Today I am thrilled to feature an interview with Majka Burhardt, a professional ice climber (seriously) and the author of a new book called More: Life on the Edge of Adventure and Motherhood, which is a really raw, gripping book about the first years of parenthood. It’s a book that I had a hard time putting down, even when it pulled me back into the uncertainties and fears of the beginning of parenting.
There is some lesson here. Like, “Parenthood: even more terrifying than ice climbing.” I will still never ice climb.
This is a good one to listen to, or you can read the transcript below.
Emily: I am so delighted to welcome Majka Burhardt. Thank you so much for joining me.
Majka: It’s awesome to be here, Emily.
Emily: So we’re here to talk about your book More. And I have to say I was very skeptical when you reached out, because I expected this to be a book about rock climbing, which is an activity that I think is very scary. And as a result, I thought that I would just be too scared and not be able to relate.
But actually the book is almost uncomfortably relatable. Alex, who works with me, and I were talking about how we really couldn’t put it down, even at moments when we thought, “Ah, I’m feeling this a little too much.” Because it’s not really a book about climbing. It’s really about parenting, and partnering when you parent, and that conflict and all that stuff.
And so we’re going to get into that, and that’s really where I want to focus. I think it’s so relatable to so many parents. But first I want to ask you this basic book question. Can you tell us in your own words: What is this book? Why did you write it? And what do you hope people will get out of it?
Majka: Yeah. I love hearing that, that it was kind of itchy and close to you, because, I mean, really for me, this book was how I survived being pregnant and then being a mom to young twins. And I didn’t set out to write this book. I wrote this book the way a teenager turns to their journal to try to understand what the heck is going on in their life.
When I was becoming a mom and then in my early years of being a mom — and my kids are still really little; they’re 6 and a half right now, so I’m still at the very beginning of this journey — but I felt like I had this fiery ball of unknown angst. I needed a place to put it, and so I put it in writing, and eventually I looked at it and I said, oh, what if I stitched that together? What if this was something I was willing to share with other people? Would they relate? Is this a similar experience?
Because those were the conversations I was dying to have with anybody I met on the street. I’d see some random mom and I’d be like, no flipping way, is it this hard? I had no idea. Right? Who knew that all this stuff was going to cascade and feel like this? And how do I find my way to being in a dialogue about it?
So, selfishly, that’s what it was for me. But it’s the story of me balancing becoming a mom, thinking that I could have one kid and just mesh them into my life, and instead having two at one time and having the universe say, guess who’s in charge? Trying to do it with a really dynamic career between being a professional climber and also growing a major international nonprofit and trying not to tank my marriage.
Emily: And so far, so good. You’re still married, you still have two children. You still have a job…
Majka: Check. Check.
Emily: All right. We’re all great.
Majka: Yeah, no problem. It’s super-easy.
Emily: So what’s interesting about the book is it’s written entirely in the form of audio journals and journal entries that you wrote, I presume, unless you’re a very good faker, at the time.
Majka: Oh yeah, at the time.
Emily: And I was curious, because it makes the reading of it so very raw in a way that I think it wouldn’t be if you had written this in a more traditional book form, where you looked back at those and used those as material but then you surfaced them through the experience that you have several years later. Why did you do it? Did you ever consider the more traditional, I’ll use this as source material and then write a more regular memoir?
Majka: No, I never considered that, because I was just really fascinated with the integrity. I remember playing myself back these audio recordings when I thought, maybe I’ll type these out, see what it’s about, and something has to happen with these. Maybe it’s just that my children are going to listen to them one day.
It’s this first-person account, and why do we need to change it? Because I think when we do retrospectives, everything gets a little bit blurred and it’s all very lovely, and we kind of round the edges a little bit. It’s like, well, I probably wasn’t that mad. And it probably was generally okay, and now I have wisdom because I’ve had better sleep and all these things. But when you’re in the middle of it, when you’re just in the hot mess of it, if that’s what you’re trying to speak to — and as I said, those are the conversations I wanted to have — to me it was more important to sit right there in the hot mess of it.
Emily: Yeah. And it is a hot mess. When you look back on this period and the stuff you wrote about, is there one moment in the book where you would say, this encapsulates the hot messiness of this?
Majka: I think that things got really, really tricky for me when my kids reached about 2 and a half. And suddenly they’re having all these big emotions and words, and I all of a sudden realized that when I was at that age, my parents were splitting up. And I couldn’t sit in the moment as a mom and tell my kids how to be angry and help them understand that anger was an okay thing without realizing that I never had that skill set given to me when my family was blowing apart.
And at the same time, I was dealing with a ton of anger and resentment towards my husband, which I knew wasn’t entirely healthy or entirely appropriately directed, but I just couldn’t figure out what to do about it. And I think being at like the Venn diagram of hell that that was, was really, really hard for me. It was too much. And I was like, how do I do this? How do I do it while trying to be a really patient, lovely mom who can say, “Yes, I’ve got you. I’m here for all of your emotions.” And find a way to talk to my husband and say, “I feel like this. And I know it’s not entirely okay, but something about this is wrong and we need to fix it.” And holy god, how do I re-parent myself? Like, what are the tools that I have so that I can show up as a different parent to my kiddos?
Emily: One thing that’s so hard about that is this realization that “I need to parent differently than I was parented, and I don’t have those resources” comes in the moment that you need it. It’s not that I’m a year out before I have a child and I think, okay, let me fix all of my issues so I don’t pass them to my kid. It’s the moment where you think, oh my goodness, I’m passing it right now and there’s no time to fix it.
Majka: And I had no idea. I thought of it so much more intellectually before, like, oh yeah, I see that my parents did this and here’s what I want to carry on. Like you get a choice in the matter, right? But it is not. The giant bowling ball is coming at you. You can’t get out of the way, and you’re just like, okay, here we go. How am I going to do this?
It’s like the repair concept. How do I try, how do I biff, how do I go back to my kids and the people around me and say, “I’m trying, I’m learning, I’m trying to do something that I don’t have the muscle memory for”? So I’m trying to create muscle memory and emotional memory in my kiddos while I’m doing it for myself.
Emily: I want to ask about the spousal stuff, because that’s a big piece of this book and it’s one I was interested in, because if you look at the data the first few years of having kids, it’s typically the low point in the data for people’s marriages. Sometimes I say it does recover in the data by the time you have grandchildren. So that’s something to look forward to!
But I remember this from my own marriage — that year being the most conflict that we had. More so than the pandemic or the arrival of the second child or when we had to move across the country. All of these other disruptions, I felt like we were much more on a team about, and the beginning of parenting had in some ways weirdly less of a team feel. Because there was so much uncertainty.
But the thing is that when I look back on that, I can say, well, that was really hard, but I don’t remember all the details. I remember one particular incident involving the rock-and-play sleeper and napping, but other than that, there are these rounded edges. And I don’t re-live it with frequency. And of course, writing it in this way, you do re-live it with frequency. So I was first wondering, how did that go? How hard was it to have him read that?
Majka: Man, it was super-hard, to be honest. This was not something that was really fun to share, to be like, hey, here are my inner workings. But it also seemed to me really important to say, if we’re really in this to win it, if we’re really this team in the long run, then if you don’t know that this is where I was at during this point, are we really being transparent? And not to try to push us to a cliff, but to just be like, this is how hard it was and this is how scared I was.
Peter knew I was working on the book after a certain point, but it wasn’t for years, because I didn’t know I was working on a book. It was really not until like the kids were 3 and a half that I was like, oh, I think this is actually going to be a book. And then I spent the next year writing and putting it together and then sending it out. And then it was like, I guess it is a book. And for me, it was more important to show up who I am to my spouse than it was to mute that. And to take the risk.
And it’s been hard, it’s been bumpy. I am married to someone who’s very private. And that is not his dream — yay, let’s write a book about the hardest part of our lives. And let’s not even do it in retrospective, with some nice blurring and great morals. Let’s be in the shit of it and really show people what that felt like.
But to me, what about the gift that we can give other people to be like, I’m not alone? Because it feels so terrifyingly alone. I remember at one point thinking, of course that’s why all these marriages blow apart when people have little kids. Or where you lay the tracks for just so much intense resentment and hatred that you can’t pull yourself out of it.
We have to have a better way to do this. And I think to have a better way to do this, it’s that intersection of all the pieces, right? It’s the Marshall Plan for moms. It’s having different conversations about how we’re re-parenting. It’s looking at the data and saying, why are we being led astray with all of these wives’ tales versus what’s really happening?
And it’s also saying it’s this hard. When it’s hard, it’s this hard. It can’t just be fixed by saying, well, just buck up and one day you’ll get sleep, and by the time you have grandkids, you’ll probably be okay with each other. That’s bullshit! We’ll not be able to solve for this, and take care of people and love them and nurture them on this journey, unless we’re willing to say that sometimes it feels that hard. So I’ll fall on the sword. I’ll be the person being like, it can feel this hard, and I can do it in a public way.
Emily: I think one of the things that’s so interesting about the way that you write this and the journey we get on here is that there’s a lot of your experience with breastfeeding. And how much you liked it in some sense or, I don’t know, maybe that’s not the right way to put it, but that’s how I read it — that it was complicated, but ultimately…
Majka: It was really important to me.
Emily: It was important to you. But that, I think, brings up one of the reasons that some of these very deep inequities exist, which is that that is something that only you could do. And there’s this tension of — and you feel this in the book, and I think a lot of us feel in the world — I want this to be exactly equal, except I also want this other thing, which only I can do. I want it to be different, I want there to be a way for all of those things to happen. And even as far as we could move to make things better, that will always be in the way. And versions of that — the childbirth part, the breastfeeding part — some of those things will always be in the way.
Majka: Yeah, there’s almost this desire to have a commensurate commitment from the other person to be like, yes, I can’t do this, but I will shoulder extra of these other things because you are shouldering these pieces. I always get obsessed and try to do the math on things. I’m like, why is this not equal? What’s feeling wrong? How do I solve this?
And you can’t really apply math to anything. Because these are personal choices, right? Definitely my mom’s generation, it was not even an option. If you were going to be a crusher career mother, you could not say, “And I’m also going to try to pick up my kids sometimes at 3:00.” You just had to fully be on that other track. And I think now there’s this question of: What if I can try to have this career and I can try to be really present as a parent?
And I think then the corollary to what you were saying, Emily, is: Is your spouse also trying to do all that or are they not? And if they aren’t, which could be their prerogative and could be the way your agreement is, are you always going to feel like there’s an imbalance? And it’s being like, I’m owning this, but I want to own this because this is what makes my family work. And I wish you were owning something similarly big.
Emily: And what’s so hard about that is it ventures into the territory of — it’s not just that I want you to do the dishes, I want you to love doing the dishes. It’s not just that I want you to do the thing, I want you to feel like you want to do the thing. And that sometimes it should be good enough that the dishes are done. And that goes in both directions.
But I think it happens when we care about something or we have a set of preferences, that we almost want the partner to have the same set of preferences. And there can sometimes be freedom in saying, this is my set of preferences. And, like you, I have a much higher taste for random times with my kid — picking them up and walking to the convenience store at 3:00 in the afternoon. I organize aspects of my professional life around that in a way that my husband does not. Not because he doesn’t like the kids or because he doesn’t care about equity, but because that isn’t important to him. And I’m always struggling a little bit with — how much of that is because that’s really what I want and how much of that is an underlying inequity? And if it’s just because that’s what I want, how should I feel about that? And I don’t think there’s an easy answer.
Majka: So there’s this piece that I really want to write. This is going to be a very man-woman conversation right now. But the last thing I think husbands should ever ask their wives is what they want, because I hate that question. It’s not that simple!
Emily: A Marshall Plan for moms, complete equality…
Majka: Yeah, exactly. And I’m like, in this moment what I actually want is for you to just know what has to happen. The icing on the cake is to divide the actual task.
Emily: Mm-hmm. It relates to this idea that I call “total responsibility transfer,” which is related to the mental load. You get into these places where “What do you want?” is sort of like, “Tell me exactly what to do and then I will implement it,” when a huge amount of the work is thinking about what needs to get done.
There’s space there for doing a better job, probably for all of us, in saying, “You are responsible for this thing.” We’re going to divide the tasks in a way, not that I’m responsible for everything and I allocate them like you’re my employee, but we’re the co-CEOs.
Majka: Exactly. And I think that’s what it comes down to, because it is that mental labor, right? That’s why you get to this point where it’s like, I’ll just do it. And I mean, it can be in the flip side of it. We’ve had these puking snowstorms up in northern New Hampshire right now, and my husband is the person who deals with the snowblower that has been broken three times. And I’m just like, I’m not on the snowblower team. That’s entirely your team. I’m excited about that being your mental load. I’m not stepping in there to do that one.
Emily: Yeah, and we have anything that’s about electronics or cars or anything where I think he wants me to care — if we need a new car, which trim should it have? And I’m like, please don’t ask me. I don’t care.
Majka: That’s him being like, just tell me what you want, right?
Emily: No, I think he wants me to have an opinion. I think he really genuinely wants me to engage with this question because he thinks that it’s important. We’re off-topic, but there’s something about this particular aspect of the car trim that is a parallel to so many other things. And I can see now how he feels, because I’m just like, this is the third email. I don’t care, don’t ask again, it doesn’t matter at all to me!
Majka: But I think it’s about a shared experience, right? When you are carrying the load of whatever it is, it’s this odd thing.
Before we had kids, I felt like nobody knew me better than my husband. Nobody knew everything that was happening with my job, the ins and outs, and all of a sudden, we lost that because we didn’t have time to talk about any of that stuff.
And so there are these ways that you put a shot off the bow to be like, “I need to think about the socks that don’t seem to fit my children’s feet for any worth and I can’t seem to keep these things on, and I’m actually putting mental bandwidth in it.” And he’s kinda like, “Why are we even talking about that? I don’t want to talk about that.”
But you’re trying to find these points to bring each other in. And I think the reality of having young kids is that you just misfire with your partner all the time, and you can’t see the misfires and you’re too tired and you’re too caught up in whatever the hell you are going through emotionally that you’re not seeing that your partner’s going through that too, and you can’t help catch them. And I think that is one of the reasons that it’s so darn hard.
Emily: Yeah, I agree. And I think that does get better. And partly because, for the most part, you get slightly less tired and you have slightly more time. And you wake up one morning and you realize, oh, we could have a cup of coffee together and we could talk about something other than missing socks. And I think the moments when that happens, and you find that you do still like your partner, are actually quite special. The realization of, oh, I’m really enjoying doing this and I wish we could do more of it.
Majka: Yeah, it is. And I can do this now with hindsight — the irony is that I have no doubt Peter was right there trying his best the whole time. That’s not a question.
So it’s not only you find these moments and you say, “Oh man, I really like you” but also, “Yeah, I haven’t been seeing you, and you haven’t been seeing me.” That’s how we based our whole relationship before having kids — we were the people who saw and got each other. What a wild thing to then be tossed into being parents and, weirdly, sharing the most intimate experience you could ever share but not sharing it. That doesn’t make sense. But that’s actually, to me, a summary of early parenting,
Emily: That’s such a perfect summary. So I had one other more specific question. You talk a lot about the feelings of inequities when Peter goes back to work at climbing and you don’t — or do in a less intense way, at least initially. How much do you think that inequity was so visible because you have the same job?
Majka: Hugely. I mean, I was in Kenya this past November, and I met this team member who I’ve been working with over Zoom for three years, and I was like, “Holy cow, she’s so much taller, I had no idea.” And she’s like, “Wow, you are so much shorter than I thought you were.” Our brains do this thing that we’re like, “Oh, I know who this person is.” And you map yourself onto other people without us knowing it.
So I think in this way, intellectually, I know that we are completely different. I think that I always [equate] us. Like, we’re the same, we’re just these different versions of each other. And then all of a sudden it’s like, whoa, we are not different versions of each other. He did not gain 70 pounds carrying twins and then have to have an induction and 42 hours of labor and a C-section. No, there’s just no way.
And that was hard for me. And I do think you’re right that having that mirror — that was never a mirror but is really not a mirror there — it just felt like it was more in my face than it would’ve been if he had a different passion, a different career.
And it manifests in these different ways because you also see desire, right? That’s something I’ve had to really have a reckoning with, is that our appetite for what we want to do as climbers is different now. And it’s always been a little bit different, but it’s much more different from each other now with our kids than it was before we had kids.
Emily: Yeah, I totally resonate with that. I think this idea of: we’re doing the same thing! And then all of a sudden the foray into parenting, for [me and Jesse] too, made me realize, oh, we’re not really doing the same thing. At this point, professionally, we’re really not doing the same thing.
But for a long time, I felt I was doing the same thing in not as good a way — a more tired way, let’s say.
Majka: All these things are probably these dials in our psyche that, when you lay them out like this, you’re like, wow, those are really not functional. Humans should do a better job, right? We shouldn’t just see that we’re the same as our partner, because it’s going to bite you in the ass.
But yet we do it, and then all of a sudden it adds to the different tension points. Versus if you had some more zen way of understanding from the very beginning, like “They are a unique individual. We sometimes cross over in these patterns, but we will always pursue it differently.” It’d probably be healthier, but I just didn’t start from that point.
Emily: No, I don’t think any of us start there. Okay, so my last question for you is: Have the kids read the book, and do you think that you will have them read it?
Majka: Yeah, they know about the book, which is really fun. And I’ve read them little excerpts or I’ve told them funny stories that I’ve recounted in it. They’re too little to really understand the book, and because it’s so intense, I want to be careful about when it’s time for them to read the book.
The whole point of this book, it’s a book to them. So I remember early on someone being like, “You can’t write this. Your kids are gonna read it.” I’m like, that’s the whole point! I want them to read it. Because in my family, the family that I am trying to lead with these two little humans, it’s like, let’s talk about it. Let’s talk about this thing that’s hard. Let’s go sit on the bench together through the hard so that you know that I can be there with you and we can get to the other side together. So absolutely when it’s time, this book is theirs.
Emily: I think the greatest gift in some sense is that they will be able to read this when they are going through this themselves someday. And I would’ve really liked that version of that from my mom.
Majka: Yeah, that’s all I wanted. I just desperately wanted this portal in time to go back and to be like, “Oh my gosh, you went through all of this.” My brain would explode just in thinking about it. Because whenever I would ask my mom about her experience, when she was at this point with her young children, she’d be like, “Well, I kind of remember this jump-a-jump thing that you seemed to really like.” And I’m like, “Really? That’s all?! There was so much more than a jump-a-jump. You can only get four minutes out of a jump-a-jump at this age, you’ve got to tell me what else is happening.” But for her, it’s so far in the rearview mirror, she’s like, “Yeah, there’s a jump-a-jump, and I don’t know, we just kind of got through it.” And I’m like, “How did you go to work the way you did and put on your nylons and put on your suit and put on your heels and deal with the fact that I was puking my brains out at some point in the middle of the night? Because you had to be there with me when I was 2 years old and projectile vomiting, ’cause I’m sure I did it. But somehow you got out the door by 7:30 in the morning. How the heck did you do that?”
Emily: I completely agree. I do wonder. I vomited a lot as a kid. Like, how did you get up and go teach classes after? How did that happen?
Your kids will know. And my kids won’t know either. I’m just going to be like, “Oh yeah, one time you vomited after some mushrooms. But anyway, it was fine. We just didn’t eat any more mushrooms after that.” [laughter]
All right, so the book is called More. It’s absolutely amazing. I tremendously appreciate you being here. Thank you.
Majka: It’s such an honor. I’ve been such a fan of your work, and when you wrote me back on email, I did a little dance and I was really stoked. So thank you for making that happen.