Erick and I have always loved hiking, and we used to hike fairly often…pre-kids. The last substantial hike we took was when we left 6-month-old Fiona with her grandparents and took off on a day hike in California’s Pt. Reyes State Park. If you do the math, that was FOUR YEARS AGO.
Unless you’re a masochist, hiking any further than 1/2 mile with children under the age of 5 is just not very fun. Somebody — usually the oldest, heaviest child, NOT the baby who’s already strapped to your back — is always whining to be carried, somebody always has to pee and then misses and gets soaked, somebody always needs a drink or a snack. Our two older girls are reaching ages at which we can see the glimmer of pleasant future hikes together, but for now we still have to catch them both on a good day.
So, when Erick’s parents were visiting this June, we jumped at the chance to leave the girls with them for a night, and headed off for a hike in Smugglers’ Notch State Park in Stowe, VT. Smugglers’ Notch got its name back in 1807, when President Jefferson banned trade with Great Britain and Canada. This was rough on northern Vermonters, who relied on trade with Montreal. So, during the trade embargo and later during Prohibition, goods were smuggled to and from Canada through this narrow pass in the Green Mountains.
And let me tell you: those smugglers had a tough job — I seriously doubt that much of the liquor made it through the Notch untouched. Erick and I opted for the Long Trail North to Sterling Pond, a 6.6-mile round trip hike with an 1,800-foot elevation change. The trail was rated “difficult,” which was no overstatement: it was steep, and rocky, and muddy in many places. But it afforded some stunning panoramic views of Mt. Mansfield (Vermont’s highest peak) to the west and Spruce Peak to the east. We ate our picnic lunch of bread, cheese, and salami overlooking pristine Sterling Pond. Best of all, the hike gave us FIVE HOURS of peace and quiet; Erick and I aren’t big talkers on our hikes, and on this hike we were so winded most of the time that talking wouldn’t have been an attractive option in any event.
During those five hours of quiet, I thought about a question that my sister-in-law had asked me a week earlier, a question that had been weighing on my mind because I wasn’t satisfied with my initial answer. And on that hike, I arrived at a much better response.
The question was this: “So, it gets easier, huh?”
By “it,” she meant parenthood.
My sister-in-law, who is an amazing mother to the most adorable two-year-old nephew on the planet, was not the first person to ask me this. I’ve been asked versions of this question for most of my parenting career by mothers who are just a step behind me, and I’ve asked the same question of mothers who are a step ahead of me. With three children under the age of five, I’d hardly seem like an expert. But when my sister-in-law posed her question, I got it: I no longer have a newborn, and I’m right on the cusp of having multiple children in school. With kids in my house who can feed themselves, dress themselves, forgo diapers, and verbalize their needs without screaming (often), I’ve reached the next level: the level that comes after the brain-fogged survival of the newborn years.
So when my sister-in-law asked if parenthood gets easier, my first response was: “Yes,” because you should always give people hope.
But you should also be honest, so I added: “Well, it gets different.” That’s what mothers of older children are always telling me, and from my limited experience I know that it’s true. Then I floundered around that statement for awhile without accurately conveying what I think it means. Our hike helped show me what it means, so here goes:
I think the first couple years of parenting, especially the first couple years of parenting your first child, are like the initial ascent on a mountain hike. They’re HARD: the terrain is unfamiliar, you’re using muscles that you probably haven’t used in a while, you’re weighed down by a ton of gear in your pack (say, for instance, three bottles of water, a two-pound bag of trail mix, and a rain parka), you have to keep your eyes down on the ground because if you look ahead you’ll get discouraged, and sometimes the only thing to do is just to crawl on all fours.
I’ve done a fair number of these mountain hikes, and each time I make the same mistake, even though I know better; while I’m scaling that trail, I think to myself, “This’ll be MUCH easier on the way back down.”
Of course, it’s NOT AT ALL easier on the way back down, it’s just…different. Your pack is probably a little lighter, because hopefully you’ve drunk some of your water and eaten some trail mix. And the going may be a bit faster, but descending that slope is hard on the knees and toes, the tree roots that supported your feet on the way up now want to trip you, and sometimes the only thing to do is to scootch down on your bottom.
It’s kind of like the parenting that follows those first years: you’re done with diapers and middle-of-the-night feedings, sure. But instead you get to see your children’s hearts broken by friends, you start to see all of the neuroses and flaws that you know will plague them for life, you have to deal with their various anxieties in areas that you never expected. You’re up in the middle of the night again, but this time you’re wondering whether your child will ever have friends, and whether those friends will be good friends or will introduce your kid to crack cocaine and reality TV, and whether your child is just going through normal development or whether you need to call in a child psychiatrist stat.
It gets different, not easier.
But the things that keep me going during a hike are pretty much the same things that keep me going in parenthood. Sometimes the trees open up on a vista — mountains, sky, valley — that truly takes your breath away, a view you wouldn’t have experienced without that climb. Sometimes there are simple, quiet, delicious lunches by the pond. And sometimes you meet people like the couple we passed on the trail: not a day under 70, coming back down as we were going up, and chipper as could be. After we saw them, there was no way we were complaining for the rest of the hike.
And on the way back down, I found it easier to drop my worries about whether it was going to rain or how much longer it would be to our destination, and instead I just felt thankful. Thankful for the smallest things: the breeze, that cloud that provided a minute of shade, my hardworking legs — especially my knees, my awesome moisture-wicking hiking socks, the evergreen branches that some kind hiker had laid across the muddiest patches.
After all, you don’t want to get back to the parking lot and realize that you spent the entire hike wondering when it was going to get easier.