Minimalist Motherhood: Living Sustainably When Everyone Around You Has Other Ideas

by Nash Gierak

You don’t need me to tell you that having a baby turns your life inside out. The dreary-eyed wake-ups and feeds make it hard to string a sentence together, and the autonomy we once had goes out the window. What struck me most when becoming a parent was how much this is compounded by more or less everyone having an opinion, and when you need all the help you can get, it can be easier to let well-meaning loved ones steamroller you into submission when what you need is recovery and bonding first, and a safe and simple environment from which to do this.

Of course. It’s understandable. Those around you have been as excited as you are. There is great privilege in having offers to help with both new and pre-loved gifts. But that didn’t stop me feeling overwhelmed when things started trickling in. I searched forums to see if I was alone in feeling this way—I wasn’t. And many new mums particularly were experiencing guilt about even having these thoughts, as well as anxiety over possible confrontation with the people they least wanted to hurt or offend.

For some mothers, it was the guilt of excess, of having an overflowing laundry basket of barely worn clothes that would be outgrown by the time the next wash cycle came around. For others, it was a lack of space. There was also the element of control. The autonomy I mentioned earlier—or lack of it—affects our identity, so for many, it felt like choice was being taken from them, exemplified by an ever-growing pile of well-meaning gifts they didn’t feel connected to.

We had a very particular set of circumstances that made preserving our space a high priority; we were working with 35 square metres of a one-bed attic flat with sloping ceilings we could only stand upright in 60% of the time. Adding a baby into the mix was a challenge. Marie-Konverts swear by the beneficial effects of decluttering on mental health: not having to fritter away precious sleep/new-baby time on the household chores that come with keeping on top of our possessions was part of what appealed to me. But trying to explain our environmental and minimalist beliefs to relatives when you’d mostly kept that stuff under the radar? That was tricky to navigate.

In order to make it work we had to do three things:

  1. Reduce our current possessions
  2. Replace with minimal baby essentials
  3. Limit new things coming in

It took a fair amount of effort to do 1 & 2 (we sold and donated many things). But it didn’t take much to crowd the space again, as we soon found out; when you have no storage space everything becomes a trip-hazard. It’s why number 3 is so important: ‘refuse’ is the first ‘R’ of the 5R’s of Zero Waste (refuse-reduce-reuse- recycle-rot) and it’s also the most effective, as you stop waste at the off, but it’s also the hardest.

To see the extent of the problem, go to your local mums’ Facebook group and you’ll find countless items being sold new, boxed, or with tags, superfluous to requirements. For me, there was a particularly environmental aspect to this issue. I was in the position of trying to protect my child’s future while challenging the excessive consumerism that is an accepted part of the narrative of having a new baby. To me, they aren’t compatible, which was hard for others to understand. I spent an inordinate amount of time and energy feeling frustrated at this, but Gary Chapman’s theory that gift-giving is one of The Five Love Languages—a perspective that has gained traction over the last few years with the 2015 reissue of his pop- psych book on the subject—helped me to take positive action: I think there’s a truth in it that’s helped me be more understanding, and has given me an insight into how to approach the situation with sensitivity and tact.

So we set up a baby list that covered all bases (we used the Babylist app) so that friends and family can pick a few bits for the baby when an occasion comes around. Our son is two and we’re still using it. It ensures no duplicates and can simply be used as a planning tool for your own shopping too. So at any one time our son has a small number of well-used outfits and one rope bucket of toys that we rotate from a small stash, and a bookshelf which more or less operates on a one-in- one-out basis. Grandparents often go rogue, but the deal is they keep those toys at their house, meaning our toddler has some variety and we don’t have to pack lots when we visit. That way the no-restrictions buying itch can be scratched, and we don’t have to store it all. We’ve also started asking what everyone would like in return. Collaborative gifts are great and we can all chip in for something special for each other. And if you’d like to keep an element of surprise, have certain open categories like books, or consumables.

It can be a hard thing to do as it feels prescriptive. It does mean getting over the initial awkwardness of sending the email, and it takes a little perseverance, so stay on-message at every opportunity. Send to ‘all’ so you’re not singling anyone out. Stay positive and thank everyone for everything so far, and say you’re simplifying overall to keep things manageable, and that any help would be appreciated with a list you’ve put together. We’ve found it’s worked really well and hopefully, by everyone being more open about what they’d like or need, there’s less waste and everyone’s a winner.