It was a storybook Saturday morning. The whole family was piled like hibernating bears under our fleece sheets. I opened my eyes and pulled up the blinds to see six inches of fresh, fluffy snow. The four of us slowly rolled out of bed. We cooked some eggs and made coffee. We had no plans, and the untracked snow was a blank slate of possibility.
My wife, Hilly, and I knew better than to let it slip away. Without saying too much out loud—so as not to jinx it—I started loading the cross-country ski gear into the car. Hilly bundled four-year-old Theo and one-year-old Julian into snowsuits. We filled a thermos with hot chocolate, grabbed some leftover pizza, and were driving to the trailhead by 10 A.M., pleased as punch.
The unraveling began in the trailhead parking lot. There are always logistics involved with cross-country skiing, and the sport is exponentially more complicated with kids. When Theo was a baby, Hilly carried him on her back in an Ergo. Sometimes he even napped as we squeak-clack-swished our way through the whitened woods. Then he grew, and we had Julian. Now, in our fifth winter as parents, skiing is suddenly far less breezy.
It’s not for a lack of gear. A few years ago we scored a used Chariot on Craigslist. If you don’t know, a Chariot is a multisport kid-carrying vehicle made by Thule, of Sweden. You can attach it to your bike or push it like a stroller. You can even replace the wheels with skis and rig up a harness to make it a sort of one-horse open sleigh (you are the horse). Chariots are expensive, but they’re all the rage among outdoor types, and for good reason. It’s my all-around favorite piece of parenting gear. But transforming the thing into a sleigh—or pulk, as they say in Lapland—always entails a bit of cursing and numb-fingered pin-pushing.
While I wrestled with the Chariot, Theo demanded to be helped into his skis, a vintage pair that we’re borrowing from Hilly’s sister. They’re terrible skis. The boot sits atop a flexible rubber plate with a strap at the heel. The toe is secured, insufficiently, by a shoelace that is so long it must be secured with a hair tie. We spent five minutes getting Theo into the skis. When we were done, he promptly fell over.
By this time I had attached the skis to the Chariot and the Chariot to myself. Hilly and I loaded Julian into it like a Holy Roman emperor. And finally, a half-hour after we arrived, we pushed off across the snow. Julian started crying immediately. Maybe his snowsuit was too small. Maybe his diaper was damp. Maybe he wished he were inside, playing with our iPhones. Whatever the cause, I wasn’t going to let it derail the day. “You’re having fun,” I shouted back, convincingly. “You just don’t know it yet!”
Meanwhile, Theo was having fun, in a slapstick sort of way. He could hardly stay upright. He’d shuffle his feet back and forth and then his skis would fly forward and he would land hard on his side. I tried to instruct. “Just kick and glide,” I told him. “Kick and glide.” But this advice makes zero sense to an adult, let alone a four-year-old.
It didn’t really matter what I said, though, because Theo was convinced he needed no instruction. “I already know how to ski,” he informed me. He’d seen it on Peppa Pig. You push both poles at the same time, and you slide down the slope. He showed me the motion. See? Nothing to it.
“Well that’s not how you do it,” I said. “Not on flat ground, anyway.”
“Yes it is,” Theo said.
“I’m 30 years older than you,” I reminded him, maturely. “Do you think I might have learned some things that you haven’t?”
Back in the Chariot, Julian had stopped crying, but he wasn’t exactly joyful. I wasn’t either. I wanted to get us all moving, to fall into the synchrony of skiing, to get somewhere. But it was hard to build momentum when Theo kept falling on his face. Actual glaciers were melting faster than our forward progress. After I picked him up for the twentieth time, his self-confidence had evaporated into self-pity.
“I’m the worst skier in the world,” he said. The funny thing about Theo is that he is genuinely appalled when he isn’t excellent at a very challenging task that he’s trying for the very first time. We find ourselves trying to offset his unrealistic expectations by uttering things we never imagined we’d say. “You probably are the worst skier,” Hilly piped up. “You can’t expect to do something once and be good at it. You’ve got to practice.”
At that moment, a tall ponderosa dropped a pillow of snow on our heads. Julian started crying again. Our kids had hit rock-bottom morale, and we were 200 yards from the car.
The morning was starting to feel like a failure. But was it? Before I had kids, my time outside was usually spent chasing some goal, like reaching the top of a mountain or finishing a loop run. As a father, though, I’m learning to reframe my definition of a good day outside. I’m lowering my expectations and abandoning the arbitrary goals. Microexcursions with your kids don’t diminish your outdoorsiness—they help lay a foundation for another generation of outdoor lovers. Because when your kids are young and the weather is cold, getting outside at all is a victory. Celebrate it as such. With hot chocolate.
You may be the sort of parent who doesn’t want your kids to slow you down. You may want to go just as hard, far, and fast as you always have, and bring your kids along for that extra dose of badass. And sometimes you may succeed. But it’s important also to be kind to yourself in this parenting business. As the great writer and astute parenting guide Anne Lamott says, “Take yourself through the day as you would your most beloved mental-patient relative, with great humor and lots of small treats.” That radical self-compassion will help you be a better person and a more mindful, patient parent.
Back on the trail, we ended up rallying in a miniscule way. Hilly put Julian in a front pack, while Theo relinquished his skis for a seat in the Chariot. We skied a short distance to a small bridge, where we pulled out the thermos of hot chocolate and dug into the box of pizza like we hadn’t eaten in a week. Then we turned around and skied back to the car.
On our return journey, Hilly and I were unjustly hailed as heroes. The people we met on the trail had just arrived. As far as they knew, we were returning from a grueling ten-mile ski with our beatific children in tow. Julian had fallen asleep, and Theo was thoughtful and content in the Chariot. “Way to go!” someone cheered.
At the car, we loaded up our gear, poured another round of hot chocolate, and drove slowly home. It hadn’t been an epic day. It had taken us two hours to ski a quarter of a mile. But it was time spent outside as a family, which is a profoundly rare and immeasurable resource. Our noses were red and running. And my crabbiness had dissipated.
It turns out I was having fun all along. I just didn’t know it yet.