My husband and I are expecting our first child in May. These past few months we’ve been busy preparing our home for the arrival of the little one, and all the major life changes that go along with starting a family.

Our house is older (1949), and on the small side of the spectrum as compared to others on the South Shore. The family who built the house raised two children there, so we’re hoping we will remain comfortable, space-wise, as our party of two becomes a party of three.

In our culture, humans tend to fill any space that is allotted to them. My husband and I certainly fit that bill. Getting the nursery ready, and clearing space elsewhere in the house, we’ve sorted through an awful lot of “stuff.” We’ve made many trips to the dump and to charities seeking household goods, and yet it still seems like we’ve up to our ears in “stuff,” even now that it’s (mostly) organized and packed away neatly.

There is definitely room for a baby, and room for him to grow over the years. But I am a little bit concerned about all the baby-related paraphernalia we’re “supposed to” acquire to support the well-being of this fragile new person. Certainly we need a crib, some baby clothes, and a whole lot of diapers. There are plenty more items that will make life with baby more comfortable one way or another, many of which, through the generosity of friends and family, are now stacked high under the eaves. But how much is too much?

I was discussing this “stuff” phenomenon with a friend who has been in the Army since the early 1990s. Even moving around from base to base every three years, both in the United States and abroad, he too has managed to acquire a full ration of clutter. Serving in Kosovo, Iraq, and other war-torn places, my friend has certainly caught glimpses of “how the other half lives.” Yet he and his wife find themselves in the same position as my husband and I – they too are new parents this year, and thus they are bringing a truckload more “stuff” into their home.

To help me grapple with my inherent materialism, my friend recommended that I check out Peter Menzel’s book “Material World: A Global Family Portrait” (Sierra Club; 1994). I did, and found it so fascinating that I kept renewing it from the library for two months straight.

Primarily photographs, “Material World” visits thirty countries around the globe. Facts and figures, such as life expectancy, annual income, and the typical size of a family, are featured along with scenes from day-to-day life. But the centerpiece for each country is a portrait of an average family, outside its home, surrounded by all, or at least a fair representation, of the family’s “stuff.” The differences are eye-opening.

In Mali, for example, the family possesses little more than the most basic set of clothes, and the necessary implements for cooking and eating. The same is true in Ethiopia. In countries like Bhutan and Uzbekistan, religious items and some furniture become part of the picture, but overall, belongings are still quite sparse. On the other hand, in the most affluent countries, like Japan, Kuwait, and the United States, the sheer square footage of “stuff” seems bizarre when placed out of context (generally the belongings are arranged in a giant outdoor still-life outside the front door).

We grow accustomed to a certain quality of life, a certain amount of “stuff” around us, and so that stuff becomes a part of us, and shapes our lives. So do our possessions also own us, in a sense? I like to think that it’s the bigger pictures that really matter – our relationships, our work, our spiritual lives. But when I think about quality life in the absence of my refrigerator, for example, it’s a very different scene. Still, the presence or absence of a working refrigerator is much more significant in my life than the hundreds of books my husband and I have acquired, or the several months’ worth of clothing.

Could we be happy with less? Absolutely, although we’d need time to adjust. But would we choose to give up a significant portion of our possessions? Probably not. Still, seeing how people in other cultures and other economic realities live day to day opens our eyes and reminds us of what’s really important.

By Kezia Bacon-Bernstein, Correspondent
May 2006

Kezia Bacon-Bernstein’s articles appear courtesy of the North and South Rivers Watershed Association, a local non-profit organization devoted to the preservation, restoration, maintenance and conservation of the North and South Rivers and their watershed. For membership information and a copy of their latest newsletter, contact NSRWA at (781) 659-8168.