Ask Beth Rodden: Projecting Postpartum

Beth Rodden has inspired a generation of climbers—and now she’s opening up to share in a monthly Q&A column on Verticulture. From her early days smashing climbing comps, her landmark free climbs on El Cap and groundbreaking first ascents like the unrepeated 5.14c Meltdown in Yosemite—to her openness about climbing as a mother, Beth’s life has been a journey in transcending possibility. Her boundary-breaking climbs and hard-won wisdom have made her an icon within the climbing community. Outdoor Research is proud to partner with Beth for a regular Q&A column! Each month we announce a topic on Facebook and Instagram, and choose a question from the responses for Beth to answer. Here's this month's winner:

From @lindsayjness via Instagram:

After having Theo was it hard to start projecting again mentally? I seem to be having a hard time lead climbing again post pregnancy on harder routes. Physically I know I can, but mentally it is difficult (I get scared easily). Any tips?

From Beth:

Hi Lindsay! Thank you so much for your question—I think that’s a topic that often gets pushed under the rug for new moms. Before Theo, so much of climbing for me was about fitness and “sucking it up” that I never really paid attention to the mental aspect of climbing. That might seem weird, but at slideshows and clinics, when people asked how I dealt with fear and scary situations, my response was unhelpful: “I don’t know, I just do it somehow.” I think a lot of this was because I was scared to dig into the emotional depths of myself. After getting kidnapped in Kyrgyzstan and being surrounded with the bravado of the climbing community, I was not only terrified to open that mental-emotional box, I also started labeling my emotions as weak. If I couldn’t do something because I was scared, I figured it was just because I wasn’t trying hard enough, or that I was too fragile and the only way to fix that was to send a harder route. Motherhood, however, has forced me to deal with that mental-emotional side in a very profound way.

After Theo was born, I had a really tough physical postpartum and was a very anxious new mom. I didn’t really have the desire to climb until four months postpartum, and didn’t have the desire to climb hard until several months after that. I was so tired from the sleep deprivation, that if I got a pitch or two done, I saw it as a smashing success for the day. If I could get a nap, too, then I basically conquered the world. But as Theo grew and got stronger, so did I, and I started to crave a little more climbing and a little harder climbing.

One of the biggest things you can do to ease back into climbing hard postpartum is to make sure your body and mind are really ready to try hard again. For quite a while, my body didn’t feel like pushing it due to loose joints, fatigue, sleep deprivation, weight gain, etc. And when I tried to come back too soon, I hurt a pulley. So, go easy on yourself. Creating and incorporating another human in your life is a HUGE, complete physical, emotional life change. Don’t forget that.

But my body wasn’t the only thing that changed with pregnancy—my emotional self did, too. The mental game didn’t come as naturally to me after Theo was born. I feel like I have a sonar going at all times now, always hearing Theo’s unending questions, always thinking, “Can we play there? Should we eat now? Did I pack the extra clothes? Did I turn off the oven?” The chatter in my head is endless. And it sneaks into my climbing, too. But now I don’t just ignore the voices and say, “suck it up, that’s not important,” like I used to. Instead, I listen to what I’m feeling, and parse out whether it’s just chatter that I can quiet, or something important to deal with.

To tackle my fear of trying hard, the first and most important thing I’ve done is to start to learn self compassion. My inner critic voice is a very strong. But instead of just ignoring it, I’ve been trying to learn to listen to that voice inside me that tells me I should be afraid of climbing above that piece, or doing a high boulder problem, instead of just pushing it down. But then, I look at my surroundings, and acknowledge them as well. I tell myself that I am safe—if I am, actually, safe—that I know what I’m doing, that that piece I placed was good, that the pads are in a good spot. This helps me bring my fear to life, but then talk through it to see if it’s founded or not.

Distraction can be another useful tool. Whenever I was scared on long routes before, or anytime really, I would unconsciously start to sing. I never knew why I did it, but it usually ended up being a Bob Marley song like “Everything Little thing is gonna be alright” or “No Woman no Cry” and it would focus my attention on the task at hand, and make everything feel less scary. Now, after reading more and talking to more people, I realize this is a great trick to use. Other climbers have also told me that when they feel their anxiety rising inside of them, they stop, look left, look right and then keep climbing. It breaks that cycle of spinning and anxiety—it’s a physical distraction like singing.

Another thing that I do, that isn’t easy for me, is practice falling. A lot of times I mentally understand that the situation I’m in is totally safe but I can’t get over the fear of the physical feeling of falling. So, I’ll fall below a piece or a bolt. Then I’ll fall with my waist at the piece or the bolt. Then I’ll fall six inches above, then two feet above, and so on until I start to remember and trust that it’s okay to fall.

As parents, It’s not just about us anymore. We have this tiny human we created, and any risk we perceive is not just on us, but on our family as well. But we should remember, we’re strong and resilient, too. We CREATED that little person. I’ll never fall short of calling it a miracle. And we need to remember that we were strong before, and we are still strong now. And one way to teach our kids strength and resilience is to try to be open about dealing with our own fear. To show them that everyone gets scared, it’s healthy to acknowledge it and learn from it. Is it a rational fear? Like, is there a lot of loose rock on this route and a storm is coming and we are only wearing cotton so we should probably bail? Or is it a fear that we can work through? I place five really good pieces, I’m only three feet above my last piece, it’s a clean fall, my good friend is belaying me, my husband is holding our kiddo, and it’s going to be okay. Being able to teach the difference to our kids and ourselves is super important in the long run.

Theo and I were in El Cap meadow this week swimming in the river, when he looked up at El Cap and said “Mom, you’ve climbed that!?” I smiled at him. It really feels like another lifetime that I did that in, but I replied, “Yeah buddy, I have.” He kept staring up and said, “Was it scary?” And instead of giving him my old token response, I told him the truth: “It totally was scary, but we can do hard and scary things.” He smiled and went back to digging in the mud.