When Things Fall Through: The Harder Parts of Outdoor Parenting

This post started with the title, “When Outdoor Parenting Sucks”. Clearly you’re catching me feeling a bit low about life as the parent of a toddler right now. 🙂 But these are the realities of parenting when you have a passion for the outdoor life. I consider myself lucky that these are the types of frustrations I’m dealing with. So, take it with a grain of salt, and enjoy learning alongside me. 

I haven’t had a good cry in a long time, but I did yesterday. The reason why might seem silly to someone else, but to me it was perfectly logical. Beyond the sleep deprivation, the tears were mostly out of frustration, of realizing that we weren’t quite “there” yet as parents.

Because if there’s something I miss about my pre-parenthood life more than anything it’s freedom in the outdoors. 

Enjoying our campsite. Photo Meghan J. Ward.
Enjoying our campsite. Photo Meghan J. Ward.

While we’ve had our fair share of backcountry trips, hikes and travels since Maya was born, only recently have I gotten a taste of the uninhibited outdoor experience again – the kind where I’m not sacrificing my own enjoyment for the sake of accommodating the needs of a toddler.

Don’t get me wrong: as a parent, I have accepted that sacrifice and adaptation are a part of the deal. I enjoy our outdoor adventures as a family, even if they don’t resemble the kind I’m used to. I have learned (the hard way) to lower my expectations and embrace the beauty of the small things. But, I can’t shake this part of myself – this yearning desire, this need, for a personal connection with the outdoors.

And as my little one grows up, I feel opportunity returning. Which is why it’s so hard when things fall through.

Stickers and reading time in the tent. Photo by Meghan J. Ward.
Stickers and reading time in the tent. Photo by Meghan J. Ward.

If you know the Lake O’Hara region of Yoho National Park, you’ll know how special it is. It’s one of my favourite places in the world. Paul has a gig doing a slideshow at the Le Relais hiking shelter there on Friday night, and we had the chance as a family to go in and do some hiking and camping.

In preparation for this prized getaway, I eased Maya into a new sleeping arrangement so that she might be comfortable sleeping in a tent. We set the tent up in the yard to get her accustomed to it. But, because we hadn’t been camping in a long time, mainly because of Maya’s particular sleeping habits, we decided a trial run prior to the trip (and closer to home) was a good idea.

We selected the Tunnel Mountain Village I campground in Banff for our trial. The experience started off on a good foot. Maya enjoyed setting up the tent (more like nearly impaling us with tent poles), chasing ground squirrels, exploring the forest and sitting in her camp chair. She also enjoyed hanging out in the tent and reading her books before bed. We were having a lot of fun.

Books before the circus begins. Photo by Meghan J. Ward.
Books before the circus begins. Photo by Meghan J. Ward.

But then bedtime came, and the circus began. The process started at 8pm with lots of songs, negotiating and wrestling a headlamp from her neck so she wouldn’t strangle herself. Without sharing all the details, at around 10:45pm she finally fell asleep on her own (hooray!), but lengthwise across the tent, underneath all the mattresses. Paul and I managed to crawl in without disturbing her and lay down on what was left of the floorspace. After about an hour she started to whimper. Every twenty minutes she’d let out a whine and then fall back into a restless sleep. I don’t know if it was a sore tummy or the unfamiliarity of nighttime in the tent, but she eventually she curled into a ball and wouldn’t stop crying. I hadn’t slept a wink.

When Paul lifted her up, the crying and screaming got as intense as it comes, and wouldn’t stop. We were conscious of the other people spending good money to camp alongside us. I thought of taking her for a walk, but I knew we’d be facing the same battle when we got back into the tent. Feeling helpless, at 3am I pulled out the (gasp! cringe!) iPad. I hated to be using technology, but when I opened a toddler sorting game, she calmed right down.

As we played together, Paul and I chatted through our options. We knew our little girl well enough to know that it was unlikely we’d ever get her back to sleep. She has an amazing amount of energy and willpower to stay awake even when she’s completely exhausted. And we couldn’t afford to stay up all night long, as we weren’t on vacation, just camping close to home during our work week.

Defeated, we made the call to pack up the car and head home in the middle of the night.

Goodbye, Lake O’Hara.

3:30am, iPad on, heading home. Sinking to my lowest levels of resourcefulness as a parent...but sometimes that's what we have to do. Photo Meghan J. Ward.
3:30am, iPad on, heading home. Sinking to my lowest levels of resourcefulness as a parent…but sometimes that’s what we have to do. Photo Meghan J. Ward.

These are the tougher parts of parenthood for me: when I have something so close to my grasp as a backcountry trip up to one of the most pristine and beautiful parts of the mountain parks, and I have to pull the plug because I know it’ll be a gong-show.

I couldn’t hide my tears from Maya yesterday morning.

“Are you sad, Mommy?,” she asked.

“Yes, I am, dear,” I answered.

She handed me her blanket. “There you go, Mommy.” She wanted to comfort me, even if she didn’t know why.

I felt stupid for crying over a missed trip into the backcountry, especially knowing there are worse things happening in the world. I have a healthy child and lots to be grateful for, and I was surprised (and a bit mad) at how upset it made me. Perhaps it’s because I know how life-giving these trips are for me. These situations make me realize just how much I’ve missed this part of my life. You suppress it so much in the early throes of motherhood, but it has this way of sneaking its way back in.

I suppose that’s a good thing: that the things we love the most remain, even when life changes so drastically. 

And that little girl who offered me her blanket…well, someday she’ll be hiking alongside me. I won’t have to watch her so closely when we’re throwing rocks in the water. She’ll help us find sticks for the fire and roll out her sleeping pad on her own.

I suppose I can wait a little bit longer. She’s already growing up way too fast.

Time flies as parents, so hang in there and enjoy the ride! Photo by Meghan J. Ward.
Time flies as parents, so hang in there and enjoy the ride! Photo by Meghan J. Ward.

Read More on the Topic: 

4 Things I Learned from a Trip Gone Wrong

Lowering Expectations and Setting New Goals as an Outdoor Family

Is Adventure Worth it Even When It’s Miserable? 

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.

13 thoughts

  1. That is so our child! We struggled with getting our 15 month to sleep soundly in the tent. Then one time we were packing up to head back home and he went from being a “Gus” as we so dearly refer to him as to being super content in the car seat (I saw the picture of the car seat and I was wondering if you were going to say the same thing). Next trip out we took the car seat out of the car and strapped him in when we started up the fire. He was now restrained and couldn’t try to play with the fire and was also very content. He fell asleep on his own (which almost never happens) and we were able to transfer him to the tent. Now, that is our go to for a nice peaceful evening.

    1. Wow, I’m so glad you found a solution! I can’t say mine is happy being retrained…she was more content because she had the iPad, which happens very rarely in our household. It’s reserved for long plane rides! Mine also doesn’t transfer well, so there were a lot of things we didn’t bother trying. Glad to know we’re not alone. Here’s to happy camping…in the future! 🙂

    1. For sure, a big part of me was like, “Whatever! Just need to do what works!” But otherwise I’d love to leave all the technology at home on family camping trips.

  2. Meghan, first I want to acknowledge that yes, there are so many changes with parenthood. We have to put our kids needs first. That’s what makes us good parents. And with that comes loss. The type of lass varies from person to person, family to family. But all of them are real. You may feel funny about feeling sad about not going to Lake OHara (and holy cow–Lake O’Hara, I get it. One of the top 2 places I’ve ever been in my life!) because you also have the insight to recognize the very real blessings in your life. But the losses are just as real, too. For some of us it’s the backcountry. For others, it’s the ways pregnancy has changed our bodies. Or not having the freedom to leave work when the day’s work is done, but always always at 4:55, because well, traffic and daycare closes. It’s the loss of sleeping in past 6:30am, even one day a a week. Becoming a parent is a transformation. There is joy–so much joy. There is also real grieving and real sadness which needs to be felt, and wept, and acknowledged. That’s the only way we move through grief–by feeling it. And I, personally, thank you for writing about the losses, the grief, the 3:30am car ride home. It’s the side of parenting too few people write about and acknowledge. Sometimes it’s easy to look at photos or read stories of others’ adventures, and think, “Why can’t we do that?” or “What am I doing wrong that this isn’t working for me?” But for those of us with sensitive kids, who are particular about their sleep needs, who have difficulty transferring when asleep, who need LOTS of time to adjust to new situations, it often isn’t a matter of practicing more or pushing through. It’s the quiet process of recognizing and honoring our child’s needs, having the courage to listen to our guts and make decisions within our kids’ zones of tolerance. And surrender. Not in an I-give-up way, but in an I-accept-that this decision, even with its losses, is necessary for peace and well-being in my home kind of acceptance. And that is the spiritual path of the warrior, to practice that kind of acceptance. My heart is with yours.

    1. Susanne, your words hit the nail on the head for me. I have received plenty of advice around “trying again sometime” or “pushing through the night”, even if it means walking around a dark campground with a wailing child. Neither of these scenarios look that appealing to me, mainly because I know they would never work.

      The experience reminds me of when Maya was a very little baby. I took her to meet family in Manitoba, and my aunt was actually the one who pointed out that perhaps she was a sensitive child (or a highly sensitive baby). Sometimes I forget this, and the fact that over the course of her life we’ve had to make many decisions based around her particular needs (and to keep peace in the home, or wherever we are, as you say). She has done remarkably well on other backcountry trips, when we didn’t need to use a tent, or on our travels around the world.

      With time, it’ll come. But, the grief is real, for sure. We all grieve about different parts of our pre-parenthood life. I created this blog because I knew how important this kind of stuff is for me, and possibly others. Thanks again.

      1. Thanks Meghan. It seems many of us are navigating similar challenges. I feel like one of my biggest jobs as a mom is to recognize facets of my son’s temperament and not only use that to influence my own responses with him, but my advocacy for him. Personally, the chapters on temperament from Mary Sheedy Kurcinka’s book, “Kids, Parents, and Power Struggles” (which I first read 10 years ago for a job, long before I was a parent) not only gave me some seriously Incredible “ah-hah!” moments about my own temperament, but I continue to reflect back on it to ground me as I navigate parenthood. Really helps me with the when-to-push, when-to-surrender, when-to-advocate part of things. With my spouse, too, to be honest, in recognizing temperamental differences there, too 🙂
        Thanks again for sharing your journey.

  3. Oh my goodness, Meghan, I feel for you – it’s hard in the very early days of postpartum, but just as hard or even harder when you’re starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel only to realize that there are still plenty of times when the sacrifices we make for parenthood loom large. I can really relate – with a new baby, I’m right back where we were 3 1/2 years ago with Ada. At least this time there’s the more tangible knowledge that “this too shall pass.” But the surrender doesn’t get any easier, I think, even as our kids grow older and we get those glimpses of ourselves returning from the transition to parenthood. I am trying to cultivate a practice of holding my personal time lightly right now, but it’s true that the mere hint of a moment alone, or in the woods, or on the lake, or whatever, can subconsciously cause us to create expectations and hopes that are then vulnerable to being unfulfilled.

    Your positive re-frame of what sounds like a really tough night is awesome. I hope you get the chance for a wonderful do-over soon!

    1. Thanks, Jessie. It’s funny – ever since I started this blog about the transition to parenthood (even before we got pregnant), I’ve wondered if one ever actually transitions back OUT. I have friends in their 50s, whose kids have left the nest, and they are boundlessly exploring life again – travelling, taking up new sports, etc. It’s really fun to see. I feel lucky that I’ve had the chance to do a few kid-free adventures this summer, which helps me to fulfill that need. But I am excited to also do these things as a family, which is why it is so disappointing.

      Right now I can’t imagine “starting again”, as you are. Perhaps it’s in the books for us, and I appreciate your insight of that tangible knowledge, having been through it before. But I imagine it is hard at times to feel back at square one. These are the realities, when we have these kinds of passions in life.

      I hope I get the chance of a do-over soon, too!

  4. While tenting last night with our two kids on my own, I was awarded with a two in the morning “HUNGRY!!! and OUT!!!” that lasted for an hour (the rest of the campground was also awarded). Reading this post reminded me I am not alone. Thanks for sharing!

  5. Loved your article and appreciate your frustrations entirely. I desperately want my daughter – now 5 – to enjoy the whole process of camping, putting up the tent, setting up the beds, etc. but (obviously because she’s 5) she wants to play with her “My Little Pony” toys or (grrr!) sing-a-long to videos on the iPhone (a portable EMP should wipe out these devices shouldn’t it?!) However, she’s improving as sleeping is a doddle and she loves foraging in nature for beautiful leaves for outdoor art :-).

    Personally you’ve done brilliantly by just trying – congratulations – as it’s so easy to not try. Also, a 3.30am camp dismantle and ride home with your lovely family is not to be scoffed at – an experience at the very least.

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