Prior to college, I had never heard the phrase “simple living.” Ask most people today about the term, and they’ll probably mention Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie’s highly-rated reality show in which two overindulged children of wealth become tourists in the world of the less fortunate. I spent much of my sophomore year of college pretending I knew what my service-oriented, socially conscious roommate meant when she spoke idealistically of simple living. When I finally admitted I had no idea what she was talking about, she gave me a lengthy discourse on Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker movement–a group that truly lives out the Sermon on the Mount, giving up material wealth in favor of trying to “live in accordance with the justice and charity of Jesus Christ.” Essentially, my roommate’s message boiled down to, “don’t have too much stuff.”
As a 19-year-old sophomore, I didn’t really understand what she was talking about, but since then the idea of simple living is something I’ve tried to practice in my life. Now, as a 31-year-old mother of two, the dangers associated with “too much stuff” is something I struggle with in a much more concrete way.
After graduating college, I signed up for a two-year service program. One aspect of my new life involved living simply in a community of fellow twenty-something Catholic school teachers. After two years of community life, I better understood that the attempt to live in solidarity with the poor, as Christ did, in fact brings us closer to God. Lofty words, to be sure, but, in practice, it meant that I didn’t buy much. This was due to no great virtue on my part; I was living on a small stipend and couldn’t afford much anyway.
When I completed the program and decided to remain in education, a beginning teacher’s salary of $18,000 per year seemed like a windfall. With my newfound wealth, I proceeded to rent an apartment, bulk up my meager CD collection, and resume shopping at the Gap. But my first year on my own also offered an opportunity to reflect on the changes that had taken place in my life during that rather intense experience of service. While I had a long way to go before living up to the example set by my former college roommate–much less the Catholic Worker ideal–I had grown a lot during those two years. I knew that I didn’t want to go back to the person I had been, and that maybe a simpler lifestyle was something I should consider incorporating more seriously into my life.
A year later, I got engaged. My husband Kevin and I got married in the summer of 2000. In the four years since, we have both started new jobs, bought a house, and produced two wonderful–if perpetually messy and rather loud–daughters. It has only been since our first child, Katie, arrived, that I have begun to consider the merits of simplicity once again.
As anyone who has small children can attest, the pressure to start accumulating things begins early. Novice parents that we were, we thought we would be fine if we purchased a few diapers, a few blankets, a few onesies (for the uninitiated, this is a glorified baby undershirt with snaps), and a crib. We happily set out for Babies R Us with the intent of registering for these items before our upcoming baby shower.
According to Babies R Us staff, parenting magazines, and many of the parents we asked for advice, babies require far more than the aforementioned basics. Apparently they also need their own washcloths and towels, laundry detergent, and wastebaskets with names like “Diaper Genie” and “Diaper Champ”. They need their own DVDs, CDs, and light-up electronic toys. They need special swings, vibrating baby seats, and high chairs that play music, recline, and have toys attached. And, according to my mother and mother-in-law–both of whom happily dressed their own children in non-designer clothing and hand-me-downs–babies must be outfitted solely in Baby Gap and Talbot’s Kids attire, provided at regular intervals by their doting grandparents.
We rapidly went from a just-starting-out married couple to a family with a rapidly increasing amount of stuff, most of it baby-related. Kevin was concerned about where to put everything in our “charming” (i.e., having smaller rooms and drafty windows) older house. I was concerned about the fact that suddenly, it was far too easy to look around at my friends having children and compare our kids’ stuff with their kids’ stuff. In my mind, the difference in the amount and quality of stuff, of course, was a direct reflection on the competency of the parents.
This competitive feeling crept up on me without my really noticing, until I mentioned to Kevin that I thought perhaps we should get four-month-old Katie a Chicken Dance Elmo because her little buddy Connor had one and he loved it. Kevin pointed out that Katie was considerably more interested in staring at the ceiling fan than in any of the numerous musical toys and light-up gadgets she already owned. He also noted that most babies are as happy banging on pots and pans as playing with more flashy toys. I realized that my desire to get Katie the Elmo doll was less about her need for entertainment than about my need to provide the perfect toy for my child, so as to feel that I was the perfect parent.
I wasn’t proud of the realization. I thought a lot about what kind of a person I wanted to be, what kind of a parent I wanted to be, what kind of a child I wanted to raise. I don’t want to live my life constantly comparing what I’ve got to what other people have. I don’t want to equate possessions with happiness. I don’t want to raise children who think the labels on a person’s clothing are more important than the character of the person wearing them. Until I had kids, these issues never seemed to be a big deal. Knowing that Katie and now Maggie watch every move I make and mimic things I say and do has made me think long and hard about what I want to model for them.
Following the Elmo discussion, I decided to at try to embrace the idea that stuff was indeed not that important. Kevin and I make a conscious effort to avoid the baby superstores. We give Katie pots and pans and Gladware containers to play with. We try to take her to the park and the zoo instead of to toy stores. Her favorite toy is a ninety-nine cent spray bottle that we got to water the houseplants.
We haven’t quite figured out what we’re going to do about her upcoming birthday and Christmas. I know I will grapple with questions of how many toys under the Christmas tree are enough or too much. Even if we do try to limit the gifts from Mom, Dad, and Santa, convincing the grandparents to scale back their generosity to our girls would be a daunting task.
As Katie and our eight-week-old baby, Maggie, get older, I know we’ll have to deal with their requests for toys that they see on TV or that their friends have. Right now, though, the biggest challenge is fighting my own temptation to fill their room with “stuff.”