Minimalist, Conscious Parenting
This post was written by Rebecca Ballard, founder of Maven Women and all around wonderful human who I had the good fortune of spending time with in DC last month.
I view my chief parenting role as that of educator.
The world will throw all kinds of stuff at my son, and within my home and in my community I can create a world based on my values and give him the tools to make wise choices when he is one day an adult. This is why it’s so important to me to parent in line with my values from day one, while also giving myself grace for imperfections as parenting is hard.
Before I became a parent I heard I would need so much more space for all of this new, extra stuff. As someone who hates clutter and values minimalism, this terrified me. It also made me even more determined to find ways to be minimalist and eco-conscious along the way.
Yet how does one live these values as a parent, especially in a country where childhood is often filled with lots and lots of plastic?
This is still a work in progress but one that’s improving. I’ve learned a lot in the past two years, both during my pregnancy and while raising my nearly one-and-a-half year old son.
And I found one lovely, surprise windfall: how thrifting and swapping as a parent could bring about an even richer connection to my community!
1. Purge Thoughtfully
Complexities around minimalism in the home
I live in an urban two bedroom, two bathroom, 1,000 square home with one other adult, one toddler, and many playdates and house parties. And I love it that way! We plan to have another kid and not move, thus there’s a lot of life per square foot here. So where does all that “stuff” that you need for kids go? Do you actually need to “move to the suburbs”?
Not if you use your space well and are thoughtful about what you bring into it.
I’ve decided that everything in our home must meet one of two requirements:
- We will definitely use it over the next five years or…
- It has high sentimental value.
I’ve also created a high barrier to entry for any new item I bring into our home.
I regularly go through purges. However, I hope that over time we will purge less and less. Regularly purging items is morally fraught. I know some of my poor choices, especially those I made in my teens and twenties, are now rotting in a landfill even though I “donated” them.
I’m consuming better over time, but the challenge is now to find a good home for things I longer need. This ranges from the hand me down baby bottle warmer that I never ended up using to our beautiful glass candles that we shouldn’t keep because of, well, toddlers (well, we kept a few of them that we can selectively use).
My short-term solution for thoughtful purging? Finding just the right home for groups of items that go together. One woman’s trash may be another woman’s treasure. I’ve successfully listed items as “free to a good home” as long as someone comes and picks them up. Craigslist has been fantastic here. For the parenting-related items I’ve gone with my local parents listserv.
And the long-term solution? Know yourself, take into your home only what you will actually use, and cultivate and rely on your community. But how does that work, especially when the parenting panic sets in?
2. Use What You Have
Combatting commercialism gone crazy and the fear of not having “enough”
Here’s the consumption trap: your kid is having a challenge, or you are struggling with an aspect of parenting, and you think consumption can solve it. You ask around, you do your research, you buy all the options…and one or none of it solve the situation.
I’ve done it, and I think all parents have. For example, my son has struggled with teething since month three and his first tooth didn’t even come in until around age one. He’s now cutting his molars, a whole new level of pain. There’s not an internet site my husband and I haven’t combed on this topic, and it’s awful to see him in so much pain. We initially purchased some “teething toys”, which are all plastic and surely made in sweatshops, as we wanted to try everything to help. However we found that it was cold fruits and veggies to gnaw on and ice that work the best.
I suggest creating a 48-hour waiting period before you buy something. What do you do during that waiting period?
- Investigate via your own parenting “buyerarchy of needs”
- See if something around the house is a match
- Borrow from a friend to “try before you buy,” or just for the duration of the need
- Do a swap
- If none of these are a match, see if there’s an option through thrift or perhaps by finding an ethical, sustainable company
3. Embrace the Parenting Sharing Economy
Highly specific needs, short term durations
How much kid-specific stuff do you actually need? How long do you need it for? Where are you going to get it from? Where will it go afterwards?
I’m still working on this one, but I’ve found:
You need more clothes than you might ever expect in your baby’s first few months. Between spit up and diaper issues I sometimes went through 12 outfits a day! After that subsides, which is partially child-specific, you can cut the clothing volume down by a factor of three or more.
My friends whom I was getting clothing hand-me-downs from have all moved overseas, so while that initially went well I wasn’t able to continue to systematize the process. I now bring in clothing through ThredUp, and I just got a Halloween costume on Poshmark.
My biggest challenge is that I’d like to have another kid, so I’d like to get items out to friends and then get them back eventually. To make this manageable, I had to develop a system for items going in and out. I got bags, boxes, and bins for closets and under the bed. I’d write my name on tags, make a list, and eventually save time and just leave it up to fate about which items returned.
My hope is that I can continue to extend the chain until it’s time for my “numero dos,” meaning these items are constantly in use. My maternity clothing has now gone through three other girlfriends of mine, and when I get it to and from them it’s a great reminder to check in on how they are doing. Plus creating a thrifting chain is a great way to save your friends money, as kids are not cheap, as well as meet new friends in a similar life stage.
4. Just Say No to Toy Overload
Kids get bored pretty easily. Combat boredom with toys by having a smaller number of accessible ones that you rotate in and out. You can also engage in toy swaps, another great way to find and cultivate community and share parenting tips.
Life is also one big toy. Last night our son enjoyed taking the drawers out and carrying them around the house, being silly with my favorite blanket, and playing with Chapstick. My old cell phone and a headset are a top choice for playthings, as is “helping” me vacuum and cook.
Not only does this save you money and clutter for new items, but it also aligns well with a Montessori-style approach to child development. We haven’t gotten a new toy for him in months!
5. Embrace Your New Community
Lots of the time, making ethical, sustainable choices can feel sacrificial. It’s not always fun, it’s time-consuming, and it’s really hard to do. It’s still important to make them, but it can feel like a drag.
For me, however, parenting in this way has been anything but a drag. And that’s because, as the well-known study of Harvard men that began in 1938 showed us, it’s community connectivity that brings about the best life in every way.
Yes, it’s been more time-consuming to research ethical toddler shoes this week (I had minimal luck thrifting them) and develop in-and-out clothing systems versus just throwing things away.
But the rewards of deepening connections are priceless. The shared economy of parenting has been a tangible, visceral, often daily way to connect with others deeply in the vulnerable season that is early parenthood.
A “jack of all trades” and dreamer and schemer driven by a desire to enhance social justice, Rebecca has worked in DC and throughout Asia as a social entrepreneur, ED, lawyer, and consultant. Her passions are market-based social change that advances human rights, values-based consumptive behavior, and ending homelessness. Rebecca founded Maven Women to meet an unmet market need for additional socially conscious options for professional women’s attire and to “move the needle” in the global garment industry through product creation and partnership, consumer education, and advocacy.