By Adrienne So
When I was pregnant, my husband and I were obsessed with a documentary film called Surfwise. Released in 2007, it followed the surfing legend Doc Paskowitz, who hauled his wife and nine kids in a camper van while living a “holistic” lifestyle, clean living and clean surfing all around the country.
We watched it almost every other week. The film could’ve been a cautionary tale—the Paskowitz kids all had mildly horrifying stories of their unusual childhood, of scanty meals, no schooling and listening to their parents have raucous sex every night—but we treated it as a (selective) how-to manual. “It’s possible,” my husband said with excitement, every time.
We, too, could raise a troop of surfing savants on nothing but stick soup. We could live in a van and read books on beaches in far corners of the country. We could, in short, have kids without changing ourselves at all.
Both my husband and I knew we wanted children. Both of us also knew what kind of life we wanted our kids to have. Adventure brought us together. We met ten years ago as surfers in Berkeley, California, driving out to the beach at 5am and getting to work with our faces tingling, our hair stiff with salt.
Three weeks later, he stress-tested our relationship with a backpacking trip in Yosemite, in a high-altitude environment filled with glaciers and grizzly bears. We passed the test with flying colors, even if I didn’t have a bowel movement for three days.
Since then, we have rock climbed, windsurfed, camped, mountain biked, rafted whitewater, skateboarded, and snowboarded side by side. Alone, I fly-fished in Montana, flew down the Beartooth Highway in Wyoming on a downhill bike and skydived in rural Virginia. I prodded a reluctant horse across a frozen creek in Iceland, and scuba dived around a Philippine coral reef.
We wanted our children to have the same sense of wonder and excitement we did, to face the world like it was pile of Christmas presents waiting to be opened. We didn’t want them to learn about the world from a screen, or in a class. We wanted them to be out in it.
But a newborn doesn’t really care about principles. A baby doesn’t care about her parents’ lifestyle. Within days of giving birth to my daughter, I was on Amazon Prime, desperately buying sound machines and swaddles. Breastfeeding was so difficult at first that even the La Leche consultant told me to give her formula.
When my daughter was four or five weeks old, my husband began to tentatively suggest outings, as we had formerly conceived (haha!) of them. Backpacking part of the Pacific Crest Trail? Or a camping trip to climb the giant boulders in the deserts surrounding Bishop, California? The baby was so portable! It was amazing that all the food she needed was in my breasts!
Deep in the throes of what we later realized was postpartum depression, I could only laugh hysterically. Meeting a friend for a twenty-minute walk sent me into a sweaty spiral of panic. I couldn’t go to the grocery store.
“How,” I demanded of my friends, “does he think I’m going to nurse in a tent? With nothing to lean my back on?” Most of them were gracious enough not to remind me of my own hubris from just a few months earlier.
One time, years before we’d even thought of getting pregnant, my husband and I down-climbed a route in Joshua Tree National Park and had to cross a fallen slab suspended over a hundred feet of empty air, without safety equipment. Dangling by my hands and feet in the dark, I gritted my teeth and edged myself slowly downward until I reached safety.
I faced physical danger with equanimity. But now, a single booger blocking a tiny nostril set my pulse racing. I had run fifteen miles on a torn knee ligament, yet I can’t bear a moment of her discomfort.
And here we are, almost a year later. We’ve bought a Chevy Shasta, a restored small RV from the 1970s, and parked it in a riverside campground in Redding, California. We fed our daughter dinner at a picnic table overlooking the water, and then put her to bed in her travel crib. My husband and I are sitting by the fire with our dogs lying down on either side of us. I have just spilled wine all over my lap.
We are driving across America, on the road for two months for my husband’s sabbatical, and I am exhausted and thrilled, delighted to be here and wondering why we bothered.
I’m still not convinced we’ve drawn the line between our responsibilities and our desires, as parents and as people, in the right spot. She’s ten months old and can’t even talk yet. I can’t even tell if she’s enjoying this trip. I’m not sure I am. It’s hard to remember how free I used to feel, how much I loved to prop my feet on the dashboard and gaze mindlessly at the passing miles, when I’m entirely preoccupied with her nap schedule and whether we have enough hummus.
I watch Surfwise now and am struck by the narcissism that kept Doc’s children cramped and hungry for years. Sometimes we’re driving long into the dark, searching for a campsite, and my daughter is strapped into her carseat and crying, and I feel so guilty and selfish—for dragging her along with us when all she wants and needs, likely, is to crawl around our living room floor—that I want to sink through the floorboards and die.
But I also think of how excited we were for her to share in our adventures with us, and how much we wanted to bring her along. For all our flaws, and all the mistakes we’re surely making, we have gifts to offer her too.
One morning, we wake up after a night spent in a storm in the Mojave and open the camper door. The dogs leap out of the cab before us as we struggle into our jackets and shoes, but when I step outside the air is cool, clean and bright, and we are alone in the desert. Not only that. Joshua trees surround us, the alien curves of their arms somehow recalling the prehistoric era from which they came.
Having a baby is not for the faint of heart. We’re not high on a rock face, but when I see the look on my daughter’s face as she laughs and points—at the trees, the rocks, the dogs frolicking around her father’s knees—it feels like an adventure all the same.
Adrienne So is a writer whose work has appeared in Slate, Cool Hunting and Wired.com; her beverage writing has appeared in All About Beer, Beer Advocate, Cidercraft and various online and print publications. She lives in Portland, Oregon with her husband, daughter and two dogs.