Editor’s note: This story is based on personal experience and is not meant as medical or safety advice. Please consult your physician to talk about what is right for you.
As a child, an adolescent and young adult, I always used the phrase “when I have kids” as a reference to the future—to a theoretical time when I would have everything in life figured out. When I had a big enough house, enough retirement savings, enough patience to put another human being’s needs above my own. I’ve been a professional climber my entire adult life, and “when I have kids” always seemed like a long way away. I had a laundry list of projects to complete and places to visit. But in my early 30s, I started to ask myself, “When I’m 80, which would I regret more: Not sending that 5.14 project I hope to do in the fall? Or never trying to start a family?” When I was 33, the answer became the latter, and my husband and I took the leap and got pregnant. If I’m being honest, at first I was terrified. There was little information out there about climbing and pregnancy, and the little I found was not encouraging.
When I searched “climbing and pregnancy,” I found people likening climbing while pregnant to child endangerment, which just added to anxieties I already had about being pregnant in general. Also, what would gaining 30 pounds do to me as a climber? I knew of two friends—prominent professional climbers—who were either dropped by their sponsor or had their salaries cut when they became pregnant and started families. Much to my surprise, and relief, my sponsors were completely supportive, and knowing I would still have a job and a paycheck took a lot of weight off my shoulders. But I still felt out on a limb without having seen many other women climbing through pregnancy. To process what I was going through, I decided to start writing about my experience on my blog. It gave me a way to connect with others around the world who’d either already been through, were currently going through, or wanted to know more about the journey to motherhood as a climber. Each pregnancy is different, but here’s a little of what I experienced.
Climbing with a changing body
The first trimester was the worst. Not for anything unique to me as a climber—simply because of morning sickness. I’m not sure why they call it “morning” sickness, because it lasted all day for me. Every day. But I found I felt sick whether I lay in bed, went for a hike or went climbing. So most days I tried to get out and do something active. My body and mindset hadn’t changed much otherwise yet, and I didn’t want to lose control of my body completely. So I trained, ran and climbed normally for the first few months.
Aside from the nausea, the only difference I noticed in the first few months was new pain in the round ligament, a pelvic ligament that was starting to loosen and prepare for childbirth. It was difficult to feel that the pregnancy was “real” when I couldn’t feel or see very much change. As a climber, I was used to seeing results, tangible changes. But pregnancy and motherhood was teaching me patience. I was completely open and honest with my OB-GYN and told her I was a climber, how I climbed and what I wanted to continue doing. She told me to listen to my body through the first trimester and said we would reassess once I started to experience more bodily changes.
Learning to let go
The most trying thing for me as I progressed through pregnancy was letting go of the perception of having complete control over my own body. I didn’t realize how much pressure I was carrying about my body image until it felt weird and nerve-racking to be out in the climbing world pregnant and gaining weight. Suddenly I didn’t fit my own perception of what an elite climber looked like. I’d always used my body for achievement, and saw it as a vehicle to advance my career or to deal with stress; I never saw it as something to nurture or something that should be taken care of. Pregnancy helped me separate my notion of body image and achievement with self worth.
At first it felt unsettling as my body changed from what I saw as a finely tuned climbing machine to having new curves, extra rolls and stretch marks. But I began to see those changes as part of the process and surrendered to it. It felt relieving to understand that when pregnant, everyone gains weight—it’s how it works.
A different purpose for the body
I’ve always been good at doing what’s necessary for my current situation, whether that’s training when I need fitness or preparing for speeches and events. So I began to look at gaining weight the same way. I knew how many calories I needed to perform as a climber, to maintain my physique, but I consumed them in the form of what was convenient, often pre-packaged. I didn’t see the need to have my food be super healthy or full of nutrients. But a visit with a midwife friend at about four or five months through the pregnancy made me rethink my eating habits.
She asked me to fill out a questionnaire, something I thought was for “unhealthy” people, not professional athletes like me. When we met a week later, she addressed my diet: “I’m not seeing many vegetables in here, Beth?” I was taken aback, and felt defensive. Me? Not healthy? That’s nonsense. “Well, that’s because I’m outside all day—I can’t just take salads or vegetables, so I take bars.” She smiled and said softly, “Why can’t you take a salad?” I thought about it, and there was no reason. Something changed in me at that point. I thought differently about the little person I was growing inside of me, and all of a sudden it wasn’t about me anymore, it wasn’t just about my own performance. My body had another purpose, another thing that was more important.
Shifting my climbing attitude
Throughout the second trimester, I started to show. I got a full-body climbing harness and sized up my climbing shoes. I noticed that my joints became looser, so I started dialing back my climbing level. At some point it didn’t feel good to try hard, so I stopped leading and bouldering, sticking to top-roping. My husband would lead me up “After 6” in Yosemite Valley a couple times per week. Climbing felt like yoga for me, like my meditation. We would spend the morning climbing, and moving over the rock felt so good for my body. Even though I was gaining weight—20 pounds by the middle of the second trimester—it still felt good to climb. To protect my loosening joints from injury, I climbed easier grades and did shoulder stabilizing exercises. And I walked almost every day. My obstetrician and midwife were completely supportive of how I was climbing as long as I was listening to my body.
By the time I reached my third trimester, after opening up about my experiences on my blog, the online community had become like a second family to me. The group of people discussing climbing and pregnancy online was growing rapidly. Two doctors contacted me about doing a medical study on climbing and pregnancy, and together we surveyed women from around the world. It felt empowering and comforting to know there were so many other women who climbed throughout pregnancy, and that there were doctors who supported it. But by my third trimester, climbing just stopped feeling “good.” It felt laborious, injury prone and anxiety provoking, so at seven months I stopped climbing but continued walking for exercise. I had many friends who climbed throughout their entire pregnancy, but I knew every pregnancy was different and I listened to my own body.
After the birth—the hard part
One day after my due date, our son was born. I was fortunate to have a healthy birth experience, but my physical postpartum was something I couldn’t, and didn’t, predict. I had friends who’d used their maternity leave for a six-week climbing trip to France with a 10-day-old baby. I naively expected that, since I was a professional athlete, I would bounce back as quickly or more quickly than others. My husband and I had talked about doing a trip to Japan when our son was three weeks old, thinking it would be no big deal—babies sleep the entire time at that age, right? But it didn’t go that way.
I had multiple severe mastitis infections and a very painful cystocele. I couldn’t walk and hold our son until three months postpartum. I couldn’t even walk to the bathroom for several weeks. Of all the things that I tried to prepare for, I had never heard of difficulties physically recovering. Honestly, this period was harder than most things I’ve been through in life. It left me feeling inadequate, alone and scared. But I remembered the online community that we’d built during my pregnancy, so I started writing again and reaching out to other friends to see if they had experienced anything similar. And while each time someone responded with something like, “Nope! I was running at three weeks,” it felt like a gut punch, it felt so comforting hearing from those who did experience a difficult physical recovery.
Climbing as a new mom
At four or five months postpartum I tried climbing again. I was nursing our son and could still feel looseness in my joints, so I started climbing very easy grades for the first few months. Finally, around nine or 10 months after the birth, I started trying harder and harder, but with baby steps, slowly increasing the duration and difficulty of my climbing.
I stuck with bouldering at first, partly because of our struggles with breastfeeding. It wasn’t something that came easily for us. Our son had severe tongue-tie and I was an overproducer of milk. The combination of the two gave me several severe mastitis infections with 103-degree fevers and weeks of walking around shirtless with bleeding nipples and swollen, infected, tender breasts. It was a rough introduction to something I perceived as a natural way to nourish our child. After much, much work, we finally got into a rhythm that worked for us. I had a lot of friends who would pump and stockpile milk for their workdays. And I had a small stockpile, but we found that the best way for my milk production to regulate was simply nursing Theo. So when he was tiny, this translated into me primarily bouldering to stay near him for feedings.
During that time my body wasn’t ready to climb big routes for other reasons, too. My joints were loose, my breasts were sore and my insides felt like they might fall out. I had new-mother friends who were climbing The Nose on El Capitan in a day and pumping on the route, but honestly, I enjoyed my time down in the forest among the boulders. As our son got older, and as I got stronger, I was able to do longer routes. It was a growing time for both of us.
My son is now 5, and my body is still different from its pre-pregnancy shape. I carry more weight around my waist and hips. At first I was timid to climb in just a sports bra because of my belly and hips, but I’ve realized that’s just how my body has recovered and I needed to embrace this new body, not shy away from it. That’s been a great lesson for my ego and perception of fitness, something that was ingrained in me from an early age. Since giving birth, I’ve actually climbed harder than I was climbing right before becoming pregnant. This spring we spent three months in Europe at an area where I’ve been climbing since my early 20s. I was able to do boulder problems that I had been trying since I first visited, and it felt like a turning point for me, realizing that even with a differently shaped body I could be stronger and smarter in climbing. It reminded me that sometimes our deepest critics lie within ourselves. Through my pregnancy and early motherhood, I’ve slowly learned how to loosen the grip of control I thought I needed to have on my body, climbing and life. It’s been the best lesson in patience and acceptance—of others, but mainly myself.