Parenting and Climbing: Reflecting on Identity

parenting and climbing
Written by Laura Schmidt

What happens when you want to spend your life climbing, but how you actually spend your days consists of parenting a young child? This is exactly the dilemma I was faced with since having my daughter.

“How we spend our days, is of course, how we spend our lives.”
—Annie Dillard

She’s six now, so I’ve been on this parenting journey for a little while. I’ve been speaking with a lot of new parents lately — many of whom are climbers or athletes — about the idea that if you let it, it’s so easy to watch your whole identity become being just a “parent.”

Those first days of that exciting new chapter consume every waking moment (and ensures that pretty much all of your moments are waking ones). You zip through the various ages and stages of your child’s life and if you stop to catch your breath for a moment, you may realize that you no longer have time to pursue your personal passions — you are too busy and too tired from parenting to fit much else of value into life. It can be challenging for all parents to retain their individualism. Pursuing or resuming a passion as intensive as climbing can seem insurmountable in the midst of all these new variables.

Sound familiar?

When my daughter was born, I felt very isolated as a young mother. My relationship with her father ended while she was an infant. Subsequent months and years were spent forging and nourishing a functional co-parenting relationship (sharing a home solely with my daughter and adapting to her time between households). The rest of my life was consumed by the daily minutiae of being a mom. I loved my role as a mother and honoured every step of my journey in becoming one, but at the same time, I struggled to self-identify as a parent – it seemed foreign and uncomfortable to me. I had an amazing support system for my parenting needs but I was lacking friendship, the athleticism that had been the bread and butter of my life, and a firm grip on all of the aspects that made up my identity.

In my teenage years, I had been a competitive gymnast and power tumbler. In university, I took to bouldering several nights a week to stay active and spend time with my friends. At that stage of my life, I hadn’t even fully immersed myself in climbing the way I’ve come to know it. As a new parent, I felt lost without it. I thought I must be “doing it wrong” for all the nostalgizing I did over the personal fulfillment my old life offered. I felt like a bad mother for wanting my current life to hold more.

We’re so socialized to believe that in order to be “good” parents, we have to give everything of ourselves to our children. It took me years to discover this is a lie, perhaps the biggest of lies. Truth: we are better parents when we give to ourselves too, and it is not selfish to do so.

Somewhere in my motherhood haze, I hit a tipping point. I stopped doing everything for my daughter and started doing things just for me (bringing her along for the ride). I went on hikes and carried her on my back. I plunked her on my paddle board and pushed off from the shore. I rediscovered climbing and devoted as much of my time to it as I could — not as the recreational sport I had made it in college, but with the the mindset I had as an athlete: I belong here, just as much as anyone else, and I can achieve any goal I set my mind to. With this new perspective, I didn’t see parenting as a limitation.

So when my daughter turned two, I started working and climbing at the newly opened ARC Climbing gym in town. I took my experience beyond bouldering and learned to lead climb, which unlocked something in my mind and spirit I didn’t even realize was missing. Sport climbing made me feel so free, empowered, and present in the moment. I could challenge myself mentally and physically, and with every climb I felt closer to my most authentic and whole self. With my daughter always close by, I climbed every chance I got. I started working out in the training area and on days I couldn’t make it to the gym, I put in workouts at home once she was asleep at night (this consisted of body weight resistance exercises as I owned no fitness equipment). When she was with her father, I felt I owed it to myself to make the absolute most of my time without her and spent every day I could on the wall or on the rock, especially areas that didn’t have child-friendly access. When she was in my care, I took her to the gym and the approachable crags. I climbed while she watched. Unbeknownst to her, she has always been the keystone of my climbing journey.

climbing and parenting in the rock gym
Photo by Ben Kovala

And now, a few years later, I’m climbing stronger than I ever did before becoming a parent. The quality of my climbing has only improved despite the words I’ve heard so often before: “You become a better climber by climbing.” Getting to the gym or on rock and training every day is not my reality. I have to get dinner on the table, pack school lunches, read books, run baths, and get through what can seem like an excessively long bedtime routine. But I do as much as I possibly can with the time I have. Right now, I’m at the gym either 7 or 2-3 days a week (depending on what my parenting schedule looks like) and I work out at home in between. My climbing partner is also a parent and we work around that too. Through all this, I see more strength and success with each passing day.

It’s often argued that climbing itself is an inherently selfish sport – multiply this by a thousand if you’re trying to be a parent and a climber at the same time. I climbed, but at first held tightly to the thought that I was being selfish in taking so much time for myself. Ultimately, I was able to let go of this limiting belief because I was so much happier for climbing and ended up with much more to give. I became a self-assured, less stressed, and more loving mother when I was nourishing my own spirit. Even better, in doing so I planted the seeds for my daughter’s enjoyment of climbing, her love of nature and the outdoors. She went from watching me to climbing with me. It’s a joy to see her blossom in the sport I love so much. Sometimes I get to the crag now and don’t end up climbing myself, but it makes my heart light up to see how excited and invested she’s become in a lifestyle I’m enthusiastic about. Climbing is not only just a personal passion, but an opportunity for my daughter and I to share space, happiness, and a closer bond.

Bonds of parenting while climbing

If you’re a parent and a climber, and have been faced with the challenges of blending those two facets of your life, it’s not impossible. Here are some principles that helped me stay true to a path that, at times, seemed tricky to navigate:

Make the time —This is the toughest, isn’t it? We like to think we just don’t have time for the things we want to do. Rather than say to myself “I don’t have time for this” I started saying, “This isn’t a priority in my life.” Telling myself that climbing wasn’t a priority just didn’t ring true! We give life to what we give our energy to.

Anything is better than nothing — This got me past a lot of fatigue and lack of motivation. There may not be any established training plans you can follow, so you have to adapt training to your life. I drew on a lot of my knowledge as a personal trainer, but at the end of the day, moving is better than not moving. If you feel directionless one day, just remember that movement is the direction. Choose the first exercises that come to mind and get in some reps.

Explore how you limit yourself — Quite simply, you have to believe the balance you seek is possible. There will be that voice in your head that tells you it’s not, and there will be people in your life who tell you it’s not. Sometimes you’ll feel like you don’t have the energy. At the end of the day, you get to choose the path you want to be on and you’re stronger than you realize — don’t be the one holding yourself back.

Show up for your loved ones — If you’re going to devote a large part of your life to climbing, make sure the rest of it is filled with moments that matter. Be fully present and engaged with your child, your partner, your family, in whatever time you have with them. When it comes to time, being a parent in a blended family situation has shown me that quality can be far more important than quantity.

Let yourself off the hook — Ditch the idea that doing something for yourself is inherently wrong or against good parenting. In seeing you model that your health and happiness is important to you, your child will grow to value their own health and happiness and make choices to support that ( just as you have).

Growing as a parent and climber
Photo by Ben Kovala

While it takes continual effort and practice to make this life work for me, it’s never really been either/or. I can nurture my athletic ideals and strive toward my highest potential as a climber while still being an involved, engaged, and present mom. Climbing, on the most basic level, encourages both my daughter and I to thrive — on the wall and in life. So I will spend my days, and my life, as a climber. And a mother too.

To all the climbing parents out there – We want to hear your thoughts! Share with us how you balance between being a parent and climber in your everyday life in the comments below!

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