The False Summits of Motherhood

Pregnant. You’d think for a 30 something woman not new to the joy, sorrow, and implications of the word, seeing it appear clearly on the plastic stick might have been less shocking. I read it while my 18-month-old firstborn was methodically unraveling a roll of toilet paper onto the bathroom floor. I watched but didn’t really see him, thinking only of the tiny life inside of me that, five minutes before, I didn’t know was there. I thought of my husband, oblivious on the other end of a phone call through which I would share the news. The news about our impending baby who we had decided to “wait a little longer for” just a week earlier. 

This is not the story of an unwanted pregnancy. In fact, it- he- was very wanted. Longed for. Planned for (albeit on a slightly altered timeline). But as I repacked my suitcase filled with energy gels, trail shoes, Camelbak bladders and course maps for my first trail half marathon, I couldn’t help but feel like the person I was just before the test had vanished, and a new, unknown route lay ahead of me.

In 2017, after five years of marriage, my husband and I started trying for a baby. I had been a runner for years, even finished a few half marathons, but my interest in the sport had taken a backseat while I acclimated to Colorado living, focusing on 14er bagging and rock climbing. We were lucky to conceive quickly, unlike so many, but one morning when I went in to teach 2nd grade I experienced bleeding; I knew right away things were bad. After a less-than-compassionate visit to urgent care, it was confirmed that I had miscarried. I had done it. They said it as if I had actively done something wrong. As if I was negligent or guilty or somehow at fault. I left feeling like my body didn’t work. It had failed me, failed my husband, failed the baby, failed everyone. After a lot of dark moments, crying, questioning, I turned back to running.

The Kooky Spooky 5k was held in Arvada, Colorado on Halloween of 2017. Conveniently, for me, that date also marked six weeks since we lost our baby and could begin trying to conceive again. Staring down those six weeks, though they seem like nothing now, was like looking through an endless tunnel of uncertainty, confusion, hormones, anxiety, and anticipation. To cope, I found a six-week 5k plan that would force me to give each day its own purpose, not wish it away for the sake of what’s next. I crossed off each run, I crossed off each day, and tried with everything in me to look forward in hope, not back in despair. Race day came, and after a surprise win in my age group (with my husband well behind me), I took a deep breath. Summit! My body did work. I felt like I’d reached a proverbial turning point in my grief like it was all downhill- in a good way- from here, only to realize that the summits of motherhood, though beautiful, are often false.

In July 2018, I gave birth to our precious Arlo. He arrived a spontaneous three weeks early after hours of pushing, a faulty epidural, and a few tense moments before he let out his first cry. Summit! We had endured the agony of miscarriage, the restless confusion while trying to conceive, the sickness and exhaustion of pregnancy, and the hours of excruciating labor. We had made it. We were parents now. The long, uphill haul was behind us and we could glide into postpartum bliss. 

On the other side of the summit of pregnancy, however, there was no gradual descent. Instead, I found a new uphill battle with a far more drastic grade. My friends had warned me about the steep switchbacks of postpartum life, but nothing prepared me for the sleep deprivation, the crying (me, and baby), the physical pain, the intrusive thoughts, the anxiety, and the intensity in revisiting my birth story, even though it had a happy ending. Humans have done this for centuries, I thought. And we’ve gone through so much to get here. What is wrong with me? 

When Arlo was six days old, I began to realize what was missing. It was me. I cried because I needed to give myself permission to rediscover who I was before I became “mama”, and make a plan for assimilating that person with my new, beloved role. With my parents there to support us, we went on our first hike as a family of three. The dirt was soft beneath my feet, the air warm, the colors vibrant and familiar, and the light through the evergreen branches flickered across Arlo’s face as he slept peacefully on my chest. It was a snail’s paced half mile on a flat, local loop, but to me it felt like a new summit. A glimpse through the woods, through Arlo’s small life, at all the adventure to come. 

At six weeks postpartum I was cleared to run, though I waited until closer to 10 weeks. That first jog down our road was slow and careful, but so, too, full of hope and excitement. As I built up my running base, I was suddenly itching for a goal. Though it had been over three years and two pregnancies since my last long race, I found myself nervously hitting “register” for the Grand Tetons Half Marathon. The training process looked much different than it did for my pre-baby races as I logged miles on the treadmill during nap time, with the stroller, early in the morning or late at night. My eyes were fixed on the Tetons, my mind focused on strength, recovery, miles, and defining motherhood for myself.

On race morning, I woke before dawn to breastfeed. My husband drove me over Teton Pass above a thick layer of fog while I pumped milk for Arlo’s mid-morning meal. I watched as the sun rose high enough to touch the surrounding peaks and light-flooded through our quiet car, a moment interrupted only by the steady sound of pump parts and my husband’s reassurance. As the sun rose higher, a new me rose with it. Summit! My race time was not the fastest and the weather was not the clearest, but seeing Arlo waiting for me at the finish line with the Teton panorama behind him awakened a new part of me. My husband greeted me with tears in his eyes, knowing the pain and persistence it had taken to get here. I was, officially, a mother runner with my heart set on the trails. A finisher, feeling like I had even more to give. This summit was spectacular, but it only showed me that I could dream bigger. On to the next.

Marathon training was the natural next step. I chose Kansas City, my hometown, to make my 26.2 debut, but living in the Rocky Mountain Foothills gave me plenty of opportunity for trail training at and above 8,500’. I ran my first official trail race, a 20k at our local state park, and laughed as Arlo finished off my Camelbak at the finish line. I flew down the collegiate peaks at the Autumn Color Half in Buena Vista, in awe that my body could take me somewhere so beautiful. After my first 20-mile training run in Golden, Colorado on a warm September morning, I’d reached another summit. I stopped for a moment to take in the view, then charged on with intention through the ridgeline of taper, inching ever closer to my next peak.

The finish line in Kansas City was still full of life and laughter, despite my 4 hour 52 minute finishing time. My dad had been here before, 40 years ago, just as he’d run, in another lifetime, the high trails of the mountains that I now call home. I spotted him, along with my husband, my mom, my son, my grandma, our friends from near and far, and took in a view that, several years ago, I never thought I’d see. Though losing our first baby is a tragedy I wouldn’t wish on anyone, he or she- Mercury, as we call them- may have been the very reason I was here on this summit. Little did I know, in my moment of exhilaration, exhaustion, and pride, that Mercury would soon gain a second brother earthside. Maybe that’s what was intended all along.

Test number 2- and 3, and 4- were all positive. My hormone levels, garnered from the blood sample my doctor graciously took to ease my anxiety, were steadily increasing. This new baby, the size of a poppyseed, was about to run 13.1 miles with me on the Arizona Trail. 

After KC, I needed to race on the dirt again. I chose a shorter distance since a lot of my winter training would be in Yaktrax on snow-packed trails, and I wanted to give my body a rest before attempting a marathon PR in the summer of 2020. I finished my last long run, a snowy 12 miler, on the same trail where we’d taken our first gentle hike with Arlo. Summit! I finally felt like a “real” runner. I was in the best shape of my life. I was ready to run my first trail half in a beautiful place where my family would meet me at the finish. I was feeling confident as a mom. The clouds of the first year of parenthood had cleared, I had forgotten the pain of breastfeeding, and I was finally feeling like “myself” again. Then came Beck.

Our second son, Beck, was a perfect, unforeseen, unbelievable gift to our family. He showed me that my goal of getting “back” to who I was before motherhood was a fruitless endeavor; I will never be that person again, and I wouldn’t want to be. It’s as if I shook hands with my former self at a fork in the trail, thanked her for the lessons learned, and sprinted ahead without looking back. Beck’s impending arrival was made known about the same time as the pandemic began. Two unanticipated turns in the dirt, each with its own reverberations. 

So often, life is like a trail. You are gliding at a comfortable pace. You are seeing possibilities. You are feeling strong, prepared, and happy. You are on a summit. You are content, calm, accomplished. Then, out of nowhere, a rock, a storm, a steeper-than-it-looked-at-first hill, a tree stump, a twisted ankle, a wildflower so impossibly vibrant it stops you dead in your tracks. Everything you thought you were feeling, planning for, and doing can be changed in an instant, and it isn’t always a bad thing. 

I’ve reached more summits since Beck’s birth, like taking both boys out on the trails by myself for the first time and our first double stroller trail run. I’ve also reached literal summits, like Bergen Peak, in my second trail half marathon, and have registered for two more trail halfs and a marathon. I’ve faced anxiety, partly postpartum partly from pandemic parenting, and found ways to manage it. I’ve cried and screamed and wished I was a better mom, a stronger person, a more balanced presence all the time, but life isn’t like that. There will be summits, many of them false, and it turns out I’m in no hurry to reach the true peak of motherhood. We work so hard to get there. We rest for a minute and stare in awe at how far we’ve come, how far we can see, but then we start the journey down, away, and back. We marvel at where we’ve been, helpless against the relentless passage of time, with only memories. Precious, fleeting memories of now.

Sarah Shriver

Sarah Shriver

Sarah Shriver feels lucky to live in beautiful Conifer, Colorado. She is a mother runner with 2 young boys, Arlo and Beck, wife to her high school sweetheart, and special education teacher/reading specialist. Sarah loves to trail run, hike, camp, climb, travel, and explore the mountains with her family.

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Comments

1 thought on “The False Summits of Motherhood”

  1. Love this! Mom of three here. It is cliche, but each stage as a mother runner is such a different season. I am finding is SO MUCH HARDER to train now that my youngest is 5 and out of the stroller. That used to be how I’d get in 90% of my miles and suddenly those days are gone. Now I find myself having to be creative to squeeze in miles here and there before work, during soccer practice, or just accepting that this “season” just isn’t going to be the one where I am in my best shape. A new kind of peak to climb really. Learning to accept this. Keep on pushing mama!

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