Big Family Minimalism

Big Family Minimalism

This is a guest post from my friend Jillian. It dawned on me, recently, that I don’t think I’ve ever had a guest post about family. Jillian is changing that in a BIG and meaningful way.

I never searched out minimalism. Rather, I stumbled upon it first as a type of survival tool. Our story is a bit of a winding and twisting journey. But our minimalism story starts 3.5 years ago, while I was sitting in a job interview and honestly killing it. The interviewers were over the moon happy to hire me on the spot, but I was distracted. I was trying to hold focus on the interview, but my phone was exploding with text messages and missed calls.

See, while I was interviewing my heart out, a 5-year-old boy with big hazel eyes had just been dropped off at our house by a social worker. He had been in foster care for a while and had disrupted from the last 5 homes. (This happens when foster parents or the birth family aren’t able to meet the child’s needs and a new family has to be found.) The social worker was rather confident we couldn’t handle him either. I have soft eyes and a sweet smile that hides the depth of my love, tenacity, and gumption. She mentioned, almost offhandedly, he also had two little sisters. No other family had been able to keep them together and the “state” didn’t want to attempt to place them together again. I just smiled my sweet smile and said, “Well, we aren’t every other family. When you are ready, we are ready for anything.”

It was lie. No one is ever fully ready. His little sisters moved in a few months later. I quit my job. I lived at the end of my rope for the next year.

Having four little kids at home is a lot (6, 5, 2 and 1). Just that alone. But it wasn’t just that. There were 12 appointments a week of various meetings, therapies, and with professionals. There were difficult visits with birth parents. There were court dates and a rotating door of overworked social workers. There were lawyers, judges, and court-appointed advocates. There was the uncertainty of not knowing what the future held for these kids I loved so much.

Plus, there were these sweet kids. They had seen so much trauma and neglect in their short lives that every behaviour was broken. I had the skill, knowledge, tools, and love that was needed. But I was exhausted. Like lay on the floor at night after I tucked them in and cry silent, hot tears exhausted. Until their nightmares started. Every one-to-two hours during the night for 3 years.

It’s all too much. A life at the end of our rope.

We were all at the ends of our rope. While it was challenging to be the ringleader of this circus, it wasn’t any easier for my kids. The two-year-old had lived with 5 different families before us. She called me and her birth mom, mama. They had to be dragged to appointments and meeting after meeting. They had their own trauma and no skills or words to express what they were feeling.

Just getting them ready for the twice-weekly visits with birth parents would nearly break us. They were excited, terrified, overwhelmed, full of dread, happy, conflicted: all at the same time. So they hit each other, melted down, took off their clothes, bit each other, screamed, hid and lost their coats. It was like dressing a whole litter of pissed off kittens into costumes and taking their picture. I would arrive to drop the kids off at the visit only to be criticized, belittled or ignored by the birth family. I would smile my sweet smile then go cry alone in my mini-van.

The foster care process isn’t easy or fun for anyone—not foster parents, not kids and not birth families. They lived in a constant state of anxiety not knowing if they would be with us for the next birthday, or at Christmas, or when school starts. No one knew.

So minimalism found us.

I imagine most people start with minimalism with their stuff. Decluttering and all. Maybe they read an awesome blog, or hear a podcast, and think “I SHOULD get rid of some of this stuff!”

I needed it in every area of my life, all at once. I dubbed 2015 the year of “Easier, not harder”. That was my only litmus test. Is this easier or harder?

I stopped wearing color because I didn’t have the time or skill to coordinate outfits.

I said no, and opted out of most of my commitments that were, in fact, optional.

I pulled my kids from sports.

I ate the same breakfast every single day.

I told all my kids teachers we weren’t doing any homework. ANY. No signing reading charts, no math worksheets, no flashcards. We aren’t doing it. I’m not signing it. Honestly, I’m not even going to look at it. I was so thankful for what the teachers were doing at school, but I couldn’t add “teacher” to my list of things to squeeze into our evenings.

I had to set boundaries with professionals. “No, I can’t change our appointment time every single week. Either keep our set time, or we skip it.” With 12 appointments on the calendar, having them all shift by 30 minutes or 2 hours IS a big deal.

I had to learn minimalism in my relationships. Most people were incredibly supportive, encouraging, and really understood the importance of what we were doing. And some people . . . didn’t. I didn’t have any leftover emotional energy to hear, “Why are you doing this? Why don’t you just give them back? The system is so broken, you shouldn’t have to put up with this. It’s fine if you want those kids in your family, but even if you adopt them, it doesn’t mean they are part of our family.”

I started owning the fact that I live in a real human body that needs food, water, exercise, and sleep. I started to accommodate those seemingly unreasonable demands of my non-robot body.

Bit by bit, we were doing better. Not just surviving with our nose barely above the waves, but almost flourishing.

Then in the same week in June 2015: We were officially asked to adopt our kids, and we found out we were pregnant.

Big Family Minimalism

Enter minimalism, level ninja.

I’ll admit, I had a bit of a mommy meltdown when I found out we were pregnant. Sure, we had spent thousands upon thousands of dollars on fertility treatments over the years. Sure, we had tried for 7 years. But now? Adding a baby definitely didn’t fall into my “easier, not harder” motto.

We had been shopping for a bigger house. We were a family of 6 in 1,650 cozy square feet. A bigger house seemed to make sense. Every single person who came to our house echoed the words, “So when are you moving to a bigger place?” like it was the chorus line in a Disney movie.

But the saying “a baby changes everything” is true.

Turns out, we didn’t want more and bigger. Our entire life already felt “more and bigger”. We wanted less. Actually, we all needed less.

Less clutter. Less cleaning. Less overwhelm. Less hectic.  Less appointments.

We needed margin for the right kind of more. More engagement. More quiet. More stories and cuddles. More adventure. More travel. More time in the garden. More focused time. More creativity.

More stuff and more space weren’t going to give us any of that.

We donated 50% of the kid’s toys, and decided to only keep 3 out at a time to play with. And I saw the kids settle in. Instead of the anxiety, overwhelm, fighting, and frustration they felt when confronted with a massive heap of toys, they just played. Slowly, carefully, thoughtfully with one toy. There was no cleaning up, correcting, and prompting at the end of the night. Each child set one toy on a shelf and it was over. That one simple change freed up a mountain of emotional and relational energy.

I made it a mission to touch every item in our house. I would ask a few questions. Is this a “hard-working” item, or is it “lazy”? Because we didn’t have space for lazy items. Our home couldn’t be a storage unit for barely used items. I would ask, “If I didn’t already own this and saw it at a yard sale for $5 would I buy it instantly, and with joy?” Because if it doesn’t add $5 of value, it doesn’t deserve a place in our home.

Minimalism is an act of faith at first. We paired our life down—appointments, relationships, classes, sports, commitments, stuff—with no guarantee of a better outcome. There was no promise in writing that what we would gain would be better than what we were letting go of.

You pull your kid from a sport and just hope. Hope that the extra two hours a week somehow adds as much value as the sport was adding. It takes a bit a faith to hold space. To create margin and not rush to fill it up again.

We got rid of “perfectly good” toys. (Ok, and a crap ton of McDonald’s happy meal toys.) It’s an act of faith to say, “We are going to donate all these ‘perfectly good’ toys that at one point we actually spent money on,” and just hope that “less is more”.

To the parents.

I kind of just want to give you a hug, at this point. I’ve raised six kids (my oldest passed away). I have to say that motherhood, in the thick of it, is the hardest and most beautiful part of my life. It has been my defining work.

So, if you feel like your kids will kick, scream, and cry themselves into a puddle, if there were less toys, less classes, less sports, less commitments. Remember this: If you are maxed out, they are maxed out.

My very normal kids hate picking up toys. Actually, I think they hated it even more than I did. They hated being corralled into the van. They hated the rush and my grumpy “Where in the world are your shoes!? Why are they in the bathtub? Can anyone answer me this!?! WAIT!?! Why are you covered in purple paint? OMG, I don’t even care. Come on. We are SO late. Please, please, please just put your shoes on.”

Despite what it seems, minimalism is a perfect fit for families. Here is how we started this journey with the toys. (Because no one likes living in a house that looks like a daycare crossed paths with a tornado!) I had this conversation with my four kids who at the time were 3-8:

“I think I haven’t been doing a good job. I think maybe I’ve made it too hard for you guys to pick up your room. The job is simply too hard. And that’s my fault. So here’s what we will do. You pick up as many toys as you can handle. Then I will come clean up the rest. I’ll put them away on this special toy shelf. Anything you can take care of, just pick up and you can keep that in your room. The only rule is, only keep as much as you can handle. If it gets to be too much for you to take care of on your own, I’ll come put it away.”

They managed to clean/organize about 5 toys. All the rest I took out of their room and put on a “toy shelf” that they could swap toys (if their room was clean).

It also made it simple to see what toys we could sneak away in the dark of night. If they hadn’t picked the toy off toy shelf in a few months, obviously it wasn’t a high-value toy. (If your 4-year-old willingly parts with toys, I salute you, dear Jedi Master! We are SO not there yet!)

For parents who are terrified to start, this is about an easy of a sell as you can get. And my kids loved it. No shame, no blame. Just me making their life easier. No more cleaning, no more tears over not being able to organize their room.

Big Family Minimalism

Big family minimalism.

When you walk into our home, “minimalism” might not be your first thought. Nothing, and I mean nothing, is white (even stuff that was white when we bought it!). There is a pile of shoes and coats and winter boots by the door. It’s loud with laughing, playing, and often someone is crying. I’m probably making chocolate chips pancakes. I’ll make you a cup of tea, but a toddler will interrupt our conversation every 90 seconds.

But if you look closely, you’ll see a family flourishing with less. Happy, healthy and whole. Our days are full of reading, writing, folding laundry, hiking, gardening, and travel. We eat real food, at a table. We have adventures on the weekend and a game night each Friday. We get enough sleep and have real conversations.

Sometimes I let myself wonder what our alternate life would look like. What path our three adopted kids might have taken if they didn’t end up together with us? But I don’t stay there long. Because my 90 seconds is up and a 4-year-old is peppering me with questions again (that I have already answered 12 times today).

Jillian drinks tea daily and writes about intentional lifestyle design, mini-retirements and creating financial freedom over at Montana Money Adventures. She lives in Montana, right by Glacier National Park, with her husband, 5 kids, and dog: cheesy taco. 

  • Wow, this is a powerful post and you’re a great writer! “Flourishing with less” is a great elevator-speech summary, and it’s something I strive for as well.

    Both of my parents were born in 1929 – my Dad was literally born 11 days before the market crash in Oct. ’29 that launched the Great Depression. So by the time they had me and my brother, they overcompensated by trying to load us up with “stuff”. I only found this out later in life that this was a common mindset of depression era people – to grasp onto things because they grew up with NOTHING. My Mom is 88 now and to this day I still can’t get her to throw away useless junk. “I might need that” she says. It’s a hard mindset to change.

    Looks like you’ve got it figured out and will instill a much different mindset into your children. Congrats and good luck!

    • Oh, I feel your mom’s pain. It was very difficult for me as well. I still have to fight against the temptation to try to “buy” the life I want for my kids, instead of helping them live it. Buying nice toys and expensive clothes is very easy, and it honestly calms my fear and neurotic self that still feels the pain of growing up poor. But I know, deep down, they don’t need more toys, they just need more of us. More stories, more craft time, more conversation, and more time playing outside. But I get the struggle. Those are hard things to give kids. In most ways much more expensive than more toys.

      Often I see myself or others trying to buy their kids out of their own uncomfort or the kids uncomfort. It’s the temptation when people live in poverty to “go big” at holidays. Everything else in life is so freaking hard, “Let’s just make this one holiday NICE.” There are so many things we can’t fix in life. “At least we can buy 10 toys for Christmas.” Even to this day, it makes me physically uncomfortable to not have a huge pile of new toys under the tree.

  • Jillian’s writing is always so fantastic and her story is such a powerful one. Even though I have no children and struggle with minimalism (my materialistic tendencies often win out), I found a lot of tidbits of wisdom in this post that really made me think and aspire to do better.

    • Thanks, Sarah! It’s been a long journey. I grew up very poor and it was my natural tendency to hoard things. It was actually very painful to get rid of things I had paid money for. The grief over that wasted money was palpable. Even a $5-10 item. Because I remembered how precious $5-10 use to be. And I was terrified I might need that item again and have to use even more money to replace it. But we came to a point where we literally didn’t have space for our home to be a sanctuary to barely used things. It was exactly the push I needed. =)

  • This is the best thing I’ve read in so long. Just the fact that you and your husband stuck with your babies leaves me in awe. (I’m so sorry for the loss of your eldest.) Where would this world be without people like you? You are so strong, a magnificent writer and incredibly, incredibly validating.Thank you so much.

    • Thank you so much, Sue! I never try to paint being a foster/adoptive parent as an easy road. But there is something incredibly beautiful about it. You meet these kids on the worst day of their life. And all the abuse, neglect, and suffering they have gone through comes out in their behavior because they simply don’t have the words or coping skills to process it any other way. But slowly, bit by bit, they become undone. It’s like watching the brokenness unravel and fall off a tiny piece at a time. And then you see small glimpses of them. The real them. And all of a sudden you see that they are actually really funny, and smart and sweet. And if you stick it out, you get to see the person they were meant to be all along. It’s a tremendous amount of work and love and hard days but one year you say, “Oh, there you are.” And you know that you did that together.

      • I just have to respond to say how beautiful it is that you see all that YOU get out of it. I can’t imagine what goes through your children’s heads (and hearts) about all you’ve done for them?! Obvious? Thanks for your reply!

  • This is a great post — and very much needed at this time of year. I love that it confirmed what I intuitively know to be true – even though I don’t always trust myself in doing it. :) Great writing — I was there with you :) Thank you for sharing your experiences and your insights. I agree that minimalism is a leap of faith – with surprising results….

    • Thanks Janet! Over time the leap of faith is a bit less scary. =) Over and over I see the benefits, and it builds my confidence in the process.

  • Love this, Jillian! It’s really helpful to hear from someone in PF/minimalism with a large family and a bigger purpose in view. I want to ruthlessly prioritize our commitments, yet I have a hard time figuring out what that looks like sometimes. Some great examples in here. I know it’s different for every family; this is certainly inspiring.

    • Oh, I’m with you Kalie! It’s so hard to know what to say yes to and what needs to be a no. My oldest just became obsessed with the idea of joining boy scouts. With all that fun comes weekly meetings, fundraising, volunteer hours. It took a few conversations to figure out what he really wanted out of the experience. And to show him that those things we are already doing! Every vacation, every camping trip, all the experiments, the five-ten science museums we see on every trip, our weekend adventures. I was finally like, “We do 10x as much of those things as a family then you could ever do in a weekly meeting. And everyone gets to enjoy it.” But it’s not easy to figure out when a sweet 10-year-old is caught up in the moment, near tears, because he just saw this flyer at school.

  • One of the best and most well written article I have read on minimalism in a long time. I appreciated the practical recommendations for removing excess in all facets of life, narrowing it down ruthlessly to what is essential in any given day (recognizing that our days strung together make up a life, and our chapter with children does go by quickly). The criteria you shared that is needed to do the hard work of letting things go that was once loved, spent time and money on, and/or that may be useful in another chapter of lives, is what is needed to remind us the value in looking at the big picture instead of all the minutia. So many of the blogs and articles say the same things over and over again; yours positioned it differently. Your guest post is a welcome adddition to Cait’s array of articles on simpler living. I hope you continue to share your work in this space.

  • “When you walk into our home, “minimalism” might not be your first thought.“

    Actually, it probably was. We visited Jillian and her family this summer and the value they place on each other over their stuff was obvious. Perhaps we only noticed it because we have similar values, but their home was not overrun with toys everywhere. Their home had a wonderful and peaceful coziness. Their bedtime routine was low-stress. I’m sure the absence of a frenzied clean-up time was a big part of that, as she mentioned in the article.

    They have incredibly sweet kids and our time with their family in Montana was a highlight of our summer travels.

    • “It’s loud with laughing, playing, and often someone is crying. I’m probably making chocolate chips pancakes. I’ll make you a cup of tea, but a toddler will interrupt our conversation every 90 seconds”
      This about perfectly sums up your visit. =) All the way to the chocolate chip pancakes. For dinner, none the less! It was so great to have you guys over and a highlight of a “week of fun!”.

  • Just so inspiring. I didn’t realise it was Jillian from Montana Money Adventures until the end, and I already follow her blog. Just so much good stuff in there to take to heart and implement. Oh how I wish I had this to read when my babies were little. Those early years rushed by in such a crazy blur… only now have I been moving towards a simpler life and I truly love the results x

  • The special toy shelf is brilliant!

    I am glad that minimalism has been so successful for you, and I really appreciate you sharing your story. I have been working to “minimalize” my home as well as my life, and you are absolutely right that the philosophy and benefit of minimalism go way beyond the physical space.

    • Just the toy shelf alone and not having to pick up and organize a pile of toys every day. There is only so many times I can sort a puzzle soup before I have a mommy melt dow. Plus it’s great when the kids friends are over.
      I don’t live in fear of 20 things getting jumbled together!

  • Oh Jillian! You are amazing! Life offered so many hard choices and you turned it into a life that’s filled with the most important things. Minimalism really does have room for however we want to live it. It doesn’t require a certain number of things just a vision of life to be lived meaningfully.

  • Jillian – this is awesome. The “year of easier, not harder” is such an apt way to describe the exact same journey we’ve gone through in the last few years. We’ve minimized activities, belongings, living space, cars, work, personal commitments, everything. Having three kids that are within 20 months of each other in age will do that to you :)

    We’re 100% with your mentality and have seen a lot of the same benefits. We still have tears and fighting, but we also have a lot more creative play. We still get piles of dirty dishes and laundry but we can get them back in order a whole lot quicker.

    We have more than 3 toys out at a given time – this may be worth us looking into :) We use the 1-in-1-out rule to manage total toy clutter, but keeping our floors from looking like a tornado came through would be a huge step in the right direction :)

    • Thanks Chris! And even with just three toys (some are sets), we get the tornado effect at times. But at least it’s easy for the kids to clean up themselves.

  • This post is really amazing. Thanks for sharing! Could I translate into spanish on my blog linking your website? The world must to know these lifes.

  • LOVED this article. Thanks so much for posting about family life/minimalism. And my hat’s off to you Jillian. What an amazing story. What a big heart you have!

  • As a psychologist who has spent twenty plus years working with kids and families through foster care systems, I have to say this thoughtful post sums up the foster care experience so accurately. I think minimalism can be the ticket for most families, but for kids who have only known chaos, it offers a peace they desperately need. Thank you for sharing, for trusting your gut when you were overwhelmed, and most of all, for sticking it out with your kids. Best wishes to you all!

    • Thank you so much Tamara! That means a lot. And thank you for the work you do! It’s so needed and important. Just having someone who gets it is a powerful thing. I went to hear Stacy York speak last month, and the content was great, but more than that is was the feeling of, “Oh, she understands what life in my house is like.” I think we need more voices to share stories that show the challenge and the hope.

  • So beautiful. We “chose” minimalism after homeschooling… It seems minimalism found you, lovingly and intentionally. Incredible story and life. What you’re doing is amazing and matters more than anyone could ever tell you. Much love.

  • Thank you Cait and Jillian!

    I can so relate to this post, as we also adopted four siblings (little ones) out of foster care, raising our child count to 7! You nailed the description of the chaos, the brokenness, and the desperate need for simplicity. Today marks 2 years from our first placement, and now they’ve been adopted for 6 months…I’m amazed at how normal things are feeling. I agree that they visibly settled down when the excess was removed, I have experienced the very same thing! I also teach all of them at home, adding another challenge for simplicity! The largest home we’ve had during these two years is a 1,400 sq ft house. It has required constant vigilance, to maintain this home with that many people in it, but I’m still so glad we took the plunge into this life. Simplicity has kept us from drowning many times.

    Blessings to you!

    • Oh, Mary. Thank you for the comment. And my mama heart is right there with you! Thank you for jumping into the deep end with these kids! With all the challenges, beauty, crazy and good and bad days alike. All the best!

  • Awesome post!!!

    “‘If I didn’t already own this and saw it at a yard sale for $5 would I buy it instantly, and with joy?’ Because if it doesn’t add $5 of value, it doesn’t deserve a place in our home.”
    This idea is so simple and accurate. Probably one of the best decluttering questions I’ve ever heard.

    • Thanks Larissa! That question was the most clarifying for us. It helped us part with our second cooler. ;) And a whole bunch of other “perfectly good stuff.”

  • As someone who has “met” Jillian over Skype, I can say that she is as wonderful as her writing :) I am so moved by this post, as it mirrors quite closely with our own life over the past 15 years. We too are a family of 7, with 3 adopted children and 2 long term foster children, who really are our own regardless of the legalities of it all. All the running, all the visits, all the appointments! We are past that now, except when we have a short term placement from time to time, and it is so nice to not feel all that pressure. We don’t do sports either, and we homeschool the three youngest so our life can be less busy. We have embraced minimalism in many areas of our life over the last two years, and continue to work on it. It changes everything. Thank you Jillian for sharing this here! And thanks Cait for bringing Jillian to a whole new audience. Two of my favourite bloggers :)

  • Amazing. You are a total rockstar human, woman, and mom. I wish I knew you in “real” life.

    –Pediatric OT and teacher

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