Editor’s Note: This is a guest post from Jillian Johnsrud, host of the Everyday Courage podcast.
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 started in 2014, while I was sitting in a job interview and honestly killing it. 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 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 grit.
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 a lie. No one is ever fully ready. His little sisters moved in a few months later. I quit my job and 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. Because these kiddos had high needs and were in foster care, we had 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 behavior 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.
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.
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 angry 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 the kids, not the birth families or the foster parents. We all 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 opted out of most of my commitments that were, in fact, optional.
I pulled my kids from sports.
I ate the same breakfast every day.
I told all my kids’ teachers we weren’t doing any homework. None. No reading charts, no math worksheets, no flashcards. 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 time, or we skip it.”
I had to learn minimalism in my relationships. Most people were incredibly supportive, encouraging, and really understood the importance of what we were doing. But 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.”
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 only kept three 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, and thoughtfully with one toy. There was no cleaning up 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?” 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, with joy?” Because if it doesn’t add $5 of value, it doesn’t deserve a place in our home.
Good things happen in the margin.
Minimalism is an act of faith at first. We pared 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 of 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 mama’s.
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’re 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 voice saying “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. If anyone needs this: it’s 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, we will keep less toys in your room.”
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 the toy shelf in a few months, obviously it wasn’t a high-value toy.
For moms 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, and 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.
Jillian Johnsrud is the host of the Everyday Courage podcast. She became financially independent at age 32. You can find her free Create Your 2020 Financial Plan and podcast on her site, https://www.jillianjohnsrud.com.