastating.
One thought about how this could happen was looming in our minds: “What if during OB/GYN rotation, he’s required to participate in an abortion?” Opting out has legal protection, but for many pro-life med students, it can be a grueling battle against superiors antagonistic to students’ freedom to abstain. Were we ready to courageously fight this battle years from now? Not to mention the changing face of socialized medicine and how that affects a doctor’s private practice freedoms.
In the end, we couldn’t bank our future on the ethics of future professors or the political whims of the enterprising executive branch. It was clear that the happiness of our family and the health of our finances were tied to the quitting of college. And so we did, with a sober acceptance of the costs of the risks we took, and yet with peace. But now what would replace this path?
Strangely, I do not remember exactly how we came upon tiny homes on wheels. In our early years, we took drives into the mountains and dreamed of yurts and camping and a sort of vagabond life. We would have been thrilled to live in a little one-room guest cabin tucked away in someone’s garden. And I do remember seeing the episode of Jay Shafer of Tumbleweed introducing the concept of tiny houses on Oprah maybe seven years ago, the last time we had TV service. But however it happened, it seized upon us as soon as med school ended.
At the time we were paying at least half our earnings toward housing and utilities. We were blessed to live in a cute little house in town near a park, a lake, the library, and several friends. But lurking in the back of our minds was the knowledge that our elderly landlady was renting it at two thirds the going rate and was being pressured every year by her financial adviser, and possibly family, to raise it.
Cheaper options declined sharply in quality toward the depressing and unsafe. Before kids, we had lived happily in a seedy month-to-month and then briefly shared living quarters in an apartment. But even with a model apartment-mate, it really didn’t save money and wasn’t suited to a family and all the messiness and noisiness of having little ones.
Providing for both values and practicalities is a tenuous balancing act on a tight budget. We highly value raising our own kids without daycare, having an experienced midwife attend our home births, and eating food of superior nutrition like raw milk, homemade broth, and organic produce.
We were willing to go without almost everything else, including entertainment, new clothes, disposable diapers, and hubby’s favorite microbrews to pursue these goals for the health of our family. We even went without a car for nearly two years. I babysat another baby besides my own two for extra cash, we saw sporadic massage therapy clients in our spare room-turned-treatment room, and we bartered for eggs and elk meat.
But even with the hustle and the simplest of goals, our resources were drained dry. Big’s work paid decently per hour but was seasonal and rarely full-time; however, he had to be available 50 hours a week to secure those precious 25 he was on the job. Taking on a second job would require nights away, another steep sacrifice.
So what choices were left, within the parameters we wished to live? A mortgage had always been unpalatable, and was now unreachable. Renting forever provided no future. Buying an RV? A depreciating, toxin-filled choice between expensive or depressingly ramshackle. Bumming around, camping, staying with family? Romantic for about ten days, if you don’t have kids.
And so, somehow, we stumbled upon this dream of creating a hand-built tiny home on wheels. It sure seemed tailor made for us; why not go for it? There are trade-offs and sacrifices with any big venture, and there have been hard days. But I believe that people pursuing a special tiny house-kind-of-home that’s all at once comfortable, flexible, and well-built, are on to something.
It won’t solve all our problems, even once the financial burden of housing is lifted considerably, and we shouldn’t expect it to. We want to work and learn and provide for ourselves in the best way we can. But we also want to keep in mind that building a home is not the end goal and cannot provide ultimate security, but is instead a means to building a richer life with more possibilities.
I long to dwell in your tent foreverand take refuge in the shelter of your wings. Psalm 61:4