Published on March 7th, 2023 | by Brianna Avenia-Tapper0
On Reaching: A Conversation with Majka Burhardt
Majka Burhardt is a mother, climber, writer, and conservationist. I keep scrolling through her climbing photos in awe: Majka, in a hot pink helmet, clawing her way up a turret of ice. Majka, palms dusty with chalk, wedged into a narrow crevice far above the earth. Speaking with her, it was immediately clear that Majka is a woman determined to engage fully with her life. She is not afraid. Her upcoming memoir, More: At the Intersection of Adventure and Motherhood, is propelled by this energy, this bravery, this unabashed wanting.
More is an epistolary memoir, composed of letters to Majka’s young twins, Kaz and Irenna. Through these letters, Majka shares her transition to motherhood, a transition during which she was also ice-climbing, rock-climbing, running an international conservation organization, navigating her relationship to her own mother, and maintaining her marriage to the twins’ climber father. More tells the story of Majka’s reaching in each of these directions simultaneously—reaching for her mom, for her children, for the next rocky ledge, for the peaceful marriage she imagines but struggles to create, and for the change she hopes to orchestrate in the wider world. It begins with toe rot, ends with cuddles, and takes time in between to ask thorny questions about gender, love, family, and what it means to go beyond those that came before. Kirkus reviews called the book “raw, passionate, and stinging.”
Majka compiled the collection of letters that became More from notes she recorded in spare moments during the first five years of her children’s life. The text has a fragmentary, inchoate quality that effectively evokes the ambiguous nature of early motherhood, so often a time of porous boundaries, extreme change, and rapid growth. The book’s sections are labeled according to Majka’s stage of pregnancy or her children’s age, for example, “eight weeks pregnant”, or “5 months old.” Within that simple container, Majka creates narrative tension by interweaving repeated reminders of the two dangers looming over her motherhood: the possibility of death on the mountain, and the possibility of divorce from her husband—a concern heightened by the end of her first marriage and her experience of her parents’ divorce as a young child. In between her relatable struggles with childcare, separation anxiety, sleep-training, and shifting identity, Majka continually grapples with stories of her friends and colleagues lost to climbing, and with the excruciating challenge of remaining meaningfully connected to one’s parenting partner.
I most loved the parts of More that gave words to aspects of my mothering experience I hadn’t known were common. Majka writes about the crushing pain of listening to your child scream in the next room when you are teaching them to sleep alone. She writes about the sweetness of breastfeeding, the intimacy she found there with her children. She writes about the disappointment involved in trying to return to a previous self when you’ve been changed irrevocably. She writes about being torn between her needs and her children’s needs, of course, but also of being torn between her own competing desires for the many (sometimes conflicting) aspects of the great big life she’s building. For all these reasons, I was thrilled to talk to Majka about her book. We spoke via Zoom about ass-kicking, 2am vomiting, the inevitability of change, and holding goals with an “open hand.”
Brianna Avenia-Tapper: As I read More, I was struck again and again by the honesty of your voice. I was so grateful for your generosity in sharing the hard parts of your parenting experience.
Majka Burhardt: I never knew when I became a mom that it was going to take me down to the level that it did. That’s what this book is about: “Holy cow, what do I do with how hard this is? This is what humanity is dealing with?” So many people are parents! So many people are living some iteration of this! It just gives you this empathy for all these other humans. You might see them out there and see them crushing it in whatever way, but you better believe that they’re catching vomit at 2am. You can’t get away from that one [laughs]. But it reminds us that we’re fallible, that we’re connected.
Brianna: I can definitely relate to that sense of motherhood rubbing my nose in the inconvenient fact of our physical bodies—bodies that puke, for example. Growing a child is a pretty intense reminder of that, but so is ice-climbing, I would imagine? Hard to forget you have a body when you are hanging onto the side of a cliff? As an ice-climber and a parent, what would you say is similar about these two activities?
Majka: They’re both all about change. Climbing is not a static thing, and who you are as a climber is not static. We think of grand aspirations—I’m going be a climber or a runner, or I’m going be a skier. We forget that everything is malleable. You might have good days, you might have bad days. You might get injured and have to make a comeback. That’s like motherhood. You don’t just become a mom. You’re not on this steady upward journey to greatness—or I certainly was not and am not. You have moments of, “Oh yeah, things are going well. I’m really crushing it,” and then your daughter wants to stop sucking her thumb and things just take a nosedive.
Ultimately it is the ability to be okay with the change and the movement. To ask, “What are the tools that I have before me right now and what’s the choice that I need to make right now?” That’s climbing in a nutshell, and that’s mothering in a nutshell. When you try to parent in a different way (which I do all the time. I have this great idea we’re gonna accomplish all these things) it never seems to work. The only way to pull any of this off is to ask “What is happening in the moment and what do I need to do now?”
Brianna: How does that look on the mountain?
Majka: I was in Mozambique in 2016 trying to put up a first ascent on a mountain—a beautiful granite peak, the second highest peak in the country. It was wild because I thought we were going to climb these cracks up the center of the face. That’s where we had been in 2011. That’s where the scientific interest had been, but it was just not going to happen. We could not make it safe. We could not make it feasible. Instead, we established a completely different route. If I had been fixated on getting up the southern face, rather than being open to taking a completely different path, we would have never put up that route on Mount Namuli. Most of my big expeditions in the world of mountain climbing have had that major pivot point. They were never what I thought I was going to do when I first arrived.
Brianna: Pretty good metaphor for parenting!
Majka: Exactly! For me that’s such a big piece of the parenting puzzle. Right now I live in this mecca of cross-country skiing. My kids’ public school has all these ski programs. This morning I was getting everybody ready. So I said while getting ready, “You’re going to go skiing this afternoon and mom’s gonna be a coach, aren’t you excited?” Both of my kids looked at me and said, “I don’t wanna wear long underwear! I don’t wanna go skiing today.” That was my pivot this morning, the moment of saying, “Okay, okay, wait. How do we as a unit make this work?” That’s parenthood.
Brianna: Did climbing teach you this flexibility? Or did you somehow learn it earlier and bring it to both climbing and parenting?
Majka: There’s probably an ironic gift to me being a child of divorced parents. I was quite young when my parents split up, and I went back and forth between their houses every two and a half days. So everything was about being flexible and adapting. I had to be able to take the ball that was thrown at me and say, “Great, let me reshape it and make it work and then toss it to someone else.” I was in constant movement. Literally, I had to carry my clothes in a laundry basket. My parents somehow conceived something along the lines of, “It’ll be less like she’s moving because she has a laundry basket.” This was the ‘70s [laughs]. Two different houses, two different family cultures. Despite the work my parents did to make it consistent. It’s not consistent when you have two homes.
Brianna: You write about your parents’ divorce in the book, and about your relationship to your parents more generally. On the first page you write that during your early motherhood what you “wanted more than anything” was to “find your own mother…when she was becoming a mother.” It reminded me of the Adrienne Rich quote, from Of Woman Born, “No one mentions the psychic crisis of bearing a first child, the excitation of long-buried feelings about one’s own mother.” You explored those feelings throughout the book, investigating your experience of being mothered in order to better understand your experience of mothering. You reflect on your mother’s divorce from your father, and its negative effects on you. I wondered whether you think those effects follow automatically from divorce. Is it possible for parents to get divorced in a way that doesn’t forever mark their children? If so, what would that look like? What would it require?
Majka: Divorce is still a relatively new thing in our culture. So we don’t know how to do it in a great way. Can you imagine going through divorces in the ‘50s or ‘60s? People understood parenting differently then too. Then it was “Buck up. If you’re having a hard time, go to your room.” Now, there are these different ways of managing emotions. We are more likely to ask about children’s agency. Friends of mine have gone through divorce and done a good job. They’ve seen other people fumbling through it. I think it’s about being human and letting your kids take the whole emotional rollercoaster.
Brianna: Your love for Kaz and Irenna is really a strong driving force in the book. What has becoming their mother taught you about life outside of motherhood?
Majka: I want to say something profound about what motherhood has taught me, but honestly I think it’s that being human is pretty amazing, and it really hurts sometimes. It’s hard. It goes back to that idea that there’s no stasis. I think we just assume, “I’ll become a mom” or “’I’ll have a kid.” But your kids go through these stages and then they’ll start walking and you’re like, “Oh man! This is horrible! This is the worst thing! Can they please go back to crawling That was way more successful.” It just keeps changing. It’s not a checkbox. It’s not a list where you just cross something off, and you’re on to the next thing. Every new thing has its own set of challenges and beauty and rawness and ass-kicking to it. That’s what parenthood has really taught me about life.
Brianna: You had had ass-kicking experiences before motherhood, though, right? You had done a lot of hard things. You had responded flexibly to changing circumstances. So what was it about motherhood that taught you these lessons at such a deep level?
Majka: When you’re out doing things in the world, you can decide the weather’s really bad so you won’t go. You might decide, “Those roads are really icy, so I won’t drive today.” There are moments when you have to buckle down, but it’s more choice-based. When you’re a mom, there are things you need to make choices about, but the whole existence of being a mom is no longer choice-based. It’s your constant reality, i.e. “No matter what I do, I’m in this with this child.” There’s no off-ramp to being a mom. Yes, I have been on crazy climbs where there doesn’t seem to be an off-ramp either, but at some point you’ll be done with it. The climb doesn’t get pissed at you three days later or develop a sore on their hand because you told them to keep biking. The climb is gone. It’s in the rearview mirror. Your kids are not in the rearview mirror. They’re continuing to be in front of you.
Brianna: Even as adults! They’re still going to look to you as their mom. More is finite however, and so you had to find a place to start and end the story. You ended when the twins were four years and nine months old, and you started with your pregnancy. It was interesting that you chose not to share the story of the twins’ birth until many pages after they were born. The delay there mirrored a delay in processing the experience? The experience of their birth was not what you had wanted.
Majka: When I was pregnant, I intellectually understood that there was going to be a birth process and that I was considered high risk at 39 with twins, but I hadn’t emotionally untethered myself from my hopes for the birth.
Brianna: Could you talk a little about your early postpartum experience?
Majka: After their birth, nursing became such a big thing for me. It was one of the ways I grounded myself. However many times early-postpartum I was nursing those babies—14 times a day?—I knew, “This is something I can achieve.” That felt like a big deal to me. It gave me a ballast in the midst of everything, of realizing I couldn’t carry them both in and out of the car. It was such a weird thing to live in a reality where I couldn’t walk down my driveway to get my mail, but there I was keeping these humans alive. Those two things felt wickedly at odds with each other. My mom kept saying, “Aren’t you just so proud of yourself?” I remember thinking,
“What is she talking about? I’m just doing it. It was what has to happen next. Just give me that baby.”
Brianna: Was it difficult, as a professional athlete, not to be able to walk down your driveway?
Majka: Yes and no. I have had—as I talk about in the book—I have had a lot of big injuries. I’ve had two back surgeries and shoulder surgeries and I’ve broken my ankle. I have been knocked back to the starting point. Behind the starting point! Three miles behind the starting point, a couple times. So thankfully it wasn’t a shock to me to say, “This is where I am.” But I had never been there having gained seventy pounds. Having carried two babies into the world. I was really patient with myself. As long as I was nursing I wasn’t going to worry about where I was athletically. I think it was a smart way to take care of my mental health. My husband had goals. He’s like, “Here’s my athletic goal. Here’s this thing I’m training for.” But any time I did it, the kids had three nights of not sleeping and there’s snot smeared across my entire body! I felt like I couldn’t have goals because I was going to fail. So I gave myself some gentleness.
I was climbing, of course. I was getting back into cardio shape, but I wasn’t holding that really tightly. I was holding it with this open hand. If I can hold that with an open hand, then I can manage the fact that I’m solo parenting because my husband’s traveling and both of my kids have hand-foot-and-mouth, and I’m trying to work.
Brianna: And write! How did you go about turning your raw material—the audio recordings and notes and emails and texts—into a cohesive narrative?
Majka: Well, the book is a series of journals and notes, things I’d jotted down. When I wanted to see if they could hold up together, I first listened to all the audio recordings and transcribed them. I’m crying in most of them! I typed it out and put all the dates and stitched in all these little notes I had in millions of places. I write myself emails all the time which is not a super functional way to write, but it’s just how I always do things. I grabbed all of these emails and dumped them in chronologically. One of the first things I did was share it with a dear friend of mine who is a man. He said he didn’t understand it, that it was too hard to read. I sat on it for a little bit after that. Eventually, I told another dear friend that this might be a book. She demanded, “Send it to me!” When she took a look, she called me up to say, “Get out of your own way! This is definitely a book, and I’ll stand by you to figure out what this looks like.” She had just become a mom, she understood it, she understood the vision. So then I was sitting down and pulling the threads. Finding where I might have made a tiny reference that didn’t make sense and then building that out with an explanation. Like if I wrote “When your dad and I were on Fitz Roy,” I’d add, “a mountain in Patagonia.”
Brianna: What books did you read that inspired your writing (either positively or negatively!)? What books do you see More in conversation with? Are there any epistolary memoirs that you drew on for ideas regarding form?
Majka: Anne Lamott’s Operating Instructions saved me, Ali Wong’s Dear Girls, Glennon Doyle’s Untamed, to name a few.
Brianna: What aspects of Operating Instructions, Dear Girls, and Untamed did you emulate or draw inspiration from in writing More?
Majka: Freedom. Across all of them. In order to let More exist, I had to let go of an idea I had about what was acceptable and proper as a book. This is not a retrospective with the lines colored in, this is the hot fire of the now. I read Operating Instructions, and it gave me permission to feel and write, Untamed showed that ferocity was welcome. I listened to Dear Girls right after the book went to print and felt buoyed that I could do this and share it in the world.
Brianna: Much of the book deals with the work of figuring out how to maintain your relationship with your husband in the midst of parenthood. You write about the differences between the ways you and Peter experience parenting. Why do you think you experienced it differently?
Majka: I think probably every couple is going to experience parenthood differently…Humans are different from each other. There are things that are really important and salient to you, but someone else is like, “I don’t even care about that. I don’t care if the dish towels are folded.” I think with parenting, you start out assuming that you’re gonna share this thing, but then the thing that you’re sharing actually manifests differently—emotionally, physically, constitutionally—for each partner. So you’re constantly trying to find out, “Hey, are you over there in a similar situation to me?” Often times, we’re not! It’s a really tricky thing to try to bridge. Peter and I had wickedly different experiences. I carried twins to 38 weeks. Nothing like that had happened to his body! So how can that not be different?
Brianna: I love this idea that the thing you’re trying to do together—the big, hard thing you are looking at—actually appears as a totally different thing to each person.
Majka: Your partner, no matter how hard they try, no matter how wonderful they are, is just not having the experiences you’re having. In either direction. So suddenly you have this relationship founded on love and communication and shared experiences. You think you’re going to go into parenthood and it’s going to be this shared experience. It is not! It’s the loneliest thing that is shared.
Brianna: The loneliest thing that is shared. So well put. What’s next for you as a writer, climber, conservationist, and parent?
Majka: To keep learning. Period. Legado, the organization I founded and direct is growing rapidly and in part because of what I learned through motherhood—how I pivoted it from being about conservation to really advancing climate justice. And writing? There is always writing, it’s how I find what’s next across it all.