Sunday, August 2, 2009

Ice Axes and Other Tools of Parenting

Years ago, before kids, Dan and I went to Alaska. Sigh. I think about that trip all the time - two weeks that were unlike any others I'd had before. I am adventurous, but more in the cultural meet-new-people-eat-spicy-foods way, not so much the adrenaline-pumping mountain climbing way, so the 8 day hike we took into the backcountry with our dear friends Keira and Nancy was stimulating and possibly the most challenging thing I have ever done. Yes, including two natural home births - I have a lot more trust in my body and the process of birth than I do in Mother Nature's fickle and forceful ways. There is a moment from this trip that served as a spontaneous visualization during the last stages of Eliza's birth: we were halfway through our hike and since long before we had embarked I had been hearing stories of The Black & Tan (please shed your inhibitions and say this loudly, with a lasting echo effect, would you?). My three companions had traversed this area years before and unwittingly spouted tale after tale of the challenges, while I gulped quietly to myself. This thin spine of ground connected where we were - an idyllic high bowl of greenness - to where we needed to be, looping us up and over and back down into Hidden Valley, next to the glacier we crossed to begin the trip. The Black & Tan inspired tremors in the voice of the speaker, and the tales were of single-file, slow-moving, careful steps, even crawling to keep your "footing" upon this precarious ridge. So, halfway through our backcountry trip we packed up the tents, laced up our boots and began. The day started with an ascent over a rock field to a low ridge. It continued from there to a scree slope (imagine a steep mountainside covered in small flat pieces of slippery rock.). It took us a bit to see the precise, narrow goat path that crossed its midsection - I can't quite express the relief I felt seeing that there was a path, even though it was barely wide enough for my boot. Then the Black & Tan. It was true, the stories - from this narrow ascent you looked down ("don't look down!") on either side to...well, nothing. I mean, not nothing, but nothing you'd ever want to imagine - holes you'd never emerge from, slopes that would carry you far far away. Shudder. I seem to recall that Nancy went first, and I followed. It was a true test of courage for me, though really, what was the alternative? Afraid of heights, I had to talk myself through each step, one by one, breathing slowly, grateful for 4 days of meditative walking behind me, helping me to focus. And just when I thought I might lose my mind in fright, there was Nancy before me, with a huge grin and a whooping holler - I'd made it!!

This was the image that found me during those last moments before Eliza was born: as I laying in a most unlikely position on the bed, I was again climbing, with Eliza, one foot after the other, hearing the encouragement of those I love and trust, and the feeling was triumphant.

I was recently on a walk, processing some of the things I've been reading in the stack of parenting books on my shelf (see the side-bar for some titles), when another image from this trip occurred to me. Along with our backpacks, water bottles, boots and crampons, we carried ice axes. These came in handy as walking sticks and hole diggers, but the instruction I was given about their highest purpose was this: if you should fall and begin to slide down a steep slope (and they were all steep slopes), roll towards the hill and thrust your axe in as hard as you can to slow your descent and keep you from falling into the glacial stream, deep hole, or other mountainside hazard. Pretty dramatic, huh? I luckily only had the opportunity to mull this over in my mind (over and over and over), and never in reality.

So I'm certain you are wondering how the ice axe fits in with parenting...hmmmm. Well, we are in one of the rough patches of parenting our four year old, and I've been searching and searching for wisdom that can apply to us in our reality, thus the reading reading reading, walking and thinking, dreaming and more reading. I sometimes feel inadequate that I cannot always intuit my parenting, that I do not have the innate skills required to guide a small person through this life, and I was doing some self-talk about how it is totally appropriate to gather tools for this part of our trip. This is where the ice axe came in, because it feels like I need the equivalent to this visually arresting tool for this journey. Something to hang on the wall, or the side of my pack, to remind me that there is something that I can use in a moment of great danger or distress or desperation, there is help for me if I start to slide...

All this drama, to share with you a few things I've found just a few steps further into this journey. First and foremost, I would encourage you to read this post, from Mama Om. She has found a way to write about some of the most fragile moments of being a parent, which not only resonated deeply with me, but left me feeling connected and hopeful instead of the despair I commonly feel after reading "parenting advice". My second recommendation is a bit premature, as I am making my way s-l-o-w-l-y through the chapters, but I do remember reading this book when my first child was 2 and knowing that I would come back to it again and again. Hold On To Your Kids, by Gordon Neufeld and Gabor Mate talks about the importance of maintaining that attachment with your children, helping them stay connected to the family for all the times they (and you) will need it. I opened the book and dove headfirst into the chapter entitled, "Discipline That Does Not Divide". How I needed to hear someone talk about that! As I absorb more of the author's thoughts, I will try and share what I am gleaning from them.

The reading, the conversations, the listening are all reminding me that my relationship with my kids, my ability to condense all of the wisdom into a path for me, are all dependent on understanding myself first. There are little tricks to help me be a little more patient, more creative, more understanding of my children, but really, the changes I am wanting to see for our family have to start so much deeper. I've known this before, and I'll have to learn it again, but I'm in the zone right now, I'm on the path, one foot after another, collecting the tools I need to continue on my courageous journey of being a mom.

note: these photos are pre-digital, taken on our 1998 trip to Alaska, so please excuse the poor quality - I simply took a photo of my photos! and yes, I am aware that the dork factor is HIGH...long underwear, homemade hat, glacial-quality sunglasses and's all me, folks, all me...


gardenmama said...

An inspirational and beautiful post!
I love that you have drawn upon your experience in nature to bring into your life through childbirth and parenting. Off to check out your link!

Annie said...

I'm all excited and pumped to get out and hike!

Aside from having enthusiasm for the outdoors being sparked, this was a lovely post. Parenting isn't always easy. Is it very often easy. hm. I don't think so. Our children and always growing and changing and we have to stay as flexible to make it work.

I'm not sure what it was about four but that was a harder year for me as a parent and it took some time to get back on track and feel more centred again.

HOTYK is such a great book. Same with Unconditional Parenting... I'm guessing though that you are needing more support though too for yourself. THe kind of support that inspires us to do things differently or better. Support that helps ease our difficult moments. It seems you have this (mostly?) and you are so lucky for that.

Warm thoughts to you! <3

Stacy (mama-om) said...

Thanks for the link, Debbie!

I am so happy to be on this journey with you.

Much love,

Keira A said...

Oh Deb,

Bringing back that moment of the Black and Tan and those amazing pictures of you and the thread that makes these heart thumping experiences a part of our today makes me grateful. I wish you were near. And thank you for your book recommendations!