UIAGM guide Caroline George has tackled many climbs of great difficulty, from five of the six famous North Faces of the Alps to earning her full guiding certification in a professional fraternity still dominated by men. But nothing completely prepared her for the demands of staying safely active during her recent pregnancy or the criticism she faced for her fitness choices with a belly growing bigger by the day. As fate would have it, she went into labor an hour after a Swiss ski tour and gave birth to a healthy, beautiful baby girl, who had already racked up more vertical feet before birth than many skiers log in an entire season. This is Caroline’s unvarnished report on childbirth, motherhood and the challenges of returning to the mountains with a different perspective on life. -EB Editor
Words and Images by Caroline George
On February 11, 2012, I traveled from Chamonix to Switzerland to visit my mom and go ski touring in the blistering cold. An Arctic cold snap had hit Europe and I was running out of “reasonable” tours to do while pregnant around Chamonix. I was a few days past my due date and needed to find tours that, I could just strip the skins off my skis and glide back down to my car should I be going into labor. The tours had to be somewhat close to a hospital too. My mom—an avid climber and multiple-time ski-mountaineering competition winner—wasn’t too psyched on me skiing while pregnant. But she joined me on a few tours, soon realizing that there was no changing my mind and that I was being really careful and that well, it really was safe enough. We skied 3,300 feet that day. I stayed in Leysin that night, the little sunny Swiss ski resort I grew up in and where my parents still live. The following day was yet another bluebird sunny Siberian cold day and my mom was determined to keep me at home, sure that the only reason I hadn’t yet given birth was that I was too active. But I felt that every day could be my last day of skiing, since I could be going into labor at any time. So we went out for a shorter ski tour above the house. We got home by 4 pm. An hour later, my stomach started to ache a little, and thought that it wouldn’t hurt to get checked out. We drove down to the hospital, where Adam met us. And six hours later, Olivia was born at fifteen minutes after midnight.
As they say, nothing can prepare you for giving birth. Not even your growing belly. You’d think that with so many women having given birth over time, you’d get a sense of what it’s like! My labor was as painful as it was quick. My best description of it was this: coming out of the water after having fallen off your surfboard and resurfacing only to get drowned over and over again by huge waves that don’t let you catch your breath, wishing for someone to make it stop, wondering if it will ever stop, while the waves get bigger bigger, and closer and closer together. A French comic said: “When women say that giving birth is the most beautiful day of their life, I can’t help but wonder what the other days of their lives are like.” As excruciating as labor and giving birth is, it’s true that once the baby is crawling on your belly, staring straight into your eyes, you instantly forget the nightmare you just experienced. We—Olivia, Adam and I—were all that at once, both startled and in awe. I wondered how such a perfect being could have been inside of me, already formed, with eyes, ears, a mouth, a head, a belly, arms, legs, etc. Adam and I were both mesmerized and slightly in denial of the miracle of life. It’s all at the same time unreal, magical, beautiful, surreal, moving and right then, you know that your life will never be the same. Or do you?
These very words are what have kept me from having a child for so long. I love my life. I have worked long and hard to make my life what it is. And I wouldn’t trade it in for anything. I often felt that when people said that your life will never be the same, it was said with a negative edge. I was therefore all the more determined that while having a child would change my life, it would be for the better: I would still be me; I would still do what I love to do. I would find a way to make it all work, because I strongly believe that happy parents lead to a happy baby.
Yet, the first week, all I wanted was to be a mom to this little wonder in my life. There was so much to learn: changing diapers, bathing her, learning how to care for her, marveling over her, breastfeeding, learning to be a family of three and “sharing” the little being that had grown inside of me with Adam. But soon though, sitting for hours-long feedings at a time, listening to her cries, not knowing how to help close those beautiful beady eyes at night and sleep deprivation all got to me. One evening, as I felt overwhelmed, I grabbed the trash from Adam’s hand and said that I would be taking the trash out, and no one would get in my way of doing so. I NEEDED to get out, breathe some fresh air, and be alone, for even 5 minutes. Suddenly, taking the trash out seemed like the greatest adventure ever! Adam encouraged me to get out of the house. But I think it’s innate for moms to want to feel irreplaceable to the child. So, when ten days into it, I went skate-skiing, guilt was my silent partner as I glided down the smooth track. I rushed home after an hour, feeling like a bad mom for having enjoyed my time outside so much, for having enjoyed something other than my little one. But I also realized that I was all the more excited to be with her, and her cries no longer felt like daggers stabbing my heart. What if my all-consuming passion was actually beneficial to helping me be a good patient mother?
The following day, I tried to go ski touring up the nearby piste in Les Houches. I got there, put my ski boots on my feet, put my skins on my skis, called Adam, heard her cry, took my boots off and drove home. “She needs my milk, she needs me”, I thought. I felt that no one could do this job as well as me. It’s hard to break the bond that connects a mother to the little being that was in the womb for so long. But I am lucky that Adam is such an eager dad, as happy to be with her as to be in the mountains. He encouraged me to try getting out again the next day. I ski toured for an hour and went home. The next day, I toured a little longer. Over that weekend, while Adam was guiding, I even let my mom watch her while I went out to breathe some fresh air and reconnect to myself. Gradually, the tours got a little longer (not too long or my boobs would burst!!!), I was able to pump more milk, and I soon realized that in order to be a good mom to Olivia, I needed to feel good myself and that doing what I love most – being in the mountains – enabled me to get perspective and feel energized. The time away didn’t only benefit me: it also gave Adam the space to be a Dad to Olivia without me looking over his shoulder all the time. Maybe I’m just trying to justify what I do, but I feel now that it is essential for Olivia to know at a young age that she is loved not only by me, but that others love her (nearly) as much as I love her, and that she can be happy even when I’m not around.
Olivia is now nine weeks old. She has nearly doubled her weight and is a much loved, thriving and very smiley baby girl. My life has changed in that I am now a mom and she will forever be my daughter. I learn everyday from her. She is my priority. But I am also learning how to keep being me and do what I love to do, to find the balance that enables me to be a good, patient and loving mom to her. When I’m up there, all I want is to be with her. But if I stayed home 24/7, I wouldn’t have perspective and might end up feeling frustration, which isn’t good for anyone. So I get out on most days to ski tour, ice climb, climb, run and also guide. I don’t go out for as long as I normally do, but I am more efficient and appreciate my time away all the more. The rest of the time, I am with her. I figured out a way to work while she sleeps on me and I take her on hikes in my baby carrier. That way, it feels for both of us as though we were still out together in the mountains like she was when she was in my womb—those were some of the most beautiful moments in my life.
While I love every second of being a mom to her, I know that I need perspective. I can get it by taking a little time for myself each day, and reconnecting to who I am outside of motherhood. I am lucky to have a support system—Adam and my parents mainly—who enable me to do that too. I also live in a place, which enables me to get a quick workout without having to drive. People will always judge how you do things and have an opinion as to how it should be done, but what I have learnt so far is that there is no one way to be a good parent, there is only the way that works for you, your baby and your family—and to feel good about the process. It’s still early days and I know that my life will change as Olivia grows up and I will grow with her. Yet, I am determined to set as an example for her that parenthood doesn’t have to be a frustrating, sacrificial experience. I want her to see that life goes on, but that it is only more beautiful by having her in it.
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