Last winter, my tires crackled on old snow as I pulled into a parking spot at the Manastash trailhead beside my friend Mel’s white SUV. I’d dropped Royce off at work with Levi, and Maggie squealed with delight as I put the car in park. I turned off the engine just as Cori and Stacy parked on my right, and as I hopped out of my car, I saw Denee’s sedan on the other side of Mel.
I unbuckled Maggie and zipped her into the pink snowsuit that belonged to my friend Kelsey’s daughter Lizzy, then slipped on her hand-me-down purple, pink, and white striped gloves from Stacy’s daughter Claire. Then I velcroed her light blue Columbia hat, smiling when I heard Kaycee’s truck pull in to complete our group.
There are six of us moms who hike together. Our kids range in age from toddlers to pre-teens (mine are the youngest), and we are similarly varied in age, career, and background. But we are all mothers, and all love the mountains, which was enough common ground to create a sisterhood of sorts.
“Ohhhh, that hat used to be McKinley’s!” Mel exclaimed, looking at Maggie. “And Morgy wore it too.” She said, her voice filled with the kind of nostalgic emotion that we master as mothers.
“Really?” I asked. “It came in a bag of clothes from Stacy, so I thought it was Claire’s!”
Our group gathered behind my car, slipping spikes over our boots as we debated how many layers were appropriate for the weather. Someone held Maggie and slipped her into the pack on my back. Then, we were off, starting our watches as we began the steep ascent.
The conversation returned to the hat Maggie wore. Though it looked brand new, it was more than ten years old. And, to my delight, it had been worn by four of our daughters, not just three.
We spread out along the trail, our paces as varied as our personalities. At the top of the first steep section of the trail I stopped to catch my breath. Stacy and Kaycee waited with me, and as we set off again I mentioned how glad I was to get outside, and how relieved I was to get a break from Royce and his incessant chatter.
“I can’t wait ‘til he starts school.” I said. “He’s just … bored with me at home.”
“I remember feeling that way,” Stacy called from behind me. “But it really will be here before you know it. And he’ll start preschool this fall at least.”
There’s an old meat cooler attached to the far side of our shop. It looks a little like a mini shipping container—you know, the short squatty ones you sometimes see on the back of semis that are about half the length of a regular 53’ cargo container. My husband, who lived in our house when he was little, swears the cooling unit used to work, but it hasn’t since we bought the house from my father-in-law, so I claimed the cooler as my personal storage unit as soon as we moved in.
I put one of those industrial storage racks from Costco along one wall and filled its shelves with carefully labeled mouse-proof plastic totes. There’s “Royce NB-3M,” “Royce 2T w/some 24M,” and “Maggie 6-12M,” all filled with precisely folded clothes my kids have grown out of. But there’s also “Royce 5T,” “Royce 6T,” two totes of “Maggie 4T,”—all filled with t-shirts, dresses, and jeans for them to grow into.
They’ve come from friends, family, and friends of friends. They’ve come in cardboard boxes, plastic totes, over-full garbage bags, and tied up grocery sacks. They’ve been handed to me by families across the pasture and delivered from as far away as North Carolina. And I’m grateful for every single boot, sweatshirt, and Onesie that’s there.
The clothes in those totes are more than just clothes. They’re a promise of life outside the trenches of early babies and toddlers. They’re a connection to other mothers and to the collective experience of motherhood.
We met up again at the summit, cheering each other on as we staggered up the last section of trail. In keeping with tradition, we snapped a photo, laughing as we arranged ourselves in an attempt to all be visible in the picture. Then, we began our descent.
I love everything about the climb up the ridge—my ragged breathing, my burning thighs, the killer view of Mt. Stuart—but with this group, I love the way down more. High on endorphins, we filled the air with our stories and laughter, and unlike the way up, we stayed in a tight pack.
Before I became a mom, I knew from Internet memes that I would need other moms in my life: a tribe or village or whatever you want to call it. I imagined a commune-style sisterhood of moms with babies close in age, who spent every day bouncing each other’s babies at each other’s houses in a perpetual state of togetherness. But when I actually became a mom I realized I didn’t really have any friends having babies at the same time, so for a long time I considered myself “tribe-less” and felt excluded, like I was missing out on one of the great joys of motherhood.
But the thing about an actual tribe, or village, is it doesn’t have to look anything like what I just described.
The beauty of a tribe lies in the variation and the similarity of its members, and the deep well of collective knowledge that exists within a diverse group of people.
As we approached the yellow gate at the bottom, Cori mentioned she had hand-me-downs for me. Stacy chimed in, saying she did too, and Denee remembered she brought a hat for Maggie that belonged to her daughters. I grinned, and as my boots crunched on the snow I thought about how lucky I am to have these women in my life.
They offer perspective and advice that my sisters in the trenches beside me just can’t. They offer to watch my kids while I go to the chiropractor, assure me that my son will, eventually, wipe his own butt and go off to school, and load boxes of hand-me-downs into the trunk of my car before sending me on my way with an encouraging hug and a smile.
But also? Their hand-me-down t-shirts, boots, and words are an invitation. A saved seat at the table of motherhood. And because of their hand-me-downs, because of their collective wealth of knowledge and love, I am a better, more competent mother.
I don’t think we were ever intended to mother in isolation. I think we were always meant to raise our babies in community, and that in some regards those silly Internet memes are right. We need the elderly women in the grocery store with years of perspective to remind us how fast these little tiny years go. We need the friends with attics full of hand-me-downs to guide us out of the trenches. We need our fellow soldiers, knee deep in tantrums and diapers and parenting books alongside us, to make us feel less alone in our struggle. And we need the moms behind us; the new moms, the not-yet moms, the longing-to-be moms, to teach us compassion, give us perspective, and, one day, empty our attics (or meat coolers) of hand-me-downs.
As they say: find your tribe, love them hard. We’re better mothers together.