Ok. Maybe that’s a bit extreme. But have you ever been surprised how much “stuff” you own? Minimalism is easy when you’re a couple, but add children to the mix and your “Stuff Quotient” soars. Strollers, highchairs, stair-gates and outgrown apparel populate the shadows of the basement or gather dust in the attic. With children, comes a move to a bigger place, perhaps with a garden, and suddenly you have “outdoor stuff” too – mowers, blowers, trimmers and garden furniture. There’s an urge to fill the new living space with more “stuff” that somehow represents and defines you – your beliefs, your personality, your memories.
Two years ago, we were living in Britain and expecting our third child. We had just finished a big renovation project that increased the size of our home and were in “Stuff Acquisition” overdrive – we had rooms to fill, a bigger canvas to stamp our identity on. Then, we made a decision that would turn our world on its head. My husband accepted a post in Canada.As a Transportation Engineer for a global company, he had worked abroad before, while I stayed in the UK with the children. Kids grow up so fast they can become strangers right under your nose, never mind when you’re separated by thousands of miles, and you don’t get a second bite at the cherry. Despite the grip exerted by our (now) dream home on our hearts and finances, there was no question – we were all moving to Canada.
And so began a new way of life in an unknown country, where we knew no-one. We moved out of the hotel, with its pool and the self-catering suite that had become our home-from-home in two short weeks, and into our rented house where we waited for our furniture to complete its Atlantic voyage. Acres of hardwood flooring meant that the carpeted stairs were the most comfortable place to sit. We ate from borrowed picnic plates and slept on blow-up beds bought from Canadian Tire. Our 3 month-old baby was oblivious to it all, happy on some blankets on the floor. All we had were the contents of our suitcases, until we made some wonderful friends who loaned us toys, crockery, a hoover, a radio, a folding table and chairs…and helped bring some much needed normality to our lives. It remains a time we all look back on with fond memories and wistful smiles and lots of “remember whens”. Every time we pass that hotel we wonder who’s in “our” room now.
Our furniture arrived in a couple of weeks, and the bare boards began to look more homely. But only up to a point. Not knowing if we’ll settle here, we’ve resisted the urge to buy unnecessary electrical items that may be useless elsewhere thanks to plug and voltage differences. More furniture translates into bigger removal costs, and there’s no point buying cushions to match the décor of a house you will only rent for a while. So, for now, we live frugally. We stream TV through the internet instead of signing up for cable; we have what we need and no more. We question carefully before we buy: Do we need it or can it wait? Every so often I miss not being able to give in to that house-proud zeal that has you purchasing a new lamp or occasional table to “transform your living room”. But apart from the initial craving, when you’re standing in front of a so-called bargain (which wears off pretty quickly by the way), or the momentary, Pavlovian pang when you see someone else’s carefully accessorised family home, I actually prefer it that we have less stuff.
It’s brought an unforeseen feeling of release. I suppose it’s a trade-off – in exchange for lamps, occasional tables and soft furnishings, we have more freedom. I’m less concerned with projecting a marketed concept of what my home should look like, and this leaves me with more headspace for my family. It’s like that scene in “American Beauty” where Lester Burnham flirtatiously tries to reconnect with his wife Carolyn, but she can’t get past worrying about him spilling beer on the expensive couch. Stuff can get in the way of life. I no longer go around mindlessly plumping cushions and folding throws like some zombie housekeeper, and my husband doesn’t feel like he’s living in a show home anymore.
We are now too busy doing all the things we were striving to communicate through our choice of pictures, textiles and furniture, to care about pictures, textiles and furniture. Living with less has caused us to lead fuller lives.
Do you need to de-clutter? Think what you might gain if you lose a little “stuff”. No need to emigrate – a thorough spring clean should do it!
Aisha Isabel Ashraf is a freelance writer and author of the popular blog EXPATLOG – a collection of irreverent observations from her experiences as a "cultural chameleon". It's where you'll find her, strung out on caffeine, humorously dissecting the peculiarities of expat life for her own amusement and the benefit of future generations.
Read Aisha's other Expat Focus articles here.