Majka Burhardt ’98 explores the impact of motherhood on career and identity

‘My whole life has been about trying to do more than what other people think is reasonable.’

Majka Burhardt scaling an icy cliff

Photo by Brent Doscher

Majka Burhardt ’98 has traveled the world, scaling peaks on five continents as a professional ice and rock climber. In 2014, her expeditions in Mozambique, where she encountered stunning biodiversity atop Mount Namuli, led her to establish Legado, a nonprofit that works alongside Indigenous peoples to secure their communities while protecting the most threatened global ecosystems. Growing Legado coincided with the delivery of her twins and stirred up complicated emotions as a mother-to-be, a wife, an entrepreneur and an athlete. In “More: Life on the Edge of Adventure and Motherhood,” Burhardt (whose first name is pronounced MY-ka) shares six years of candid letters and journals that explore the irrevocable impact of motherhood on career and identity. On Sept. 21, she will participate in a Princeton Journeys virtual book talk.

How did you land on the book’s title, and what does it mean to you?

My whole life has been about trying to do more than what other people think is reasonable. I was this curly-haired Polish girl growing up in Minneapolis who competed in push-up contests with other kids in second grade. I had this choice to own that intensity, to own that more-ness. And that became who I was because I had to speak up for myself or I would have spent my whole life being called MAJ-ka.

The cover of Majka Burhardt's book, More
A smiling headshot of Majka Burhardt

You write about the loneliness you felt being pregnant. Was there a lot of self-doubt during those months?

I didn’t have as much self-doubt as I had incredible curiosity. I knew other people were probably feeling the similar maelstrom of emotions, but why don’t we talk about them fully? There is this simmer below the surface that we’re not allowing into the stratosphere of communicationaround pregnancy and motherhood because... why? We’re afraid it will break us, our marriages and a system we already know doesn’t do nearly enough to support parents, especially mothers. We have codified that it’s okay for things to be hard, but I think talking about the rawness — that endless collision of love and hard — actually might make that system stronger.

How have you juggled raising twins with being director of an international nonprofit?

I think for anyone who’s intensely devoted to their work, it’s hard to turn it off. I was checking my email hours after I gave birth, which resulted in getting a key grant. The great thing about Legado today is that our local teams in Kenya, Mozambique and Peru drive our work and that lets me, as an executive director with 7-year- old twins, be super judicious about my travel. I’m so proud to be the leader of an organization that, for example, was able to start our Peru program without me going there to orchestrate the partnership and launch.

How did being a professional climber grow into Legado?

I had just established a first ascent on the highest mountain in Namibia, and it wasn’t enough — what about the potential scientific discovery on these mountains, and, most importantly, what about the people stewarding these environments for our planet and as their homes? Then I saw these pictures of Mount Namuli in Mozambique that looked okay from a climbing perspective but really cool from a what-could-climbing-unlock perspective. I learned that my skill set of building teams that get tough things done was a skill set that could play in that international conservation and development realm.

Now that you have children, can you still lose yourself in a climb and turn off all the other sounds in your head?

Totally. Going climbing always gets me there. When leading a climb, you’re constantly evaluating how to make a choice and what risks to take. It is a total treat, and I have become more and more appreciative of it. I love that all it takes is me tying into that rope and leading the climb to put me in that place.

For more information about alumni travel, visit the Princeton Journeys website