By: Kaylan Fitzgerald
Ten years ago I was begrudgingly planning my wedding (I was not excited about the big church wedding it was shaping up to be), but more enthusiastically dreaming about the life that was just beginning. Matt and I would graduate from university in late April, get married in the middle of May, jobs and a place to live to be determined. We were facing the unique situation of immigration - I was born and raised in rural Pennsylvania, while Matt was from Halifax, Nova Scotia. I chose a university in Canada just for something different, never intending to stay north long term. Knowing that one of us would have to immigrate, we applied for jobs all over North America and agreed to pursue any possibility. We would deal with the details later.
Matt was offered a job in northern New Brunswick, and while it wasn’t our first choice, we took it, grateful for the income and experience it would provide. Now, a decade later, we can look back on that first year with gratitude for the life experience and lessons learned. Living it in real time was different. Barely making $25,000 together that year, we learned a lot about living simply just out of necessity. Just before our first anniversary Matt was offered a job 3,000 miles away, on the opposite side of the continent. Prior to his interview trip, neither of us had been further west than Michigan, but we packed all of our belongings in an 8’x8’ container and shipped it to British Columbia. We were barely 23 year old, making a huge move far away from our families, but so excited for the adventure ahead of us.
The first thing we learned about our new city was that the rental market was tight. And expensive. Thanks to a connection through Matt’s employer, we were able to secure a tiny basement apartment, just over 400 square feet. We emailed with the landlord and sent him a deposit after seeing only four pictures. It was good enough and we already knew that we could endure anything for a year! We occasionally considered moving someplace bigger, but within the first year we became good friends with our landlord and eventually his girlfriend. Our rent was significantly cheaper than anything else on the market and we grew to like the tiny space. We were happy to stay put until something compelled us to move.
We thought that something came the summer before I turned 27. I was pregnant with our son and we were quite sure it was impossible to fit a baby in our 1 bedroom apartment. Still our landlords (who had since gotten married and would be expecting their first child just after us), proposed a small renovation if we wanted to stay. There was a storage space adjacent to our apartment that we had been using and if finished out would make a nice second bedroom. We gratefully accepted their offer and then got to work sorting all the things we had kept in that space just because we could. This was the first of many times we would choose living small over having stuff.
Knowing our space limitations, I tried to make smart decisions about the baby items we acquired. I would search the internet for other people living in small spaces with young children and try to find advice from moms who had walked this path before me. There wasn’t a lot of out there at the time so I dabbled in blogging our experience, hoping it might eventually benefit someone else. By the time Rhys was born, it became apparent that my best efforts were not enough and we had way too much stuff. I struggled for months to organize the excess, shifting totes between our two small closets, rearranging the contents of our one dresser dozens of times. Then came the conundrum of what to do with the stuff he outgrew. Conventional wisdom says to save it for another baby, so I did.
Though it would be another year before I realized what was happening, I was spiraling quickly into severe postpartum depression. Rhys was not a great sleeper or even a mediocre one, he had a milk allergy (something we also wouldn't discover for another year) and those symptoms were frustrating and difficult to manage. Matt had switched careers before Rhys was born and his rotating schedule was difficult on our family. On top of this, was all the stuff in our house, the constant mess that reminded me I was failing at the most basic levels of being an adult.
The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo was released in Canada the summer Rhys was 6 months old. I very rarely purchase books, preferring to use the library, but the buzz about this particular book made me buy it. I read it in an afternoon, stopping periodically to fill a box with stuff I knew I didn’t want, method be damned. The idea of choosing what I loved, not worrying about if it was practical or might be useful someday, struck a chord with me. Everything else in my life was overwhelming and chaotic, but I was getting a handle on the stuff.
I had the benefit of a year long maternity leave in Canada, but I started preparing to return to work around Rhys’s first birthday. While I was on leave, the location of my job changed, adding an extra half hour to my commute each way. The change would also mean some differences in my responsibilities, but I wouldn’t know the full affect of those changes until I was back at work for a bit. By the third week I told Matt I was done. I would stay long enough to make an exit plan, but I needed out. I was commuting over an hour each way and working 9-10 hours a day. I had no time or energy left for my family. This was the first time we sat down to strategically plan our future. We had the first conversations about our values and goals and how we would achieve them.
From a friend’s suggestion, I launched into a complete career change, but one that still fell in line with my personal values of putting people first. I switched from a position at a non-profit homeless shelter to public education assisting students with diverse learning needs. Rhys was still in daycare while I worked, but long term a career in public education allowed me to be home with him on holidays and summer breaks. It also gave us more time and flexibility for travel, which was another value that was becoming clear for us.
Rhys will be five in a few weeks. We have spent the last four years intentionally discussing our family values; practicing, honing, and readjusting as needed. We've developed big overarching values - adventure and generosity - as well as supporting values. Minimalism, zero-waste, eating whole foods, and getting outside shape our day to day decisions. We choose to live with less so we have more resources to give. We choose zero-waste both to save money and to preserve the earth that we love. We choose eating well to nourish our bodies and maintain our health. We choose to get outside as much as possible for adventures big and small.
While we’ve only been intentionally living our values for a few years, it is easy to look back on our lives, both together and before we met, and see that these values have always been there. My decision to move to Canada after high school and our decision to move to British Columbia are evidence of an adventurous spirit. Before meeting, we enrolled in university each pursuing careers in non-profit work because we value putting people first and living generously. Even as Matt eventually changed careers and stepped out of non-profit work we still saw opportunities to give back to our community.
Finding our family values didn’t require a huge mental shift or forcing ourselves to try something uncomfortable. It required time to reflect on our habits, to call out the things that make our hearts sing. Then it was just a matter of stripping away the minutiae. Finding those supporting habits that get us closer to our bigger goals. Now as we move forward we have a solid framework to make decisions for our family. An opportunity supports our values or it doesn’t. It makes it easy to say No or to give a confident Yes. Defining our family values and living intentionally has set us free.