by Majka Burhardt
Pegasus Books (2023); 336 pp.; $25.99 (Hardcover)Buy Book
Majka Burhardt is a filmmaker, a professional climber, the founder of an international organization focused on protecting biodiversity and supporting local communities, and a mother of twins. If that weren’t an impressive enough bio, she’s also the author of several books, including Vertical Ethiopia, Coffee Story: Ethiopia, and, most recently, More: Life on the Edge of Adventure and Motherhood.
More is an emotionally raw, powerful, moving testimony of new motherhood. Throughout the memoir, Burhardt chronicles her struggle to build a meaningful life in which she balances caring for her children and excelling in a career path that often requires extensive travel.
Former Literary Mama senior editor Andrea Lani interviewed Burhardt about mothering twins, managing work and family, and cultivating joy. This interview has been edited for content and clarity.
Andrea Lani: Your new book, More, covers the period of time from being newly pregnant through raising infant and toddler twins, which I know from experience is ridiculously intense. At the same time, you were working from New Hampshire to run and grow an organization that was operating in Mozambique, while also guiding climbing clients and dealing with long periods of time while your husband was away for his work. On top of all that, you were coping with emotional issues around family and your own childhood, as well as a couple of surgeries. In the midst of all that, you wrote a book. How did you fit writing into a very full life?
Majka Burhardt: I wrote More by accident, and that’s about the only way it could have happened at that time in my life. When I found out I was pregnant (and then pregnant with twins), I reached for the thing in my life that has always given me the most ballast—writing. But this was not formal writing; it was writing in its purest form, which for me at that time was dashing fast notes in emails and sticky notes and scraps of paper and audio recordings. Oftentimes I would sit down at the computer to work on Legado and would take five minutes to pour out a letter first. Over time, this became a habit, and over years, this became the book. I got serious about it being a book to share with others when my kids were three-and-a-half. The next year was a bit insane, with both continuing to write and record letters and assembling what I’d already written and recorded at the same time. I did most of that from 4:30-6:00 a.m. during the height of COVID, and I think in many ways that that was critical for More to make it into the world.
AL: More is structured as a series of short letters and voice memos addressed to your children. The real-time nature of each missive gives an immediacy to the narrative. It brought me right back to those early days and months with twins, which were at once brutally punishing and transcendently beautiful. When you first started recording memos and writing letters, did you imagine they might some day add up to a book, or did that realization come later? How did you decide to retain the epistolary format for the book?
MB: I had no idea that these memos and letters would be a book when I started. They were instead a holding tank—for me, for my emotions, my questions, my kids. When I started looking at whether these writings could be a book, I had massive doubts about them because they were exactly as you said—real-time. But I also didn’t want to change and mute them. I realized that what made them true and important for my ultimate goal was leaving them as they were, because my ultimate goal was (and is) to give these words to my kids when and if they need them. I equally could not figure out how to use the memos and letters as primary source material for some grand narrative. I didn’t want to do that because the few times I tried, the writing became less important. It became distant. Since my whole purpose was to give myself over, as it were, to my kids at a future time, it seemed that to truly do this I had to fight against the impulse to create that distance and instead to leave More raw.
AL: Throughout the book there is this completely relatable tension between the delightful aspects of raising children and the hellish parts. I have to admit, now that my kids are nearly grown, I remember the hard stuff a lot more clearly than the joy. Do you have any recommendations for cultivating the capacity to appreciate the full range of the motherhood experience?
MB: I think the only way to appreciate the full range of motherhood is to acknowledge that full range when it’s happening. Not just to ourselves, but with our partners, our friends, and our families. I think too often we’re sharing part of the story, and maybe it’s because we’re choosing between the parts we most need to talk about (to a close friend who can hold the hard with us), feel we can share (to a random parent at a school function), or need to coordinate around (with a partner). I have been working on tumbling it all together and showing up in each interaction with that fullness, and that helps me. I also try to talk to my kids about the good each day, speaking it out loud for us all to hear and see and acknowledge together, and on my best days I remember to do it with my husband as well before I crawl in bed before nine.
AL: One of the things you struggle with in the book is risk tolerance and how to balance doing what you love—rock and ice climbing—with knowledge of its inherent dangers. I think all moms become more aware of their mortality after their children are born, but you and your husband work in a field that forces you to confront that awareness on a regular basis. The book is peppered with moments when you learn of the deaths of friends and colleagues. Have you found a way to comfortably strike that balance, and how has your tolerance for risk evolved as your kids have gotten older?
MB: I don’t think there is a balance to be had around risk. Being a mom has taught me that risk is not linear. I can see now that it wasn’t linear in my pre-motherhood climbing career either. Risk, and my comfort level with various amounts of it, changes constantly for me based on a variety of other factors like sleep and stress and the importance of a climbing objective in the moment and in the big picture. I’ve learned to accept this variability and in doing so have learned how to listen to myself about what feels acceptable in that moment.
AL: A thread that runs through More is the massive gender disparity in housework and child-rearing. You demonstrate in real time the way that the invisible labor required to keep a family ship afloat falls heavily on moms and how hard it is to have conversations about this issue with even the most supportive partner. In my own family, this invisible labor load didn’t lift until my kids got driver’s licenses and could largely manage their own schedules and transportation. Have you, since the time period in the book, come up with strategies for establishing household equity that don’t require you to bear the majority of the burden until kids are nearly adults?
MB: I am constantly working on this in my family. I also try to be aware of the larger structures at play that have caused so much of this to be so entrenched. Today my husband and I do a lot more planning, we talk more. I find that if I try to be curious, speak up and listen, I can initiate change more effectively, whether in my family or the world. Of course all of this is an ongoing and ever-evolving journey for me.
AL: You write that you and your friends talk around and around the question of “how to have careers doing meaningful work in the world while simultaneously being good parents, partners, and climbers.” I believe this is the gold standard of what all moms want, although we might each substitute a different personal passion for climbing. You lament that there aren’t good models for this way of being a mom and resolve to become the model for your own children. How, in the time since you finished writing the book, have you worked toward becoming that model, and what advice do you have to offer other moms who are struggling with wanting more?
MB: I think everyone has a “more.” And I think we become that model for ourselves and each other by sharing all of the parts of ourselves so that what becomes normalized is this amalgamated mother who is trying and faltering and trying and succeeding and standing proudly as that complex person. The most amazing gift of these past months since the book has come out has been the letters and notes I get from others sharing what all they are creating. It has made me see how much we don’t see. It has made me understand how much room there is in this world for asking each other “what else?”
AL: In founding and running your international development and conservation organization, Legado, you seem to have found a way of combining your personal passions while also making a difference in the world and in people’s lives. Can you tell us a little more about what the organization does and what inspired you to start it?
MB: Today, Legado works alongside indigenous peoples and local communities in places important for global biodiversity to create their future on their terms—putting together what they need across education, health, biodiversity protection, livelihoods, and beyond in a way that uniquely works for them, as opposed to what an outside organization wants to deliver. When Legado started (with $11,000 and a wild and successful plan to combine science, conservation, and climbing on Mozambique’s Mount Namuli), I had no idea I’d end up running an international organization across Mozambique, Kenya, Peru (and growing!) 12 years later. Along the way I have had one constant: a commitment to learning and changing Legado to be in the service of our partners.
We started with conservation because that was our team’s expertise and what our funding was for. But the Lomwe people of Mount Namuli—the mountain’s ancestral owners and stewards—wanted much more in their lives than their forests. “What about our health, our schools, our farming?” they’d ask every time we met to discuss our collaboration. Pretty soon I asked those same questions, and Legado changed so that now our role is to support community members to identify their full array of priorities in all of those sectors, creating what we call a “Thriving Future.” (For a four-minute visual explanation of our work, check out this video.)
AL: What is next for you? Do you have more writing projects on the horizon?
MB: I’m writing you these answers from a plane to Peru where I will get to go and work with Legado’s partners in the Machiguenga-Megantoni Landscape of the Andes Amazon. What is next is growing Legado and our work, alongside my commitment to my family, especially because I promised that the next time I go to Peru, we’ll all go together. And there is writing—there is always writing—pulling me along at the edge of it all, knocking on my brain and my heart and making me sit down to listen.