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First Person is a daily personal piece submitted by readers. Have a story to tell? See our guidelines at tgam.ca/essayguide.

Illustration by Chelsea O'Byrne

It was spring, 2018, and I was drowning in onesies, frozen pizzas and the overwhelm of new motherhood. The standard mom angst about bottle feeding, sleep training and insufficient tummy time was bad enough. But in the middle of the chaos and stress, I felt a deeper discomfort. Motherhood was harder than I had imagined – as it is for everyone – but it wasn’t just that. The way we were moving through the world didn’t sit right with me anymore. Things felt … different. Off.

I tried the usual suggestions; more sleep, relaxation apps, exercise, fresh air. But I was grumpy, I was unfulfilled. I chalked it up to missing work and the stress of being home with two kids under two. I figured things would get better in time.

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And things did get better in time. But not in the way I thought they might. It wasn’t our daily walks or my weekly solo latte dates that changed my perspective – although I highly recommend both those activities for all new moms! It was something I didn’t expect. Something I didn’t see coming.

One morning, bored with yet another diaper explosion, I decided to sort through my maternity clothes and get rid of what I no longer needed. I washed them, boxed them up and passed them on to a friend. The next day I gathered up the newborn clothes we’d outgrown. Sorted them by size and style. I donated some, sold some and passed some on to friends. The release I felt from accepting that those phases of my life were over gave me a deep sense of relief. Or freedom. Maybe both! I couldn’t put my finger on it. And I didn’t think much of it at the time.

Over the next few weeks I started to realize how much stuff we had accumulated since we’d had our first child. We weren’t huge shoppers and we didn’t necessarily have a hard time letting go of things. It had happened slowly. Without us even noticing. The baby showers, the hand-me-downs, all the things we had to have.

We had also recently moved into a larger home and felt the need to fill all the rooms. All the walls. All the spaces.

And I liked all the “things.” I had picked them out after all. But I didn’t love any of them. Some of them weren’t even useful. Why did we have chairs that nobody sat in?! Was I being overly practical? Was I being overly dramatic?

I started to take careful stock of everything in our home. Unworn clothes, brightly-coloured baby toys everywhere and two crawl spaces jammed full of storage totes.

One box at a time I started to let go of things we no longer needed. Some days it was seemingly meaningless items such as expired spices and never-used kitchen gadgets. Other times it was heavier items such as sentimental objects from my recently passed father.

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I remember dragging out my tote of old cards and letters, including every single one of my primary school report cards (cringe). At this point I was getting fairly desensitized to decluttering and didn’t anticipate any big emotions. But in that box was a handful of letters to and from my family from when I was at sleep-away camp as a kid. I had been painfully homesick – which I didn’t hide in the letters. And it instantly took me back. Why had I kept these so long? What was I holding on to? I cried at my camp letters – and laughed at the notes from my high school girlfriends. And then I let go of most of it and walked back into the kitchen where my husband and two children were. My current life.

The decluttering phase also made way for things we didn’t realize we’d been hiding from. One afternoon I was doing a mall walk with my infant (if you know, you know) and something stopped me in my tracks. The weight of a ton of bricks hit me. It was the weight of our $78,000 line of credit. I can’t remember what triggered it in that moment. But it was as if the clearing out of all the useless objects from our lives was slowly showing us what was most important. The debt was primarily from grad school, which was how I justified letting it fester. But in that moment I really saw it. Less stuff for it to hide behind. And I knew we had to address it.

Over the next two years we decluttered our entire home, room by room. Every item we let go of freed up space in either our hearts or our home. Oftentimes, both. Having a clutter-free home made life with two small children significantly easier. Less to tidy, less for them to destroy. And the items that held emotional attachment were either displayed as happy memories (old photos of my dad) or let go of (see ya never, camp letters!).

I’m also happy to report that in less than two years we paid off my entire school debt of nearly $80,000. We cut expenses, stopped shopping, did a “no-spend” month and threw every cent we had at our line of credit.

I didn’t need to read the studies on how minimalism improves quality of life. I could feel it. I could feel it in every part of myself and our lives and our family. No longer stubbing my toe on the oversized baby swing in our living room was one of the obvious improvements of our new-found world. But it ran much deeper than that. I started to see everything more clearly.

The lessons that came from buying less, consuming less and needing less seeped into every area of our lives. We now track what comes into our home, donations that go out and our garbage. We are halfway to saving our emergency fund, we spend more time smiling, more time outdoors and less time rushing. We rarely shop and when we do we consider how things are made, how much we need and who the purchase supports. We consider how many billions of years some things live in landfills and how we can contribute less to that.

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During those early weeks and months of motherhood there were many dark moments. Many times when I wasn’t sure how I was going to make it through.

Maybe it was the weekly lattes that saved my sanity.

Or maybe it was something more.

Mary Ann Ker lives in Belleville, Ont.

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