How to Make Minimalism Work for Your Family

Staff Writer
Baystateparent Magazine
Rachel Jonat

Since 2010, Jonat, her husband, and three sons ages 8 and under have chosen to live in a 1,100 square-foot condo in downtown Vancouver, an experience she has turned into The Minimalist Mom: How to Simply Parent Your Baby, a book of practical advice and strategies in which she explains how a lifestyle with less stuff can yield more happiness and greater peace of mind.

It all began with the birth of the couple’s first son in 2010. The family was living in their downtown Vancouver condo and loved the experience so much, they didn’t want to move to the suburbs. But her son, Jonat admits, “was not an easy baby. I had a baby who didn’t sleep really well, so I kept buying things people said may help.” Adding those purchases to the “standard” baby gear and gifts from well-meaning friends and family meant mounting clutter and stress in an already stressed-out new mom’s life.

“By the time he was 8, 10 months old, I would just throw the things into the closet,” she remembers. People would stop by with gifts, and Jonat says she was so tired, she didn’t have time to process what they were or if the family needed it. Instead, she’d simply toss the gifts into the closet.

“Our home became much harder to maintain and keep tidy,” she says. “I felt so stressed out in this space.”

Her sister began sharing articles on minimalism, which prompted Jonat to think, Wow, we need this. “We spent three months radically decluttering. Our home was so much easier to clean and more enjoyable to be in.”

The couple sold things they didn’t need and paid down debt. Jonat now calls the minimalist lifestyle “an incredible gift” for her family.

“Minimalism has really made our 1,100 square-foot condo super livable and enjoyable with three young kids,” she says, adding: “We’re not extremists, we have a dining room table. My kids have some toys. Where minimalism kicks in is you start seeing it’s not necessarily about my square footage, but about what we have in there.”

An ‘unexpected’ career

Like many in a variety of endeavors, Jonat, who pre-kids worked in corporate marketing, started a personal blog (which she continues today), sharing it with friends to keep herself accountable. She began reading and interacting with the minimalism blog community, which led her to submitting a personal essay to The Globe and Mail, Canada’s leading newspaper. That led to radio and TV interviews and a 2014 book, Do Less.

“This,” she admits, “is a very unexpected career path.”

Jonat describes The Minimalist Mom as a “different kind of baby book,” one she hopes would be a most effective baby shower gift.

Having your first child is a momentous event, and in the U.S. and Canada, “we mark that event and the preparation for it with stuff,” Jonat notes. “What stroller are you going to get? What’s your nursery going to look like? Most new parents at some point feel very overwhelmed with it, that they have to collect all this stuff.”

And, in hindsight, many realize they didn’t need the majority of what they were given or bought.

“It tends to accumulate in the home, you start becoming overwhelmed with the exersaucer you keep tripping over, or cleaning the stuff, maintaining the stuff, finding the stuff.”

Jonat equates the months leading to a child’s birth to wedding preparation: “A lot of it is about spending and planning, and then you get past the wedding and you’re, like, ‘Oh, this is really about the marriage. We’ve prepared and spent and really

focused on this one day, when it’s really about the years after and investing in those years in non-monetary ways.’ It’s so easy to confuse preparation with buying things. This book is about ways to step back and look at how to prepare to be a parent outside of buying stuff, be it asking for help or creating a network of people who are going to support you when the baby arrives, to preparing in other ways with your partner, dividing household tasks before the baby arrives.”

In the book, Jonat offers three different levels of simplification, so readers can customize their approach to one that best fits their lifestyle.

“What I love about simplifying and minimalism is people can dial it in to the degree they want,” she says. “If you say you want to simplify, it doesn’t mean you have to give absolutely everything away. You can tidy up certain corners of your home or your life that’s not giving back to you and still keep hobbies. When you get rid of stuff, it brings into view what you really want to spend your money and time on.”

Jonat notes she didn’t use a particular decluttering system and she didn’t touch her husband’s office. The lifestyle has grown on her husband over time, she says, especially as over the years he saw a happier, less-stressed wife, an easier-to-maintain home, and an increased ability to pay down debt.

“He’s into it,” she adds. “He’s not extremist, but he’s supportive of the level we take it to.”

But what about the toys?

Keeping an infant relatively decluttered is one thing, but what happens when the child grows and wants the bane of most households?

Jonat’s sons, who grew up in this lifestyle, don’t miss what they never had: a room cluttered with an abundance of toys. “They love going to friends’ houses for playdates, to check out all their toys,” she notes.

A minimalist lifestyle has had the side effect of the boys being consciously selective of what they own and its value.

“My oldest really wants to get a model train set,” Jonat says. “He’s wanted it for 6 months. We keep coming back to it and saying, ‘It’s really expensive and we won’t have the room for it.’”

Jonat and her husband told their son that in order to finance the model trains, he would need to sell many of the wooden trains the children have been collecting for years, both for money for the new purchase and for a space to enjoy it.

“We keep posing that question, ‘Which one do you want?’ and he has to come back to, ‘My brothers and I all use the train set and we get a lot of joy out of it, so, you’re right, we don’t really have space for these model trains.’”

She also notes the boys are far from deprived on traditional gift-giving occasions, which Jonat uses to their collective advantage year-round.

“They get showered with gifts on Christmas and their birthday from their grandmother. We let them have the joy of opening it, but they’re so overwhelmed they don’t remember everything they got,” she notes. “We put out a third of their gifts and they play with those. I usually end up returning a bunch and storing some, and we slowly let them out over the year.”

Keeping up with The Joneses

Jonat and her husband employ the same, “think it out/wait it out” strategy when it comes to their own wants, as well. She notes that the pressure of just spending like everyone else is tempting, especially when social media allows for friends to easily share their latest purchases, vacations, and more. For example, since she and her husband moved into their condo, Jonat has always wanted to redo the kitchen.

“I looked at getting it done and we were right at the max of where we stretched ourselves to get into this home. We just couldn’t do it, and it always bothered me,” she says. “Since really getting into minimalism, it just doesn’t bother me. I see the weight of the money we would spend on a kitchen renovation; it would take away from so many other areas of our life. It’s not worth it, and minimalism has given me that: What does that equate to in hours worked, or years you’re going to have to make that payment? At times, it’s an unsexy thing to talk about, but it’s very real and very motivating to me, to look at those numbers. Do I want to buy the stroller that’s $300 more? What could I do with that $300 instead? We talk things out and we wait. I do a lot of waiting if I think there is something I would like to buy and add to the home. We’re slower to pull the trigger on buying things, but we’re willing to spend more and buy more quality items that will last us longer.”

Riding the wave

Minimalism has become a major movement over the past couple of years and garnered much press and attention. And Jonat says it’s important to realize what minimalism is not.

“There’s still room for fun and it’s not deprivation,” she notes. “For some people, it would not bring them happiness, but it does for a lot of people. There’s still room to have nice things, but you have things you actually use and like. Since we’ve embraced minimalism as a family, I feel like we’re much more into investing in higher–quality things when we do buy stuff because we’re not people who casually shop.”

How to Declutter

There are dozens of books on decluttering and minimalism, along with websites, blogs, and online resources. But the bottom line is: Do what works best for you.

Decluttering is an “intense and emotional process,” Jonat admits. “I really try and caution people to not think they’re going to get it all done in two weekends. Set some moderate goals.”

For instance, aim to get rid of 2,018 things in 2018. Or put a cardboard box in a corner of various rooms. As you go about living and come across something (a duplicate or something you don’t use, need, or is broken) throw it into the box. At the end of the month, go through the box and ask what can you do with these items.

“It’s a way to make progress and see progress without getting overwhelmed,” Jonat says. “If you have a large home and your guest room is packed with stuff, it will take you a long time to sort things out and decide if you want to hold on to it, sell, or donate. Peeling things back in layers is the easiest way for most people to get started and keep going.”