Accomplished travel essayist Carrie Visintainer has redefined motherhood for herself by equally embracing her desires for wanderlust and domesticity. In her memoir Wild Mama, Visintainer provides a moving, uninhibited recollection of her first six years as a mother.
In her foreword, Visintainer appropriately challenges the assumption that her book is just for mothers and presents her memoir as an offering to anyone who has asked, “Wait, who the hell am I?” Visintainer embraces this question throughout this book and frames her emotional stumbles and victories as an individual within the context of her physical struggles and successes as a hiker, world traveler, and new mom.
She explores several of parenting’s common milestones, from the decision to become pregnant (after a nerve-wracking encounter with a would-be predator while traveling solo) to vacationing with an infant for the first time (in a yurt, of course). Some of the more serious topics Visintainer touches on include postpartum depression, the complications of returning to work as a new mother, and the frustrations of trying to opt out of a hospital birth and choose a vaginal birth after C-section for her second child.
After six weeks of unpaid maternity leave, Visintainer returns to work and—despite being offered the “perfect return-to-work situation,” which includes taking her son to work with her at the nonprofit where she manages fundraising events—she feels fragmented. Managing her son’s needs and the demands of work simultaneously leads her to question how she wants to spend her time and whether or not she even likes her job. When her husband, Chris, suggests that she try “the meds” that her midwife suggested, she hears that she is a failure and resists the idea that a strong woman like herself has failed at “having it all.”
Visintainer’s husband persists and sends her on a solo hike, during which she slowly opens herself to the possibility that her depression may be out of her control. By the end of the weekend, Visintainer makes the difficult decision to let go of the fantasy life she has envisioned and focus on creating a reality that works. It is this creation of her new reality that becomes the driving narrative in this memoir.
On the lighter side, there is Visintainer’s recollection of the moment she and her husband, two bona fide tree huggers, decide to abandon their stash of cloth diapers in favor of disposable diapers. No matter which team readers might fall on—cloth or sposie—they will be able to relate to Chris and Carrie, weary and tense from sleepless nights, as they stand in front of the dryer (now accidentally loaded with dirty diapers) and declare, “This is stupid.”
In the chapter “Lay that Baby Down,” readers join Visintainer when she is 14 months into motherhood, straddling a motorcycle, and contemplating whether she wants to have a second baby. When Visintainer has a problem to solve, she will hit the road (or trail) to clear her mind and listen to her feelings.
By the time she suffers the embarrassment and fright of dropping her motorcycle on its side, readers are fully invested in her emotions. As she realizes she has stopped on uneven ground, one can’t help but cringe with her as she slows down the narrative pace, allowing readers to experience the weight of her bike overcoming her physical strength.
I brace and brace against the full weight of the bike, trying to hold all quarter of a ton with one leg. My core muscles fire, and fire harder, burning in my abdomen, and my thigh trembles. “Ugh!” I shout, like I’m trying to win an arm wrestling match. Slowly, slowly, my leg and core muscles cry “uncle” in surrender. In slow motion, the bike drops to the right.
After Visintainer jumps off and stares at her motorcycle in shock, she asks herself, “What if? What if I died and couldn’t go home to Jake? What if I died and couldn’t have another baby?” When a young man who stopped to help her pick up her bike notes that her bike is in good shape considering that she just “laid [her] baby down” (that is, dropped her quarter-ton motorcycle on its side), this is the moment that leads Visintainer to her decision to have a second child. As per her style, Visintainer takes stock of her moment of clarity and pokes fun at herself: “Carrie lays her motorcycle down and thinks about getting laid. Ha.” Visintainer’s emotional state arises from circumstances that are uniquely hers, yet universally accessible to anyone who has grappled with a major decision. Sometimes you just don’t know what to do until you know.
At Visintainer’s book release party several weeks ago, with my grade school daughter’s hand in mine, I listened to the author read from her book and asked myself “What do I want?” As Visintainer read an essay that compares the misery of a hike that wasn’t going as planned with the “unmagical” nature of her home birth (cue message: getting what you want might require hard work), I contemplated my next steps. The day of the book release party was, coincidentally, my last day in a hard-earned job.
Just as Visintainer had berated herself for feeling anything less than blissful in her first weeks as a new mother, I had spent months berating myself for feeling less than grateful for an administrative job at a for-profit school that I spent years grooming myself for. No amount of “faking until I made it” or sticky notes on my monitor that read “be grateful” had worked for me. When I curled up with Wild Mama that night, I found comfort and encouragement in witnessing Visintainer’s struggles in the pursuit of “having it all.” I set her book down believing that I, too, will find my sense of self again and it will be worth the hard work it takes to get there.
The memoir serves as an inspiration to all who have considered bucking tradition in the pursuit of happiness. In the beginning of this book, Visintainer and her husband struggle to move past lists of reasons why not to embark on various adventures, starting with the weekend they took their three-month-old son to a yurt. Through conscious changes to their lives, they create a way of living that allows them to feature wanderlust as a central part of their family’s identity. In the epilogue, Visintainer reflects on the two-month trip her family took to Yelapa, Mexico, a trip that would set the stage for an annual family tradition of spending two months each winter in places like Mexico or Costa Rica.
This is not a tale in which readers are told to “do what you love and the money will come.” As a woman who credits her Midwestern parents with teaching her to live within her means, Visintainer is too pragmatic for that. When she prepared for her first solo trip overseas, before she had children, the job she had lined up fell through and she went anyway, determined to find work, and she did. This determination to live a life that suits her core desire for adventure and travel is apparent throughout each chapter. The implicit message in this book is “do the work to make it work.” Cut expenses. Change the way you make your income. Do what you need to do to live the life that you want.
For those who are seeking answers to the question “Who the hell am I?” Visintainer ends her book with an invitation to join her tribe of fellow wanderers. Through her project Free Your Wild, Visintainer wants to shine light on others who have embraced their “inner wild,” whether that is through traveling, starting a business, or creating beautiful things.