The hardest wave I’ve ever surfed is a remote Mexican beach break we’ll call El Perro. The wave is burly, and sometimes paddling out can take what feels like years, during which I’m paddling like hell and getting beat up. It’s a beautiful A-frame peak and often empty, so it’s worth the pain and struggle. It’s challenging because it’s sometimes dangerous to get to, and because the wave is super fast and steep. It also breaks jnear a river mouth (think sewage after it rains).

But it was hard because it was the first challenging wave I’d attempted after 5 years of kid duty: diapers, breastfeeding, preschool, and playdates. My husband and I had left our kids behind with grandma and grandpa for a week for the first time so we could go someplace warm to surf. I had surfed quite a bit after my first was born: Portugal, Ireland, Hawaii, but it was different now that we had two kids. With two, and living in the beautiful but surf-starved Kitsap Peninsula meant we didn’t get to the waves very often. I was committed to giving my kids everything I could to raise them right, so that they grew up to be happy, healthy, well-adjusted kids who would want to roam the globe with us when they grew up. But back then, when my oldest was 5 and my youngest was 2, I was feeling about as far away from surfing, or myself, that I ever had.

We arrived in Mexico worn out but exhilarated to see a perfect point break spilling across the azure-blue bay in front of our delightfully quiet hotel. A wave! Right in front, with no one out.

How stupid we were. Early the next morning, we eagerly paddled out, expecting to surf this gorgeous wave. It looked so inviting. What we didn’t know is this was an expert-only wave, with a take-off spot only about as big as a dinner plate and that sucks dry over a fin of urchin-infested rock.

Kurt managed to scratch into one wave, but didn’t make the section. I tried and tried to drop in but somehow couldn’t get over the lip. Or maybe deep down I didn’t want to–paddling forward only to look down at the pincushion of urchins waiting for me if I bailed might have held me back. After only an hour, we paddled back in with our tails between our legs. I couldn’t help thinking my surfing haitus was to blame for my lack of chutzpah.

The next day we visited a mellow point break that, thank goodness, filled my sails. I was rusty, but my pop up came back. My body had changed (thank you breastfeeding, and gravity), but my arms were strong from swimming–something I had managed to still fit into my lifestyle, and my reflexes were still sharp. This sweet and mellow wave helped me reconnect with my favorite pastime and my favorite adult–my husband. After three days of double sessions, ocean swims, cervezas, and many a hammock session, I felt ready for a challenge.

So, at dawn on day four, we followed the advice of a new friend J.P. (the surfing chef at our favorite restaurant) and took the dusty, windy road to El Perro, which eerily passes through a true and empty squatter’s village: half-finished hovels, wind-torn blankets serving as doors, fences made of bone-dry and kinked chaparral. The road was rutted, it tilted dangerously. It dead-ended at a swamp. We backtracked, short-cutted around the ruts, and parked as far onto the sandy beach as we dared. Out of the car, the gnats swarmed. We hurried to unpack the boards, secure the car, and sprint to the ocean.

We weren’t expecting much–beach breaks are often not so awesome. But this wave was peaky and pretty and empty and . . . kinda big. 

I paddled out anyway.

What ensued was the aforementioned beating and the struggle but when I got outside, finally, with my hair stuck in my teeth and my bikini top partly wedged under my armpit, I felt revitalized. This is what surfing is about. The hard work, the not knowing if you’re gonna make it outside, the facing of fears. I only dropped in on two waves on this “hey, ding-dong, surfing is hard, remember?” session. That was about all I could take. I wasn’t will to risk getting caught inside or falling and getting churned up. Should I have pushed myself harder? Of course. This is how I always think after surfing a challenging wave.

In three weeks this peak will be within range–I’ll be back in Mexico. I’m sure I’ll surf El Perro at least once. I’m scared, but that’s okay. Surfing is supposed to be hard. Parenting is too, but the rewards are sweet.