How super-fit mums balance parenting with outdoor pursuits and the female athletes challenging the ‘allowable norm’

Endurance sports require an intense dedication of time, mental energy and physical effort that many see as incompatible with motherhood, but some elite sportswomen are finding ways to successfully combine the two

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 23 August, 2017, 8:48am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 23 August, 2017, 8:48am

Like most outings with a small child, taking a 13-month-old with you when you go climbing requires extra preparation.

First of all, you need at least three adults in the rotation – one who’s climbing, one who’s belaying and one who’s on baby-watch duty.

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Then, in addition to your own climbing gear and sustenance, you have to pack toddler snacks and water, and some form of kid distraction. One trick: shiny carabiners and quickdraws make great baby rattles.

All of this is standard protocol for Brittany Aae, a dedicated ultrarunner, rock climber, backcountry skier – and mother.

Aae, 31, was living out of her car in the Methow Valley in northern Washington state when she found out she was pregnant. That was a surprise. But everything else leading up to the May 2016 birth of her daughter, Rumi, was highly scripted.

Aae kept an intense training regimen, skiing steep corridors in the North Cascades (a national park in Washington state) at five months with her trousers unzipped, running 48 kilometres a week leading up to the birth, and going into labour at the climbing gym.

All that training paid off after Rumi’s birth, Aae says. The self-employed endurance coach, who is writing a book about pregnant athleticism, returned to the climbing gym three days later and resumed running the day after that. Now, she is back to climbing big alpine routes in the North Cascades and is working to establish an 80km running loop in the Pasayten Wilderness this summer.

Aae is quick to acknowledge that, depending on the individual circumstances of pregnancy and birth, other mums will need more time to return to their pre-pregnancy levels of physical activity – and some might decide not to do that at all. Aae, who describes herself as an “academic feminist”, never wanted motherhood to be the single thing that defined her, she says, and she offers zero apologies for her life choices.

“I don’t want to sit around at some mothering group and ‘stitch ‘n’ bitch’ about how much I hate my boobs after having a kid. I’m not interested in talking about the contents of her diaper. Some mums are, and that’s healing and fun for them, but I’m not them,” she says.

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Among young women, motherhood is becoming more of a choice than an expectation. And it takes many different forms: mums can be single or partnered, breadwinner or homemaker. Increasingly, they can also be ultra-runners, extreme skiers and mountain guides.

But endurance sports and alpine climbing aren’t like most other hobbies. They require an intense dedication of time, mental energy and physical effort. And the outdoor industry isn’t exactly known for showcasing the experiences of female athletes, let alone mothers – although that is changing.

Earlier this year, the overabundance of “male heroes, male voices and male sensibility” in the outdoor-recreation narrative prompted REI, a Seattle-based co-op selling sporting goods and outdoor gear, to launch a brand campaign called Force of Nature that showcases the experiences of female athletes. Through the rest of 2017, the co-op has committed to using female faces and voices across all its social accounts, and to donating US$1 million to charities that create opportunities for women outdoors.

Although spending time outside is a challenge for parents of both genders, Laura Swapp, a marketing director at REI, says traditional childcare roles create a double standard when it comes to how mothers spend their spare time.

“It’s not unlike the parallel of working mothers,” says Swapp, who is a mother to two teenagers. “Women, if they are assuming more of the parenting responsibility, are going to be hit by more of the double-bind.”

In female athletes’ quest to oscillate between climbing big mountains and tending to tiny humans, Margaret Wheeler’s Instagram feed is the yin-and-yang blueprint. In one photo, she’s leading a group of clients on a ski tour through the Italian Haute Route. A week later, she’s lounging in a sunny meadow in Chamonix, France, with her toddler daughter. Throughout, her photos are captioned with hashtags like #ohtheplacesyoullpump and, on a particularly deep snow day last spring, the caption “Pumping while it’s dumping.”

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Wheeler, 43, is one of the top alpine guides in the US, having served as an instructor-trainer for both the American Mountain Guides Association (AMGA) and the American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education. She calls Snoqualmie in the state of Washington home, but since 2010, she and husband Matt Farmer, also a fully certified AMGA guide, have spent a good chunk of each year living and working in Europe’s Alps and Dolomites mountain ranges.

Wheeler returned to guiding eight weeks after her older daughter was born in 2014, alternating work and child care with Farmer. But the birth of their second daughter last December has added new challenges. For the first time since becoming parents, the couple didn’t relocate to Europe for the spring ski-guiding season. Instead they decided to rent a house in Ketchum, Idaho, and enjoy the area’s Nordic trails while carrying their newborn in a baby carrier and towing their two-year-old in a convertible trailer.

In general, Wheeler says it has been more difficult to get back into guiding this time around. But the family is now in the Alps for the summer climbing season, with the parents alternating work trips and family time (Wheeler focuses more on “pickup work” that will enable her to be home with her daughters at night).

The day before their flight, Wheeler was researching how much frozen breast milk and dry ice she could take on the plane. She’s got the mobile-feeding part down (ask about the time a male guide mistook her electronic pump for an oxygen tank), but it is the mental aspect, she says, that is most difficult – especially with a new baby.

“So much of your brain – I swear to God, it’s just biology – is obsessed with the survival of that little human,” she says.

Wheeler and Farmer are finding fulfilment in the parallels between climbing and parenting: the new environment, the uncertainty and the challenges you cannot possibly foresee until you are staring them in the face. “There’s this whole volume of the universe that doesn’t exist until you have kids,” she says.

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Becca Cahall is another mother balancing intense physical activities with motherhood. One of the first things you notice about Cahall is that she’s ripped. Bending down to adjust the seat of her five-year-old’s mountain bike, the Seattle mum’s sculpted shoulders and biceps are a testament to the physical activity she gets in between working full-time and raising two sons.

Cahall, 40, and her husband, Fitz, run an outdoors-focused branding agency called Duct Tape Then Beer and produce The Dirtbag Diaries podcast. She says parenthood has brought big changes to their lives.

She has had to cut back on alpine climbing, mostly due to the amount of time required for big, all-day expeditions. Before kids, it was totally fine to not get back to the car until 11pm or midnight. But now, things are different.

I’m simply seeking to expand what we think of as an allowable norm. For me, the point isn’t telling people they should be running long distances or climbing, but that they can, if they want to
Brittany Aae

Cahall stayed active during both of her pregnancies. She completed the 322km Seattle-to-Portland bike ride in a single day when she was four months pregnant with her first son, Teplin, and climbed well into her second pregnancy with Wiley, who is now almost two.

After Teplin was born, however, she was surprised to find that her desire to get out in the mountains took a sharp dip.

“There’s something very strong about the hormones that are going through your body, particularly in the first six months after you have a baby. And those hormones are telling you to be with your child, and to meet your child’s needs,” she says. “At first, I was like, ‘I’m cool, I don’t need to go do this stuff any more.’”

Reflecting on the gender dynamics of co-parenting, Fitz says that Becca works harder, puts more thought into the lives of their sons, and is the one left in charge while he travels for work, which can be for up to 10 days at a time. But even with a really involved dad, “it’s never a true 50-50 split,” he says. Kids demand more from mum, especially when they are small, he says, and mothers are faced with more outside expectations.

“There’s a lot of pressure on mums in a lot of different ways,” he says. “Even with being really cognisant of that discrepancy, the only way to really end it is to kick mum out the door.”

Aae is no longer romantically involved with Rumi’s dad, Ryan Audett, but the two live near each other in Winthrop and share custody. She and Audett have had many conversations about what makes for an equitable parenting split.

After Rumi was born, Audett put in a lot of time with the baby so Aae could get back into training. These days, Rumi regularly accompanies his mother to where she climbs or on short hikes, but Aae is also frequently on her own for several hours at a time, when Rumi is with his dad or a sitter. Later this summer, Aae will go on a four-day climbing trip in the Picketts, a remote, rugged part of the North Cascades that contains some of the range’s most difficult peaks.

It’s OK that things change – motherhood should change you. Hopefully, that’s part of the joy
Becca Cahall

Part of the struggle for new mums, Aae says, is the long-held assumption that caring for a young child is primarily a woman’s responsibility, and that mothers who leave to pursue their own desires are “bad mums”. Even in the ultra-conscious Methow Valley, Aae’s female friends will say their male partners are “babysitting” so they can get out climbing without the kids. People also still tell her, “Oh, you’ll stop [climbing eventually],” assuming that someday her passion for the outdoors will run its course.

“I love my child – it’s clear,” Aae says. “But I also love myself. And you can’t give from an empty well.”

Women and the outdoors are having a moment. From REI’s Force of Nature campaign to the viral “Where the Wild Things Play” video released by Seattle-based retailer Outdoor Research, a lot of conventional ideas about gender and the outdoors seem to be on their way out the door. Pair that with an emerging fixation on active pregnancy, such as that surrounding tennis star Serena Williams, and you might end up concluding it is really no big deal to have a baby and continue to do all the things you did before.

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But that perception can put women in a tricky place, Cahall says. The notion that mums have time to do everything – and do it at the same level they did before kids – presents an ideal that can end up more harmful than helpful.

“It’s OK that things change – motherhood should change you. Hopefully, that’s part of the joy,” Cahall says. “I feel like I’ve learned as much about myself as I have my child in these first five years of motherhood.”

Gaston shares a similar ethos, saying the excitement in getting outside has largely shifted to watching her son fall in love with the same places and activities that she cherishes. What would be helpful, she says, is more level-headed advice about getting outside with kids and a better general understanding that such an approach is no more challenging than, say, “running around to four different soccer games on the weekends”.

Aae, who is active on social media and faced backlash for her slim figure during pregnancy, says it is important to tread lightly and not invalidate other women’s experiences.

“I’m simply seeking to expand what we think of as an allowable norm,” she says. “For me, the point isn’t telling people they should be running long distances or climbing, but that they can, if they want to.”