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Pregnancy and Beyond

It doesn't matter how excited you are to fall pregnant, as a climber you cannot help but be a little apprehensive about the changes you will have to make. Firstly there is pregnancy; it's not only the 9 months of carrying, but the three months (plus) that your body will need to return to a pre-pregnancy state. After that there's breastfeeding, sleepless nights, dirty nappies, and hormones that hang around for maybe years. Once all of that's over, there's toddlers: a danger unto themselves! They need someone to be watching them constantly, not to mention the demand for attention, feeding, toileting and entertaining while out at the crag. All of this can be pretty daunting; a black cloud over the otherwise blissful awareness of new life.

I left it until I was 40 to finally make the step to motherhood. My point of view may be coloured by the fact that by then I was absolutely convinced of my desire for kids, but I can honestly say that my climbing has not suffered in the process. I climbed through both pregnancies, although I admit that I gave up lead climbing because I worried about the physical forces associated with lead falls. Eventually I grew out of my harness altogether and just bouldered after that. I dropped my grade right down too, to a point that I was confident of my ability to stay stuck to the rock. During pregnancy I decided to merely retain my muscle memory, making it easier for me to train back up afterwards.

This induced a 'pause' in my drive to achieve. Indirectly, taking a step away from constant striving helped my long-term approach to climbing. It allowed me to rediscover the basic enjoyment of the sport, where the movement, the participation, and the sharing became more important than the achievement. I was very fortunate not to suffer too badly with morning sickness. I’m sure that that would have made it harder to continue. Maybe my general fitness or my level of activity helped to keep this at bay, or maybe it was just that I carried two boys, not girls, but with both pregnancies I did end up carrying very large bumps. This had its own issues, not least of all the Font top-outs. Mantles became increasingly precarious with the inability to bring my knees up to my chest, and slabs were hard because I found it difficult to see my feet. I found I was happy on easy circuits and low overhangs where I could step off whenever I liked

One of the most interesting changes I noticed during pregnancy was the arrival of an awareness of mortality. Falling off never seemed to be of huge consequence before, but hormones do strange things, and all of a sudden the ground seemed further away, and the ramifications of falling seemed catastrophic, despite the fact that I have the world's best spotter. My husband is more than a foot taller than me and can literally catch me in mid air, and he may have been even more protective that I was. A sense of responsibility is not something that I had been inflicted with in the past, but once I was carrying another life I became a fragile vessel and my desire to 'go-for-it' declined to zero.

Nonetheless, I loved being active, and I climbed to some extent right up to the end of both pregnancies. With my first he was quite determined to stay put, and I had tried every alternative health encouragement to coax him out, but at 14 days late, and threatened induction, we turned to Murphy's law and headed out bouldering into the deep Lake District (Longsleddale) thinking that the walking and the inappropriateness of the situation was sure to trigger something, but no! He was induced at 15 days overdue, a healthy 9lb6.

I am sure that there are plenty of people who would call this irresponsible, and the advice of the medical profession seems to preclude climbing during pregnancy on many levels. Apparently you should avoid any chance of impact, jarring, increases in blood pressure (such as static contraction), situations that risk hyperextension etc, the list goes on. I don’t think that everyone should rush out and take up climbing as soon as they fall pregnant, but I do believe that it is a very good exercise for general fitness, and that it is possible to do whatever you feel comfortable with. Women are extremely good at listening to their body and knowing what they can and cannot do, especially during pregnancy, and the body sometimes says 'not today thank you' and you need to listen. On other days, and especially in the first trimester, the body can feel invincible. Hormone doping is a practice of getting young female athletes pregnant so that they can benefit from enhanced athletic performance before big events such as the olympics. Many women experience increased flexibility, increased strength, faster reaction times, and the increase in red blood cell production can aid oxygen transport to the muscles. I actually climbed my first 7a in Fontainebleau while 9 weeks pregnant with my second child, aged 43.

My son was 3 months old before I climbed my next 7a. I did try entering a competition indoors when he was only 6 weeks old, but performed fairly poorly, mostly because I was unused to the weight distribution of the additional boobs and butt that I was still carrying post pregnancy. With both boys I breast fed until about 2 years old. This has both advantages and disadvantages with regards to climbing. The most obvious issue is that your baby needs to be with you at the crag. You need to take all the accoutrements of parenting out with you - spare nappies, sick cloths, bed, change of clothes, entertainment and whatever other paraphernalia you feel you need to maintain a happy healthy child. It also adds to fatigue, on a body already tired from sleepless nights. There is, however a good side. I found that breast feeding sent them to sleep. In Fontainebleau you can get a stroller to almost all of the climbing areas, so all the paraphernalia can get stuffed in that. In fact I miss the stroller now, because i have to carry my own bag! I do much of my climbing alone, and with a baby I found I could warm-up, give him a giant feed to sleep and put him in the stroller. He would sleep for between 1 and 2 hours, leaving me time to work on a project uninterrupted, with the additional benefit of the stroller as a tripod stand for my camera. I'm not sure how this would have worked with sport-climbing, as I only boulder now, but the other benefit of breastfeeding would definitely make a difference: Weight loss. The energy you put into making and delivering the milk drains the stores you put down during pregnancy - that boobs and butt! It took about 3 months for me to get back to a normal shape, and 6 to get sleek again.

In many ways having 2 children becomes easier. My boys are now 5 and 7 and they play together. We can go into the forest and not see them for hours unless we go spying on them. I have found it hard through the toddler years, though. My first didn’t really like me climbing. With lead climbing he used to start screaming when I passed the first bolt because he was scared for me. We haven’t tried sport climbing since. We have had some lovely days trad climbing in the Lake district with friends that have children, but that did involve a little selfishness on the part of the Mums, and a very generous attitude from the Dads. Bouldering has stayed as our sport of preference, purely from the ease of dealing with children. We tried to have family days where one day it was my responsibility to make sure the children were happy before climbing, and sometimes it was their Dad’s, but in reality I am a mum. I hear my children even when I’m not listening, and I can’t switch off the maternal instinct to be with them when they need me. I am never on full climbing form when they are around, so now I go when they are in school.

With all this in mind, from my first 7a five years ago, I am now climbing much stronger and harder than ever. We have organised our lives in such a way that we live close to our passion. I am not sure whether either of the boys will share that passion. Both of them still enjoy playing on rather than working on the boulders. I have no doubt that they will always love the outdoors, and maybe some day soon it will be me sharing their beta.


Helen Dudley

Mum of Sebastian, 11, and Theo 8. Living in Arbonne-la-Forêt.

After making transitions from trad, to sport, to motherhood, Helen now lives in the Fontainebleau area dedicating as much time as possible to bouldering and playing in the forest with her two boys.