Rethinking Perfection: How Family Hikes Taught Me to Embrace Chaos

Rethinking Perfection: How Family Hikes Taught Me to Embrace Chaos

Hiking is one of my favorite things in the world. Simply put, I love getting lost in the woods.


Naturally, I encourage my children to embrace hiking too. Romantic as that sounds, family hikes are actually quite challenging when you have a 9, 7, and 2-year-old. As soon as I make my eager announcement (“We’re going hiking on Saturday everyone!”), every member of my family elicits some sort of groan (except for my toddler, who’s just happy to be taken anywhere). In their defense, I have been known to: 1) pick trails that are inappropriately long for them, 2) get lost (something I do intuitively, I swear, it can’t be helped!), and 3) not bring enough food and water.


Umm, does “making mistakes is how we learn” not apply to mothers? I’m pretty sure there’s a children’s book with this title lying somewhere in our playroom.


When we finally do make it to the mountain, the first challenge is always my toddler, who no longer vomits or screams in the car but now has a habit of lifting his legs up to his chest as soon as I take him out of the car seat. Translation: “Don’t you dare put me down!” For him, the only thing worse than not being carried is being incarcerated by another set of black straps.


Then there are my older kids, who begin the first 20 minutes of every hike verbally vomiting every single feeling they have: I’m hungry! I’m cold! It’s so hot! I’m tired! I need to pee! It’s too steep! There’s no rocks! Mom, hiking is sooooo boring!


Once we make it past this first stage of resistance, the kids start getting into it. We bribe our toddler with a sugary concoction, and he succumbs to the straps. As my older kids open themselves up to adventure, they move to the other side of the pendulum: excitement. Mom, can we climb up here? Mom, can we explore that little house? Mom, can we go into that old tree stump? Mom, I loooove hiking!  


Finally able to relax (somewhat), I take a few deep breaths of mountain air. Only a couple of breaths, though, because next comes another challenge: mediating between my suddenly exploration-loving kids and my hiking-averse husband, who prefers to traverse the woods like a fast, straight arrow. Slow down! I scream at him, disrupting the baby birds cozying up to their mothers. Wait up for us! They kids are playing on a rock!


When we first started hiking as a family a year ago, I used to get down-right angry. Instead of bribing my toddler into his stroller seat, I’d grudgingly carry him on my hip, only to end up with killer back pain the next day. I found it annoying that my older kids couldn’t adjust quickly. Most of all, I was angry at my husband. I hated that he wore a GPS watch and tracked our every step. Why couldn’t he live in the moment? Hiking solo was wonderful, but family hikes seemed downright dreadful.


After a particularly challenging summer hike involving a too-steep climb and not enough water, I decided to give us a 3-month hiatus from family hiking. As I gave myself time to think, I began to realize that the pushes and pulls of our family hikes were nothing extraordinary. Quite the opposite: they’re a microcosm of our everyday life. A few months later, I read Adam Grant’s “Think Again,” a book that challenged me to rethink everything I do.


For me, this was an aha! moment. I realized that for the past ten years (since my daughter was born), I’ve been striving to achieve perfect family harmony. The reason our family hikes made me so angry is because they were a reflection of my failure to achieve perfection. Hard as I’ve tried, my home is not a harmonious place. No matter how much deep breathing, yoga, and meditation I do, in our family people fight, scream, make up, and then go to sleep only to wake up a few hours later and do it all again. Every. Single. Day.


As I had this realization, I considered the ways in which I have changed. Ironically, during these same ten years since our family began to grow, I’ve completely changed the way I teach. When I first started helping students write college essays, I was very strict. I had rigid deadlines, always met each student at the same time and day, and rarely allowed anyone to veer from my plan. Looking back now, what I find most astonishing is that this method ever worked! With time and experience, I began to let go and understand that the writing process is different for everyone. 


Expecting every student to go through the same writing process is like asking every member of my family to experience a nature walk exactly the same way I do.


Yep, it was time to rethink my desire to achieve family perfection.


What if I could accept that we might never be in harmony? What if instead of resisting our differences, I could learn to embrace them?


The day after Thanksgiving, I rounded up the reluctant troops again. We drove to Castañar del Tiemblo, a hike that’s been on my bucket list for a while. I’d been waiting to go on a quiet day to avoid crowds. For Spain, the Friday after Thanksgiving is as ordinary as it gets.


Castañar del Tiemblo is famous for its fall foliage. However, a few days before our hike, the weather dropped. The first thing my husband said when we arrived at the forest full of bare trees was: “I think we’re a few weeks too late.”


So yes, we missed fall foliage. But still: a magical thing happened. The five of us were alone in a vast sea of freshly fallen leaves.


Was our hike blissful? Yes and no. My daughter was hungry, my son was cold, my husband hit his knee saving our toddler from a toppling stroller. As per the usual, my husband zoomed ahead as I waited for my kids to open chestnuts, put special leaves in their pockets, and play pretend using dead tree trucks as impromptu kitchens.


And yet, this time instead of feeling angry, I felt grateful. Grateful for my husband, for ploughing the stroller through the thick blanket of leaves. Grateful for the GPS on his wrist, which allows me to do what I love without getting anyone else lost. Grateful because even deep into the chaos of our family, there’s beauty in our differences.


As I crunched my way through to the end of the loop, I finally began to accept that my family is not picture perfect. My husband will always be on time and I will always be late. As much as I try to be an example for kindness, my kids will probably never stop nagging each other. And despite all the sticky stuff accumulating in his hair, my toddler will  refuse to let me wash his hair for at least another month. 


It’s more than I could ever hope for.