Big family minimalism: 8 years in
I can’t put my finger on when exactly I discovered Minimalism as a thing. There was no big aha moment for me while sitting in my toy room surrounded by boxes of stuff and pulling out my hair in frustration. Minimalism came into our lives fairly organically over the course of a season, following on the heels of an international relocation and a quick succession of back to back babies (read: GEAR).
But I really do credit Joshua Becker and his Becoming Minimalist blog for being a touchpoint over the years of what I have come to realize intuitively for our family and particularly for myself: we thrive with less clutter.
We’ve doubled our family size since I first “discovered” minimalism, and while it was perhaps more of an aesthetic preference for me at the beginning, I would definitely call it a foundational practice for our way of life today, especially with homeschooling in the mix.
But Jenny, don’t 8 people come with a lot of stuff?
Yes, they do.
But here is my trade secret: the amount of “stuff” your family needs in any given season or at any given point in time is a fluid and ever changing number that must be constantly and intentionally re-evaluated.
This is what sets minimalism apart from basic home organization or decluttering, in my humble opinion. Both of those are fundamental to the success of minimalism itself, of course, but at its core, minimalism is a way of life that is constantly asking: does this serve us right now? Does this increase the peace in my home? Does this add value to my children’s relationships with one another? Does this spark joy, as they say?
What sets minimalism apart from decluttering and organizing is the continual revisiting of those questions over the course of the lifetime of any given object in our home. So, for a concrete example, we have the baby swing. For several long stretches the answer to those questions was obvious and keeping the swing or at least loaning it out on short term visits to other new baby’s homes made sense. At this point as I near my own 40th birthday and approach the resident baby’s 3rd, the answers to those questions have totally shifted. We no longer have the need for that item, and it can be peacefully given away, sold, or lent out on a more permanent basis. If we were to conceive again I’d have almost a year to source another baby swing, and let me tell you people, there is nothing people love to get out of their garages or basements quite like baby gear.
This understanding of minimalism as an ongoing reevaluation process is what frees you from the paralyzing question of “do we own too many pairs of shoes/plates/baskets to be considered minimalists?”
The reality of it is, of course, that it doesn’t matter how many dinner plates you own and it’s ridiculous to try to hit some arbitrary number because every family is different. And nobody from the internet is coming to look in your dish cupboard any time soon.
I had a bit of a struggle in this arena with the numbers of plates and silverware I kept onhand for our family. The reality was (I thought) there are 8 of us, 10 of everything is more that sufficient and it keeps the amount of dishes I’m doing in a given day way down (true).
But what I failed to account for over literally years of hosting family events is that with my 6 and Dave’s 5 siblings and the accompanying spouses, cousins, grandparents ALL being local to us, well, any time we had even a handful of dinner guests I couldn’t seem to pull enough forks together for the occasion.
A couple of years ago it dawned on me that I didn’t have to live in a fork desert just because I aspired to a minimal kitchen (and people, I desperately do aspire to this) because the reality was we averaged 1-10 extra guests around our dinner table every week of the year and I needed more dang forks. Now we have enough, thought I do pull them out of common rotation during lulls in hostessing so my kids aren’t bringing 27 forks out into the backyard but you know what? My garden is still mysteriously full of flatware.
I share this to illustrate that some people are going to have an objectively large amount of “insert items here” because it’s appropriate and intrinsic to their family culture. It could be ski gear, it could be cleats, it could be pairs of boys’ gym shorts (raises hand and plugs nose), but the point is there’s nobody coming to check your stock to make sure you really do qualify as an authentic minimalist and MOST IMPORTANTLY: just because you have a lot of books/hockey gear/running tights/boys dress shoes DOES NOT mean you have to have a lot of everything else.
Let me repeat that a different way: you are allowed to stock up on what is truly valuable and essential to your family and your way of life without also having to hang onto every single item that comes into your home. Just because someone kindly gifts your kids a ping pong table or seven trash bags of baby clothes does not mean you need to hang onto any of it!
Don’t just throw your hands up in the air and go oh, well, we have 12034843 Nerf guns in our arsenal so we may as well descend into toy chaos. It’s a trap! Keep the toys your kids play with AND the toys you can reasonably care for, and jettison the rest.
You get to decide what is valuable to your family and what makes sense to hang onto for today, for right now. Not what might come in handy 5 years down the road, or what was handy 5 years in the rearview. Not what your mother in law gave you and you’re worried she might ask where it is when you see her in 3 months at Christmas time. Not what used to be really, really important to you in another season of life but adds little or no value to your life today.
So, enough philosophizing because even though I’ve just spent 2,000 words waxing eloquent on why numbers aren’t important, everybody always wants to know numbers. So I share these as a reference point, but not as metric for comparison. Some people might read this and shudder in horror at my excessive materialism while others may find those numbers unrealistically austere. That’s fine! Know yourself and figure out, what can my family and I reasonable handle? And then go from there.
One more note: I know I need to revise my inventory in certain areas when I’m no longer “reasonably handling” a certain category. So kids’ clothing will get purged, the garage will get thinned out, etc. if I am for example never able to get to zero sum laundry, despite washing 2-3 loads per day. If I can’t work through the majority of our laundry, with help from kiddos, in 2-3 days, then I know we have too many items in rotation and it’s time for a clothing purge.
For reference, our kids are almost 12, 10, 8, 7, 4, and 2, and we have 4 boys and 2 girls. And while we’re no longer wearing school uniforms, we’ve added a daily taekwondo kit for 5 out of 6 kids.
- 9 t shirts per boy but NOT all in current rotation. (I try to keep only 5 or 6 out at a time so we’re not using 4 shirts a day not that anybody in this house is a sociopath who wears 4 shirts in a day right??)
- 3 pairs of jeans/leggings per girl
- 2-3 pairs of jeans per boy
- 7 pairs of gym shorts per boy (insert skull emoji for 28 stinky pairs of under armor in my hamper) – they also sleep in shorts in the summer and don’t prefer actual pajamas until it’s snowing.
- 3 pairs of athletic shorts per girl
- 5 pairs of undershorts per girl
- 5 tops/tshirts per girl
- 5 dresses/rompers per girl, includes play dresses and church dresses
- 1 nightgown and 1 set of pajamas per girl
and each child also has:
- 1 pair of Mass shoes or dressy sandals
- 1 pair of Keens
- 1 pair of rainboots
- 1 pair of athletic shoes
- 1 pair of snow boots
I don’t count socks or underwear but I’d ballpark each kid has 10 pairs of undies and 5 pairs of socks.
I also keep one small fabric cube, the kind that fit in the classic IKEA type cube shelves, per kid of next size up and off season clothes in their actual closets on the top shelves. No more decrepit rubbermaid tubs of hand me downs that never seemed to get pulled out in time/emitted mysterious and unsavory odors after months or years of storage. I think bigger kids wear their clothes much harder, too, so there’s just less to pass down. And when people pass on hand me downs to us which I SO appreciate, I critically and immediately sort through them, fill in any gaps on our inventory, and then send them immediately on their way to Goodwill/ARC/another family, a women’s and children’s shelter, etc.
This pseudo capsule wardrobe works well for us because I can maintain it with constant additions and subtractions and I can also know off the top of my head when a certain kid is low in inventory in some area. Paring down shoes in particular has been very life giving in that we can usually locate what we need and for reference that is still 30 individual children’s shoes in my home which is an objectively massive amount of shoes. Which is why the bigger the family, the greater the impact minimalism can have. Imagine if each child had a more typical 10 pairs and I’ll let you do the math because it makes my heart palpitate.
Now, I’m going to try to land this thing somewhere by encouraging you to imagine how much more pleasant life could be if you had fewer (insert answer) to care for, and then encouraging you to imagine what that could mean for your own home and your own family. You do not have to own a “normal” amount of toys, or books, or holiday decor, or art projects your kids made. You are allowed to curate your own life! After all, you’re the one who has to take care of all the things that come into it, whether directly or indirectly through managing paid or kid help. I can clean my entire downstairs and be company ready in 30 minutes, provided that nobody will be looking at my windows or baseboards. And that’s more than worth the price of admission for me. I’m freed up from the maintenance a more robust inventory might require, and I need those precious free hours to tend to what my life is delightfully full of.
So, anyway, minimalism. It’s not just for the Gen Z instagrammer! And thank you for coming to my Ted Talk.