Minimalist-ish Family Series: Cassandra and her boys

Another post in the Minimalist-ish Family Series, this time from a single mum of two young boys. These stories always give me something to think about and I know they inspire a lot of you. If you’d like to share your story of simplifying – doesn’t matter if you live in a tiny house or a sprawling six bedroom home – we want to hear about it. Email me at: the minimalist mom at gmail dot com. 

1.) Tell us about your family, who you are, where you live and things that you love:

My family is a triangle. I wish I could brag about being a perfect equilateral, but in truth we are more like an acute scalene.  At the base of the triangle you have Me: the highly analytical domestically challenged single mother. Left side is Son 1: the 5-year old Bruce Banner in training. Right side is Son 2: the 3-year old Hulk in training. The Pacific Northwest is where we currently reside and we have all fallen in love with area. There is always some forest trail waiting to be explored or some great quest waiting to be conquered (like the 100-hour reading challenge at our local library). We are also unique in that the boys are half-Mongolian and we try to incorporate that part of their heritage into our family culture, which works well with minimalism since the Nomadic Mongols have been minimalists by necessity for centuries!

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2.) When did you first hear about minimalism and what was your initial reaction?

I came to be a minimalist in an organic way rather than making a conscious decision. Life as a nomadic Navy Brat set the foundation for my minimalism but it was when I joined the Peace Corps and lived in a tent in Mongolia that I really embraced life with less. It was actually on a parenting website when I was pregnant with my first son that I came across the concept of actually self-identifying as a minimalist, and that you could still be one even if you are not a fan of the monochromatic minimalism that most people imagine. It was amazing to find that community (which actually lead me to the Minimalist Mom blog)!

3.) What do you find most challenging in trying to live with less stuff?

Kitchen gadgets. I have always been a sucker for infomercials, especially when it comes to kitchen gadgets. Do I really need the electric egg boiler? No. But it gets used twice a week on average and I always have perfectly easy to peel eggs with zero effort!  I’m fully recognize that I am a bit lazy and not the best house mom so anything that can make my life easier when it comes to cooking at home is awesome. Sometimes minimizing stress takes precedence over minimizing stuff, and I’m okay with that.

4.) What do you find most rewarding in trying to live with less stuff?

I have Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) and too much stuff will literally put me in super stress mode if I’m having a difficult day. I love that I never have to worry about what to wear. I love that my boys can pull out every toy they own and destroy their room and it is cleaned in less than 30 minutes. I love that I don’t feel guilty when I do decide to splurge on something nice or expensive because it is a rare treat that also serves a need (like the hydration hiking backpacks for the boys)!

5.) Do you see any challenges (older, bigger kids, retirement, etc) to continuing on with this lifestyle in the future?

I’ve been looking at homes and hope to purchase in the next year and it is next to impossible to find a house that is as small as I would like in the school districts I like. People look at me like I’m a bit crazy when I say I want something under 1500 sqft. I also have no clue if my boys will be as naturally drawn to minimalism as I am. When they are young it is easy for me to control, but I definitely get anxious imagining the hoard that two teenage boys could accumulate!

Cassandra just sent me this update: since my last email I’ve moved and we now live in less than 800 sqft. Got rid of our couch, dressers, guest bed, and my “office” desk (since the kitchen table works just as well with a laptop)! Yeah Cassandra and her boys!

Four Things Your Kids Really Need for Back to School

It’s back-to-school time for us and I see parents anxiously requesting information on the best places for new backpacks and lunch boxes and fretting over fall wardrobes. Like most holidays or life events (weddings! college!) we tend to zone in on preparing ourselves by buying stuff. Yet, the emotional, psychological and physical strain of these changes and events usually can’t be smoothed over with new shoes or a fresh hair cut. So in response to these lists of must-buy-now-to-ensure-student-success lists here are four things your kids really need for back-to-school.

Four Things Your Kids Really Need for Back to School

Sleep

Yeah, that’s right, your kids really really really need good sleep. So don’t worry if their jeans are running a bit short or you don’t have a winter jacket for them yet, try to encourage and enable good sleep. Limit screen time in the evening and insist on lights out at the same time each night. Your kids need sleep like they need good and nutritious food. It’s essential. And the benefits are not just less grumpy and more energetic kids: quality sleep reduces their risk of developing Type 2 diabetes.

Reassurance

Change can be hard even for the most adaptable and easy going kid. We notice during this season of transition back to school that even our no fuss kids can have a rare meltdown or explosive behaviour(this book is really helping my family right now). If you have a sensitive child or one that struggles with change or transitions – you probably already know that the next few weeks are going to be tough on all of you. What to do? Give them some extra reassurance that you’re there for them and that even if it’s a rocky start to the school year, it will all be alright.

Lunch. Plain and simple.

This is the time of year where articles keep popping up with ’30 school lunch ideas’ and Instagram is filled with beautiful bento box lunches that look like a boutique Manhattan deli made them. If beautiful school lunches are your jam and something you love doing for your kids – enjoy! For the rest of us: just pack a lunch. Note: I got these YumBox lunch boxes for our family a few months back on sale (Vancouverites: Vancouver Community College clears them out at the end of the school year at a good discount) and they have actually made our life easier. I so rarely recommend products here but these really are great. We eat very simple lunches – fruit, vegetable, something substantial that is easy to make or leftovers – and these containers have made it easy for me to offload lunch making to my husband and the kids. They’re also so fast to fill up that if we are in a rush before leaving for a day trip I can have these things packed before I convince myself that buying lunch out is a good idea. 

Your attention.

Even ten minutes of your time each day in the next few weeks can be gold. No television on, no multi-tasking, no checking your phone. Be with them. Ask them how it’s going, who’s in their class and if they have any concerns. If they don’t want to talk about it and then do something with them: play, a board game, Lego, a walk around the neighbourhood, reading a chapter book together.

My oldest needs a new pair of shoes (and we will get them eventually) but I also know that the more important back-to-school items for him are sleep and a lot of quiet time as he gets used to a new school, new teacher and new classmates. My youngest also has a transition this fall so we won’t be planning much for the early evenings the next few weeks as he will be extra tired and emotional. And yes, I have to remind myself of all this stuff too as the onslaught of what to buy for back-to-school is everywhere. It is so pervasive that I even start to think, do we need to go shopping? What are we missing that’s important? Guess what, we’re not missing anything. The bigger things my kids need in a season of change can’t be bought in a store.

A Mom Can’t Mom Without a Car

A mom can’t go grocery shopping, pick up kids from soccer practice & take family dog to the vet on a bicycle. Not anti-bike; just saying…😉

— Jodie Emery (@JodieEmery) August 5, 2017


Seven years ago we mulled over getting rid of our car and at the time it was an audacious and unconventional move. At the time we just had the one kid and we lived in a highly walkable area of Vancouver. People told us we’d regret it, we’d  have emergencies and be stuck, but that never happened. Instead, we paid off a bunch of debt, felt free-er (as free-er as you can feel with a toddler) and saved more money to pay off our consumer debts and student loans. We had a lot of life changes for the next few years, moving overseas, growing our family and moving house a few times and finally moving back to Canada.

With each transition we evaluated if we really needed a car. Sometimes we did, sometimes we didn’t. Our last transition was almost a year ago when we no longer needed a vehicle to get our son to school. Our car was used once in a month and then we paid over $400 for it to be serviced. That’s one expensive trip. It was time to reevaluate if we needed a car and our conclusion was we didn’t. So we’ve spent the last year getting our three young kids around mostly by walking, sometimes by using transit, by cargo bike and infrequently by car with a car-share or a car rental.

Vancouver is a fantastic city for transportation options. In July I spent two weeks on a course that was on the west side of Vancouver. The location was an 1 hour walk/12 minute drive/35 minute bike/35 minute bus ride away. And I used all of those transport options over the week. Some days I walked there, enjoying the beautiful weather and the spectacular views of the North Shore mountains as I walked over the Burrard Street bridge. It was really the best way to start my day. The downside to it was that I had to leave before my kids woke up so I missed seeing them (yeah I will try to avoid ever getting a job I need to leave the house at 6:50am for). Many days I took a Mobi bikeshare bike to the course. The bike lanes and routes lined up well for the trip and it was safe and convenient. It was a refreshing start to the day and I loved that I had the option to not bike home (also didn’t have to worry about a bike being stolen – bike theft is very high in Vancouver). The bus was also pretty convenient: there’s a stop kitty corner to my apartment building and if I wanted to get out early to stretch my legs and walk some of the way there it was easy to do. A few days when I needed to get home quickly or there was an emergency (kids were sick) I used Car2Go. It was faster and cheaper than a taxi. The con to it was driving in stop and go traffic – my tolerance for sitting in a car in traffic is low. Much rather sit in a bus if the streets are busy or get out and walk or bike.

Now, I know you’re thinking, that’s all well and good but she didn’t have any kids along. True. But it’s still pretty easy to get around with my crew of three along without a car. They really enjoy skytrain (our subway system) and the bus. We’ve been visiting a relative that’s ill and taking a long skytrain ride out multiple times a week to visit her. The kids are not bothered by the long train ride at all. In comparison, five minutes into a drive they are asking if we are there yet. And there are so many other ways to get around with kids. Follow that tweet link above for a swift and expansive rebuttal from many parents that don’t own a car and get out there with their kids and do stuff. Like us, many of them use cargo bikes. And they make choices like living in a higher density area or building their family schedule with extra time to bike or walk. They order groceries for delivery, they take kids on transit to soccer and they do everything else many families do just without using a car.

walking home from Costco - yes you can go to Costco without a car!
walking home from Costco – yes you can go to Costco without a car!

The other exciting change to our transportation option is that my oldest son is now riding his bike longer distances.I should clarify: he has learned to ride a bike. For many reasons we waited to teach him how to ride a bike  until he was 7.5 years old and you guys, it has been a parenting highlight for me. From his first time on the bike it took him about six weeks to build up his skills and enough endurance to do a long-ish ride from our home to Granville Island and back. His pride at this accomplishment, his joy at riding his bike – it has literally brought tears to my eyes (he’s not a kid that things come easy to). And our four year old has really upped his endurance with walking so even more of the city is opening up to us. I can see the future and the future is bigger kids that walk and bike where they need to go. Love our stroller but I can’t wait to be free of it after eight years of using them.

You don’t have to be car-free to use and enjoy alternative modes of transportation. Even when we have owned cars we’ve always tried to use them as a last option. Walking is always our first choice, then bikes and public transit depending on the weather. I wish this message was out there more: keep your car but try to use it less. There are lots of families with cars that still bike places, commute by bus or train to avoid expensive parking and having to sit in traffic or make more time in their day so they can walk places. 

Ways to reduce your car dependancy as a family:

  • Try a new way to get there. Maybe it’s just once a week that you leave the car at home, walk with the kids to school and catch the bus from there. I know if it adds even 20 minutes to your day it feels hard but you might be surprised how much you look forward to that once a week break from the car.
  • Choose activities that you don’t need a car to get to or participate in. Set a limit on how much and how far you are willing to drive regularly for an activity.
  • Have a car free day regularly. Make a game of it, plan for it and have everyone pick activities that you can do at home or without driving. It’s like having a no spend day: it makes you much more aware of how you much you drive.
  • Look for opportunities with change and growth. Hunting for a new job? Cost out how much you could save if you found a job that didn’t require a car. Kids getting older? Maybe it’s time they biked or walked to school instead of getting a ride from mom or dad. Moving? Set a wish list for what you would like to be within easy distance of your new home to reduce your car dependency.

The Liebster Award and a Cringe Worthy Expat Faux Pas

The Luxpats nominated me for a Liebster award a while back (winners answer a series of questions about travel) and I took the challenge! I think this may be a first for me – I’m terrible about getting tagged in these types of things – but I loved the questions for this. Plus mining through travel photos and memories was fun and now I have the travel itch.

1. What was your first travel experience and what did you take away from it? 

Probably my first big travel experience was a college recruiting trip to the Northeastern US when I was 16. My sister and I visited three universities on our own with multiple connecting flights. I still can’t believe everyone was comfortable sending us on our own – we’d only been on one flight before that and it was less than an hour to Seattle for another recruiting trip. It was quite an adventure with travel snafus and sleeping on dorm floors. I loved that feeling of independence and not knowing what to expect or what was next. This was pre-Internet so we were really going in blind to the visits and what the colleges would look like.

2. What is the best food item / dish you have tried, and where was it?

My husband and I had an incredible meal on Capri at a beachfront restaurant back in 2009. The meal was so good, pasta with pumpkin, but the story of getting there and the ‘pinch me is this real’ view really elevated the experience. We decided to go to Capri from Sorrento with no real plan. On arrival I was nonplussed with the heavy throngs of tourists and didn’t see what the fuss was about. We hiked the hillside and then hiked down the other side and stumbled upon this gorgeous restaurant on the water.
While I enjoy researching for trips there is something special about happening upon something with no guidance from Yelp reviews or TripAdvisor’s top ten list.

3. What is the best advice you’ve received?

One of my sisters told me years ago that she highly recommended paying for walking tours. She had just returned from a European vacation where she hit up some big cities and she said having someone guide her through a city really allowed her to soak it in and appreciate it instead of staring at a map or guide book on repeat. So we always sign up for a tour of a new city on the first day there to get a feel of where things are and to learn more about the city. Once we’ve had a tour we pick a few things that we want to see more of and head to them on our own.

4. What is your ideal setting for travel/vacationing and for work?

Right now we are partial to all-inclusives that offer childcare though we haven’t really been on a big vacation in quite a while. Depressing, right? But I’ve found over the years that for us travel with younger children in the mobile baby to 2.5 year old age is exhausting. Particularly now that we have three kids. First rule of making travel and vacationing enjoyable: know what you like! Luckily our youngest should be a bit easier to travel with in the next year or so and that should open things up for where we can go.

My husband and I both loathe driving for ‘regular’ life but love road trips. We did a road trip through Italy pre-kids and it was fantastic. Many people told us we were making a mistake driving, that we should do it all by train, but even with a broken GPS and getting lost multiple times, I would do it all again. I would love to be able to do a road trip through Scandinavia when the kids are a bit older. Like most families we are partial to renting apartments and homes through websites like AirBnBs rather than staying in a hotel. It just makes sense for us financially and I don’t like spending my evenings reading with a flashlight while the kids sleep!

As far as work setting, anywhere? I work from home, cafes and sometimes an office space. The nice thing about my job is how portable it has been. I remember working on something while on vacation in the Dominican Republic and thinking, this is the best! I know other people would be unhappy to have to do a bit of work on vacation but I was thrilled.  Flexible and portable work is ideal for my family right now as we have young kids and we seem to move every few years.

5. What is your least favorite place you have been/visited/lived?

Morocco. We really did not have a good experience there. I blame some of it on me being pregnant at the time but we also got lost in the Medina and were in the non-tourist side and people spat at us. I’m also not a great haggler and so the swarms of people trying to get your taxi fare was stressful. That said, I would love to go back some day. I know quite a few people that loved Morocco so I know my experience was just one experience.

6.  What is the weirdest job you’ve ever taken on?

This could get long. I got up super early and got in line at the passport office and sold my spot for a few weeks. This was when I was really low on money. I was a full-time athlete from 2001-2004. I demonstrated digital cameras, photo printers and vacuums in stores. After my freshman year at university I painted school classrooms for a summer.

7. What made you want to start a blog?

So much clutter. I was really frustrated with all of our stuff and got excited about the minimalist movement. I started a blog to keep myself accountable as I decluttered. I could never have imagined that six years later it would still be going, I would publish a second book and that the blog would spawn a big online community of people trying to live with less stuff.

8. Name a book that changed the way you see the world.

These questions are so hard! But off the top of my head: Bonfire of the Vanities. I read it in high school, living in an ethnically diverse and fairly affluent (but we were not) suburb. Every character in the book was described by their race and religion and I was floored at that. Most of the families where I lived were first generation Canadians – including mine – and kids never really talked about our differences. I never thought of my parents immigration to Canada as noteworthy because most of my friend’s parents had also moved to Vancouver from Iran, South Africa, the Czech Republic, England, etc.

9. What has been the biggest professional challenge and how did you overcome it? 

Making a full-time income as a self-employed writer. Still working on that!
I kind of fell into being a nonfiction writer after having my first baby in 2009. Prior to that I worked in sponsorship and marketing for a bank. I’ve always wanted to be a writer but being a blogger and author wasn’t on my radar. I did my undergrad in English Literature and creative writing and later did a year of film school for screenwriting. Having a successful blog and writing books has been a happy accident.

10. What mark do you hope to leave on the world? 

What a big question. I hope that I helped people – be they my children, partner, family, blog readers – live more freely and with less stress.

11. Do you have any funny/awkward cultural faux pas to share? 

It took me a long time to understand that in the UK if you invite a person over to your house or they drop by, you MUST offer them tea. And if they are Irish they will say “I don’t want to bother you” which actually means “yes, of course I want a cuppa” so you keep asking until they say yes or insist that you were going to make tea for yourself anyways.

Also, pants are underpants in the United Kingdom. That’s an important one in my experience.

So much fun Luxpats! Thanks for nominating me.

Minimalist-ish Family Series: Dawn from At Home in a Nutshell

Starting a new series on the blog! I get so many questions about how people implement minimalism with kids, in small homes and big homes, rural or city, many kids or just one. So, I thought I would start sharing other families stories. What inspired them to live with less and how they make it work with kids. I love reading about how families make minimalism work in scenarios much different than mine and I hope you will too. First up: Dawn!
1.) Tell us about your family, who you are, where you live and things that you love:
My husband and I both worked in education. I was an English teacher and he taught for quite a few years as well. A few years ago he went into technology support and technology teacher education and still works for the schools. He is the tech specialist at a local elementary school. I’m at home with our three boys. We love baseball. We love teaching our kids and playing with them and reading to them. I love to write. He loves to coach baseball.
We bought a two bedroom condo about a year and a half after we got married. One of our big considerations in finding a home was to find a walkable area because I don’t drive. I have epilepsy, and even though I average only one or two seizures per year I am not willing to risk driving.
We found a great little condo community in the growing town of Reston, Virginia, just outside of Washington D.C. Eight months after moving into our new place we found out I was pregnant with twins. Surprise! We sold our Jeep Cherokee and bought a mini van and quickly the cute little guest room/office turned into a cute little nursery for two baby boys. It was an exciting time with a lot of change.
That was eight years ago. Since then we have added another little boy into the mix, and have stayed in our little condo. We have elected to stay for various reasons: It was important to both of us that if financially possible I stay home from work with the boys while they were young. A bigger mortgage for a bigger place would mean I would be back at work to cover the difference. A bigger place would also mean that we would most likely be farther away from things like the metro train into DC and the buses, and finding a walkable place would be more difficult. So we have done we have to do to make it work in our spot. I plan to be back at work again soon, but we’re now more intent on paying off our mortgage than on finding a bigger place. We’ve learned to live with less space and fewer possessions.
Along the way we have learned many things, and one of them is that owning less stuff is not only practical for our living situation, but incredibly freeing. We also love to see how our kids have developed their creativity and values due at least in part to how we live with fewer things and space than other families.
dawnathomeinnutshell

2.) When did you first hear about minimalism and what was your initial reaction?

Minimalism is something I’ve read about for years and I have gotten good ideas from minimalists for how to manage in our space. I love the idea of not being attached to things, but to live more for experiences than stuff. I suppose my initial reaction to minimalism was to envision a basically empty, well-kept cabin in the woods somewhere, but I’ve learned it is much more than that.

3.) What do you find most challenging in trying to live with less stuff? 

The two most challenging things about living with less stuff is that we have to be getting rid of things constantly or stuff accumulates– we cannot let up or we’ll be swallowed alive– and the second is that it can come off as rude at times when I don’t want things from others. The kids bring so much home from school and from birthday parties that I struggle to stay on top of it all. One thing I do instead of saving most of the kids’ school work in a box somewhere, is I take pictures of it. The most important people in my life have been amazing at thinking up creative gift ideas for our family that involve experiences rather than objects, because they know our situation, but sometimes there are things people give me that I just don’t want and I can’t keep. I always feel rude, but I have to get rid of them to maintain my sanity. I try to be discreet about it, but I’m sure some people have figured out that what they gave me is no longer in my house.

4.) What do you find most rewarding in trying to live with less stuff?

The most rewarding part is that I usually know exactly what I have and exactly where it is. I can also say that if anyone breaks into our home they will not be rewarded with much more than an awesome new blender. If they took my laptop they’d toss it when they saw how old it is. We don’t own much of monetary value.

5.) Do you see any challenges (older, bigger kids, retirement, etc) to continuing on with this lifestyle in the future? 
YES. Huge challenges as the boys get bigger. We do hope to move to a bigger space before long, since they will eventually become teenagers, after all, but we want to still live a more minimalist life, with fewer things than the average three-child suburban family. The kids will see their friends getting all sorts of things and want to get them too, and we obviously don’t want to deny them everything, but we want them to see the value in the minimalist attitude. But since they’ve grown up this way so far, they already understand that we place more value on experiences than on stuff, and they are becoming that way also. A perfect example is that they play ice hockey. That is a huge expense, but they love it and we love that they love it. When they talk about wanting something we often say, would you rather have [insert thing] or play hockey? They always choose hockey, of course. But one day that might change.
I started a blog this spring called At Home in A Nutshell, where I share tips about living in a small space with a family. I have a lot of pictures of things we’ve done to make our home more comfortable and practical for family life.
“If you want to see what children can do, stop giving them things.” -Norman Douglas
Thank you Dawn. I loved reading about how you deal with the challenges of trying to have less stuff and your reasons for living in a smaller home. So much that I can relate to in this (three boys in a condo!).
If you’d like to share your minimalist-ish home and journey with readers send me an email! You don’t need to be a blogger or live in a tiny home. I’m looking for stories and photos from families living a minimalist life in any way shape and form. Email me: the minimalist mom at gmail dot com.
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