Why I hesitated becoming a Minivan Dad (it’s not why you think)

Even mentioning my plans to look at minivans earned the kind of under-the-breath-but-actually-directly-at-you reactions you might expect.

“Well, well, well, a minivan, huh?! Going to be a van dad, huh?! Deciding to give up being cool, huh?!” 

Even as jokes, the point seemed to be that entertaining the minivan — no matter the circumstance — constituted some failure on my part.

Let me say one thing from the outset: I place very little value on out-dated definitions of masculinity, strength, coolness, etc.

Any apprehension I had adopting the minivan did not hinge on any arbitrary definition of what constitutes a ‘manly’ or ‘cool’ automobile or not. My personal credo is not inherently linked to any product or campaign. (Gillette or otherwise.)

My real issues with a minivan rested in my realization that I’m entering a very different phase of life, and that my definition of ‘utility vehicle’ must change.

Tradition and transit

My modern family of five is non-traditional both in terms of the larger size of our family, but also in terms of our transportation past and present.

American women are having, on average, 1.77 children, and there are many vehicles that are not minivans that can fit 1 and .77 kids without much trouble.

In fact, we traded up to a van from our Jeep Cherokee when a growth-spurt put my tween’s knees well into the center console, and elbows were flanked tightly by the booster and car seats of siblings. 

We only bought the Jeep because our Volkswagen was one of the ill-fated Jettas that boasted really amazing fuel economy, but only because the diesel technology within it contained a ‘defeat device’ meant to defeat emissions testing and perhaps Mother Nature herself.

But the most atypical piece of our transportation past is probably the fact we lived abroad for four years, in Germany and Switzerland during a fellowship and my stint with Switzerland’s public broadcaster.

We didn’t have all of our kids for all of that time abroad, but trains, buses, and our own two legs helped ferry us everywhere, with only the occasional need for a taxi to get us home from a train station during one of our moves.

It took time for us to adjust to the American car-centric world again. Literally just having a car was strange.

But my issue with the minivan is a little more complicated than just the fact it’s an automobile that I own, and is a kind of land-boat.

For that answer we need to consider advertising and the fear-based economy.

Redefining SUV

In general, new parents face a world of advertising that appeals to fear, function, and fear.

I don’t necessarily mean that all the fear used in advertising is based on reminding you of the possibility that something really bad could happen (although that does exist, with fanciness of things like car seats, strollers, or pack-and-plays.)

Sometimes the fear is subtle and really difficult for a new parent to parse lest they think they’ve failed in some major way.

Advertising for cars kind of works on the same tension between necessity, preparing for the worst, and just wanting a sweet ride.

I spent a good chunk of my formative years in North Idaho: a mountainous, beautifully timbered region of the country that breathes new life in each of the four seasons. 

Four-wheel drive is not required per se, but you’re good to have it.

Mud caused by Spring rains, snow that never seems to stop, or even a wrong turn down a dark, backwoods road can either be a slight inconvenience or a serious problem depending on whether you have that four-wheel drive or not.

In this setting, a Sport Utility Vehicle would be what you typically think of: sturdy, powerful, rugged…‘hypermasculine?’

But now I’m in Cleveland.

The priority for what a ‘utility vehicle’ is has shifted to what can get my whole family from points A-to-Z within an urban/suburban setting in the most comfortable and safest way possible.

The fear is now less about swerving to miss a deer and ending up in a snowy ditch while deep in the forest, and now more about swerving to miss a deer and ending up in my neighbor’s snowy yard while driving home from the grocery store.

Recognizing these practical differences in situation and necessity was one step I had to take to fully embrace the minivan.

It’s also a moment of recognition that even though I’ve been a parent for a decade, our family has grown to a point when we just need more space.

Stomachs grow, legs grow, and our needs for housing and transportation have changed.

It’s a maturing for me as a parent, even well into parenting ,  and sometimes it takes time to make that transition.

Stereotypes should go

Minivans seem to be mocked in our culture, or at least not as celebrated as with other van enthusiasts.

While the glamorous Instagrammable influencers cruise to the beach in their VW buses, minivans are doing yeoman’s work of bringing little tykes from soccer and school.

Posts marked #vanlife don’t often (ever?) show heroic mothers managing the household corporations, or families trying to make it to a vacation spot with sanity and maybe an occasional smile.

(Yes, I know #vanlife is its own thing, but #minivanlife isn’t yet trending…)

Car advertising itself is also a strange mix of ‘hypermasculinity,’ incessant J.D. Power awards, some kitsch and curiosity.

One counter-trend minivan ad featured Kathryn Hahn ‘writhing around’ on the vehicle, “embodying the mom who stays youthful partly by owning one of the less embarrassing minivans on the market.”

At least for me, what is ’embarrassing’ or not (and how do you even measure that?) is not really the point. At this stage of life the point is literally about carrying people and things.

It’s a utilitarian moment. A parenting moment. A grown-up moment.

You do you

At the end of the day, whether you’re with a family or without, you have to make the best decisions you can for your own situation.

Advertising appeals to our sense of vanity, and fear, and hope, and desire, but there comes a time when you’ll base your choice on necessity.

What do you need, and what do you not need?

What are the must-haves and the nice-to-haves of your situation?

Is your experience from before relevant to the experience you’re about to have?

Someone early in our parenting journey told us that each phase of a child’s life brings with it its own pros and cons.

One age might be whinier, but the curiosity contagious, for example. Another age might bring tough sleepless nights, but the cuteness factor is exponential.

Our lives into adulthood can probably be broken up into the same pros and cons evaluation.

There were certain benefits and drawbacks to not owning a vehicle, to owning a VW, to a Jeep, to now a minivan.

We should base our decisions on what we know and expect about the stretch of life we’re in, and try to adapt as best we can.

For now, I’ll be cruising this stretch as a minivan dad.

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