UKC

To Be a Climbing Mum, or Not to Be? Article

© Melba Seto

Nutan Shinde-Pawar discusses the difficulties many parents - and especially women - with outdoor passions and careers face when deciding whether or not to start a family...


After two and half years of marriage, people want me to contemplate becoming a mother. In India, parenthood is a dinner-table discussion; it is not a personal choice. Why don't these people understand that the idea of being a parent is daunting for my millennial generation? Income, where you live, schooling, career goals and everything else needs to be thought through. But beyond these concerns, I felt a strong urge not to become a mum.

Melba Seto's baby plays with holds.  © Melba Seto
Melba Seto's baby plays with holds.
© Melba Seto

I am worried about what motherhood means for my outdoor dreams. Would it mean losing my passion for climbing and walking? Giving up on my outdoor writing career and shifting to other, more secure jobs?

In such confusing moments, I have always gained wisdom from a successful mountaineer and happy mum, Sushama Katti. Sushama is an Indian mountaineer from the 1970s who climbed many 6000 and 7000 meters peaks. I first met her in 2017, when I was interviewing her for a research project. She was part of India's first Civilian Expedition to Everest in 1992. I was blown away when she told me that at the time of the expedition her daughter was merely 8 months old. She used to take her daughter for her fitness training sessions. "I carried my daughter on my back for hiking practice. It was like weight training for me. While cycling I kept her in the front basket carrier," were her words. 

In my eyes, Sushama has broken stereotypes at numerous levels. I feel inspired and a new sense of possibility stems within me. 'If Sushama Maam can do it, I can do it too,' are my optimistic thoughts.

But what saddens me is that Sushama has experienced negative comments for her choices, especially for leaving her infant at home in order to climb the world's highest peak. 

Sushama Katti on one of her regular day walks.  © Black Wash
Sushama Katti on one of her regular day walks.
© Black Wash

This attitude is not limited to India, where adventure activities are not widely accepted. Around the same time in the West, people pointed fingers at a "bad mother". Alison Hargreaves, a British climber, perished on K2 while descending in 1995. Being only the fifth female to reach the summit of the deadly mountain, she was criticised for leaving her two kids behind. The story was a controversy in North America and Europe. The entire mountaineering community and mainstream media debated the "good mother-mountaineer". 

The fact that four other male mountaineers lost their lives on K2 and also left their kids behind was overlooked. It was only Alison who was berated. All her achievements were forgotten and she became a symbol of the "bad mother". 

It has become a norm to question women about their choices. How many times are male mountaineers or climbers asked about how they feel leaving their children or pregnant wives at home? If they die on a mountain, they are portrayed as heroes and their pursuit is celebrated. "Professional female alpinists do not escape identity as mothers, while men are freed from fatherhood," states Susan Frohlick in "Wanting the Children and Wanting K2".

What all these mothers accomplish is inspirational, but instead they are chastised for not being "normal" mothers. 

"When I was climbing pregnant or now when I am with my baby son, there's a fear of being judged as a 'bad mom'. I'm afraid people will think that I am putting my son in danger," accepts Safyra Levell (27), a climber from Colorado who is also a new mum figuring out the right balance between climbing and motherhood.

One thing I realised - a common trait in both Alison and Sushama - is the confidence to deal with all the negativity. I don't feel as though I have the ability to face judgement. I'm afraid I would burn out under this scrutiny and give up. And many women do quit!

I wonder why is there this nastiness for mothers? Why are mothers in the adventure field still considered selfish? 

Because history says so

Mothers have historically been expected to stay confined at home with their children. The ideal mother is one who selflessly sacrifices all her desires. Children and family must be the top priority of a good mother. Motherhood is widely considered the most divine experience of femininity. And a woman not wanting this is often considered heartless, emotionless. 

Being a feminist, I believe this attitude is harmful and a result of deeply-engrained sexism, but let's not get too deep into debating feminism and the patriarchy in this specific article. What makes me sad is that these gender-biased practices are still prevalent. Outdoor-loving mothers are clear victims of these attitudes. Even today when stereotyped male and female roles are diminishing, mothers in the outdoor field are not immune to criticism. 

Because society says so

Climbing is an adventurous activity. Adventures are primarily seen as a medium of freedom, to be closer to oneself, to be bold and fearless - all traits of masculinity. A mother in this masculine environment is not acceptable. It defies the absolute meaning of manliness because a mother is vulnerable.

Anja Whittington, a professor of Recreation, Parks and Tourism at Radford University carried out a study on mothers working in the adventure field. She points out that stereotypical assumptions make women appear as negligent mothers if they spend time away from their family. This promotes the unfair bias that men can travel carefree and women must look after the household. 

Motherly feelings come naturally to women. The child is by default attached to its mother due to physical and psychological bonds after 9-months in the womb, breastfeeding and constant touch with the baby. Mothers are delicate, since their bodies have gone through the toll of birthing. All of these are common arguments for enforcing mothers to stay at home. 

But of course, men are equally as caring as women.

Melba Seto (36) from Alberta shares her story of climbing a project she had considered unattainable, but was ultimately possible because her husband is a super-dad. "One of my greatest achievements was just last season. I sent Sisyphus 10d, the longest sport route in North America. I had an alpine start and made a 19 hour round trip to complete the route. My kickass spouse and an awesome dad took care of our 5-month-old son," she laughs.

Melba Seto breastfeeding on her dream climb.  © Melba Seto
Melba Seto breastfeeding on her dream climb.
© Melba Seto

Gender role reversal is common these days, where husbands take care of the little ones and wives have a job. This is solid proof that men are capable of "mothering" their kids and they too have a "motherly/fatherly instinct". If fathers can stay at home to nurture the kids and be outdoors, so can mothers. However, the pressure to be at home is generally pushed towards women.

Melba Seto and her family pursuing their outdoor dreams together.  © Melba Seto
Melba Seto and her family pursuing their outdoor dreams together.
© Melba Seto
 

"I once got a comment that I should enjoy my baby instead of going to the gym for climbing. It implied that just because I want an hour for myself, I am less of a mother," sighs Fern Braun (33), a climber from Colorado who has a full-time job in the field of Geographic Information Systems, while her husband is a stay-at-home dad.

Because children say so

Due to the attachment formed at a tender age, children become anxious when their mothers are not around. Not only young kids, but also older children are not used to not seeing mothers at home. This partly comes from social culture. A child is habituated to seeing the mothers of their classmates at school functions, playgrounds, swim classes, everywhere. The absence of their own mother develops resentment towards her. The child may fail to relate to their mother's goals and may deem their mother unavailable. 

A child must be brought up in an environment of equal parenting. If dad is allowed to be outdoors, so should mum be. Exposing kids to the outdoors and making them see this world with more equality will help them cope with separation and make them supportive of their mother's choices. 

Fern Braun toproping during pregnancy.  © Fern Braun
Fern Braun toproping during pregnancy.
© Fern Braun

Judgment is killing outdoor dreams

Many mums feel that they have committed a crime by choosing themselves over their kids. This leads to regret and fear. They worry that even their children might resent them. "Often women feel conflicted about being a good mother and employee, especially those who are outdoor experts or instructors - they avoid going away for longer time periods," Anja explains. She says that the guilt can be so strong that many women cut short their trips to 1-2 days, accept a lower job position or quit outdoor jobs altogether. 

She found that women who decide to continue working in the outdoors face challenges. In the adventure industry, the job of an outdoor expert or climbing guide is risky. It requires being in the mountains for weeks, the chances of accidents are greater, so there is the assumption that mothers are not well-suited or capable enough for these endeavours. Hence, there is less support for women to excel in an outdoor career. 

What can we do to make it easy for mothers?

I believe that to eradicate these deep-rooted beliefs, we as a community must work towards creating a healthy environment for mothers. 

Stop the judgement

Humans naturally make judgements. However, we must refrain from jumping to irrational conclusions about mothers. "You never know what is happening in a family. Maybe the husband loves to stay at home, maybe the wife has good pay, whatever it could be — you just cannot tell. So let's not judge. Accept all mothers equally," suggests Rachel Briggs, founder of RockTots and children's climbing instructor.

Rachel Briggs bouldering while her kids study the guidebook.  © Rachel Briggs
Rachel Briggs bouldering while her kids study the guidebook.
© Rachel Briggs

Start workplace policies

Organisation in all fields must together to construct strategies to support working mothers. Building opportunities for women based on their capabilities and not assumptions, offering competitive compensation, paid maternity leave, child care facilities, remote job options and flexibility of working hours are a few ways to start. 

Fern Braun adds: "The lack of family leave and support in the US is an embarrassment. I was only able to take about three weeks off of work for my maternity leave, which was difficult. We need paid family leave to be a requirement as it is in almost every other country."

Supportive spouses and family system

This is no-brainer that a supportive husband and a strong family system will relieve a lot of stress from a mum's shoulders. Forgetting gender roles and working as companions in every task will develop a healthy family.

Erin Steven with her family.  © Erin Steven
Erin Steven with her family.
© Erin Steven

Erin Steven (40), who shares her son's responsibility with her gay partner, defines an advantage of same-sex parenting: "In my particular household, we don't fall prey to traditional gender roles because we're both women. We are also both athletes and extremely independent. We have separate interests, I like climbing and she doesn't. We both have careers and do household tasks based on who is either better at them or who has time for them. Feminism is at the forefront of how we raise our child."

Man or woman, every person needs a strong backbone in order to follow their passion. For centuries mothers took a back seat while their husbands and kids took charge of their dreams. It's time that parents worked together to create new family dreams. 

Erin Steven with her son.  © Erin Steven
Erin Steven with her son.
© Erin Steven

The thought of not being judged and being accepted as a human makes me comfortable with the thought of becoming a future mother. I want to be a climbing mum who is not labelled as selfish for following my outdoor dreams.

UKC Articles and Gear Reviews by Nutan Shinde-Pawar



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20 Jul

This article explicitly refers to research on women working in the outdoors, but doesn't cite the source. Could it be provided?

21 Jul

Sorry, didn't see any mention of the current population size. Just think it ought to be a factor to be considered is all.

21 Jul

That picture of Rachel Briggs bouldering is a terrible example or responsible parenthood, one of her sons is actually touching the crash pad and the other is 20 cm behind it but still in her fall line.

21 Jul

That's a pretty judgemental comment on a photo in which you can't really see the angle of the climb or how likely she is to fall back from the mats. If the problem is not very overhanging and she has positioned the mat properly then it would seem the chances of that are minimal. Sure the kids might be better off a couple of feet further back, but she's also done remarkably well to get them to sit still and read while she climbs. Bouldering with small kids isn't easy and sometimes you just have to be a bit more careful to keep your eye on your fall zone and where they have wandered to.

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