Diy & Crafts

Living With Kids: Julia Milton

Julia, her husband, and their three kids have been living in a pre-fabricated home in Phoenix, Arizona for a couple of years — and it has been a wonderful fit. Not only did it allow them get into a home for a much lower price than they would have paid for a similar sized traditionally-built home, but that lower-cost purchase has allowed them to pay down other debt and get into a more secure place financially. Julia’s zest for life, and her love of parenting, come through in every sentence. She’s also very passionate about trusting your instincts, and doing what you know to be right. Welcome, Julia!

Hi, my name is Julia and I live here with my husband, Ben, and our three kids, Petra (5.5), Corwin (4) and Theo (2). Ben is a fifth grade teacher and runs the D&D YouTube channel Questing Beast. I’m a stay-at-home mom who likes knitting, needlework, and patchwork because I’m 31 going on 97. Like a good Millennial, I also have a YouTube channel, The Great Green Room, which reviews picture books.

Before I had my second baby, I had the idea that all our kids would be generally alike. I don’t know where I got that idea. I’ve worked with kids almost all my life — my family was a foster family starting when I was eight and there were babies and toddlers in our home more or less constantly for the next decade. After that, I worked at day cares and as a nanny. I know full well that even the closest of siblings can be miles apart in personality!

When my kids want to do something, Petra stomps her feet and demands it, Corwin bats his eyelashes and tries to sweet-talk me, and Theo stares right at me and does it without breaking eye contact. They ignore their toys in favor of emptying the kitchen cupboards, and gamboling among the pots and pans while I’m trying to cook. They creep into my room at 6 AM to whisper “what are we having for dinner?” into my slumbering ear. They give me big hugs and sticky kisses and bring me their treasures to inspect and share. They’re my sweet little harbingers of chaos, as is right and proper, and I love them.

We moved to Phoenix from Portland when Petra was eight weeks old. It was awful. Portland, Ben’s hometown, is a lovely city. We met at school in California and I moved there after graduation. We were married there two years later. It was so hard to leave that beautiful city; hard to leave our bright corner apartment with the picture window that overlooked a green field.

But this was the recession, and Ben had been laid off from his copywriting job months before. We’d been living off what I made as a nanny and what freelance jobs came his way, but there just were no full-time jobs to be had that could support a family in a city as expensive as Portland. So when a family friend referred Ben for a teaching position at a charter school in Phoenix, he jumped on it right away. He flew down to interview for the position two weeks before my due date; two months after Petra was born we were moving.

We moved to Phoenix at the end of June. The day we drove into town it was 114 degrees in the shade. I don’t know if you’ve ever experienced that kind of heat, but it is like a living thing — a living, deadly thing. The city itself was brown, mile after dusty mile of chain stores and strip malls baking in the heat, surrounded by the traditional border of prickly pear, lava rock, and assorted garbage.

To say Phoenix didn’t make a great first impression is a massive understatement. Also, Petra was on a nursing strike and I had no idea what to do about it. And did I mention we were flat broke? We scraped our savings account clean putting down a deposit and first months’ rent on our new apartment and lived off family generosity and our good credit until Ben’s first paycheck came through — in six weeks.

I’ll never forget that time. We had to learn so much so fast. We had barely been married one year, with a brand-new baby in a new city we hated. “Stressed” doesn’t even begin to cover it. But we moved forward. Petra learned to eat. The adults learned how to keep a bare-bones budget; learned how to look at our bank account after paying the rent and decide which utilities bill we could postpone; learned how to work magic with the grocery list to make our WIC vouchers count for as much as possible.

On Ben’s birthday, several of his students got him gift cards to Starbucks and other places. It was such a treat to drive through and order a fancy coffee like it was nothing!

Best of all, as the months passed something strange happened — Phoenix started to grow on me. Turns out, it only looks like a featureless wasteland from the outside. There are all kinds of interesting things to do and places to go, tiny hole-in-the-wall restaurants and small family businesses — you just have to look for them.

Right across the street from our apartment was an enormous Asian grocery store. I would put Petra in her stroller and just wander the aisles. When we had a little extra in the grocery budget we’d buy something fun, like a bottle of Japanese soda pop, or a package of naan. Through Ben’s school we learned that the public library system had a huge book sale every year, with kids’ books for 10 cents a pop. We still have some of those picture books.

And the winters! I would walk with Petra through the neighborhood adjoining our apartment. It felt like magic. Seventy-degree days. Citrus trees overhanging the sidewalks. I could put up my hand and a lemon the size of a football would drop into it. On days like this, the dead, dry summer seems a million years away.

Gradually, our financial situation evened out. We paid off our credit card debt, started paying our bills on time, built up our savings account. We had Corwin. That’s when things in our apartment started feeling a little…close. For reasons best known only to themselves, the architects of this particular complex decided to put as few 90-degree angles in the place as possible. Our bedroom, which we were sharing with a very restless Corwin, was an irregular dodecahedron. Not a great shape for fitting in an extra crib. The people below us did not love living below a couple of stompy little kids, and really, who could blame them? It was time to find a house. Preferably one with rectangular rooms.

When I was a baby, my dad took out a number of savings bonds for me. I had never spent them. We could have accessed them anytime, and when we were struggling financially it was definitely a strong temptation. but we didn’t because we were waiting for this moment — when we were financially stable enough to take care of a house once we’d bought it. The savings bonds formed the backbone of our down payment. We did the math and settled on an upper limit of 130K for a three bedroom house. Then we went to work.

We saw a heck of a lot of houses. Some of them were easy to turn down. This one was too far from Ben’s work. That one had an extra room tacked on the back that didn’t show up on any tax information. (This was an oddly common situation. No, thank you!) Other houses were covered wall-to-wall, floor-to-ceiling with bright-white bathroom tiles. Once we walked out of a promising house to observe a drug deal going down across the street.

I don’t know how we started looking at manufactured homes in particular, but once we started we knew we were on the right track. They were far cheaper for comparable square footage, and many of them were either new or well-maintained. But the mobile/manufactured home market can be a little tricky. Technically, they class as a vehicle, not a house, since theoretically you could hitch it up to a trailer and haul it to another location. (Our manufactured home has a VIN number.)

The most common situation is to have the entire neighborhood (or “park”) owned by a company or conglomerate. People own the homes outright, but pay rent to the landowner for the land their home sits on. This was not the situation we wanted. Most mobile/manufactured home neighborhoods NOT run on this model were platted decades ago and have been full ever since.

Then we saw a listing for a brand-new doublewide, 1250 square feet, in one of these older neighborhoods. It was being sold by an investment company. We know now that in general, this means that the mobile home previously on the lot had burned down, a worryingly common fate for older prefabs. But at the time, all we could see was a brand-new home in our price range. At 134K, it was at the very, very stretch-goal top of our budget. But when I walked in, I knew it was the place for us. The rooms were new, clean, and best of all, SQUARE. I said to the kids, “stomp on the floor as hard as you can!”

I loved the neighborhood as soon as I saw it. Phoenix has a reputation for suburban sprawl, personality-less cookie-cutter houses as far as the eye can see. Not so here. Perhaps because our houses were stamped out in a factory, every single homeowner in the neighborhood has made their house uniquely their own. Some people’s houses, let’s be honest, might fare a little better if they were a little less individual. The less said about the drug house around the corner that burned down, the better.

But in general, people try their best with their property and seem to be genuinely grateful for what they have. Lots of retired couples. Lots of working-class families. Lots of people finding inexpensive ways to make their houses beautiful. (One neighbor re-purposes everything — and I do mean EVERYTHING — as planters in their front yard. I wouldn’t necessarily care to plant flowers in an old toilet. But YMMV.)

Ben wasn’t sold, at first. For one thing, the house was a stupefyingly ugly, surrounded by khaki-colored gravel, painted a uniform baby-poop-brown. When we pulled up to view it for the first time, I said, “oh my God, it’s a shed!” It was brand new, and no one had made it THEIRS yet. It was an utterly featureless rectangle. But there was no denying the advantages. No white tile. No light switches that led to nowhere. No awkward DIY sunrooms tacked onto the back. A small yard for our kids to play. In the end, it was far and away the best option for us. We got the price down to 132K, and in January 2016 the place was ours.

We soon learned that just because our house was new doesn’t mean it was perfect. I discovered while doing yardwork what the fate of the previous house had been–hard not to realize what happened when you start digging up piles and piles of black ash! The house, while sturdy and did I mention SQUARE, was outfitted with the cheapest possible builder-grade fixtures. Somehow the people who put the place together had managed to put all the window screens in upside-down. There wasn’t a dishwasher. When we had the carpet in the living and dining rooms replaced with laminate, we discovered that someone had glued the carpet to the underfloor with LIQUID NAIL.

So things weren’t perfect, but no house ever is! Never did we dream we’d find a NEW house in our price range, and in general we just could not be happier. Ben’s parents gifted us a dishwasher, which my dad installed. We planted lemon and orange trees. I planted herbs and lavender in the built-in beds. Every year, our home becomes more beautiful. This year, I got a dozen lemons from our own tree. Paradise!

If you have a limited budget, I strongly recommend looking into prefab or manufactured homes. Do your homework, though. Many prefabs, especially older ones, do not have a foundation. This leaves the home vulnerable to pests. It may be worthwhile to purchase rodent or other pest insurance. Be aware that prefabs, in order to keep the price down, are made with quite cheap materials. I highly recommend having your electric and plumbing system extensively vetted, before you buy if possible, and be aware you may have to invest a little down the line.

You should also know that if you own both the house and the land, you will have to pay property taxes on both. This was quite a surprise the first year we owned our home! Happily, property taxes for mobile/manufactured homes are MUCH lower than standard brick-and-mortars.

The price range can vary quite a bit. Our brand-new home, which has siding, shingling, and a foundation, was purchased at just about the highest price you’ll ever see for a prefab unless you have one custom-built.

As with any home you’re thinking of buying, do your homework! Is it a land-rental situation, or will you own your land outright? What’s the history of the land you’re on? Be as picky as you can — and try to ignore the ridiculous stigma associated with owning a home made of metal as opposed to a home made of stone or brick or wood. Goodness, who cares? People get all holy about the Tiny House movement, but living in a “trailer home” is somehow low-class? Do NOT get me started!

For a long time, there just wasn’t money for home decor. I used to think, “when we’re more stable, I can work on a personal style.” What a silly thing to think!  The things we brought into our marriage, the things that our friends and family gave us as wedding presents or out of the kindness of their hearts, the things that meant a lot to us simply because we didn’t have very much — all these things went in to what made our home OURS.

The sofa and comfy chair that were family hand-me-downs. The bas-relief carving of Vienna a teacher gave me. The coffee table we found on Craigslist for an absolute steal. Some people really like looking at a room as a blank canvas and designing it from the ground up. And that’s great! But there’s no need to do that if you can’t or don’t know how. And there certainly isn’t any need to spend a lot!

My one stylistic non-negotiable once we had the budget for such things was to get frames for our posters. Once I’d done that, I started looking around for other things to frame. I printed off a bunch of candid photos of Petra and Corwin — Theo wasn’t born yet — threw them into dollar-store frames, and arranged them on the dining room wall. Now our collection of photos has spread to the hallway and the living room! (Theo included, of course!)

The superhero prints above Corwin’s bed came from an old coffee table book of my husband’s. The book was falling apart and losing its binding — what better way to up-cycle some perfectly nice pictures than to put them on the wall? An artist Ben found on ArtStation did the magnificent print of Joan of Arc above Petra’s bed. When Ben emailed her asking if he could buy a copy, she replied that as long as we were using it in our own home, we could print it for free. The watercolors in Theo’s room were done by Ben’s younger sister.

When I couldn’t find inexpensive throw pillows I liked, I got some fabric off the discount rack and made some myself. There are so many ways to decorate, so many ways to express your style. Give yourself time to find them! There’s no hurry. Your home is already yours!

      

I hope my kids remember picking lemons off our tree, playing drums with my pots and pans strewn all over the floor, sitting on the couch reading Zita the Spacegirl and The Day Jimmy’s Boa Ate the Wash for the millionth time. I hope they remember that their father and I made it a priority to do the things we love, and that we constantly encouraged them to explore what they love. 

I hope they DON’T remember the time they all went walking barefoot in the yard and got about a million stickers in their feet because I hadn’t gotten around to uprooting a big goathead vine yet. I hope they don’t remember all the times I yelled during the pre-dinner hangry time! But I try to remind myself that I don’t remember my mom yelling at me — even the times she specifically remembers doing it!

Once I lost my temper and yelled at my older kids. After I cooled down, I found them and apologized. “I’m sorry. Sometimes Mom has a little temper tantrum, just like you.” They looked at me totally blankly. “When did you yell?” my daughter asked.

When I was growing up, my parents did foster care. (In fact, 23 years later, they are still foster parents! It is truly their life’s work.) I cannot overstate how much this influenced my life, both as a parent and in general. Not only did I gain untold amounts of practical experience with kids, but I am grateful beyond measure to have had parents who so constantly modeled what patience and compassion look like; how those virtues should imbue your daily life and the interactions you have with other people, even if you don’t really like them much.

They also taught me something truly invaluable: how to put my life in perspective. Not in a “how dare you think you have problems when other people have it so much worse” kind of way, but in a “whatever problems you have are valid, but probably not as bad as you think, and even if they are, they too shall pass” kind of way. As a parent, there are so many daily dramas, so many little frustrations, so many looming troubles. It’s hard not to lose yourself in what is going wrong. Happily, I learned in childhood how to hang on to the things that were going right, how to extract what joy you can from the day, even if things are devolving into chaos around you.

Given this, I’m ashamed to say that I lost perspective entirely in the months after Petra was born. I had so much experience with children, I thought I had parenthood in the bag. BOY, was I wrong! I was a wreck. Petra just wouldn’t take to nursing. We were facing a major move in just a few short weeks. We didn’t have any money. My mother and my husband, the two people who know and love me better than anyone else in the entire world, both told me to stop reading parenting books. They told me to stop going on parenting forums. But did I listen? NOOOOOOOO.

Parents, just in case you don’t have anyone else to tell you, I am telling you now: if you are having a problem, do NOT turn to strangers for the answer. If you possibly, possibly can, ask another parent who KNOWS you and whom you trust. Nothing in all my years of childcare prepared me for the viciousness of the Mommy Wars. Never did I dream that perfect strangers could be so vile and cruel to each other over something as trivial as where you chose to put your child to sleep. Never did I imagine the racist tripe that would crop up every time the subject of circumcision came up. And never, never, did I think that so many people would be so convinced that breastfeeding was the be-all and end-all of motherhood.

Over and over, on forums and in books by “experts”, I read that nursing was the backbone of my child’s success, that if I couldn’t make it work it was definitely my fault somehow, that nursing my child should take precedent over literally everything else in my life. What utter and complete bullsh*t! Looking back on it, I am filled with anger. How dare these smug idiots, these strangers, these so-called experts, pass judgement on me and my family and my circumstances?

The fact of the matter is, for every decision you make, there’s going to be someone — maybe even someone with a lot of letters after their name — who is convinced you’ve made the wrong one. You just have to try as hard as you can to rise above it. You know your family. You know yourself. You know your child. You’re raising babies, not making cake. If someone makes a claim that seems too good to be true, or seems ludicrously out of your reach, you’re probably right. This is what people mean when they say “trust your instincts.” Trust which people are truly trying to help you, and which people are just trying to sell something.

We parents, especially we mothers, lather ourselves in fear and self-doubt. Don’t let other people do it for you!

My kids throw themselves into their days with blinding enthusiasm. It’s simultaneously the best and the most exhausting thing about being their mom! Petra is putting on an impromptu dance show on the coffee table while Corwin is having a lightsaber battle with his shadow and Theo is methodically taking off his shoes and SMO braces for the sixteenth time, after which he will proudly bring them to me. In two minutes they’ll be building a castle out of moon sand and negotiating with me for TV time and eating something from underneath the rug. Everything matters; everything is interesting.

I know that one day, probably sooner than I could possibly imagine, they’ll slow down, focus their energies on a handful of interests. Petra won’t crowd close to me and put her chin on my shoulder when we read a book together. Corwin will be too big to stand on my feet and hold my hands and go dancing through the house. Theo won’t want to cuddle in the early mornings before everyone else is up. It makes me sad just thinking about it!

But on the other hand, no more poop accidents. They will want to watch PJ Masks 1000% less. I will no longer put my hand down on some random surface and wonder how it got so damp and/or sticky. (WHYYYY IS EVERYTHING IN MY HOUSE SO STICKY???)

The coming phases will have things I love and things I don’t love, just like their current phases, just like their baby phases. Sometimes your babies won’t eat, sometimes they won’t sleep, sometimes you’re lying awake wondering how you’re going to afford a new pair of shoes, sometimes people are mean to you on the internet. Whatever it is, it always seems to last forever.. But it’s just the dead, dry summer. The monsoons are coming. Soon the lemons will ripen on the tree. And in the spring, when the air smells like orange blossoms, you’ll remember why it was all worth it.

—-

Thank you, Julia!

I was really struck by Julia’s comments about how we think about “tiny homes” versus “mobile homes.” Someone living in a repurposed shipping container, or a 400 sq. ft. home in the woods might find themselves featured in a design magazine, but when we hear that someone lives in a manufactured home, we might immediately make negative assumptions. I’m glad Julia is challenging that idea. It’s admirable to choose options that make sense financially for your family.

I love, too, what Julia said about trusting your instincts. One of the hardest parts of being an adult is making decisions and then trusting that it’s the right choice. There is no user manual in parenting, so we often rely on the voices of strangers, or best selling books, or blogs, to help us validate the choices we make. Especially as a newer parent, it is easy to second guess yourself. I love the impassioned cry to listen to all the advice, and then throw it out the window and make the best decision for you and your family.

Was it hard for you to make decisions when you were a new parent? Or did you instinctively trust yourself? What’s the best advice you ever took? What’s the worst?

SOURCES

My Neighbor Totoro Print

I Love You, I Know Print

Super Hero prints from Alex Ross’s Mythology

St. Joan of Arc print


Living With Kids is edited by Josh Bingham — you can follow him on Instagram too.

Would you like to share your home in our Living With Kids series? It’s lots of fun, I promise! (And we are always looking for more diversity in the families we feature here. Single parents, non-traditional parents, families of color, LGBT parents, multi-generational families. Reach out! We’d love to hear your stories!!) Email us at [email protected]

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