Going Solo (& other midlife experiences)

I love the four distinct seasons of the northern climate.

I used to struggle with winter but living in a place with enough snow, and a topography, infrastructure, and culture that supports skiing, ice-skating, and snowshoeing has changed my winter reality.

Late winter however, is still a bear for me. So one of my middle aged life-goals is to fill the month of March with adventures, and ideally travel, to get through the month.

(In truth, I want to fill my whole year with travel and adventures, but some seasons I am more content at home than anywhere else.)

Last year I did something new - a solo cross-country ski trip in the Forest Ouareau Regional Park a couple hours north of Montreal.

This was my first-ever solo adventure. Prior to this I hadn't even gone hiking by myself! But I was desperate for a break from the city, from my family and work responsibilities. I needed solitude, silence, and skiing.

It was a low-risk entry into solo adventuring - close to home, cell coverage in case of emergency, and easy terrain.

I loved it. In spite of falling flat on my face (wearing a 20 lb+ backpack) while skiing downhill on the first day and bruising my ribs on my camera hanging at my chest. It took physiotherapy and four months to recover from that injury. But it was still worth it.

dazed and confused and a little beat up after my fall
the little cut on my nose was nothing compared to my body aches and pains the next day!

Getting out of the city in March got me over the late-winter hump. But it also gave me something else, an increased confidence in my abilities and my decision-making.

I have lots of backpacking, skiing, and outdoors experience to draw upon but I'd never gone solo with those skills.

I learned a few things that trip. Don't wear your camera at your chest. And take the descents really slow.

But also..

I can do things by myself. I like my own company. I am competent.

Ten years ago, even five years ago, I didn't have the imagination for solo adventuring, not even solo hiking. Adventuring was a family activity which I was happy to let Damien plan and lead. I planned enough other things for our lives, including our kids' education. This was an area he managed, and managed quite well.

I didn't have a vision, or even a desire for independent activities because my life was centered around my family and had been for many years. And I found joy, meaning, and security there.

As a young woman, the age my own children are now, I had a few main goals for my life: I wanted to finish my university degree. I wanted to be married. I wanted to be a mother.

Having a career was an adjunct to all of these. It was something I would add to my life, as necessary, but it wasn't an essential goal of mine for the family building stage of adult life. If marriage and motherhood were delayed I would work to take care of myself. But by marrying at 20 years old, and having a baby at 23, my primary life goals to be married and have kids were not delayed.

At mid-life I question the motivation behind my early goals. Was I afraid of independence? Maybe. Was I trying to shore up my security? Probably. (I'll touch more on that later.)

But that doesn't mean I was misguided. I knew exactly what I wanted. I had a certainty about my goals that has eluded me ever since. Not to mention, evolutionarily speaking I was right on track for fulfilling a biological mandate.

Sunset on a recent solo adventure

I don't disparage my motivation, in spite of the North American cultural bias towards individualism. Nor am I ashamed of what might be perceived as an affront to feminism. Feminism gave me choices. And my choice was to find a secure marriage, raise children, and build a family life. I am about as traditional as they come in that respect. In other respects, not so much.

Damien and I divided the labor in our partnership consciously and with intention. I would take care of the kids and manage the home and he would provide for us financially. We both assumed large responsibilities that had long term repercussions (both positive and negative) in our relationship, lifestyle, and finances. The same could be said for any other choice we would have made. There's always consequences, intended and unintended.

I got lucky and the outcomes have been largely positive. But sometimes I tell myself a different story and there are pangs of regret.

I live my life in the details. The details of relationships primarily.

I didn't have big visions for my life beyond family life. And once our children arrived, three years into our marriage and hot on the heels of my university graduation, I had zero visions for career or work beyond family. Who had the energy for vision while taking care of three children born within 3.5 years of each other?

So when my husband did have big visions and ideas to try, I generally came around to his perspective. After hearing his case and weighing the pros and cons I was willing to try things, especially if my security didn't feel too threatened. The religious beliefs with which I was raised, and adopted for myself, affirmed this relationship dynamic of following a husband's lead. And acting in accordance with that belief brought its own security. (Spoiler alert: until it didn't.)

recent solo adventuring selfie

Let me be clear about something, I'm not, nor have I ever been, a doormat. And my husband is not a commanding person. But we wanted to have a good marriage and figured that living faithful to the Christian principles we had been taught - principles that seemed to work well for other people's marriages - was a good path to achieve that. And so we molded ourselves in certain ways in an attempt to build a successful marriage and life.

This way of doing things broke down for us a couple years shy of our 20th wedding anniversary. It broke down on the Appalachian Trail, which I've already written about extensively in this blog series.

Marriages and long-term partnerships are deeply personal and unique to those specific arrangements. What works for some couples would never work for other couples and vice versa. (Took me a few years to figure out that one.)

I think there are some foundational principles of respect and trust that can apply to all good relationships but the details of how to make a life together, and how to raise children, are incredibly varied and dynamic. They depend on micro and macro cultural contexts, family and personal history, values and beliefs, economics, and personality, to name just a few.

One of the most transformational ideas that came out of the dissolution of my Christian complementary marriage ideology was the new understanding that I have committed myself to a person - Damien - not an ideal of marriage, a theory of marriage, or even a particular practice of marriage. We committed ourselves to each other. Renee for Damien. Damien for Renee.

And how we work that out will evolve over the lifetime of our commitment to each other, and it will be unique to us.

The year of our 20th anniversary (I can't believe it was already 4 years ago) I wrote a blog series to process my vocational aspirations and work within the context of my particular faith, marriage, and family history. You can read through that series here.

Since writing that series I've been working towards the inexorable conclusion of our active child-raising and home-educating years. And for the first time in our marriage, I've been walking solo in sketching out the big vision ideas for my vocational future. Ideas not related to raising children or taking care of home. Ideas not dependent on someone else's vision or way of experiencing the world.

Damien won't come near the process, except to listen, and I don't blame him. I hurled a lot of anger at him after our hike and he has appropriately said, "you need to figure this one out for yourself".

My husband would love nothing more than for our work lives to be wrapped up together, it's a dream of his to combine forces into something entrepreneurial. But after the lessons we learned the first time around, if this is ever to happen again it will probably have to be initiated by me. And I don't have any vision for what that work would be, nor any tolerance for the financial risks. Not now, maybe not ever.

There was no vocational soul-searching required for the first part of my adulthood. I knew what I wanted. Raising kids is hard work but it was a clear path for me. This next stage is not so clear.

Maybe it's my Enneagram Six personality but I am always looking to the advice, wisdom, and experience of others in my decision making.

I want to know how things work, or don't, for others.

It is incredibly hard to trust myself.

And let me say unequivocally that certain theologies, like the kind I was taught and then chose to follow well into my adulthood only amplified this difficulty.

Trusting myself is something I have to really practice, especially trusting my body and my intuition. I had very good reasons for trusting Damien instead. In addition to my religious baggage, it was just easier than trying to figure it out for myself!

To be clear: I think it's great to trust your partner. Essential actually. But I trusted Damien more than I trusted my own judgement.

There are times in our lives where it makes sense to follow someone else's vision. We do this all the time. Every time we go along with how things are done, attend a group, or join a community in a non-leadership role. This is the strength of partnerships and collectives. We can divy up roles. We don't all have to lead.

But there are areas of our lives where we choose, or are required to cut a path through the crazy brambles of modern life to lead in a relationship, an organization, a business, or a small group.

And sometimes we have to cut a path that is just for ourselves because even though we belong in partnerships, groups, and collective identities, we are fundamentally and ultimately our own person.

This essential singular identity can be terrifying.

Especially for those of us who really like the safety and security of the group, and those of us who like to align ourselves with certain ways of thinking and ways of doing things to shore up our security.

As highly social animals, we're probably all like this to a certain degree. Some of us more than others.

I've been part of the group called family for my whole life. And at almost 45 years old, my identity and activities are inextricably rooted there.

First, I was Karen and Derryl's daughter; then Damien's wife; then Céline, Laurent and Brienne's mother. And I have found incredible security and meaning in doing the work that builds the enterprise called family.

I didn't have to find myself to do this work. I didn't have to consult career coaches, or read "What Color is Your Parachute". I didn't have to do cost-benefit analysis. Looking at our bank account maybe I should have!

I didn't have to ask myself how suited I was to the tasks, or if I was qualified. I just "knew" this is what I wanted. Which is not to say I didn't doubt my abilities along the way or regularly battle with ideas of what it means to be a "good mom". I've had plenty of all that. But it was my dream and then my goal to raise and homeschool the kids. And we built a life that made it possible.

There is no straight-forward path into the next stage. There is no biological event to act as a catalyst. And I know too much about life's twists and turns to have the naive confidence that carried me forward in my young adult years.

Three years ago this fall we hit a rough patch financially. One of the many in our lives, but to a more severe degree. I had to get a job, we weren't going to get out of our financial situation any other way.

Even at the time I recognized it for what it was, the kick in the pants I needed to step into more responsibility and independence.

At the same time, the kids were getting older and were less inclined to join Damien and I in our adventures and travels. We started vacationing as a couple instead of as a family. In truth, we started vacationing, period. Something that we couldn't afford when Damien was self-employed. (We did a lot of working vacations and roadtrips.)

Damien took up a time-intensive personal hobby, completely different than anything he had done before, learning to play the electric guitar; really practicing and learning this instrument, not just occasionally but for hours nearly every single day. And I started taking work and personal trips on my own, including my first solo backcountry ski adventure.

One-by-one the kids finished homeschool and we were no longer involved, as a family, in our homeschool co-op. We stopped going to church together because the kids said, "we're don't want to go to church anymore". By this point, Damien and I were only staying for their sakes, having agreed that if our teenagers wanted to go to church we would go with them, even if there was a theological disconnect for us personally.

The five orbits of our household started to really differentiate from one another's. Coming together at times, and pulling apart at other times. (I want to thank Bethany Lee for this great metaphor she shared with me in my Second Bloom Interview with her.)

Our kids would probably describe our family as, at times, uncomfortably close. Not only do we share a small living space (one bathroom folks!), but we're also relationally close. Even so, we're undeniably in a new phase and I'm in a new phase.

We are finding our own paths.

Over the past couple years as I've been figuring out what kind of work I want to do in my post child-raising years and how to point myself in that direction I've also been doing more activities on my own; learning to trust myself and gain confidence in my own decision-making.

Doing things like going on solo adventures and finding my own spiritual support communities. Not because I don't want my family or husband joining me on those journeys of discovery but because I'm doing those activities whether they join me or not. I need them, even if they don't.

During the Covid pandemic, while we've been forced into closer proximity with curtailed social interactions, the natural separation and independence that's supposed to be happening at this life stage has been harder to achieve. And by mid-summer I had become overly-emotionally invested in the kids' lives. Can I just say, this is a difficult boundary to discern as a mother of older kids during the best of times, never mind during a pandemic where young adult mental health is taking a nose-dive.

On a rare family hike in August my son told me "Mom, you need to be more wrapped up in your own life than your kids' lives; you need to spend your mental and emotional energy on your own future, not ours." (Something my husband had already been telling me for a while.) And then he proceeded to tell me I needed to back off a bit in my smothering mothering.

My son's words were both permission and admonition.

I think it's fair, and wholly accurate, to say my family benefits as much from my solo interests, adventures, and aspirations as I do. (Though to be clear I'm not doing it for their benefit, but my own.)

Seasonal change is one of the aspects of the natural world that resonates for me at a deeply fundamental level, like a knowing in my bones. An embodiment of the truest wisdom.

Things change. People change. Kids grow into adults. And adults grow into different versions of themselves. Over and over. If we're open to the adventure, we'll go through many iterations of development.

We might go through so many changes we have a hard time recognizing ourselves from one life season to the next. Just like the many plants and animals that go through significant transformations in their life cycle, taking completely new forms from one stage to the next.

And you know what? That's actually a gift. If change is a given (and it is), then you can always be developing in ways that expand your knowledge, your experience, and your capacities. You get to make yourself over and over and over again.

Winter, spring, summer, and fall.

All photos in this post are from solo adventures.

Commenting is currently turned off due to technical issues but I'd love to hear from you if you have a story to share or just want to say hi. Drop me an email: renee at tougas dot net.

Also, I just released a video to IGTV about the practicalities of solo adventuring, things to consider when going into the woods alone. You can view that here.

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Going to grad school »

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