Retrospective: Why Women Don’t Quit
Fifteen years ago, when I was 45, I attempted to climb the Grand Teton, a jagged, towering and intimidating 13,776 foot-high mountain near Jackson, Wyoming. I, along with three of my best women friends from graduate school, decided it would be a really cool thing to do, even though none of us were climbers. After all, we were fairly fit, adventurous, and had successfully completed a demanding graduate school program, all the while also raising children, working in our social work professions, and managing the thousand other roles typical of women like us. (You can probably relate.)
We gave ourselves a few months to prepare for this endeavor, both physically and emotionally. For the most part, my family thought I was insane.
In Retrospect: It Was A Fair Assessment.
This was also the summer that my oldest child was preparing to leave the nest to attend college in California. So, in addition to training for the formidable task of climbing an iconic and behemoth mountain, I was also in training to let go of my firstborn to fly solo in the world. (He was ecstatic, as he anticipated his future as a college student away from the watchful eyes of his parents. I, on the other hand, was distraught.)
As the summer wore on and I faced these two daunting events, my anxiety ebbed and flowed as I worried about falling off a dangerously rugged mountain, while simultaneously brooding about sending Nate to college. At one point, while I was in the throes of a panic attack, Nate said, “I don’t know why you’re so worried about me going away to college. You’re the one who is about to go hang off the side of a huge mountain.”
In retrospect: I had to admit he had a point.
As timing would have it, Nate was leaving for school during the week I was climbing that imposing mountain. I fretted and grieved that I wouldn’t be there when he waved goodbye from his car to drive to California. He, in turn, rolled his eyes and reminded me that he wasn’t moving to Africa. Anyway, I was flying down to California after The Big Climb to help him move into the dorm, which I consider an important rite of passage for every mother.
I took off for Wyoming and he took off for California. In Jackson Hole, my girlfriends and I leaned on each other as we successfully completed climbing school, a requirement by the guiding service before they actually allow you to even attempt the climb. We then hiked up to the Lower Saddle of the Grand Teton--a grueling 7 mile trek straight up the mountain with a full pack on our backs, and gazed with horror at the daunting peak we faced for the next day. We slept in a tent with other anxiety-ridden potential summiteers, and were awakened at 3 a.m. by our guide cheerfully announcing, “The time has come!” to begin the climb.
Our dread was masked only by the howling wind that had picked up overnight, now blowing at more than 60 miles per hour. Finally, coming to my senses, I decided the risk of being blown off the mountain to climb the last 400 feet to the top, and missing out on my son’s introduction to his next phase of his life probably wasn’t worth it, and I declined nature’s high-stakes invitation.
In retrospect, it was the right decision. And it wasn’t quitting.
A recent New York Times Opinion piece by Lindsay Crouse entitled, “Why Men Quit and Women Don’t”, highlighted this idea that women are better at enduring and persevering “exceptionally miserable conditions.”
It was specifically referencing this year’s Boston Marathon race that occurred on a day with “horizontal rain and freezing temperatures”, and asserted that, “In good weather, men typically drop out of this race at lower rates than women do, but this year women fared better.” Crouse then asked the question: "Why, in these terrible conditions, were women so much better at enduring?"
My immediate and unapologetic response was one that will surprise no person who happens to be female: pregnancy and childbirth. I, and most women I know who have birthed human beings, know well that nothing comes close to the profound--but often excruciating--experience of the journey of pregnancy and childbirth. This was validated in the Times article, acknowledging that many of the female marathoners who raced in Boston had also born children, and that it had likely contributed to their toughness.
I’ve been pregnant three times, and in two of those experiences, I was so sick I hoped for death. Ultimately, I gave birth to three healthy babies, though in one, I had no anesthesia, and I BEGGED for death. I am fairly sure, even now, that after these three exclusively female experiences, nothing else comes remotely close to the level of emotional and physical pain required to bring a new human into the world. Granted, I recognize that many women feel differently, and I respect and cheer them for their diverse experiences. These are the women who sail through their 9-month ordeal with the glow of pregnancy, and dance through labor and delivery with nary a tweak of a labor pain, while others of us slog into our third trimester still scouting for the garbage can in the corner in case the smell of the neighbor’s fish fry triggers an explosive vomiting episode. For me, climbing the Grand Teton was almost a walk in the park compared to enduring three pregnancies, 64 combined hours of labor, and the aftermath of recovery. (We haven’t even talked about raising the child yet.)
Don’t get me wrong, the Grand Teton was really really scary, and one of hardest things I’ve ever done. But there is nothing to genuinely prepare you to go through the intensity of the experience of pregnancy, labor and delivery, and once you are facing the last 400-foot climb, there is no turning back. You find in yourself a toughness that you didn’t know you had, and you are forever changed.
In retrospect: I still feel this way.
But what really interested me in this NY Times Opinion piece was not that the women runners didn’t drop out at the same rate as the men, but that studies show that women are able to pace themselves better than men, make better decisions about their expectations based on circumstances, even if the decision is to quit whatever quest they are engaged in at the moment (e.g. the hurricane that was occurring at the top of the Grand Teton), and, most importantly, rely on their female friends and colleagues to both give and ask for support. Women intuitively understand that sharing our pain with others who understand, whether it is physical or emotional, makes it easier to withstand it.
The morning after we were supposed to summit, my girlfriends and I all hiked down together, mostly in silent companionship, as we processed what we had accomplished.
Not one of us felt we had failed because we had not made it to the actual top of the mountain we had set out to conquer. We had each other, and what mattered most to us was that we had individually and collectively given it our very best effort, and had accomplished what we had started out to do. We also understood that so much of our physical endurance had to do with our emotional endurance, which is the ability to hang in there while holding our own and knowing our limits. It doesn’t matter whether we are trying to climb a mountain, or run a marathon or finish a stressful project at work or at home.
Introspectively: What keeps you from quitting?
Where have you developed the grit to keep going, whether you’re climbing your own Grand Teton, facing the delivery of your firstborn, or making a life-changing decision?