The Delights of Downsizing

February 04, 1996

Advice For The Simple Life: Try Parenthood

When I first read about the lifestyle trend of the ’90s called Voluntary Simplicity, I let out an involuntary chuckle that traveled right through a cackle into an involuntary guffaw.

“Ha!” I laughed as I read the stories about the couples who have given up their stressful high-paying jobs and “downshifted” to living the simple life on the interest from their investments, clipping coupons from the supermarket, baking their own bread and keeping up a high profile of conspicuous smugness.

How sad, how retro, how hopelessly out of step, for without fanfare and press releases, my wife and I find ourselves several laps ahead of this movement, having long ago passed up Voluntary Simplicity and systematically downshifted to a better and simpler way of life.

Stage 1: The Marriage Downshift. Before we were married, Ellen and I had every reason to believe that we had a life of luxury and ease ahead. Visiting our multiple residences throughout the year, keeping a watchful eye on our polo ponies and driving our behemoth off-the-road vehicles to ski resorts were just some of the activities we used to fantasize about while sipping strong coffee in her tiny studio apartment.

But realizing in advance the sheer stress and shallowness of this sort of crass consumption, we opted for a more spiritual existence by downshifting to the plane of ordinary married folk.

Stage 2: The Parenting Downshift. When we were first married, we looked around us at our lifestyle with its nights out at the latest films, its uninterrupted conversations, its several working household appliances, and knew there had to be less.

Living for ourselves and our possessions was cloying and dishonest. The simple needs and simple smiles of children were what we needed to gain perspective and prioritize our values.

When we look back on it, the fascinating lifestyle aspect of the decision to have children is this: It is the last voluntary thing we have ever done.

Stage 3: The Involuntary Downshift. Before parenthood, our two-bedroom house seemed unnecessarily opulent and vast, like Citizen Kane’s Xanadu. The arrival of our two little boys, now aged 5 and 7, solved this problem brilliantly, freeing us from bourgeois reliance on open space, unbroken furniture and Lego-free carpeting.

The beauty of this stage is that you feel like you’ve moved to a smaller house without actually buying one. Each room seems about half its original size, and all this happened without having to deal with real estate agents.

Stage 4: The Undersizing Downshift. The big problem with the Voluntary Simplicity movement is that it doesn’t go far enough — the rich downshift to just the right point to fulfill basic needs. True simplicity, however, means going past that point.

For instance, they never seem to drive truly downsized cars. I do. Our sometimes reliable 1988 Escort, like-new in that about 30 percent of its working parts have been replaced, takes a certain amount of social courage to drive.

When my sons say things like, “Why do we drive such a stupid car, Dad?” I smile and reply that they will understand when they grow up. For the truth is, when I 1ook up at the gleaming mini-vans that pass us on the highway, I’m proud to know I’m in the company of Gandhi, St. Francis, Buddha and other non-materialist giants of history.

Stage 5: Absolute Simplicity. Formerly wealthy downshifters always note that they now have more time for things that really matter to them, like long walks at sunset, discussing books with friends and preparing elaborate meals from vegetables grown in their own gardens.

Read a book? Grow a vegetable? Take a walk? The child-downshifted household eliminates all these confusing choices that cause stress in modern life.

These days, for example, my wife and I can relax in the knowledge that every evening for the forseeable future will be spent doing homework. We will sit patiently through hour after hour of quality time, enriching our children with our extensive knowledge of 2nd, 3rd, and 4th grade math, modeling for them the advice of Henry David to “simplify, simplify, simplify.”

The downwardly mobile aristocracy has a lot to learn from us, the absolutely simple folks. They should watch us carefully for the next lifestyle trend. From what I hear about raising teenagers, we just might push through the outside of the envelope and into Total Complexity.

Stay tuned.