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(This post was inspired by the blog Mondays With Mac. She’s hosting a carnival this week that asks bloggers to compare Motherhood to a place they’ve traveled and send back a postcard to moms-to-be. So maybe this is more like a letter. Whatever.)

Dear Mother-to-be,

I’m writing from the slopes of Mt. Kilimanjaro, the highest mountain in Africa. At nearly 20,000 feet it towers above the plains around it, beautiful and amazing. It looks so smooth and graceful from a distance. It tempts you, tugs at your heart-strings until you simply have to climb it. You know in your heart that you were meant to climb it and that somehow life will be better once you have. It’s a “walk-up,” meaning that anyone can do it. People think this means that it will be easy, that they don’t need to prepare themselves. Many people seem to think, before they start, that they will just stroll to the top, with no pitfalls or struggles along they way. If they hear that others had a hard time, they figure that they themselves won’t have any problems.

It is, in fact, incredibly challenging. The first day is exciting, but reality hits you pretty quickly. It rains much of the time as you walk through the jungle, so you’re constantly wet. Even if it stops raining for a brief time, there’s just a constant stickiness about the air that seems to cling to you. The whole thing is messy, messier than you expected. You can’t seem to get clean. In fact, you’re dirtier than you ever remember being. And forget about a shower.

But it’s so beautiful that you vacillate between wallowing in your dirtiness and staring in constant awe of the beauty around you. This is what you might call the honeymoon phase. You feel so lucky to be here, you love the mountain, you love the mess. Already you feel like a different person. Already the mountain has changed you.

Soon you’re up at 12,000 feet and the altitude starts to kick in. Exhaustion, sometimes headaches, and even a bit of disorientation. And even though you’re so exhausted, you can’t sleep at night. So the exhaustion just starts to pile up. And you don’t get any breaks during the day, you have to just keep going forward. There’s no time for rest.

For several days you climb from 12,000 up to 15,000 but then back to 12,000 at night to sleep. It feels like you’re getting nowhere, like a hamster in a wheel, going going going and accomplishing nothing. You wonder if you’ll ever make it through this phase.

You start to get angry at the mountain in moments of desperation. It has no concern for you; it doesn’t care that you’re stumbling through your days half-awake, that your back is sore and your shoulders ache and all you want is to sit down and rest. If you’re lucky, you’re climbing this mountain with someone you can talk openly with. You share that anger and your partner reminds you that it’s just a mountain, it doesn’t have a personal vendetta against you. The next night you switch places and you’re the one doing the reminding.

You’re surrounded by people on the same journey, yet you often feel incredibly alone. In a very real sense, it’s just you and the mountain. But that isolation can start to eat you apart from the inside. When you reach out, you find incredible support from your fellow climbers. That support can make the difference. Don’t be afraid to ask for help.

As you climb up above 16,000 feet the mountain is a beast. What looked calm and smooth from afar, from back on the plains, is in reality jagged and scattered, rough and moody. This is no “walk-up” – you scramble up steep paths covered in loose gravel. You lose your footing and stumble backwards. You want to shout back to those people still at the bottom: this is harder than you think! This is beautiful, yes, but the beauty comes as much from the thing itself as from the struggle.

Sometimes you want to give up. You want to turn around and go back down and forget you ever tried to climb this mountain. You want to forget that you were so foolish as to ever think it would be easy. You often find yourself thinking, “I can’t do this anymore.” But you’ve come this far, you can’t give up.

You’re going to the summit. Almost 4,000 feet in one night climb. One foot in front of the other. One foot in front of the other. As you near the top you feel yourself getting stronger. You feel old fears and doubts falling away like dead scales, their hardened and calloused edges broken up by the beauty and majesty of the mountain. You feel something new growing inside of you: courage, trust, love. You know that your life will never be the same, but you also know that it will be infinitely better. This mountain has remade you. You climb the last few feet to the summit and turn around. You look back over the path you’ve traveled and you weep. You are powerful. You did this. You love this mountain.

When I was preparing for a natural birth I called upon my experience on Kilimanjaro as motivation. I knew that if I could do that, I could give birth naturally. I told myself that there would be pain and struggle on the way, but that arriving at the destination would make it all worthwhile. It was a useful mental exercise, and it was true. But now that I have an 18-month old, I see that I can also use it as inspiration for parenting.

It’s messy, you’re constantly exhausted and often unshowered. Sometimes you hate the experience. Sometimes you’re even angry at your baby. Sometimes you want to give up and you can’t believe you were crazy enough to attempt this parenting thing. But you also can’t imagine your life without it. From the moment you set eyes on your child, you are a new person. And as you struggle through those first months and years you change more and learn more and grow more than you ever thought possible. You find new reasons to fight on. You have a new passion for life. You catch your reflection in a window sometimes and you think, “Look what I’ve accomplished. I am strong. I am a mother.”

So come climb this mountain. It will be harder than you ever imagined and it will also be the most beautiful, amazing and inspiring thing you’ve ever done.