Taking Risks Outdoors as Parents: Part 1

*This is the first post in a series on taking risks outdoors as parents. Read Part 2 and Part 3. 

Lately, I have been getting these questions a lot: What kinds of risks am I willing to take in the outdoors now that I am a mother? Has my approach to the mountains changed?

Risk is a complicated topic and one that can’t be covered in just one entry (hence “Part 1”), but I think it is important to discuss. Parenthood aside, how we evaluate and choose to take risks in the outdoors is already a rather heated, or at least passionate, debate. Add kids into the mix, and that heat turns to blazing inferno.

I haven’t yet been able to answer those questions, but I have given them a lot of thought. For this entry I’ll be referring to situations where parents go off and adventure on their own, not situations where they expose their children to risk.

To begin exploring this topic, I turned to a woman I previously interviewed for The Adventures in Parenthood Project because I knew she was in the midst of that delicate balancing act between being a mom and pursuing her outdoor passions. Caroline George is a mountain guide and the mother of 15-month-old Olivia. Though she was concerned about the impact motherhood would have on her outdoor pursuits, as her interview for EpicTV Women’s Weekly revealed, motherhood hasn’t changed her approach to the mountains. “If you’re really passionate about something, then you’re still gonna do it and it provides you with the balance that you need to be a good parent,” she explained.

Some would say Caroline is a bit of an extreme example. She was still ski touring the day she went into labour, was back on skis (just going up piste) ten days after giving birth and out mountain guiding a month and ten days after giving birth. She also completed the 6 Classic Euro North Faces just six months into motherhood (she climbed four of them back in 2003). As she told me in an interview, to balance her responsibilities of being a mother, she climbed Cima Grande in a 40-hour Chamonix-to-Chamonix round trip, all the while pumping milk to make sure Olivia had her mother’s milk to drink while she was away. “All in all, I kept doing what I always did but coming home to my little one was all the more exciting,” she said.

But many parents would be concerned about not coming home from a mountaineering trip. I asked Caroline about how she feels pursuing more risky adventures as a mother. “Risk is a relative concept,” she said. “Driving with Olivia in the car could be the most risky thing I do.”

True, risk is a relative concept and one we have to grapple with in our own relationship with the outdoors. And the argument that driving is more dangerous than mountain sports is a common one. But is it really true? I know I have heard it many times before. In The Grand Delusion, Canmore-based ice climber, paraglider and father, Will Gadd, struggles with this argument as he reflects on the many friends he has lost in the mountains. “As the list grows longer, I have a harder and harder time understanding why I take the risks I do out there,” he writes.

I struggled with taking risks in the mountains in the two years before I became a parent. I remember sitting in the snow on the way down from the summit of Mt. Sir Douglas back in July 2011, and for the first time ever really asking myself what the heck I was doing on that mountain. I had pushed myself on many climbs before but this time I could feel my strength and mental stamina beginning to wane. The climb up had been longer than expected due to winter conditions and many times I considered telling the group we should turn back. We got off the mountain OK, but the trip from base camp to summit and back to the car took about 23 hours of sustained climbing and hiking. After being “on” for so many hours in a row – treading carefully and keeping things as safe as possible in the mountain terrain – my nerves were absolutely shot.

Just beginning the ascent of Mt. Sir Douglas. The look on my face says a lot. Photo by Paul Zizka Photography.
On the ascent of Mt. Sir Douglas. The look on my face says a lot. Photo by Paul Zizka Photography.

I reached a number of other peaks that summer, including the iconic Mt. Louis (on a wild 24-hour round trip from base camp to summit to car). Still, my episode on Mt. Sir Douglas stayed with me. By the end of the summer, I was seriously questioning whether or not I could truly accept the risks involved in mountaineering. I remember talking to a friend, Carlyle, about it over coffee. I told her how much I loved climbing, but how it really frightened and overwhelmed me. It seems we shared some of the same fears, but her response at the time was different. She was eager to ramp up her alpine experience just as I was thinking of toning things down for a while.

Carlyle died the following winter in a climbing accident in Patagonia. It was the first friend I lost to the mountains, and it really shook me.

Last summer I got pregnant and, apart from one technical route and a few scrambles here in the Rockies, I haven’t climbed since. Part of me still craves it – the rope between my fingers as I flake it out, the rhythm of the axe and footsteps, the final steps to the summit. But, if I was feeling uneasy about the risks involved in mountaineering before I had Maya, I am definitely feeling uneasy about them now. I know that passion can be rekindled, but for now it is lying somewhat dormant, obscured by the presence of this new, amazing being in my life.

I agree with Caroline that balance is key to being a good parent. As she told me, “Don’t forget to be who you are. Your child will benefit from it.” And while it seems that Caroline’s balance is found in the alpine, I think my balance will come from being in the outdoors with Maya, not from spending my time in places she cannot be. I’ll make some time to spend on my own, too. But right now, I don’t feel the need to be coming home to my little one.

Bring on the hiking, camping and backpacking. The mountains will always be waiting for me to climb higher when I’m ready.

Help me out and join the discussion: Does risk-taking change in parenthood? How do you evaluate risks outdoors as parents? Have you changed your approach?

Read Part 2 here.

Author: Meghan J. Ward

Meghan J. Ward is an outdoor, travel and adventure writer based in Banff, Canada, and a Fellow of the Royal Canadian Geographical Society. Meghan has written several books, as well as produced content for films, anthologies, blogs and some of North America’s top outdoor, fitness and adventure publications. She has a forthcoming travel memoir (Fall 2022), to published by Rocky Mountain Books.

31 thoughts

  1. Love this post. Since having my daughter I have become so much more aware (and anxious) about my mortality. yesterday i went outdoor rockclimbing for the first time since she was born – and it turned into a wonderful afternoon with friends, hanging out with my daughter and climbing (albeit very rusty!). After my daughter was born i refused to fly with my husband until we had re-written our wills and organised guardians for my daughter. The hikes I would love to do involve scrambling which won’t work really…so I am spending a lot more time researching local parks and hiking/walking trails, meeting up with other mums etc. Unable to go into the mountains so much i am finding i am spending more time on my bike (I figure it will keep my legs strong for when i do get back into the mountains!) and am currently perusing Craigslist for a bike trailer (which often recommend no sooner than a year old); I know many who have had children in bike trailers from early infancy and feel confident that i can provide her with enough head support and structure to keep her safe (plus I will be sticking to local smooth roads)…like you say though, finding that line of balance is really hard. It often comes out to starting something – and being flexible enough to turn around and try again some other time if the voice in your head is saying it’s not right.

    1. Thanks for your comment, Michelle. I have enjoyed reading your blog as well. I think our intuition will tell us a lot, as you mention. If something isn’t feeling right, we should listen to that. We can always try, though!

  2. Wow! This really hits home! I haven’t been up high since B.C. (before children) (now 7 years) and I’m contemplating a mountaineering trip this summer. There is so much emotional connection and fear. Even as a write this, I get a tight ball in my stomach! I do crave high altitude, pushing my body to extremes and the solace found in the mountains. I’m also looking forward to the time when I can include my girls in more rigorous trips. I find more and more that all things are cyclical and I know when the time is right I’ll be ready to jump back in. We each have our own boundaries and comfort levels.

    1. As you mention, I know it’s possible that someday I’ll get back into mountaineering. Who knows – maybe even this summer. I’m excited for you and this opportunity for you to head out again! I can understand your fear, though. I’d love to hear what you decide to do and how it all went.

  3. Great post! My risks certainly changed once I became a mom and now I enjoy more than anything taking my little guy WITH me and experiencing our adventures together. I still go solo sometimes but I’ve toned down the risk with my solo adventures.

    1. Thanks. 🙂 Your comment totally resonates with me, at least where I’m at right now. I’m so excited to explore the trail with my daughter and see it through her eyes.

  4. Good question and topic…

    For me it hasn’t, because it is who I am, I haven’t changed anything, and Janet my partner, and my son TomO, haven’t asked me to.

    I take the same approach each and every time, plan carefully, evaluate the risks, eliminate what you can, and ensure the residual risk is at a level you are comfortable with. Same approach before, and after parent-hood.

    The greatest risk we can take as a parent is to change the person we are…

    1. This is a great perspective. It reminds me of the quote from Carl Jung my husband and I have on our fridge: “The greatest burden a child must bear is the unlived life of the parents.” Jung was probably talking about unresolved issues, but we have taken it to mean that we shouldn’t stop being ourselves or living our lives because we have a child.

      Your approach is a lot more like my husband’s. Right now the difference for me is that I don’t feel able, at this point, to take the same approach to the mountains. I need to find a new equilibrium now that I have a daughter.

      It will just take time. I don’t feel like I’ve changed who I am for my daughter. But her presence in my life has changed me. Does anyone else feel this way?

  5. Great article! I think that I was careful in my adventures before my children were born. I did much more rock and ice climbing before children and rarely snowboard anymore. I don’t say this sadly or miss these adventures as my days are filled with others that include my children. I think parents like Caroline who continue their adventures are fantastic and I encourage others to do the same. My path just is taking me a different way and I am happy in the moment.

    1. Thanks for commenting, Lia. I’m glad you said that you don’t miss the ‘old’ adventures. Perhaps they will make a return in your life someday, but it serves us so much better to just be content in the moment. Everyone is on a different path. I, too, am glad that Caroline has found her balance in her own way. I didn’t know how I’d do, and I’m still on that journey, but I also feel quite content. I have my moments where I miss the “good old days,” but wouldn’t trade any moment with my daughter.

  6. I jumpedback in to rock climbing when my daughter was 6 weeks old, skiing when she was 4 months old and road bike racing when she was 6 months old. I agree with Caroline that the most dangerous thing you can do with a child is ride in a car. Taking risks is healthy and should be a part of life as long as we are educated about them and well equipped to deal with consequences. That includes things like career changes, moves and creating new relationships. I hope that I am an example for my children. Healthy, happy adults push themselves and are always learning new things. I also think it’s healthy for kids to see parents engaged in stimulating activities away from them. Life should not revolve around children and teaching them that it does sets the children up for disappointment later in life. Life should most definitely include children but it is certainly ok and encouraged to have an interest that doesn’t include them.

    1. That’s a great point, Eryn, that “other” risks exist in life, not just the ones we face in the outdoors! I’m glad you’ve found your balance as a mother. One of the ways that my husband and I plan to teach our daughter that life doesn’t revolve around children, as you say, is to integrate her into our lives rather than giving up the things we love, such as camping, hiking, and travelling. We love to do those things and don’t mind bringing her along. Plus, I have other things I do without her, mainly yoga right now.

      For me, the major issue of heading out doing more risky things in the outdoors is my mental focus. I can’t be distracted when I’m doing those things, and right now I think I would be. But activities that carry lower risk, such as sport climbing, are likely on my menu this summer.

      Kudos to you for setting such a great example for your children. 🙂

  7. Great post. For me, I haven’t backed off taking risks since my daughter, Piper, was born 4 months ago. I like to think my assessment of risk hasn’t changed — if I think an activity could result in serious injury or death, I wouldn’t do it before motherhood or after. What has changed, however, is my assessment of ‘selfish behavior’. I can no longer go on an impromptu 30 mile hike or drive 6 hrs to ice climb all day because I need to care for my daughter. My adventures have to be closer to home and shorter in duration.

    1. We’re getting some really interesting perspectives, here! Thanks for commenting, Sara. It seems be all have a “before children” and “after children” thing going, and it’s different for each person.

      Do you find it also takes more planning to pull off your adventures now that you are a mother? Also, do you plan on taking Piper out with you? I’m curious to see what kind of a balance parents are seeking in terms of enjoying their adventures alone (or at least without children) or taking the kids along.

      1. Yes and yes! Yes, it takes much more planning for adventures now since I have to consider my time away, who will care for Piper, etc. for example, I’m planning for a 24hr 50mile traverse at the end of the month and the hardest part will be arranging care for Piper while I’m out. however, I plan on taking her along for many adventures. Granted, those adventures will look different now — a gentle overnight backpack with her rather than a 50 mile hike. I’ll strike a balance between personal adventures and ones with her. I am the adventurous and outdoorsy woman I am today because my father took me out when I was young — I want to instill that in Piper as well.

        1. That was one of my next questions – what your upbringing was like when it comes to the outdoors. I can’t say the same for mine. My parents encouraged outdoor play but not really that level of adventure. I found it more on the monkey bars at the time! I’m curious to know how much influence our experience growing up has on the way we raise our children when it comes to the outdoors.

  8. I stopped acting on stage when my little ones came. It wasn’t risky behaviour (though some may argue that it’s terrifying!). It’s just not something that I could do with them until much later. I liked sara’s comment about selfish behaviour too. Motherhood does change you. There’s no judgement necessarily about good or bad. Just change.

    1. Sara’s comment is quite true in my experience. My outdoor escapades have been quite limited this summer, but we’re still getting out. Once I can be away from my daughter a bit longer, maybe I’ll do a bit more on my own, but right now she comes with me!

    1. I’ll definitely consider this! It’s all about balance, too, and after many years of leading and teaching others, in some regards I feel that I need to step out of that role in order to manage everything I have on my plate. We’ll see how things pan out. 🙂

  9. I would LOVE to join a hillwalking or hiking club for mum’s with babies to get out during the week… in fact, I might even try to see if I can arrange something using meetup…

    1. Go for it, Lyndsey! You never know who will come out of the woodwork and join you. 😉 I have often felt like “being a mom” isn’t always enough to connect me to other mothers. I also need to have people who have similar lifestyles, hobbies and passions.

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