I stared enviously at online photographs of clutter-cleared surfaces, bright white walls, immaculate floors and spacious gaps between clothing hangers. Joshua Fields Millburn's coat hung on his brick apartment wall, doubling as a work of art. David Bruno owned 100 carefully curated items in his minimalist space. There were some so minimalist they were free to live as nomads.
Like many before me (and many who later debated and dissected the experience), I wanted the blank space and clean lines I saw when I typed "minimalist design" into the Pinterest search engine, the simplicity promised by the ubiquitous Marie Kondo. The minimalist aesthetic brimmed with promises: more room to live, to think, to feel unbound by a commitment to stuff. My life at home with three kids looked and felt nothing like these images. Toys everywhere, constant clutter, and my space, though large, felt suffocating. Stuff overwhelmed me.
So, I decided to become a minimalist, purging my belongings to only my most functional and beloved possessions. I went space by space, category by category, throwing out any and everything I could justify. I slashed my closet, ridding myself of the vast majority of special occasion dresses and impractical shoes I owned, as well as the embarrassing number of shirts with holes or grease stains (which I wore more often than I cared to admit). I took boxes of old kitchenware and holiday decor and throw pillows to our local thrift shop. It didn't seem to make a dent.
I took on a minimalism challenge that resulted in getting rid of more than 400 items in a month. I tossed one item on Day One, two items the next day, three the next, and so on through the month. I emptied junk drawers. I chucked precious baby clothes my kids had outgrown. I culled my memorabilia: photographs of schoolmates whose names I could no longer remember, notes passed with old crushes, pins awarded for choir achievements.
I knew minimalism was supposed to be a way of life, not a destination, but I couldn't help but feel discouraged when I looked around me. The clutter was still not cleared. The walls were still smudged. No matter how much I edited my life, there was more mess, more overwhelm, another pair of shoes and stack of envelopes waiting for me. Though my belongings were at a stark minimum, my workload at home persisted as if nothing had changed.
Some months into my minimalist obsession, I could name each and every item I owned. I opened a document on my computer and listed every item in my makeup bag, closet, kitchen, hall closet that belonged solely to me. I figured it would be a way for me to see where I could further edit my collection of belongings, but what I ended up with was a list that showed me just how little of my life was really mine.
The reason my minimalism hadn't changed my life was because most of the stressful accumulation had never been mine in the first place. If I were to remove the belongings of my husband and children, the house would be bare. My listed belongings could have easily fit in a small corner of my bedroom, but only if I removed the shoes my husband had left there on the floor. Because that was the real reason I couldn't find that elusive expansive space I so desired. My life was full of other people's stuff, and it was my responsibility to care for it.
I was the one left to organize the barrage of toys bought by well-meaning relatives. I was the one tasked with remembering where each item in the house was at any given moment, because I was the one who noticed when it needed to be put away. I was expected to be the master of our stuff, which really meant everyone else's stuff, which was carelessly tossed in my path.
There was (and is) little I owned, yet my workload in the home has always loomed large. Becoming a minimalist didn't change that; it simply illuminated the invisibility of motherhood. Mom is supposed to be the one in charge, the one who sweeps away the mess and makes a home. Mom makes everything comfortable, keeps everyone happy. She does the work of noticing what needs to be done and either doing it herself or delegating it. Minimalism showed me how much of my life was spent caring for others, and the belongings of others, far more than I tend to my own.
What really needed to be addressed was not my personal accumulation of stuff, but the pervasive belief that everyone else's stuff was my responsibility. If I wanted more room to live and think, I needed to stop living to serve. What eventually helped me regain a sense of space and freedom in my life wasn't minimalism. It was having (many) conversations with my husband about labor, and getting him to pick up his responsibility in our shared life. It's astounding how much less our possessions bother me when I'm not constantly the one cleaning them up or reminding others to do so. I would hardly consider myself a minimalist today, but I frequently feel that sense of calm I chased in those curated minimalist designs – the blank space is in my mind, if not in my closet.
Gemma Hartley is a freelance writer and author of "Fed Up: Emotional Labor, Women, and the Way Forward."
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