Staring at the Snows of Motherhood
I arrived at the border of Kenya and Tanzania three weeks before I was meant to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro. It was 2010, and working as a graduate student, my fellow scientists and I were stationed near Amboseli National Park in Kenya working with wildlife researchers and conservationists. For some, this aspect of the story could have been the biggest challenge—flying to Kenya alone, meeting up with foreign scientists and local tribe members, living in a tent out in the bush surrounded by big cats, elephants, and other “look-at-it-wrong-and-it-will-kill-you”-type animals—but for me that was the fun part. The real challenge lay ahead three weeks in the future, when I was meant to meet my husband and climb Mt. Kilimanjaro.
This was not easy to forget either. As I worked in the picturesque landscape of the African savannah, the famous snowcapped mountain was omnipresent. As I awoke each morning, I would unzip my tent flap, and just beyond the scraggly acacia trees, towered the snowy peak. It would stare at me everywhere I went—taunting me to climb it. Just the thought of attempting to summit made my stomach drop. It didn’t help that many of the people I was with had horror stories of people having to be heli-lifted off the mountain, getting frostbite, pneumonia, or climbing half-way up and then having to climb back down. The amount of anxiety I had to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro was fitting because it truly was the most difficult physical activity I have ever done.
Fast forward seven years and now I hear, “It’s the hardest thing you will ever do, BUT…” on a near-weekly basis. The “BUT”s are usually phrases like “their cuddles make it all worth it”, or “you won’t regret a thing”, or “it changes your life forever”. It seems the new snowcapped-peak that is taunting me is Motherhood. I can’t seem to ignore it—when I wake up now the mountain I see is the slowly accumulating mound of baby items, reminding me that soon this little bump will be a living, breathing baby—and I—I will be the mother. It’s a climb that will last much longer than 7 days…
Unlike Kilimanjaro—which was not a lifelong dream of mine, but instead a goal to cross off a list—Motherhood has been a lifelong assumption and most recently a yearning of mine. I want it—and in many ways—I need it. After years of exploring the world, and exploring myself, I feel like I need to explore a whole new dimension of life that is only possible as a mother. For the past three years that was an obvious hole in our lives that felt only fillable by a baby that wouldn’t come. As soon as we became pregnant, that hole filled and our elation has never been stronger. I can honestly say that having a baby in me has been one of the happiest moments during my life. But that doesn’t mean that there is not a mountain staring me in the face, reminding me that there is so much more ahead.
I am already noticing that as my bump grows I am getting similar thoughts and anxieties as I did right before I climbed Kilimanjaro. “How will I ever do it?”, “What if I feel like giving up?”, “Is it really worth it?”. I can see that these thoughts are less about the choice to be a parent, and more about the experience of being a new parent, but nonetheless I have them. As a coach, when working with my clients who are embarking on a new journey, I tend to give them exercises that help remind them which tools from their past will guide them to succeed in the new experience. So, taking my own advice, I decided to revisit Kilimanjaro—the last most difficult thing I have done—and remind myself how I have already summited one snowcapped mountain. Here is what I remember:
1) “Pole Pole”: Slowly, Slowly
Anyone who has ever climbed Kilimanjaro has heard the phrase “Pole Pole” from their Swahili-speaking guides. It means “Slowly Slowly” and is a reminder to allow your body to acclimate gradually to the changing oxygen levels. If you get impatient and try to go too fast, you will suffer altitude sickness (read below) and regret trading time for your health.
I am trying to remember I won’t become a full-grown mother overnight, but that will be a journey in itself. There is no reason to rush to the “top”, but instead this rite-of-passage should be savored and enjoyed. There will always be vistas to look out after tall climbs.
2) Look up and around, not only down
When stumbling over giant rocks on the mountain, it was nearly impossible to take your eyes away from the ground. It was important to watch if you were about to trip as well as plan a few steps ahead. Yet, doing this too much caused a strained neck, not to mention missing out on all the beautiful other-worldly scenery. I tried to remind myself to stop, take a look around, and enjoy the climb. My memories of the climb are not of my feet on a path actually, but of those stunning views of Tanzania from above.
I have friends that tell me in parenting, “The days are long, but the years are short”. I know I will get “tripped up” when my days consist of a feeding, pooping, and sleeping newborn, but I also want to remember to stop, look around and enjoy the climb before the years go by. I am excited that a little being that was once attached to me will be learning how to be a human on its own—what a wonderful view to sit and enjoy when I can.
3) Breakdowns are normal
Day 1 and 2 of my climb were dreamlike! The rainforests of Day 1 transitioned into a Mediterranean-terrain on Day 2. I was high on adrenaline (and Cliff Bars) and felt like climbing the mountain was breeze. On Day 3, I hit a wall—in all senses of the word. We awoke to one of the most challenging parts of the climb—“The Breakfast Wall” (because you need a good breakfast to climb through all the boulders), and then 7 hours later after I ran out of water, Cliff Bars, and energy—I hit another wall. My adrenaline was gone—replaced by dehydration, altitude sickness, and a monstrous headache. At the camp that night I vomited a dozen times and considered evacuating. The catch was that it was the same amount of days up as down—should I risk it and go ahead another 3 days to reach the top, or accept defeat 3 days down?
In order to make the choice, I had a full-on breakdown of tears. “I didn’t think it would hurt this much!” I yelled to Blake (who somehow avoided the Day-3 breakdown and got his on Day 6). Showing why I married him, he listened, held me and calmed me down. “I will support whichever decision you make” he said. I chose to keep climbing.
Luckily for women, we are blessed with a bundle of hormones that allow us to begin motherhood on a “high”. I know that I will face the first few weeks with this high and then face a comedown when they start to wear off. I also know that I have a husband who tends to have his comedown later than me (!) and will “support me no matter what”. It’s OK to breakdown. It’s OK to pause. I keep going, I always do.
4) Others will help me
One of the most spiritual moments I had on my climb occurred on the night (early morning) of the summit. I had just vomited (again! Damn altitude sickness), and had just been separated from Blake (who had even worse altitude sickness), and was facing the summit alone. I had nothing in my stomach, the temperatures were below freezing, and after 3 hours of straight ascent, my legs felt like jelly.
Suddenly, I felt a push from behind. I turned around and there was no one there but a yellow haze in my eyes. I continued to slip on some gravel, and felt another push from behind. Again—no one was there but a yellow haze. It was then that I realized the yellow haze was an energy force far greater than myself. It began to feel like every friend and family member I had ever known was literally pushing me up the mountain. I love this story because it was so unbelievable to me at the time, but each person’s face would appear in my mind’s eye and give me some support to keep going. Somehow they got me up despite being empty on all levels. When I reached the top, I cried and thanked them all profusely.
I am not alone. Whether physically or spiritually, I know I have support. When I am empty, I have friends to help fill me up. When I am weak, I have loved ones who will push me to keep going. When I can’t do it without support, I will find the support I need (or it will come to me).
The first thing Blake and I did after we reached ground-level (besides a shower!) was drink a Kilimanjaro Beer! It was the best tasting beer of my life. Reliving each moment over laughter and toasts made the highs and lows worth it. We teased each other about our weakest moments (who vomited louder?) and celebrated each other’s bravest (Blake’s was using a smelly outhouse, mine was “foot-skating” down the gravel hills). It also happened to be our 1-year wedding anniversary, so we celebrated our successes of the first “Team-Larson Challenge”.
This next “Team-Larson Challenge” will be a longer journey than Kilimanjaro, but if we have learned anything it is to celebrate the successes when they come. Drink that beer, laugh, relive the moments, tease each other, and always praise one another. I can’t wait to see Blake handle his first “blow-out” diaper. I look forward to when my baby latches to my breast for the first time. I dread the first time she tells me she “hates me” as a teenager, but that too is a Motherhood rite-of-passage, isn’t it?
I have climbed a real mountain. It taunted me for weeks before I did, but I did it. The journey was not easy, it was not pretty, and it was not predictable, but it was mine. As I stare down the Snows of Motherhood from afar, I cannot know what my journey will be like, but all I can know is: it will be mine.