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A Go West Mom You Should Know: Suzanne Thibeault of the 500 Things Project

All of us who feel like we’re fighting a losing battle with clutter in our homes will find some inspiration from our latest “Go West Mom You Should Know.” She’s Suzanne Thibeault, and she lives in Naperville with her 18-year-old son Sam and her husband Paul Deffenbaugh.

Suzanne Thibeault. Photo provided.Thibeault has a blog called the "500 Things Project.” Each day she chooses to get rid of something and then explains its history, value, how she feels about parting from it and where it went. It sounds like a fun way to tackle clutter, right? But for Thibeault, there is a lot more behind the project than just having some clean shelves and extra closet space.

Thibeault, 49, is a writer and editor who volunteers extensively withFamilies Helping Families, a DuPage County charity that provides transitional housing and other resources for formerly homeless families.

Her husband is a writer and magazine editor with over 20 years experience in the housing industry. When both the journalism industry and the housing market nosedived  during  the Great Recession, Deffenbaugh lost his job. They were worried about losing their home. Meanwhile, they faced the prospect of sending their only son off to college. Suddenly, it was very clear how little their “stuff” really mattered.

Read on to find out why we think Suzanne Thibeault is a Go West Mom You Should Know.

Q. Can you describe for a reader who has not seen it yet your "500 Things Project"? The inspiration for it? And how it is organized each day?

A. My family has been in a vulnerable position over these last few difficult years. In 2009, my husband was laid off, and our son would soon be applying to college. We faced losing our house and launching our child. I decided to chronicle this time of crisis and opportunity by creating a blog about the downsizing, both expected and unexpected, we were confronting. I call it the “500 Things Project.” 500 was simply a calculation I made in March of 2010 for how much longer Sam would be living with us. Each day for 500 days, I choose something to get rid of, to downsize, and explain how it relates to what we are experiencing in our lives and what we have learned.

Q. The project isn't over yet, but what have you learned so far? Have you given away anything that you now regret?

A. Oh, I love this question! I have learned that I – and by “I,” I mean, everyone – spends way too much on useless crap!! If I could pull on a string in the tapestry of my life, there is only one I would pull, only one true regret: overspending on unnecessary stuff.

  • Toys: I heard a quote long ago that the only things kids really need besides love, shelter and food were a bike, a library card and piano lessons. This is the best parenting advice I have ever heard, and I wish I had cleaved to it.
  • Décor: Why have I fluffed my life as if an HGTV camera crew was going to show up at any moment?
  • Books: Use the library.
  • DVDs, etc: Use the library.
  • Clothes: The old chestnut—we wear 10% of our clothes 80% of the time—is wrong. We wear 3% of our clothes 96% of the time. I did the calculation.
  • Plastic, anything, plastic: Avoid as if your life, your child’s life, the planet’s life depended on it. In fact, they do.

 I regret giving away absolutely nothing, and will continue purging well past 500 things. The husband and the cat are the only truly non-negotiable keepers.

Q. Most of my readers have young children -- some haven't even started preschool yet. Do you have any advice for parents at that stage of their life, coming from a mom who has a son about to leave home?

A. I stayed home with my son and was the family glue. I worked occasionally, as a substitute teacher and on some writing projects, but mostly I was an at-home mom. I never experienced anything like the “Mommy Wars” you read about in the press. At-homers envied the adult interactions of at-work moms, and at-work moms regretted time away from their kids. But each saw the pros and cons. Having gone through the devastation of my husband losing his job and having no other reliable income, I now would encourage at-homers to keep up their skills, credentials, whatever it takes to be able to return to a pay check a.s.a.p., if the worst happens.

I do not regret for a moment being the at-home caregiver. In fact, this became vital when my mom had a stroke. I was able to care for her profound needs in a way that wouldn’t have been possible had I needed to negotiate a work schedule, too. But in hindsight, I should have pursued more freelance work and taken some technology classes and kept my resume current. Don’t risk having to track down a long-lost business reference when you are preparing for your first interview in years. Years and years.

Q. There's nothing like having a young child in your house to suddenly be overloaded with "stuff" -- not only toys, but equipment like highchairs, carseats and strollers, and clothes they quickly outgrow but you aren't ready to part with yet in case you have another child. Do you have any advice for families looking to downsize their belongings? 

A. Like I said before, I think we way over-buy for our kids and their actual needs. And intentionally having an only child meant I was quick to divest us of the stuff that was only age-necessary. But wow, I do talk about sentiment on my blog. That’s a real bugaboo for many people. Even professional organizers have difficulty dealing with clients who are reluctant to downsize sentimental items. There are the regularly promoted strategies, like taking pictures of kids’ artwork, or buying one bin per child to limit the accumulation. But of course, the best way to deal with it is preemptively. Just refuse to buy into buying. But hey, I am no expert.

Having moved several times, having almost lost my house as a result of an unexpected financial crisis, and having come to understand that stuff truly doesn’t matter and actually robs of you of energy and security, I probably have a stuff-level which is a little more spare than most people would be comfortable with. But I say it all the time: Keep the memories, lose the stuff. How you keep the memories is certainly up to each individual.

Q. Are there any magazines or websites you turn to for inspiration when needing some motivation to pare down your belongings?

A. I love Peter Walsh. I love unclutterer.com and zenhabits.net. Mostly I crave an economic reality in which I could sell my house. Fortunately, very very fortunately, we don’t need to move like we NEEDED to last year. But I would still love to achieve the ultimate downsizing: punting my “American Dream.” My husband and I have never been as happy as when we were grad-students in rental housing. I pine for that freedom.

Q. Focusing on your family, can you tell me a bit about your son and his personality?

A. Sam at his most basic, cellular level is a musician. He writes songs that make me grin manically and weep at his preternatural insights. He has been a song-writer since he was three. At that age, he was so frustrated that he couldn’t write out the music he was composing, he would have his dad and me try to do it. Understand, we are not skilled musicians. As he would hum or sing, we would write it down as best we could. Then he would ask us to sing it back to him. When we invariably messed up, he would become incredibly frustrated at all our inabilities. There’s nothing like being told by your three year old that you are just “not transcribing it correctly, mommy!”

We moved to Naperville from the DC suburbs when Sam was 13. He thought we were ruining his life. He had room to argue. He was on a great trajectory at school and we lived just around the corner from his cousins, aunt, uncle and grandmother. His father and I lost a lot of sleep over our decision to move. But … Sam has had opportunities -- artistically, scholastically, and philanthropically – in Naperville that he would not have had in our old community. Of all the opportunities, the best by far was meeting Vicky Joseph, the amazing director of Families Helping Families, a local charity that provides services for formerly homeless families. Through this organization, Sam has discovered his leadership skills. He has volunteered extensively. He tutors and cares for two boys every day after school who benefit from having a positive male role model in their lives. But as an only child, Sam benefits the most, from having to be consistent, compassionate and nurturing to boys who have become like his brothers.

And one of the best things about Sam is that he doesn’t hold a grudge. He came to us after our move and said that it had been a good thing. Only then did I exhale.

Q. I know that you plan for the 500th thing that will leave your home to be Sam. How are you handling his imminent departure for college? How does he feel about your blog?

A. I knew from the beginning, the last thing I would be downsizing was Sam, which definitely conveys a sense of poignancy to the whole project. And that’s why I call the countdown to his departure the Urgency counter.

It’s funny. Sam was a really difficult 3-5 year old. (You understand, that’s my assessment, based on having a total of one child, but still.) His dad and I would wearily say to each other that Sam was welcome to stay until he was 18, and then he must leave. Nothing but love for ya, babe, but no loitering. HA! Somewhere around 14, he became this incredibly interesting person. Someone I really like hanging out with and who endlessly delights me, with his wit and his talent. So, basically, be careful what you wish for! He is leaving, very soon, and I am so sad.

On the other hand, this is the way it is meant to be. It’s the whole roots n’ wings thing. He is going to Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, NY. We are all thrilled. He applied to seven schools, and got into most of them. But Vassar was his first choice, so, man, are we happy and grateful!

About my blog, he likes it best when I talk about him. Narcissist -- like most people. He also likes it when I use his nickname, The Self-Contained Unit, which was given to him by his freshman-year history teacher, a fabulous ex-Marine who recognized in him a kindred spirit. It perfectly captures Sam’s independence, with just a soupcon of deflating teasing. I’ve always been respectful of Sam’s privacy. I know almost precisely where his boundaries lie, so there has never been an issue of public betrayal. The couple of times I’ve hesitated over including some detail, I’ve consulted him. Invariably he says, “Run with it.” Even the other day, when I wrote about his prom experience, he agreed with my characterizations. Have I mentioned how much I’m going to miss him?

Q. Finally, can you describe your parenting style?

A. Respectful, of his competence and need to define his own experiences. When Sam was between 6 and 11, he had a close friend whose mom was a very powerful force in our neighborhood and had a very different parenting style from mine. She loved her children every molecule as much as I did mine, of course, but her guiding principle was “obedience the first time.” The first few times I heard her say these words to them, I kind of freaked out. I saw the look of intimidation in her kids’ eyes. Safe to say, I am no tiger mother. On the other hand, I found ways to encourage Sam without intimidating him. It’s how I imagine most of us want to be treated.

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