Beth Rodden on Mixing Motherhood with Climbing
Tip: It helps to build your toddler a mini climbing wall so he can boulder with you
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By the time pro climber Beth Rodden gave birth to her son, Theo, in 2014, she’d weathered some major life challenges. She had traveled the country as a teenager, competing and winning sport-climbing competitions. In 2000, she and her climbing partners, including her then-boyfriend Tommy Caldwell, were kidnapped while on expedition. They escaped, but the trauma lingered; Rodden and Caldwell married, then divorced. She remarried in 2012, but after having Theo, postpartum was its own epic. “Right after Theo’s birth, the only time I left our mattress was to crawl to the bathroom and pray my insides wouldn’t fall out along the way,” Rodden writes on her blog. “I couldn’t stand upright. I bled profusely. And feeding my baby was more painful than fist-jamming in a crack made of broken glass.”
To say Rodden has been frank about the joys and hardships of raising a child would be an understatement. Until recently, among pro outdoor athletes prized for strength, stamina, speed, and daring, parenthood—especially motherhood—seemed like a career-altering detour. “Your body is your job,” she says. “I wasn’t sure how my sponsors would react.” Wisely, they stuck with her. Three years later, Rodden, 37, who along with her husband, Randy, and three-year-old Theo, splits time between homes in the Bay Area and Yosemite, has helped changed the conversation about parenting and adventure. I chatted with Rodden by phone about how she navigates the highs and lows and why vulnerable is the new brave.
OUTSIDE: Did you always know you wanted to have kids?
Beth Rodden: I always thought I would someday have kids, but climbing—at least how I did it—is such a selfish pursuit. Especially when I was with Tommy. I would do a big project, and then it was his turn, and I would help him, so there was no time to spend with a kid at all.
Do you and Randy trade off on climbing time?
We don’t have a recipe we’ve been following. When we’re in the Bay and Randy is working, I have Theo. My mom or dad come down once a week, and we have one or two days a week with a friend who used to nanny. That’s when I climb or write. When Randy’s off and we’re in Yosemite, we alternate days. His day, my day.
Do you ever climb together?
No, we usually go out to dinner. He’s a night owl, he likes to climb at night, and I’m on banker’s hours. I like to get my climbing done earlier.
Did you climb through your pregnancy?
Until about six or seven months. I felt good. But I have really loose joints anyway, and as I got further along and bigger and bigger, I felt like I could hurt myself.
What was the best advice you got before you had Theo?
One of the things that stuck with me most was from our really good friend Jamie, who’s a home-birth midwife. I used to have this athlete’s mentality—that my body was this thing I could use and abuse. It was a vehicle for success and for sorting through my emotions. I didn’t really think of it as something to nourish. I had a really tough postpartum. It took me four months before I could even take Theo around the block, and six before I felt like I wanted to go do something on my own. Talking to Jamie, I realized it was good to slow down and take care of my body. It seems so simple, maybe people had told me before, but that’s when it finally sunk in.
Do you have any role models for raising Theo?
My parents were great. They always took us into the mountains from a very young age. They both had full-time jobs, so they needed to stay in Davis, California, but on school breaks we’d spend time in nature. Now I look to our friends to see how they’re raising their kids. They make it a big priority to go climbing and pursue their own passions, but they also make sure the kids are having fun outside. When I was competing as a kid, I saw so many parents forcing their kids to climb. Parenthood is probably like this in every way, not just for outdoor athletes. You see a lot of people doing different things in different ways and choose what works for you.
How has your climbing changed since you became a mother?
Before Theo, all my decision-making revolved around my climbing. Right now I’m climbing three days a week, which seems great for me, honestly. It’s enough time to push myself and be with Theo and keep all my balls in the air with my career.
So it’s a different level and intensity?
Oh, 100 percent, yes. I was climbing at a really good peak for a while, and then I started getting a lot of injuries, around time of my divorce [from Tommy Caldwell in 2010]. It took an emotional toll on my body. I’ve never gotten close to climbing 5.14+. I flirted with it after having Theo, but it’s not close to being a priority.
Do you miss it?
I think if you’d asked me this six years ago, I would have said yes, but the blessing of injury is that I realize how much I love climbing. And to have no expectations was a huge learning lesson for me. I do love pushing my body; it’s just to a different level. Maybe I’ll get back there in a year or two. I have a list in the back of my head, but right now I want to be with Theo.
Because they grow up so fast.
Yeah, that’s what they say, but in the beginning, you can’t believe it will. I’m bleeding out of my nipple and can’t sit up straight, and he’s this tiny little baby.
On your blog you’ve written a lot about anxiety around motherhood. How has it changed as Theo gets older?
At first, there’s a bump in the car and you think, “Oh no, they have a concussion.” That was me. I wished I could put him in a bubble. But then you talk to other moms and realize it’s OK. Now he’s starting preschool, and some days he’s crying. At first, it was debilitating. For my sanity and the sanity of my own family, I’ve learned to let things go. I think motherhood has been good for me. I’ve always been such a planner: “This is what we’re doing this year. This is what we’re doing next.” Now it’s just like, “Today was great or it sucked.”
When did he start climbing?
Oh, he’s just been around it his whole life. Before Theo could walk, he was pulling up on boulders. We haven’t rope climbed because it’s so much easier bouldering—you don’t need a third person, and you’re not clipped in. We built him a little wall in our climbing shed.
How do you think you’ll react if he loves it or hates it?
God, I would hope gracefully either way. I think it’d be awesome if his friends like climbing, too, because then he could own it in a certain way. It wouldn’t just be something his parents do.
You write about your fear of losing sponsors after you had Theo. Was that because there aren’t a lot of pro women outdoor athletes who have kids?
I was terrified to let people know. They pay me to be this professional athlete. My body is my job. But everybody has been super-supportive. Some of my relationships with some of my sponsors have changed, but my main sponsors have stuck with me.
There’s a real hunger among women to see other women, especially athletes, navigating motherhood. There’s real value in spreading the message that it’s hard but also totally worth it.
Yeah, I was floored when I started writing about being pregnant and climbing and all the responses I got. Hundreds of people from around the world responded to my first post. It’s so important to have a community of outdoor people. Everyone has their own perspectives and tidbits about how to handle a situation. How do you put your kid in the sleeping bag? How do you pack when you’re going on the road for three months? There are no experts, and I love that. It’s just a community to share the knowledge. It has blown my mind.