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.
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.
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.