(First in a series of essays this month on minimalism and its particular relevance to family life.)
(Update 1/14/19: Once I got a few episodes into the show, they introduced storylines involving cohabitation and homosexuality, so consider this your content warning and get ready to skip over a couple episodes. Womp womp.)
I’ve been an armchair minimalist since before minimalism was a buzzword. 8 moves and 5 kids in less than 10 years of marriage means I’ve honed the fine art of “do we really need this?” to a science.
Netflix launched a new series this month, and it’s fantastic: Tidying Up with Marie Kondo (of Life Changing Magic fame) Kondo is warm and gracious and my kids get a kick out of hearing spoken Japanese. The families she works with – at least so far – have been anxious to cooperate with her process and seem genuinely happier at the episode’s conclusion. There is no bootcamp style shaming or furtive confessional-style camerawork: the couples are taught Kondo’s signature method and timeline for tidying, and then seemingly left alone for days at a time to put her methods to work.
The footage of the process and of the interaction between the families has a distinctly different vibe than most reality shows; rather than encouraging strife and plot-driving tension, Kondo reminds the couples to focus on their own possessions rather than haranguing their spouses.
What I most appreciate about the show – and the process of tidying she espouses – is that it is custom fitted for each home, and for each family.
The first episode featured harried millennial parents of young toddlers and the requisite piles of laundry and dishes and toys – and chaos. When they’d completed their month long tidying endeavour, the couple were communicating better (their early scenes did seem a little overwrought with domestic tension, but the dishes! I get it!), enjoying their kids more, and seemingly more content with their already beautiful and perfectly serviceable home.
The next episode featured an older couple who were empty nesters and, frankly, hoarders. Their completed space still produced a mild panic reaction by my standards, but they did a ton of work in only 6 weeks, undoing decades of neglect and recreational shopping habits as they worked together to sort through their belongings.
Both families had clearly different styles and spaces and were in totally different stages of life; both benefited from learning that stuff, however little or much you have, won’t make you happy.
Minimalism, to me, is the idea that less is more, and that stuff can’t make you happy.
That stuff is actually value neutral, and that the space we inhabit and the things we bring into that space should be working together in harmony to increase the value in day to day living, not competing to suck it away.
A bigger family like mine is going to have a greater variation of sizes of clothing, but not necessarily own more clothing overall.
I’d venture to say that our family of 7 owns fewer total items of clothing than the average American family of 4. Because that’s what works for us. I’m the main launderer in the family, and just by the numbers, I can’t keep on top of 15 pairs of pants and 20 shirts for each family member. As our family size has increased, our net number of items of clothing per member has dropped. Seems counterintuitive, until you remember that even with more kids, you still only get 24 hours in a day. Once I figured out that I didn’t have to live normally, i.e. surrounded by mountains of toys and bins and bins of extra clothing, it was a huge relief.
Having more stuff doesn’t increase happiness beyond a certain point. At some point, you hit peak satisfaction. Peak satisfaction is probably closer to sustainability than we realize. Once you have your basic needs for food, shelter and clothing met, happiness actually levels off fairly soon thereafter. A family living in a 4,000 square foot house is not appreciably happier than a family living in 1,200 square feet, at least not in ways that can be directly correlated with square footage.
So what does this look like, practically speaking?
But first, a caveat. Minimalism treads on privileged ground. It’s not just for the rich or upper middle class – I believe that almost anyone can benefit from it – but it does presuppose a level of security. Self-reflection is a luxury. I give thanks for the stability that enables me to calmly assess our circumstances and adjust as necessary. Not everybody lives in this kind of privilege. I also want to avoid falling prey to the false morality trap. You know what I’m talking about, right? Organized people are not “better” than disorganized people. Clean and well dressed people are not superior to dirty and disheveled people. People who eat conventionally grown produce are not inferior to people who buy organic. In a society that is becoming increasingly untethered from objective moral values, pseudo values have swept in to fill the vacuum, and they’re pretty whack. And minimalism, while it can compliment your values, is not itself a value.
Minimalism begets time:
I read a lot of books. I also write a lot. I also cook at least two, sometimes three meals each day for seven people. I can’t – I don’t want to – spend hours every day picking up toys and books and throw pillows and dirty underwear. An hour or two of that each day is more than enough for me. As such, we don’t have all that many of any of those items, dirty underwear exempted.
There are five throw pillows in our house. Two on each of our couches and one on a chair. I guess if we have a sixth child we might…I kid, I kid. I don’t know why we have so few. I just know that the ones we have, I mostly like, and I don’t mind picking up five pillows off the floor every day. Five feels like a manageable number of pillows to me.
We have 16 dinner plates. About half that many bowls, because I guess my kids can break anything, even Corelle. We use a dozen mason jars for drinks, have a cupboard of 10 coffee cups, all of which I actually like, and there is a shelf of glass barware for fancier stuff than water. Down below we have a single kid’s drawer: 10 plastic plates, 6 stainless steel cups, 6 water bottles (all missing lids), and 2 of those magic silicone toppers that make any cup a sippy cup. Zelie still drinks bottles, and we have 4 of those, and 4 nipples.
Our kitchen is small, a 70s-style galley layout. I’ve had friends comment on how small, but honestly, I don’t really mind it now. I wish I had more counter space sometimes, but for ordinary life, it’s actually fine.
Obviously if we were hosting dinner parties for the high school track team every Thursday night we’d need to own more dishes, and I’m sure as my kids age, we will! But right now? 16 dinner plates is enough. And it means the sink is never overly full of dishes, and that I have time to do stuff besides dishes. Like pick up dirty underwear.
Minimalism begets contentment:
About that galley kitchen. I don’t love it. When we moved in it was a dark brown cave with mustard linoleum accents. I’d love to blow out and rip down and bust through all the walls and surfaces, but the budget won’t permit it, maybe for twenty years or maybe ever. In the meantime, I’m a domestic engineer who spends 90% of her life working at home, and I want to feel good in my space. So month by month, one $30 can of paint at a time, we’ve changed the way it looks and feels.
Slapping a coat of paint on something isn’t minimalism, per se, but slapping a coat of paint on something in order to make it work better for you rather than trying to shop your way into contentment? Totally. I rarely bring new non-consumables into my kitchen, because there isn’t space for much, but also because I like the way it looks now. A cupboard shelf with matching (and allegedly indestructible) white dishes is actually really attractive, even when the shelf they’re sitting on is dated wood, and the countertops cheap composite.
Don’t misunderstand me here, I’m not saying that you have to have plain white everything in your kitchen, lined up in uniform columns like a control freak (raises hand), just that when you are intentional about what bring into, or keep, in your daily environment, it makes you happier.
You’ll be less tempted by what you see on Instagram or the aisles of wherever, not because you have achieved monastic temporal detachment, but because you are content. It’s easier to forgive my kitchen for its other shortcomings when I’m not opening drawers that are exploding with logo-tatted water bottles from our insurance company or whatever.
And listen, if your closet floor is invisible beneath layers of rejected or dirty or wrong size clothes and there are bent wire hangers crammed on the rods, holding stuff you haven’t worn since college, then of course you’re going to feel like you need – want – to go shopping.
Set yourself up for contentment by only hanging onto what you love. That’s my version of “sparks joy.” And yes, I love our NoseFrida, for reasons that are less aesthetic and more functional.
Minimalism begets domestic tranquility
Marriage – ay, there’s the rub. “But my husband collects x,” or “my wife wants to have a two year supply of y on hand, at all times!” you may be thinking.
Fine, great! An intentional, curated collection of just about anything can be beautiful in its own way. If he has a garage full of ski gear or a shed full of tools, why not line everything up and mount some hooks to store stuff vertically, and make the space look more like a nicely merchandised end cap at REI and not the scary multi-neighbor garage sale? And recycle the old and broken stuff while you’re at it. You are not going to hit the jackpot on antique road show or one day coach an amateur ice hockey team, half the members of which will have nothing to use but your old dirty gear from 1998, so it’s a good thing you held onto it.
Try sitting down with your spouse and making a list of things that you already own that bring you joy. I can imagine for me it really would be a few pairs of Kendra Scott earrings I love that I’ve received as gifts. For Dave, it would probably be camping gear and some of his barware.
There’s nothing wrong with owning stuff, especially when you’re hanging onto it because it serves your family and makes you happy.
But those garbage bags full of used baby clothes that may or may not come in handy down the road? Those aren’t serving your family right now. And they could, in fact, be serving another family at this very moment. Same with old equipment for sports you don’t play anymore. Books you’ve read and don’t plan – realistically – to re-read in the future. Clothes that probably aren’t going to fit again or, if they do, will be aged beyond usefulness or stylishness.
One of the best places to start with a spouse who’s less inclined to letting things go is to start with the positives: what having, say, an emptier garage or basement or unstuffed dresser drawers or kitchen cabinets could help provide for your family. More space to play and grow. Maybe room to carve out a spare sleeping space (in the basement, probably not the garage but YOU DO YOU) for an introverted child who is currently sharing a room or for hosting overnight guests.
(I’m going to cover the marriage dynamic extensively in an entire future post, so stay tuned.)
I’m not going to pretend like this concept is super intuitive for everyone to apply. I really think some people are just born collectors (cough cough my eldest son’s horrifying top bunk), and others are more prone to frequent Goodwill . How you were raised factors in, too. How much money your family makes. Whether or not you travel a lot, move frequently, host regularly, etc.
Kondo, while not preaching minimalism in her method, per se, seems to have a tremendous grasp on how to help different personalities embrace and apply her method (which does tend towards minimalism in its essence, I think, because I think most of us hit our hedonistic threshold with stuff much sooner than our linen closets would have us believe) no matter whether they want to have a whole room stuffed full of crafting supplies and musical instruments or if they prefer to live in more austere quarters.
The biggest sell for our family to start – and keep – living this way for so long has been the time freedom. I can clean my entire house in under an hour, no joke. And by clean I mean stuff is organized, de-loused, and re-homed, not that it’s scrubbed and shined. My floors, baseboards and shower tiles will tell you the real story of how “clean” things really are around here. Tidy, though? Anyone can do tidy, I promise.