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Challenge: Finding Your Village

To my motherhood sherpas: I couldn't do this without you

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Even for the most intrepid mountain climbers who want to scale Mount Everest, hiring a Sherpa is a must. These local experts prepare the route, fix the ropes in place, and carry the gear. They understand the culture and have lived at altitude for generations; they are fit for the task.

Frankly, climbing Everest – or most mountains, really – is difficult. Without the experience of a guide, it’s generally understood that most climbers wouldn’t make it through the climb.

Some days, motherhood feels like a mountain with an unreachable peak. I stop, winded, at critical junctures and check my ropes. Have I tied them too tight? Have I prepared adequately for this trip? Hand me the oxygen, please.

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The day my son was born, I was overwhelmed, scared, and suffering with yet-undiagnosed postpartum anxiety. My heart was beating like a bass drum in my chest. I had no idea what motherhood was going to be like, but I knew one thing: I had Sherpas in my pack.

I’m lucky enough to have the master Sherpa on speed dial: my mother is one of the best people out there for advice, encouragement, and gentle suggestions without judgement. If Mom isn’t available, my Sherpa B is my sister, mother of three girls and the kindest, most beautiful woman I know.

My sister dropped everything to visit me in Austin when my son was six weeks old or so, and I was terrified to give him a bath in the baby tub. I was still sponge-bathing him, eyeing the plastic tub with trepidation. She showed me how to handle him gently and securely, cooing to him as she washed his pink skin. And she boosted my confidence, assuring me that I could do this and much more.

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There’s also my cheekily-named “Cool Moms” text group, with whom I exchange frustrations and joys of parenthood and life. I count on them to make me laugh and hear me out when I just need to vent.

There are the mothers of my son’s friends, and we compare notes on behaviors, weird rashes, and snippets of conversations we hear from our children about school life and which kids have crushes and on whom. These are often my fellow climbers, and we offer each other a hand up, clasping our fingers together and pulling together to the next plateau with our collective knowledge.

And there are the mothers of children older than mine, the ones who have been to the top already. I was telling a friend this week that my son is in that sweet spot at age 9, the one in which he is still delightful and tender and loves to snuggle with his mama. He’s a little sassy, especially if he watches any of the made-for-tween sitcoms on which the characters have a steady stream of snarky quips at the tip of their tongues. But he’s also contrite and conscientious when he knows he has messed up.

“Nine and ten are wonderful,” she said. “I thought that I was home free when my son was 14; he was kind and funny and loved being around me. But then something switched and we butted heads all the time. And several months later, he woke up one day and it was like he was back to his old self. I thought, ‘Oh, there you are.’”

It is these stories that we share with other mothers down the line that help us cope, knowing others have trod the path before us. We learn that mistakes are expected and we pick ourselves up, apply a pinch of chalk to our hands, and get back on the rope. We watch our kids grow and change and we worry and fret. Other mothers are there to keep us from falling backward into a crevasse of despair and self-doubt. It is in these moments that our guides carry us on their backs until we step forward again on our own.

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Sure, you can do it without any guidance and without any help. But it’s a heck of a lot more comforting with a community beside you. You can take each anecdote, each piece of advice and apply it as a cautionary tale or as a bread crumb trail to follow. Why struggle through the unknown when you can call on the collective knowledge of mothers you trust and love?

Your motherhood Sherpa, like mine, is probably not just one person. It’s the network of moms all around you, doing their best to raise their children to be kind, productive, responsible adults in the best ways they know how. There’s no chance you’ll be step for step with them as you scale your personal summit, as they’ll step to the right or reach to the left away from you as they traverse their own route.

But they’ll be right there with you, only a small stretch of a hand away. All you have to do is ask for help – in a whisper, a call, a shout – and you will find guidance, inch by inch and foot by foot. Suddenly, you’ll find yourself at the top looking down, and you can take your turn to gently pull the next mom up.

Kristin Shaw is a writer based in Austin, Texas. For more of her writing, you can find her at KristinVShaw.com for parenting, music, and entertainment, and she's the editor-in-chief at CarsHerWay.com. Her essay and video "I can still pick him up, so I do" has been seen by millions of viewers on the TODAY Parents platform.

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