Mothers and mountains

I am eager to get back to the mountains. The Chugach range – the wild spine behind Alaska’s urban center – is the place where my heart lives and where my feet long to go. The tundra is open, and I need no map.

Strangely, I haven’t been able to see myself in the city work-week hustle so I haven’t lived in Anchorage for a long time even though I love to recreate there. Instead, I make my home in quiet, rainy Southeast Alaska. There’s a ridge race in Juneau I want to win someday. I’ve competed in but never won anything like this before. Not even close. Now, after a decade of pregnancies, walking flatlands, swinging in hammocks, and preschooler-paced bike rides, the odds may be tipping in my favor.

Antidotal evidence suggests that a woman becomes a stronger mountain runner after she’s had a baby. I naïvely thought this was because of the challenge of childbirth. Perhaps, I thought, the reservoir of strength she discovers in those wee hours before her baby’s first cry might later be used to push her up and over mountains.

Giving birth is heroic – it is nothing less. But a mother’s courage doesn’t come suddenly as she opens and passes a baby into the world through the portal called cesarean surgery or the ring of fire. Her running prowess isn’t earned by carrying an additional 30-lbs on her back for a couple of years or the return to racing in an older age bracket. What makes a mother into a mountain runner is not the sprint of birth, but the parenting marathon.

Parenting is the perfect training ground for a runner. It teaches a determination that grows more tenacious with exhaustion. As a mother I have grown my children but also my patience, resourcefulness, and perserverance. I have learned to take myself more lightly and appreciate every day, no matter the weather.

In youth I found myself in the mountains by default. Friends took me blueberry picking… first as a sixth grader and then as a 16-year-old looking for a reason to sneak out at night. If I make it back it will be through a series of intentional acts.

I never was as fast as my friends. But that was before it made sense to me to wipe snotty noses with my fingers. Before it would’ve occurred to me to pick up a piece of poop off the floor with my bare hands before anyone could step in it. Before all of my babies got the flu and the best solution I could come up with was to catch as much throw-up as possible on the front of my shirt each time they vomited.

If I hadn’t had kids, I never would have known what I am made of.

Parenting isn’t the hardest job you’ll ever love – it’s the hardest job, period. Do your best to love it.

Healthy or sick, fast or slow, gentle or mean, respectful or disrespectful, intrigued or bored, picky or flexible, charismatic or awkward, popular or excluded. Kids go through seasons while, like contortionists high-stepping through training routines, parents run alongside and figure out how to get through it. These are fairly run-of-the-mill life challenges. You can always level up.

I look forward to simpler days. Like when I can set a breakfast table without the silverware turning into an involved geometric design that I am not allowed to disassemble. For now, I get out for a walk by myself whenever possible. Put on shoes. Open door. Close door. Continue in straight line. Turn when you want to. It’s nice to do something that makes sense for a change. Maybe after this, mountain running could be easy, too.

Working out once took very little initiative. Now I have to coordinate childcare with my partner, plan dinner, promise to be home before bedtime, and deal with the guilt of missing a family evening.

Exercise is precious. I can’t believe that for a long time I expected a 90-minute workout every day. When my first job out of college didn’t get me out of the office in time to run in what little daylight February has to offer, I almost quit. Then daylight savings-time happened, and everything was fine.

Sometimes my children feel like energy vampires. They take everything I have, until I am a dry husk of a woman. Workouts, by comparison, are such a concise and reciprocal effort. I invest time and sweat, and in exchange I am given hunger, thirst, muscle, and endorphins. Beginnings and endings are clear. I am not left to chug along endlessly.

Parenting is the first job I’ve had that I can’t quit. Late at night when my husband gets frustrated, he hands the crying baby back to me. I stay as long as it takes. The buck stops here.

Mountain running will be a lot harder on my body than it was in my 20s but mentally I’ve never been stronger. Willingness to do hard physical labor for sport might depend on the same parts of the brain used for cuddling, teaching kids to share, and not getting pissed when the children think mama scrubbing on hands and knees is a good time for a horsey ride.

The kids eat five times a day; so I spend all of my time cooking only to spend the rest of my time cleaning food off of the floor. I throw a few lunges in while I’m down there so it’s not a total loss.

This practice of cooking food only to clean it up reminds me of a few weeks when I lived in an ashram in India. We meditated, practiced yoga, sang kirtan, and cleaned toilets. Chores were meant to diminish the ego – I knew what I was paying for. But when a man who grew up in the ashram sat and read the newspaper every day while guests cleaned I could not handle it. The sight of him lounging filled me with rage. I am sure he did it on purpose – to teach us that opportunities for spiritual growth come in many forms. Only, did he have to enjoy it so much?

I am without yoga these days. I need to stretch but I can’t remember how to begin. In my mom life, where every minute is filled by the needs of others, I dream of going on retreat. One day I will return to the ashrams, temples, yoga camps, and meditation centers to sit among beautiful people, wise teachers, and singing birds. Canyons of calm will open within my being. There will be no anger based on who is, or is not, scrubbing toilets. I will already have done my work.

When the pandemic started I had a little girl and was pregnant with twins. For two years I have been a full-on, full-time mom wondering,

What is life driving me toward?

Into calm. Into perspective. Into family. I dare say I barely enjoyed my 20s for fear that I would never have a family of my own. My husband and kids filled a deep and pressing need. Now, with sense of purpose and belonging more than covered, I find myself emotionally free to explore the world but practically as tied down as a damsel on a railway track.

How much time before my children grow into happy, functional, resilient, carefree, and contributing people?

I want to bicycle across Southeast Asia eating Pad Thai from every street vendor I pass. I want to speak Spanish fluently and teach in a foreign country. I want to write books, and read books, and learn to tango with a single, red rose clutched in my teeth. I want all of these mountains and more.

What do you long for?

I don’t know why there’s so much rattling around in our brains that we don’t speak about. It seems silly to me. I’m lucky that I got the family I wanted. But when all is said and done, I can’t help feeling that there is too little of me left for me.

Are we more afraid that wishes spoken aloud won’t come true or that they will?

It’s hard to understand which dreams should be left for dead and which could still be realized if I just wait five years… ten years… twenty years. Maybe the dreams could be worth pursuing in the future even though the longing is pointless.

Is it possible to hold space for dreaming and let go of longing?

I imagine other lives but I have never imagined myself out there doing something else and longing for the life I have.

Looking at the front of my body is like reading a river. The skin of my breasts and belly flows downhill and parts ways at the boulder of my belly button.

I have been many places.

Once, I had a childhood. It happened, and without announcement, it ended. I cannot pinpoint the day. Then, I had an adulthood; complete with good friends, achievements, regrets, and everything in between.

Adulthood ended with the arrival of my children; but I didn’t know it was over until my dog died and youth became a memory. Childhood belongs to my kids now – but I get something too: parenthood. Instead of comparing what I have with my adult life before children, these years get to be their own special thing. An experience. For me. This changes everything.

I have a friend who did well in mountain races. If I close my eyes I can see her thin frame jogging away from me; high school ponytail keeping time with the rhythm of her pounding feet along a dirt trail. Twenty years later, after everything non-essential was stripped away, she is a mother. The determination that once carried her up and over mountains pours into the basic tasks that fill every minute of every day. Instead of the freedom of the hills, she lives for love of family and commitment to her higher purpose. Once one who ran up and over mountains, she has become the mountain.

Parenthood re-orients my perceptions. I find solace in the slow, sweet cultivation of things. A great day is not about mileage but about time spent outside, watching kids grow and teaching them to love adventure. When I make it back out, I will want summits. But even when I don’t make it to the top, I hope I will be happy. Because I was there and it was good.

***

Lament

So far my twins have been easy. Not cake walk easy but at least walking with two cakes easy. I will definitely pay for putting that in print.

First the oven, then the world!

I thought my first baby was hard as an infant, but I had never had a toddler. Toddlers should be illegal. Yesterday Toren dropped his poopy diaper under the dining room table and ran away laughing. His canines are irrupting and all shall suffer. Eirik is a buckle Houdini. He crawls like an army tank and climbs even unclimbable things.

My mom hustle has become a 15-hour day that includes cooking dinner with a crying baby standing up against each of my legs. What’s the pay? No pay.

I don’t mean to imply that things aren’t going well. This morning I picked blueberries with Toren on my back, Eirik asleep in the car, and my daughter by my side. On the bumpy car ride home the brothers played with their lips and voices, and Avery asked, “What is fart, mama?”

“Fart is an adult word for toot,” I said.

“Do trees fart, mama?”

“No. Trees don’t fart because they don’t have bottoms.”

“Maybe we could get a marker and draw on all these trees,” she suggested. “Eyes, ears, mouths, and bottoms, bottoms everywhere.”

Who could ask for more? Awesome is mine for thirty minutes a day. Maybe twice a day. In the afternoon we also read a library book called “Unicorn Diary.”Avery called it, “Unicorn Diarrhea,” and I teared up with laughter. The rest of the day, however, was about kindly extracting pulling fingers from hair, scrubbing old food off of walls, and wearing sick babies who wouldn’t nap. If I am a happy person it’s because I am stubbornly optimistic, and not because of any unicorns prancing through my house with rainbows shooting out of their butts.

Nobody knows.

Before I had kids people told me that parenting is the best. Amazing. Not to be missed. Reflecting on this cultural norm fills me with questions. Have you people never had fun? Are my kids crazier than other kids? Did my mother go through this? (I really don’t think she did.)

My husband gets it. “Your job is hard because it’s emotional,” he says. Ahem. My job is emotional, physical, and involves withstanding chaos and fatigue that at times qualify as torture. I’m honing a strategic and tactical skill set that might qualify me for a future career in the special forces. Until then, need a lasagna made in a burning building? I’m your gal.

I had a goodish day but let’s be clear about the score. My only objective is to teach three little kids how to be great humans. What I get out of this is not happiness, nor joy, but an endless opportunity for personal growth.

No one touting the “joy of parenthood” should be trusted unless they are currently in it. Even then, check references. People must stand firmly by irrevocable devisions, and under stress we cease to create memories. Parents can’t remember what happened yesterday much less a decade ago. I know because I wanted to capture a time lapse of an actual evening for this post and I could barely do it. Here is what happened:

Bath night. Toren is crying to be let out of the tub before I even turn the water on. Avery gets into the bath voluntarily; a real miracle. Eirik pooped in his diaper so I wipe him. The “waterfall” (shower) fills the tub. Toren is crying. I get in and wash my hair quickly while the kids splash among the tub toys at my feet. Then I hop out and towel off, needing to dress before they all want out. Everyone is copasetic so I dart into my bedroom to pull fresh sheets on the bed while listening through the open bathroom door for emergencies cued either by screaming or silence. I put the crib mattress on the floor to change the sheet. Toren wants out. Avery cannot tolerate Eirik who is dumping water out of her Duplo’s; so I get him out of the tub with my left arm while holding slippery Toren under my right arm so he can’t escape and splash in the toilet. I nurse the brothers on my half-made bed. Toren thrashes and head-butts me in the mouth. Eirik is feeling playful and his teeth come down hard on top of Toren’s head. He starts bleeding from his gums and Toren is crying again. Avery gets out of the tubby and runs through the house dripping water everywhere. She comes back in a pink party dress and is spinning and spinning around my room. Toren is still crying. Eirik is bleeding; so I wet a washcloth for him to suck on and carry him while I drag a towel through the house with my foot to dry the floor. Avery jumps up and down on the crib mattress, and the brothers join in. Someone is about to get hurt so I tell Avery to go brush your teeth. I put the mattress, with fresh sheet, back in the crib. The babies go into their cribs and I put on some pants. Avery returns with her water bottle, climbs into my bed for books and cuddling, and head-butts me in the mouth. Eirik bounces on his mattress and knocks his teeth against the wooden crib railing. He’s bleeding again. I read to Avery as fast as I can over both babies crying. Her water spills and soaks my bedsheets; I proceed with the books as if nothing happened. When three books are read, I pick up a baby under each arm and off we go to tuck in big sister.

Motherhood is the one job you cannot walk away from and maintain status as a decent person. I recently heard self-care defined as “taking enough care of yourself that you don’t need to run away from your life”. I get that. I like my gig but I still need an hour to myself every day; a morning once a week; a week’s vacation once a year. I have no idea how to get this kind of time; but if I don’t I may well want to run away from my life, and that motivates me to figure it out.

I wish previous generations of women had told us what we were getting ourselves into; not that it would have made any difference. No prospective mother is going to opt out because someone tells her it’s hard. We are all the more intrigued.

If I didn’t have my kids I would have been sad forever. It is amazing to watch them grow and become who they are. But more often than not, parenting is also, as one mom puts it, “like bleeding from your eyeballs”. Just this once I would like to send a different message out into the world, and say: If you wanted kids and didn’t end up with them, you might be doing all right.

Life offers a fine line between have to and get to. Responsibilities bring joy. Hard work is fun. I am so pleased to raise my children, and sometimes I would like to do something else. Because satisfaction lives just over the horizon, and this shit is only fun if there’s nowhere else you would rather be.

Everything as it should be

Everything is as it should be.

Everything is as it should be.

Everything is as it should be.

Avery is shredding the house faster than I clean it. Eirik just pooped on the carpet. Toren is shrieking at an eardrum-blowing decibel. Why expect anything less?

My mom just left. She came to visit for the week and she played with my kids, put in my garden, and did all my chores. For the first two days I barely got off the couch. I didn’t realize I was so tired until I had an opportunity to stop and sit down. Then I struggled to get back up.

Everything is as it should be.

It’s time to discover how summer works with all three of my littles. Since I found out I was carrying twins there have been so many things I feared that never came to pass. Like I imagined I would never survive that first night before the milk comes in with two babies; but then Toren was in NICU and I was only responsible for the one.

Worry, often enough, has been useless enough, that I rarely bother with it. I don’t look at weather forecasts either – same reason. Because, sure, maybe the future will be terrible, but maybe not. Maybe it will be fine. Maybe it will be great. Better to wait and see.

The end of the school year, however, with my husband working out of town, is so far proving to be as hard as I thought it would be. The things I’ve found that help are a dinner rotation limited to spaghetti and tacos, and these words:

Everything is as it should be.

Mothering a bunch of kids at once is no laughing matter. When I ask advice from women who mother twins plus other kids they mostly shrug. Good luck with that. One twins-plus mom tells me she was so stressed raising her kids that she lived in fight or flight for twenty years. “Find a way not to do what I did,” she says.

If I get through the day in my usual way (sympathetic nervous system kicked into high gear) then everything gets done. We have a good time. The children don’t know I’m strapped. And isn’t that the point? To knock yourself out without anyone realizing how hard you’re working?

Everything is as it should be.

“What helps” changes too fast for moms to take mental note (the amygdala isn’t known for its glittering memory). The best advice on how to keep up with my flock comes from the big sisters of twins.

Everyone waits their turn,” says L. She is a photographer who helped me select photos from our twin sitting last summer. Because of her advice I flash a W to any child who starts crying. “Wait,” I say. “You’re next.” Unless someone is bleeding I finish what I am doing; there is no way I will get back to it. And when I’m nursing and Avery freaks out with jealousy, I invite her to flip a sand timer. “Five more minutes for the brothers,” I say. “Then it’s your turn.”

Another twin big-sis sends me flatrate boxes. Inside are 10 books recently outgrown by her child and individually wrapped in newspaper. “Use them any way you like,” she says. “I wouldn’t have made it through the preschool years without books as incentives.” Avery earns them whenever she has the opportunity to wake up the brothers, but doesn’t.

Everything is as it should be.

The idea of self care is an inside joke I keep with myself. Sometimes, I say (to nobody), I like to poop. I’m never alone, I don’t have much time, and it’s never when I actually feel the need to go, but sometimes I do it anyway. If you’re going to eat then you might as well poop.

Whenever I get a moment to feel and experience what is going on in my body I learn things I didn’t want to know: That my lower jaw hums with tiredness. That the freedom-loving part of me waits for these precious early years to pass into something more manageable. That what I sacrificed in becoming a mother is so much more than any childless person can understand. I can’t unlearn these things and whether or not it’s helpful for me to know them is debatable. So, unless I’m very careful, all of the laundry gets thoroughly put away and I don’t take any time for myself at all.

Everything is as it should be.

My actual self-care system is a matter of mindset more than a function of time. I do what pleases me and turn away from unreasonable demands. Every day I get outside, cook something I want to eat, and write a little. My needs ride the revolving carousel along with everyone else’s (mama gotta eat). I nap the brothers exclusively in their cart to keep us mobile and avoid conflict with my big kid during nap time and I will continue to do so even if you think it’s weird. When everyone is sleeping (praise Jesus) I write instead of scroll. I am currently reclaiming 30-minutes a day for yoga and I have a kitty tattoo for anyone who lets me get through it without interruption.

Everything is as it should be.

*

Second baby dilemma

Found this gem from October 2019 in the drafts folder. Enjoy!

As a young person I pictured myself as the eventual mother of two kids. Upon learning what parenting actually is, however, I am fairly on the fence about a second baby.

One kid slowed me down a lot, but not completely. When A was one I hiked a ton and once even enjoyed a bonfire among friends with a beer in my hand and a sleeping baby on my chest. “You’re winning right now,” said my friend K. Yes. I am.

Now that A is two, my husband and I are back up at the mountain trading off time on the lift and time with our daughter. It’s not the endless string of powder days I once lived and breathed for, but it’s enough.

I’ve soared through some nice snow this winter and had a ton of fun on the platter pull. It’s great to be back in the world and remembering my former freedoms. Which brings me to a dilemma. To try for a second baby? Or not?

Feeling torn over the idea of a second child reminds me of the last time I bought downhill skis. I had the option to choose high-cost, high-rewards powder boards. They slow you down in a lot of situations but man are they fun when conditions are just right. Or I could go with a more versatile all-mountain set up like I’d had in the past.

“You like to travel light and quick,” said my friend E. “Stick with the all-mountain. Less to haul around.”

She had a point. I liked what I had and I’d be safe to stay there. But what about the all-American urge to shoot for the moon and have it all?

“Powder boards,” said my husband. “You already have all-mountain skis. Time for something bigger.”

You can’t win if you don’t play.

The world seems all-in on this question. No one regrets the decision to have a second child, but no one could admit that either. Parents of second babies must encourage their propagation because they need equally slow, bat-shit crazy families with wheelbarrows full of kid gear to adventure with. All sources are biased.

The only slightly contrary insight I solicited is this: “Going from one baby to two,” says my friend S, “feels like going from one baby to 100 babies.”

A second child offers the first at least a shot at a great sibling relationship. Parents get to recycle their baby knowledge and correct mistakes from the first round. Baby stuff can be dug out of the crawlspace, used once more, and given away for good. Grandma’s heart would sing.

I miss my friends and mountains. Another baby would put this type of fun on the back burner for a few more years. Three more years of shitty sleep and no friends and not enough exercise. The inconvenience of pregnancy and lasting wear and tear on my body. Childcare for two kids would be so gosh-darned expensive. Paying for college, too. Eight-billion people on the planet. And my current baby just poured liquid laundry detergent on the carpet for the second time this month; so there’s that.

If I go for it I’ll be pushed by the same force that always drives me forward: Fear that if I don’t, I’ll regret it for the rest of my life.

Why else would I do it? For squaring up the family. For efficient use of chairlifts, Alaska Airlines companion fares, and SUVs. For the love of second babies, who are so funny and sweet and chill. For the possibility of getting to know you, mysterious child, who is at once me and my husband and everyone who came before and someone completely new. For watching you grow, change, learn, and become who you are. For looking at your sweet smile and tiny toes and wondering where you were before this moment in my arms. For the freaking sanity of not having to think about whether or not to have a second baby anymore.

I’m old enough that I can’t hang around in this zone much longer. Do I give up what freedom and adult conversation I have for the sake of one more potentially cool kid?

With the birth of my first child I got to satisfy a deep curiosity about what motherhood is; but where would bearing another leave me?

At home. With a kid in each arm and staring at these big fat powder boards.

***