Winter Vacation Moms
On parenting at high altitudes + some new-year changes
Early last year, just after the film version of Elena Ferrante’s The Lost Daughter was released, I wrote about vacation moms and the moments I live for when I travel with my family—when I let my kids have their way with me:
For a short span of time, I pretend I am only a mother, with no other ambitions, no other aspirations. It’s part of the fantasy. I let them tell me what to do and where to go in the ocean or the swimming pool, anonymous and hollow. I stop aiming for the impossibility of being a mother in America and retaining a body and mind that belong to me. I refuse to intellectualize anything. I rarely read or write. I carry my children everywhere, they sleep on me like they did when they were babies, we eat up the sun.
After Christmas this year, we drove our car up to Lake Tahoe, trying to beat an impending snowstorm. We’ve driven into the Sierras almost every year since moving to Northern CA six years ago. When my two kids were very little, my husband Jon and I stuffed plastic sleds into the back of the car, along with layers of pants, too-thin jackets, and mittens that never seemed to stay on. Some years we got a hotel for a few nights. Others we just parked on the side of the road for a day of sliding down ice and snow, then drove home. We’re just over three hours from Lake Tahoe without traffic, but it’s a long day trip and the kids love to run wild in a hotel and feel like they can get away with anything—eating endless candy and ice cream, yelling and sticking random items in the hotel microwave, staying up late, jumping on the pull-out bed. We try to get away and stay away when we can.
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This year we got a dated little cabin by the most inexpensive ski hill we could find. Winter sports are costly— rentals, lift tickets, attire, hotels, food—and we’re not in that income bracket. But Jon used to live in Colorado and I grew up driving up to Big Bear and Mountain High from LA every few years with my parents, then later with boyfriends, in the winters. My kids were gifted used snowboards from their uncle for Christmas, so this year we stuffed them in the car and headed out of town.
What I forget every time we visit the mountains is how breathless and dry the altitude turns me. How hard it is to lug boots and kids and boards and sleds and layers of clothing up and down stairs and snow. It’s not just that I feel out of shape, but that it’s challenging to parent when your body is just trying to adjust to the atmosphere, the thin air, the freezing temperatures.
Even in thick snow, my kids did well hiking up the little ski hill— which only had a pulley lift that none of us could figure out how to ride until the trip was almost over. When the kids got high enough, they plopped down on their butts to get their boots buckled into icy boards by the gloved hands of their grownups, all for a few minutes of fun.
What was going on in the background, with said grownups, was less smooth. None of what goes into a snow trip is well documented in representations of wintertime motherhood—which never show moms frantically trying to dry the wet gloves in the too-small ski hut, hanging up all the drippy jackets at the end of the day, huffing and puffing in the thin mountain air, whisper-fighting with their husbands about divisions of labor, trying to make the day fun while the snow turns to ice or slush and everyone is cold and cranky and melting down because of too-hot hot cocoa. The economic anxiety of the ski trip is also, of course, nowhere to be found.
I could go on about how the labor of every snowy vacation “disproportionately falls on women”— but ugh am I tired of that phrase, which is so passive, as though the labor just falls, like snow, rather than dumps, lake-effect-style, with great intention, the buildup caused by systemic failures and a lack of care for the bodies and lives of those who raise us. It feels necessary, predictable, and futile to say the snow vacation exists because of moms’ unacknowledged work. Everything does.
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