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While their approach has raised the eyebrows of some family and friends, the couple credits a minimalist lifestyle for strengthening the bond between them and their family of six, as well as for making room for the things that they truly value.
When did you experience your first taste of minimalism?
Gaya: The first place we lived together was in Waterloo as students. Initially we were living in very small spaces, like student housing with other students, so we learned to manage with very little; a small bed, a small desk, whatever it was, we’ve done it.
Is this what led you to permanently adopt a minimalist lifestyle?
Gaya: Actually, when we were getting ready for marriage, we were living with Naren’s parents, and the owners of that house wanted to sell. So, his parents needed to look for a place, we needed to look for a place, and they wanted us all to live together. We discussed whether we wanted to do that as well, and after weighing the pros and the cons, we decided that we did want to buy a house together as we could pay off the mortgage faster, and more easily provide for the kids. However, it didn’t work out; we put down an offer but it wasn’t accepted. So, we went the other way and decided to live as close as possible to Naren’s work, and in a much smaller space.
Naren: In retrospect, we dodged a bullet. At the time, I don’t think we understood the consequences of what we were doing. In hindsight, we realize that was one of the best things that could have happened to us.
Gaya: Yeah, we have a great relationship with his parents. Our homes are still pretty close enough for us to go visit them or for them to come see the kids here.
How did you end up buying your first place?
Gaya: We were just walking around downtown, looking at places, and we saw this small, bright orange studio that was for sale.
Naren: It was less than 400 square feet and it made us think about what we really needed, which was essentially just a place to sleep, and a place to work. It was also right across the street from my office, so the savings on the commute were great compared to driving back and forth to Toronto from Scarborough. It taught us a really good lesson of what was important; I was home everyday at 4pm, we got to spend a lot more time together, I wasn’t exhausted from commuting, I got to roll out of bed and head to work late, and I was even able to come home for lunch.
So, you don’t own a car?
Naren: We do. We own a small minivan but since everything we do is pretty much within walking distance, it just hangs out in the garage unless we need it out of necessity. My work is eight minutes away, the kids’ school is five minutes away and my wife has a personal training business (@momzonefitness). I play a lot of basketball, so I use the car to drive to games and to see the family on weekends.
Was the desire to have kids the reason that you chose to move?
Gaya: No. We actually had our first two children in that apartment. Every space that we live in takes us a few years to organize and figure out the orientation we like, in terms of finding furniture that fits perfectly. By the time we finally figured that out, we then decided that we wanted more space. As the kids got older, we didn’t have as much privacy, and that was also a factor in our decision.
Naren: On top of that, around 2010-2011, we had also been hearing whispers about how the Toronto housing market was going to crash. Being a bit cautious, we just wanted to cash in on what we had at the time. It’s silly in hindsight but we wanted more space as well, so it all worked out.
So, you moved straight from that spot, to where you’re living now?
Naren: No. We rented for a few years, and then a one bedroom came up for sale. It was a low-floor, which we really like because it let the kids out onto the balcony which we normally couldn’t do. The building was a co-ownership, which means we had to pay a downpayment of 25% upwards, as opposed to 5% of 10%. I think it ended up being a little more than 30%, but in situations like this, the overall sale price is generally cheaper and we still got to own the condo so that tradeoff was worth it to us.
We spent a lot of great years there, and often think about going back to retire. Our first three kids shared that one bedroom, but when Gaya was nine months pregnant with our fourth child around February 2016, that’s when we decided to upscale to our current location with two bedrooms.
Going back to the first place you owned; what kind of reaction did this evoke from your family when you chose to start and raise your family in such a small space?
Gaya: Our parents were definitely surprised that we had kids but were staying in the same small space. When I was pregnant for the first time, we received a list of all the things we would need for our child and some of the things included were a dresser for clothes, a crib, and a changing table. All of this made me feel anxious and we thought to ourselves, “Do we really need that?” Instead, I went to the dollar store and bought little bins for clothes and made space for it in a cupboard. Little things like this helped us in trying to make the most of what we had.
So, without a crib, where did the baby sleep?
Naren: We co-slept. We had a futon in the living room and our daughter slept in the middle. Because it was our first child and we had never done the parenting thing before, we bought one of those sleep nooks just to be safe. We slowly got rid of that and the rest of our kids also co-slept with us.
As the kids got older and bigger, we got a little mattress that we put beside the futon. Pretty soon after, they were sleeping together on that and we were on the futon.
How did you become so adept at maximizing your living space?
Naren: I think that can be attributed to Gaya as she’s always had a knack for organizing, and also, IKEA. We spend a lot of days there, browsing and eating because their $1 breakfast is ridiculous; you get a plate of eggs, sausage, home fries, and just great breakfast food for like a dollar fifty. It’s like a giant playground in a sense, and we often go there to check for things that fit in small spaces, like high shelves. We’ve had to make use of vertical space much more efficiently than you would if you had a lot of floor space.
Having become so accustomed to living in such small spaces, do you struggle to find time for yourselves?
Naren: Well, with Gaya being a personal trainer, she often views her time working with clients as alone time and privacy. I think this is another example of her maximizing things, whether it’s space in the condo, or time in her own life.
Gaya: Yes, I also go to Yoga classes, and that really helps.
Naren: But even at home, we have quiet time, and this is usually predetermined. It’s usually in the afternoon and on weekends. The kids don’t have to sleep, but it’s just time for everyone to be quiet, calm, and relax. We also have it before bed so you’ll usually see the kids lined up and reading books. Whoever is tired will end up falling asleep, and whoever isn’t will continue reading. We also determine quiet time on a case-by-case basis. If we feel tired, we’ll call for quiet time as well. We’ve never been the ones to need to watch our kids all the time, so if we want our privacy, we just go to our room, and let them enjoy themselves out here. Living in a small space helps because we can hear them if we need to.
How have the kids adjusted to living in a smaller space?
Naren: They know different, because their grandparents, and aunts and uncles all have houses. Some of these houses are very big and nice, and we also travel and have been fortunate enough to stay in some really nice spaces. So, they’re always asking for that, as kids do. There was a house for sale just down the street and our eldest tried everything possible to convince us to get it. It’s a $2 million (laughs) townhome and she said she’ll even work to help pay if off but they don’t understand how much work a house takes.
Paying millions for a house that extends our commutes and requires added maintenance isn’t for us. We’ve shovelled lots of driveways and cut lots of lawns, and that’s just not how we want to spend our time especially with all the things we do and value, from Gaya’s fitness, to my love for basketball. On top of that, with so many kids, the activities we take them to, and the cooking we have to do daily, we’ve decided that we value our time and energy more than we do our space. These principles have us in a weird situation that not many other people are in.
Do you foresee any difficulties for when your children hit their teenage years?
Naren: Our eldest child is actually on the cusp of becoming a teenager and we have an unconventional plan for when she does decide that she wants more space or needs more privacy. We’ll probably get another small unit in this same building, just for her. If she wants to go to a university in this area like Ryerson, UofT, or George Brown, then that can serve as her residence. She can choose to come back and eat here if she wants, and if not, that’s completely okay as well. We’ve done as much as we can to encourage her independence, as she babysits all the kids now, and she’s CPR certified. So, whenever she feels comfortable, or wants the option, it’ll be there. If that doesn’t happen, then we can just rent it out, use it as a guest apartment, or let the kids stay here with girls in one room and boys in the other room, while Gaya and I take the other unit.
Have you ever had any doubts about making minimalism work, and what is the number one thing that people say about your lifestyle which annoys you?
Naren: There are plenty of things people say but I think for the most part, it’s stopped. People have given up because we’ve done this for quite some time and if you’re unconventional for long enough, people leave you alone because they realize you’re fine. There have never been doubts for me, but the annoyance is all the things that people think kids need. We have four kids, and we’ve never owned a crib. Until our fourth child, we had never even owned a stroller. We let them walk everywhere we went and by the age of two, our eldest child was walking to Eaton Centre and back, no problem.
Kids will think whatever you allow them to do is normal. At the end of the day, most parents are just too busy commuting, and spending additional time doing things like housework or whatever it may, that they look for the easier solution, or at least what has been branded to them as that. For example, if you don’t have time to teach your child how to walk, then the stroller is that easy solution. For us, not having a stroller also saved us space in the apartment, which is something we chose to prioritize.
Do you feel like living in a small space with such a big family has helped strengthen your communication?
Naren: Definitely, because we have to have good communication to make this work. We have regular family meetings with an agenda and a full minutes of our family meetings. We discuss what’s going well, give appreciation for what other people are doing, open the floor for anyone to raise their concerns, and tackle issues that need resolving.
Gaya: Naren actually built an app that lists all the kids’ morning jobs. We gave them options of if they want to shower first thing in the morning, or do any morning tasks that they have first. We let them vote and decide, and with this, we ideally don’t have to do anything in the morning as we just let them handle their business.
Do you get a lot of “What are you guys doing comments?”
Naren: The previous generation freaks out about what we’re doing. Our generation wants to learn how we’re doing it. My peers, the guys I play basketball with, at some point discover that I have four kids and usually ask me, “How are you playing so much basketball, how are you doing all this, how are you managing so much?”
What do you tell them?
Naren: I tell them that a lot of it is just parenting, and not getting too involved in the kids’ lives. Fundamentally, what kids need more than anything is a good role model. They don’t need people to watch, police and coddle them, but just someone to look up to and say “Oh they’re doing that, so I’m going to do that.” So, the kids are always asking, “Can we lift weights? Can we help in the kitchen?” They’re just observing our behaviour and they want to do what we’re doing.
That’s one of the benefits of a small space - they see whatever we’re doing from the beginning. In our first studio, our eldest was folding her clothes at 18 months and putting them away. She would use crayons, and then put them back into the box. She was very organized.
Another one of our kids is really good about changing himself. He takes off his pull-ups, throws it in the compost, gets into the shower with one of the older siblings, and has just learned to be very self-sufficient. It’s a function of there being so many children in such a small space. We don’t have to inform them about what to do, because they see so much that they can just copy and follow along.
Are there any fears you have with raising the kids in this lifestyle?
Naren: For sure. We have interesting sibling dynamics; the middle two fight a lot but every other combination has a really good relationship. It might be the boy-girl relationship, or just differences in personality. But because it’s a small space, there’s no escape and there’s no getting away from it. You can’t really separate yourself and avoid it, so that’s definitely a concern for us. But at the same time, it’s eight relationship success stories, and one challenge, which is a pretty good batting percentage I would say.
Gaya: We try to catch them when they’re not being nice, but also when they’re good, because that’s often neglected in Tamil culture, and a lot of cultures for that matter. Criticizing the bad but noticing the good can be detrimental so we try to reinforce good character traits as much as possible.
Has your family accepted your decision to live minimally, or are they still reluctant to embrace your choice?
Naren: After almost 14 years of living this way, our family has now accepted our decision to live minimally. Some people also seem to think that the schools are not good in downtown Toronto, there are no extracurricular activities for the kids, and that downtown is less safe, but it’s actually completely the opposite. It’s just a lack of understanding; you just fear what you don't know.
What tips would you give someone who wants to buy a house for the first time?
Gaya: What I told my sister is that the housing market is crazy now if you’re trying to buy in Toronto. So, just buy what you can comfortably afford. You don’t want to be stressed out about what you can afford to pay every month. Once you get your foot in, you can always sell, or upgrade. I think that’s a big mistake people make. We knew we were going to have four kids, it wasn’t an accident. So, we could have bought this space from the beginning, but we didn’t. We bought and sold, and bought and sold to strategically get to this point.
I think it’s really important to live in a small space for a little while, to see how you use it. You might want to rush and buy furniture for everything, but it might not work out the way you imagine and you might want to change it up. If you’re okay with changing it up, that’s fine. We’ve bought furniture before, and said oh no, we’d rather have this, so we sold it on Kijiji, and used the money to buy something else. But it’s also just good to hold off on stuff, until you see how you actually wanna use the space.
Naren: We always bought the minimum that we could make work. That applies to our housing, and to our car - we bought the oldest, smallest car that would fit the six of us. That’s just the way we think. We don’t believe in what most people believe, that excess space, and the biggest minivan, is necessary for kids. We’ve noticed that whenever we’ve been in a big space, the kids just follow us around anyway. We could live in a huge house, but we’d never use it because we’d just all huddle in a corner anyways. So, just buy what you can afford and don’t think about what you think you’ll need in seven years. Don’t copy someone else. Just figure out what works for you and buy the least that you need.
Also, kids don’t need the stuff that you think they do. Kids pretty much just raise themselves if you leave them alone. There’s an assumption that your life is over when you have kids, right? People buy into this notion and make it their reality, but we’ve been really committed to our own hobbies, activities, space and let the kids just be for the most part. We’re actually in better shape than we’ve ever been. We have more extracurriculars, and hobbies and interests outside of our home, and outside of the kids, than ever before. And i think it’s really important to maintain that. Don’t fall into the trap that now that you have kids, your life is over. You don’t have to stop seeing your friends, and doing the things you love. You don’t have to be a tired parent all the time.
Do you feel like your family bond is strengthened because of this small space?
Naren and Gaya: It’s possible.
Gaya: I’ve seen other families who have big spaces, and I think in a big space, it’s easier to hold on to grudges. You can not speak for years because you have your own rooms, and can isolate yourself and not deal with what’s troubling you. Living in a small space definitely takes that problem out of the equation and helps us all discuss our differences and patch things up that much faster.
Have your parenting styles always aligned?
Naren: I think my style has always been like this since the beginning, and I’ve had to convince Gaya to kind of buy in.
Gaya: Yeah, we found a parenting model that’s called Democratic Parenting. It’s Alyson Schafer’s principle and I bought all her books after seeing her TV show when we had our first child. It was all in-line with how Naren wanted to parent and it all made sense. The principles are very counterintuitive, and it’s the opposite of what we see at school and with other parents, but it’s very logical. It helped us get on the same page but i think even if we did have different parenting styles, as long as we respected that, I think it would be okay as well.
Naren: Yeah we don’t agree on a lot of things, but we do respect each other’s right to choose to live in different ways and we support each other in that.
*This interview was completed in collaboration with creator Shagana E.
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