Watching your child perform outdoor skills at or above your level of competence is a clear sign of your irrelevance as a parent. I climbed the Grand Teton in August with my 18-year-old, her best friend and her best friend’s father. It was the second time up the peak together for Avery and me, but the first time I truly realized she didn’t really need me out there anymore.
Granted, she did not lead any pitches or set up the rappels, but she didn’t require any oversight packing; she didn’t need to be cajoled up the trail with snacks, stories and songs; and she didn’t need me to make sure she was dressed appropriately or clipped into the anchor properly. In the climbing realm I still held a slight edge on her skill-wise, but in the general-care-of-self world, she had no need of me, and, in fact, rolled her eyes when I asked if she was warm or had enough to eat.
In other activities, most notably kayaking, she is way beyond my skill level (which is nonexistent). Still, despite the fact that I haven’t been in a kayak in 30 years, I often find myself tempted to tell her what to do, to warn her of an upcoming hazard or to encourage her to practice her roll. Again, she looks at me askance when I try to weigh in. I’m like a backseat driver, poking my nose into something I know nothing about, worried and anxious that my baby — who is taller than me and much more sophisticated — might stumble into trouble.
It’s interesting to parent an emerging adult. I’m excited for her life to unfold and proud of her accomplishments, but I still want to control her and keep her safe even in areas where I can’t, such as on the river. I worry when she drives the pass or goes camping with her friends. I worry when she boats the canyon with a group of kids even though I’m proud of her at the same time. The idea of her taking off for a gap year gallivanting around the world is horrifying, despite the fact that I, too, took off and traveled after high school. I want her to be comfortable in the mountains and to ski, climb or kayak if that is her desire, and yet it makes me anxious. It’s the old “do as I say, not as I do” conundrum.
When my daughter was younger it was important to me to continue to spend time in the outdoors pursuing what some might consider to be risky activities. The conflict between parenting and climbing or mountaineering is not new, and it’s always been particularly acute for women, although I suspect more fathers have died engaged in so-called extreme sports than mothers. Nevertheless, there are some who say parents who continue to do risky things in the mountains after the birth of kids are selfish. I don’t buy that, but I also wondered what message we send to our children when we are out in the mountains engaging in hazardous activities.
I have never been at the top of any sport — so my extreme is relative — but the fact of the matter is, relative can still get you killed. It doesn’t really matter how difficult your objective is if you are in steep alpine terrain on rock or snow or on a whitewater river with powerful water pushing you into hazards. Gravity can kill if you make a mistake, so while I never did anything that you’d call extreme, I did do and still do things that could get me killed. All of us do, all of the time. We accept that risk because it’s our life we are gambling with. I think most people, even those whose only gamble is to get behind the wheel of a car, recognize risk is part of living. But when it’s our kids? Suddenly the red lights start flashing and the alarms go off. I want her to enjoy the mountains, but find myself thinking maybe she’d get the same benefits I seek by simply hiking through flowery meadows on a well-worn trail.
The hypocrisy of my position is obvious, and I suspect pretty universal. We all have our inner mama bear who is willing to do anything and everything to protect our young. The trick for me is coming to terms with the fact that she’s not really “my young” anymore. I don’t know how hard it is for a bear to let go of control, but I certainly am not finding it easy.
I want my daughter to enjoy the same freedom and joy that spending time in the mountains brings me. I want her to experience the thrill and fulfillment of achieving a difficult objective. I want these things for her, but I can’t really watch her in exposed terrain without feeling anxious. She has a good head on her shoulders and has boated, skied, climbed and traveled more than I had at her age. She’s skilled enough to do things on her own if she desires. I know all this, and yet I still want to check her knots and make sure she has a warm coat.
Lots of mountain athletes have talked about the challenges of continuing to pursue their sport after the birth of children. Some do so successfully; others find their risk tolerance has changed and they are no longer willing to face life-threatening conditions in pursuit of a summit or descent. Regardless, they all recognize the value these activities have had for their own existence. People who live active lives full of adventure, adrenaline, excitement and challenge tend to believe they are truly living life to its fullest, rather than simply passing time on this planet. I agree with this assessment, and social science backs it up.
Involved, active people have better mental health, are less likely to suffer suicidal tendencies and often live healthier, more fulfilled lives. For all these reasons, most mountain athletes rationalize their lifestyles even if they leave children at home who will undoubtedly suffer if their risk calculation goes awry and something terrible happens. I know about this personally. After my daughter’s father died in the mountains, I questioned whether we’d been selfish in our decisions. But time helped ease my pain, and I gradually came to believe that our rationalization for our lifestyle had merit. My husband had been happy. We’d been happy. And a life lived too carefully, too comfortably and too slowly would have made us old before our time — or so I convinced myself as I returned to places where safety was not guaranteed.
Since I have decided that I can take such risk for myself, I know I need to allow my daughter to make the same choice. Intellectually I believe this, emotionally I didn’t count on how much I want and will always want to protect her from pain, fear, sorrow, failure, loss — you name it. I want her life to be lived in a happy little cloud of protection. But that’s not going to happen and now, as she breaks away from me to pursue her dreams, I have to come to terms with her independence.