On Motherhood and Mountain Climbing

So I decided to climb a mountain for my 40th birthday. Not a small mountain, but a sleep outside for 9 nights, no running water, altitude sickness, sub-zero at the top kind of mountain. Why would I want to do this you ask? A legitimate question - when I invited my sister to come, she responded that for her 40th we would be doing something sensible like drinking wine in Italy. She of course came out of obligation and duty. But truly, as this birthday approached, I could feel my life changing in profound ways. My oldest child was moving out of the house. My youngest child was in grade school. There were no babies about and no more coming. Sleep can be counted on in regular 7 or 8 hour intervals, date night is an established thing, everyone can buckle themselves into seatbelts, and they can all push themselves on the swing at the playground (well if I’m truly honest, she’s the 4th child and we don’t actually go to any playgrounds) but you get my meaning. Space was opening up in my life, space for me. What did I want to do with it? 

Now let me explain. I love being a mom and I have had the opportunity to be a stay-at-home mom, a part-time working mom, and a full-time working mom. We did what we felt was right at different phases of our family’s life. I have no regrets about my choices and my life is blessedly full. So this climb was not about dissatisfaction. It was more about what’s next and how will I know, because for the last 18 years, I have really been a mom first, above all else. It’s not like my children don’t need me now, but they need me differently. 

So I climbed. And it was hard. There was no running water so the tent smelled rather interesting by day 3, and by day 4 I wouldn’t step outside without a hat. Some nights were so cold we filled our water bottles with hot water and used them as little heaters at the bottom of our sleeping bags. When I hit 15,000 feet my head hurt so badly I wanted to fling myself off the side of the mountain. 

There were also moments of raw beauty, like the lava tower gleaming against the bright blue sky; or the clouds flashing with electricity thousands of feet below us; or the glacier whose transient presence brought us to tears; or a first glimpse at the Southern Cross

On summit day, we woke up at 4 am in the freezing darkness, and began a grueling day of switchback hiking 3000ft up. No one wanted to eat, and no one really wanted to talk. We focused on putting one foot in front of the other for 8 hours. Some of us had a mantra. Mine was nothing more than counting in increments of 60 just like I do on the treadmill. Part way up, my best friend since middle school (yes, she too accompanied me on this crazy adventure) said, “What do you think, this or labor?” And in that moment, I really couldn’t say which was more difficult. 

And then we were there. I have a picture of me smiling in front of the sign at the summit, and then kissing that same sign with delirious glee. I think there are pictures of me kissing my newborn babies with a similar expression on my face. Looking back at the experience, I just don’t remember the pain. 

Now I’m back to my life and the “real” world, or at least my world, and here is what I’ve learned. First, motherhood prepared me for this climb like nothing else could. From endurance, to functioning on little sleep, to appreciating a small moment in a large experience, motherhood is an excellent teacher. It is a long haul endeavor, not a sprint to the finish; it requires us to adapt to new situations and environments with little or no training; it calls on us to participate fully and without reservation. One of our mountain guides shared that the most successful group of climbers are generally middle-aged women (am I middle aged???). The mothers in our group smiled at one another knowingly. What’s a little mountain climbing compared to months of morning sickness, 15 hours of labor, years of sleeplessness, fearful nights in an emergency room, fearful nights waiting for a new driver to come home? What’s a little mountain climbing compared to a tiny hand holding yours, a warm body with footy pajamas snuggled in your bed, sticky ice cream cone kisses, sunny afternoons at a ball field? Kilimanjaro was big, but we’d already done something bigger.

Here is what else I learned. Sometimes you get answers, but not to the questions you are asking. I didn’t receive any earth-shattering revelations about my future, but I did find a little worthy insight about being mindful. Living intentionally is a practice and one that requires constant recommitment. Sometimes this means making a change, and sometimes it means fully embracing just where we are. When we remove the background noise, the essential becomes clear.

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I have been practicing this mindfulness lately and the unexpected, overwhelming emotion that I experience as a result is gratitude. I am so grateful for summer beach days, colorful changing leaves, the starry winter sky, laughter around the dinner table, hot cocoa and mittens at the front door, a good book, good friends – the experiences and people that make up my full, messy, wonderful life. I don’t need to know exactly where I will be tomorrow or the next day because I am truly present in this moment. And it’s a good moment, and that’s enough.