Mailbag with Jennifer Pharr Davis: To Become a Mom or To Adventure?

Welcome to Mailbag with Jennifer Pharr Davis, where we take hikers’ questions and pass them off to the trail legend for her wisdom and analysis. JPD’s newest book, The Pursuit of Endurance is available now.

Have a question for an upcoming Mailbag? Email [email protected] and we’ll pass it on. If your question is chosen for our next Mailbag, we’ll send you a signed copy of JPD’s newest book.
I am a woman about to turn 30, and I’m at a crossroads. I’ve just discovered the outdoors life, and there’s still so much I want to do! I want to hike a long trail, learn mountaineering, live in remote areas… but as I get older I’ve also realized that I want children someday. I know there’s still plenty of adventure to be had with kids, but I also know that it requires some settling down, hard work, and less time for yourself. I feel like if I have children now, I’ll resent them for taking away my opportunity to go on big adventures. But I also worry that if I don’t start planning for kids soon, my biological clock will run out and I’ll be stuck childless. This has to be a challenge many outdoors people (especially women) face. How do you decide when you’re ready to slow down and start a family? –Ashley S

This past summer I was giving a talk to promote my new book, The Pursuit of Endurance, in Kalamazoo, Michigan. After the presentation, I was stationed at the book table doing my normal meet-and-greet, plus signing. I noticed one woman lingering at the back of the line and when her time came to approach the table she looked at me sheepishly and said, “I didn’t like something you said in the talk.”

Immediately my mind backtracked to all the statements I made over the past 45 minutes that could have been perceived as offensive. But what the woman said next never crossed my mind.

“You said that one of the reasons you wanted to try for the AT record before starting a family is because you knew that your body and time would no longer be your own after having children. But I don’t think that’s true. I mean, moms can still have adventures.”

To be clear, yes, you can absolutely you can have adventures as a mom. But the excursions you take as a mom will be different than the journeys you take before having children. I stand by the idea that your time and body will not be your own once your start a family. My children are currently five and two, and out of the past six years, I have spent four pregnant or nursing. And I have only enjoyed a couple dozen nights of uninterrupted sleep. I have continued to hike and backpack, but my miles, destination, and duration on the trail have been dictated by the needs of my children whether in utero, as a nursing infant, or as a toddler with emotional attachment.

I am beyond grateful that I found long-distance hiking at the age of 21. The early discovery provided me with nearly a decade of extreme and extended adventures.

Now, after six years, I am starting to reclaim much of my physical independence and I feel able to spend longer periods of time away from my children. But still, the psychological shift that took place through my childbearing years come into play on every adventure. Risks that I was willing to take before children, such as hiking through grizzly country solo or heading out for extended adventures out of cell range are no longer options in my mind. As a parent I am accountable and responsible for more than just myself. While I don’t feel a need to be in constant contact with my family, I do want to be in a position where I can receive updates and conclude my trip if necessary.

There are moms and dads out there who are comfortable with greater risk and more time away from their children. There are also parents who would never dream of taking time such as the two weeks that I plan each year for independent adventuring. It’s a scale. There’s no right. There’s no wrong. Just remember that a person’s approach, considerations, and adventures will intrinsically change once they become a parent.

I am beyond grateful that I found long-distance hiking at the age of 21. The early discovery provided me with nearly a decade of extreme and extended adventures. Trying for the record on the Appalachian was a culmination of 10,000 miles of long-distance adventure combined with a love of endurance and pushing my limits. I wanted to know what my body could do on the trail so that I could move forward and embrace a different season and pace of life. I have not felt the need or desire for that level of adventure since starting a family.

I have friends, however, who do feel sad and resentful for having children (planned or unplanned) at a point when it limited their career or their adventures. On top of that, they feel guilty for feeling sad or resentful. My heart goes out to these individuals. Moms and dads shouldn’t feel guilty for mourning the loss of their independence. Sometimes being honest with these emotions, being able to express them and coming to terms with them can help individuals move forward and more embrace their current reality.

The common thread I have observed among the men and women who have the most adventures is not whether they chose to procreate, but based on their capacity for planning. There are ways to maximize your adventures before children and there are ways to incorporate adventure into you role as a parent and your life as a family. But these endeavors all require thoughtfulness, logistics, and care consideration when it comes to scheduling and commitment.

Here are some tips to think about and options to consider as you start to plan your adventures… and your family.

Start Having Adventures NOW

Don’t hesitate! Begin working towards your adventure goals immediately. That might mean quitting your job and starting a thru-hike, or it could be opening a bank account and aggressively saving for your international travels. If you need time to train or save for an adventure, look for ways to incorporate education, training, and mini-adventures into your everyday life. Prioritize your dreams.

Protect your Plans

Plan your adventures in advance and do not let work or personal obligation infringe on those dates. Exploration is a commitment. At the beginning of each year, my husband and I each mark two weeks off of the calendar for personal adventure. These weeks are sacred and safe from most conflicts that arise. There are exceptions. Personal injury or serious illness within the family have given us cause to shift our dates. But new work opportunities, tight deadlines, and a two-year-old with a UTI have all threatened those windows without success. There are effective medicines for UTIs and there will always be exciting work opportunities, but there is no substitute for adventure.

Weigh your Desires

Wanting adventure and a family as a thirty-year old woman is different than wanting adventure and a family as a forty-year old. There might come a time when you are forced to do some soul searching and bluntly ask yourself what you want more and where your time is best spent. I have a great deal of respect for the women I know who have consciously chosen to increase their capacity for adventure and also lessen their environmental impact by deciding not to have children.

Wait to Start a Family

One of the funniest phrases I’ve heard is “geriatric pregnancy.” The humor is found in my mental image of a gray-haired, pregnant grandma with a walking cane but the reality is that a geriatric pregnancy refers to any woman with child over the age of 35. Medically speaking there are increased risks when you wait to start your family. But you are never at any age guaranteed a perfectly healthy pregnancy. And if waiting until you are older to become a parent makes you a better caregiver then the risk can be worth the reward.

Freeze Your Eggs

This might not be a viable option to everyone based on personal ethics or financial resources, but it is a way to extend your childbearing years and create more time for adventure.

Consider Adoption

Adopting a child is another incredible way to start a family later in life and limit the environmental impact of bringing another life into the world. And if you aren’t ready to begin a family in your 30s but don’t want to start with an infant in your 40s, you have the ability to adopt older children who need love and a good home just as much as a newborn. PLUS, you will have more physical flexibility and freedom to do the things you love by not navigating the nine-month cycle of pregnancy along with the demands and potential complications of delivery.

Let Go of Expectations

The process of family planning is akin to adventure in that they both offer circumstance out of one’s control. There is no marked trail for starting a family. It can include unwanted or unexpected pregnancy, infertility, miscarriage, the uncertainty of adoption applications, depression, complications, and special needs. The trail—and parenthood—teaches that you can’t necessarily change your environment or current circumstances, but you can alter your outlook and response. And you can keep going.

Nursing vs. Formula

Nursing is a great option. Formula is a great option. I’m not here to advocate which is better, because I believe that different methods will be better for different individuals. If you do chose to nurse it will limit the type of adventure that you can have based on accessibility to your child or a pump. However, dealing with sterilized bottles and temperature-regulated formula can be challenging on the move. Nursing is probably more conducive to having adventures alongside your children while formula may be better suited for those who need or want to spend time away from the brood.

Seek out Local Adventure

With or without children, it is a shame to miss out on adventures that take place near where you live. Perhaps it’s the ever-changing covers of outdoor magazines that make us think if we are not alone on top of a mountain hundreds of miles away from civilization that we are not having a true adventure, but that’s simply not the case. I might not have time for a 400-mile continuous thru-hike, but I live next Pisgah National Forest and its 400 miles of trail. That affords me with the opportunity to piece together day hikes and overnights and walk every mile of trail without ever being more than 1.5 hours away from home. Maximize the adventures in your backyard.

Find a Supportive Partner

The biggest key to having successful adventures with a family is to have a supportive partner. If you want to continue your growth through personal exploration, it is critical to be with someone who values you, and understands the value of adventure. It is also important to support and encourage your partner’s personal interests and hobbies apart from the family—even if it’s not hiking (Gasp!). If you don’t have personal support in the form of a partner, ask for help from friends and family. Look for someone in your circle who would enjoy being a temporary caretaker for your children or an accountability partner for adventures.

Embrace the Current Season

Don’t focus on what you can’t do. Instead, focus on what you can do right now. I have single friends who would love nothing more than to have a family but they make the most of their independence by planning adventures and traveling the world. I also know moms and dads who struggle with the weight and responsibility of parenthood, but they find ways to create small adventures with and for their children while their dreams are on hold. There are ways to satiate the void without it overflowing.

This fall my daughter started kindergarten and my son entered part-time preschool. It is the first time my husband and I have had consistent childcare for both of our children. It is strange and exhilarating to have more freedom to work and travel and plan adventures. It is also a relative increase compared to the personal freedom I enjoyed before starting my family. And while my time for adventure has started to increase and I have more ownership over my body, I still feel confident that my time and body and adventures will never again belong solely to me.

As a mom, I share all of it with my family regardless of whether they are by my side or waiting for me at home. And that has made my adventures seem a whole lot more valuable.

Looking for more? Find our entire collection of Jennifer’s sage wisdom here.

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Comments 4

  • Scott Brotherton : Nov 2nd

    I’m a male so I’ll add my perspective, which will of course differ….I am an ‘old’ Dad’ my daughter arrived nearly as my 40th B-day present…but now, w/my kids at the ages of 13 (son) & 16, there is little better than sharing your love of the outdoors w/them (from a young age). It is actually quite nice (and makes me proud as well) to watch my kids set up their tents (although my daughter is now a hammock/tarp camper) and just take care of things themselves. it’s the pay off for that time you ‘lose’ or gets altered. Essentially you are just trading one great experience for another IMHO. And yes, we have discussed doing the AT as a family…before Dad gets too old…lol

  • Katherine : Nov 6th

    At 30 the clock isn’t ticking that loudly. The adventuring clock is barely ticking at all, lots of 60+ hikers out there flourishing. (I’m more concerned about the climate clock.)

    *Get some adventures in now
    *Have kids when it feels like the right time. Optimally with the right partner. (what JPD said about a supportive one ^^^ it helps a lot)
    *Do what you can with littles
    *When the youngest is say, about 2.5, depending, leave ’em at home with a co-parent while you go off on overnight adventures.
    *The older they get, the longer you can be gone.
    *The older they get, the more adventures you can take them along on!

    I was up on Mt. Rainier’s snowfields backpacking with my 8-year-old last summer. It’s very gratifying to do both. Going to start chipping away at PCT sections soon.

  • Phoebe : Nov 13th

    Thanks so much for this post, Jennifer. I’m 22 & planning a thru-hike next year, but my partner and I have many more adventures on our bucket list after that! I know I’ve got plenty of time but wanting to have (or more likely adopt) children in the future certainly makes planning an important part of my future. I was just having the conversation with my partner about how kids fit into that life plan, and I’m sure it’s something we’ll have a lot of time to think about on the AT next year!

  • Alexandra : Nov 20th

    Thank you for this post, Jennifer! I think to read this blogpost, honest words out of the perspective of an adventurer, mother and partner, were exactly what I needed.
    As a 31 year old woman that loves long distance hiking and adventuring, the dilemma between motherhood and adventure is prevalent. There are soo many long distance trails out there! When will be the right moment to start a family? When will that thirst for another challenge be stilled? Despite all progress, I still feel that our societal norms very much tell us that as a mother there‘s little to no room for you‘re own individual goals as person, be it career- or otherwise (to everyone who disagrees that is my subjective perspective, maybe it’s just my environment…).
    I still haven‘t figured out when the right moment will be, but apparently life has it‘s own plan. My husband and I are currently finishing up a long distance trail in Japan in two weeks we‘re heading to NZ to thruhike the Te Araroa. And two weeks ago, we realized that I’m 9 weeks pregnant.
    I was at a total loss how to feel first. I always wanted to become a mother – somewhen in the future -, but feel as if I‘m not finished being an adventurer yet. Reading your post, or hearing about families like the Crawfords on the AT and the Strawbridges on the PCT, is what gives me a new perspective on matters. It shows me that it can be done, with adjustments, careful planning and the will to do it, to combine both.
    And the shock about the unexpected pregnancy is now making room for the excitment to embark on a new adventure, a new and probably scarier challenge that I‘ve ever faced. Thank you for having part in easing my mind and the insight in how you manage to juggle adventures and motherhood (and being a badass endurance athlete)!


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