raising little ones in the great outdoors

Another perspective: The Outdoor Mother

Outdoor Mother = Bad Mother. It’s a common rationale. It’s difficult to leave the kids, so getting intense athletic time while being a mother seems impossible unless there’s a nanny. There are timing issues with breastfeeding, nap times, and children’s extracurricular activities. A lot of “outdoor mothers” are happy to stay at home with the kids while their husbands do serious weekend trips. It’s easier that way, and as long as the mother gets out with kids every now and then, it works.

Or does it?

What about the women who aren’t satisfied to stay home with the kids? Despite the maternal pull, some women maintain a lingering desire for the outdoor world. We want to believe that a post-natal women to crank hard in the mountains. It is a rare feat, but it does happen. These women challenge a fear bigger than just falling on a lead climb; we face the fear of being called a bad/irresponsible/lazy mother who dominates her husband. Yet these women, often very “good” mothers, lead very fulfilling lives.

How do you break traditional “gender roles” to get mountain time? Is it unethical for a mother to ask for a weekend alone? These are common questions moms are forced to grapple with. I’ve noticed in researching other forums on mothers in the outdoors that there three main issues women grapple with.

I could fill pages with tips on bringing cheerios and coloring books for kids to use on a day spent on a beach kayaking flat-water, but you’re a parent. You already know that. The best advice is to remember that it is possible, and emotionally necessary, for a mother to have a social and athletic life outside of her family.

1. Maternal Instinct.
The desire to be with our family is deeply rooted within us. No good mother ever wants to tell her children, “My time is more important more than you.” To counter our maternal instinct, we often resolve this issue by taking our children with us. My friends do this. I do it as well. It’s great to go for a day of sport climbing with friends. It creates a communal babysitting co-op, allows for couples to take turns climbing, and makes it easy to climb with friends. Our children love to come along on trips with us, and we love watching them learn about the environment. I would guess that my two boys come on 70 percent of all trips taken, but the concept of family unit in the outdoors is limited both in acceptable locals and sports. This doesn’t, for example, work well with white water kayaking or a massive granite face.

Jennilyn takes a break between sandstone splitters for some QT with Fletcher.

Jennilyn takes a break between sandstone splitters for some QT with Fletcher.

But leaving the kids?

Even with a supportive husband, the self-imposed guilt for leaving a child is strenuous. However, a mother needs to deal with this maternal instinct, or she won’t get out. The only way to deal with separation anxiety is to just leave. Let dads be dads the way they need to be (and that goes for grandmothers too!). Once you’ve arrived at your adventure’s starting point, the anxiety about the children diminishes, and the chance to truly relax and be alive increases. I know when I come back from a long run my boys will probably be naked, hungry, and watching TV. They’re alive, they’re happy, and so am I — that’s really what matters most.

2. Finding Time
You will never find time to get out. You have to make time to follow your passions. Making outdoor motherhood work is a delicate give-and-take between spouses. It requires mom’s stepping forward to claim their time.

Catching a little shade

Catching a little shade

If you need to, count hours. If the husband gets a three-day climbing trip with friends, then the wife should get an equal amount of time alone as well. I know it’s hard to stand up, and say, “I am going to X next Saturday while you watch the kids.” Try it though. My friend, Heather, takes turns with her husband. “He’ll take a fishing trip with friends,” she states, “and a week later I get to take a climbing trip. Letting him take turns staying with the kids balances out our marriage.”

To keep things fair, another friend of mine follows a monthly pattern: Weekend 1: Father’s trip alone; Weekend 2: Family trip/time; Weekend 3: Mother’s trip alone; Weekend 4: Family trip/time. This way the personal time stays balanced with the family time.

It is important to take time for yourself. When done in moderation, time spent in the mountains comes back as better time spent with the children. A relaxed, or at least, happy mom is a good mom.

3. Body
A mother’s body is a cyclical being. A fit body swells with a baby, gives birth, recovers, works off baby weight, regains strength, finally progresses in activity, and then the process begins again: usually slower and more difficult than the first time.

It is hard to go back to a climb that was mastered before and stumble around on it like a novice. While it is important to enjoy a sport despite ability, digression can be frustrating, even ultimately demoralizing. Athletes like progression and improvement.

After having a child, it helps to mark every small accomplishment. As the minutes per mile running get faster or the lead climbing ability improves, celebrate the small feats compared to how you’ve done postpartum, not to how you did before prenatal.

Indy, the future dirtbag, enjoying a day in the dirt at Maple Canyon

Indy, the future dirtbag, enjoying a day in the dirt at Maple Canyon

It may help to think about the pregnancy as a physical injury, because in many ways it is (especially with a cesarean section). It’d be nearly impossible to summit Everest weeks after a knee surgery, or to lead 5.13 right after fracturing a collarbone, especially if that injury woke you up every morning at 3am to eat. Give yourself time to heal, regain strength, and cope with the life changes.

Remember it is possible, and that you are worth the time and trouble it takes to get outside. Being an outdoor mother gives confidence, patience, and strength to a woman: qualities exemplified in a good mother.

— Jennilyn Eaton

The author and her kids.

The author and her kids.

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6 Responses to “Another perspective: The Outdoor Mother”

  1. Joel says:

    As a father of a four month old, I thought I’d note that us fathers also can play an important role for allowing mothers to get outside and get their bodies back to normal after giving birth. Sometimes we can also be a motivater and push them to get out and go for a run or a bike ride and leave the kids with us. That approach has it’s rewards for us in that it makes it easier for us to ask for “time off” to do our own things.

  2. Jenny says:

    I am a a stay at home mom, and very devoted to my children (5 and 3). My husband has been great with supporting me in my outdoor time. We trade time for runs/bike rides/hikes whenever we can. For us our workouts are our meditation and de-stress time, and we both realize how much happier and patient we both are when we both get it. As anyone will tell you- happier mom= happier everybody. After almost 6 years I just had my first full weekend away- it gave me anxiety to leave, but once away it felt really great to regress to such simplicity again, and the kids had a wonderful time with dad for the first extended time. Good for everyone. I look forward to doing it again sometime and am so glad the we both realize the importance of it.

  3. Ice Cream says:

    I love the thought of pregnancy and child birth as physical injury. I’ve had to remind myself multiple times that not only have I “injured” myself, but I’ve done it in the same place multiple times. I am trying to be very patient with my long recovery time after baby #5 and after a whole year am just barely starting to see results. It is hard to feel so winded doing a speed walk on a trail that I used to run without a problem just 2 years ago.

    Love this article. I think you are doing a great job teaching your sons to stay true to their passions while still focusing on the family.

  4. Steve says:

    Thanks for contributing, you’ve got a great perspective. I’ve probably met you guys at some point, but I hope to officially introduce myself sometime this summer, maybe out climbing with Dean.

  5. Dotmother says:

    This is a fantastic article – I admire your desire to keep on with your love of climbing while raising your family with love. Very insightful!

  6. Jen says:

    Thank you for the article. I am pregnant with my second- 3rd winter with no skiing since I am not good enough to ski pregnant!. I look forward to the time when I feel good about stretching my skills (scaring myself a bit!). At the moment, I just want to be healthy and safe. These are good ways to think about being an outdoor mom. Thankfully, I have some role models.

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