History-Making Mountaineer Melissa Arnot Is 'So' Over All the Mom Shaming

Arnot also opens up about leaning on pal and fellow mom, Mandy Moore, for support.

Photo: Getty Images

When Melissa Arnot discovered she was pregnant, she knew she had to be careful with when and how she chose to share the news. Even before the seasoned mountaineer became the first American woman to climb Mt. Everest without supplemental oxygen in 2016, she had faced her fair share of scrutiny from strangers and acquaintances alike. For instance, while most people bring portable oxygen bottles on the harrowing climb to stay warm and to keep fresh blood pumping to their brain and body (ICYDK, Mt. Everest has an elevation of 29,032 feet and there is only a third of the typical amount of oxygen available at the top as there is at sea level), Arnot opted for the added challenge of going without it. She got plenty of flack for that decision and many others she's made in her career.

"For the first 15 years of my career that I was not a mother, I constantly heard men and women saying to me, 'oh you must not have kids because you do this,'" Arnot tells Shape. "It really ramped up when I started working on Everest as a guide in 2008, and then I had a partnership with Eddie Bauer, which gave me more visibility, so I started to hear a lot more of peoples' opinions of me as a woman and what I was doing there." (

At the age of 19, Arnot began working as a professional mountaineering guide, which involves teaching a wide range of people the skills and techniques to safely climb (and return home from) glaciated mountains using ropes, crampons, and ice axes. Although Arnot faced plenty of subtle skepticism and outright discrimination in the traditionally male-dominated industry, it wasn't until she became pregnant that the public discourse around her lifestyle built up to an unignorable level, she says. "I was incredibly thoughtful about how I chose to disclose I was pregnant," says Arnot, now 37. "But it came to a point where I was like, 'I have to tell people so someone else doesn't tell people for me,' and it felt like such a bizarre thing like I was admitting to something. I was offered a job to film a commercial that was going to be 30 days after my daughter was born. I had this really awkward conversation with the producers who were like, 'are you gonna be ready at that time?' I was like, 'I don't know, the future's unknown, but I would like to proceed in this way.' That was kind of the beginning of, 'okay, people have a lot of thoughts and opinions of how women mother."

Melissa Arnot

I experienced very early that if you say, 'I actually plan to keep working,' people would be like, 'haha that's funny.'

— Melissa Arnot

Arnot soon discovered that in addition to the often well-meaning — but still frustrating — concerns she received from partners, sponsors, and clients, she would suddenly become a target for anonymous online trolls (not to mention fans), who all seemed to have something to say about her choices. (See: The Sad Truth About Bullying)

"I waited until I was about eight and a half months [along] to tell my [Instagram] audience that I was pregnant," says Arnot. "I got a lot of support but also, so many messages and comments like, 'oh, what are you gonna do now that you're a mother?' It was really emotionally devastating because I had thought that we were a little more evolved as a society. And it was also one of those weird occurrences where everyone who's had a child feels like they're the foremost expert on what your child and your parenting experience is gonna be like, so everyone wants to tell you what you're going to be able to do or not do. I experienced very early that if you say, 'I actually plan to keep working,' people would be like, 'haha that's funny.'"

Unfortunately for Arnot, the criticism from online bullies only intensified after she gave birth to her daughter, Kaia Reid, in April 2018. "The next time I really faced it in a very direct way was when my daughter was six months old and I took her to Nepal for the first time," she says. "I was working, and my husband [fellow mountain guide Tyler Reid] came as well. We planned for this since before she was born."

melissa Arnot

I had to defend my choices as a human in the world

— melissa Arnot

Arnot and Reid arranged for him and their daughter to stay with a local family they knew well in Nepal while Arnot worked. "But I posted a photo on Instagram, and I got so many messages and comments of people saying, 'why do you need to drag your baby all over the world?; 'Why can't you stay home with your baby, this time is so short, you'll regret just jumping back into work,'; 'I would never leave my six-month-old for even a day, I can't believe you're going and climbing big mountains, that's so scary.'" (

Arnot says that during her almost two-decade career, she's gotten accustomed to people projecting their fears on her job without understanding the actual risk associated with it — but this experience was uniquely intense. "I'm a professional risk manager — it's what I do best," she explains. "I've always had to deal with people being like, 'I can't believe you do that, that's so crazy,' and I'm super empathetic to that — it's okay that that's their reaction, they don't really know what it's like, they can't assess how I'm assessing this. But this was on a different level. I had to defend my choices as a human in the world."

The intrusive commentary was more than just the occasional issue, too — it became a constant staple in Arnot's life as a working mother. "Honestly, I think that it's a remnant of a colonial mindset that men are the conquerors and women are nurturers," she says. "When we see a woman not exhibiting what we consider 'nurturing,' it seems like it's an open invitation to criticize her, and we make this leap that women are responsible for the health, wellbeing, mental wellbeing, security, and everything of a child and that a father's role is external. I don't think people are aware of how ingrained that thinking is, but it's one of the things I think that is so phenomenally frustrating because a huge percentage of my clients are really successful professional men — some of which have really young families — and nobody has ever said a single thing to them."

"I think there's this blind spot for folks — they think if a woman is doing a career that has historically been viewed not as a career, but as an activity or a hobby, then it's not a job," says Arnot. "But for me, that's actually my job. If they see you doing it and it's a typically male-dominated or historically male activity, there's a lot more assigned to a woman, like I'm somehow making a reckless choice."

Melissa Arnot

"The best things I've ever done in my life are when I focus on really value-based actions and don't worry about validation or criticism or what the world is thinking about what I'm doing."

— Melissa Arnot

The inherent sexism in these sentiments has been most clear to Arnot in the way people judge (or rather, don't judge) her husband for having the same vocation and a child. "I can't tell you how many times — it's almost always the first question I get — when I show up for work people ask, 'oh where's your daughter?'" she says. "And it's like, 'she's with her other parent!' And I asked him, 'do you get asked that?' and he said, 'literally no one has ever asked me where my daughter is when I show up for work — never, ever once.' That to me is mind-blowing." (See: When Sexism Is Masked By a Compliment)

Arnot also explains another recent experience that solidified for her that "mom shaming" is still very much alive. "A client wrote a blog about her experience climbing with me," she recalls. "She wrote about driving to come to meet me, and her mom was with her and had Googled me. She pulled up something on the internet and read it out loud, saying, 'she trained by not eating and drinking water for long periods of time.' The girl said, 'that makes sense — if you're in the mountains and you have no resources, you want to know you can survive.' Her mom gave her a snarky look and said, 'I'm surprised her child was born healthy.' It was frustrating because it was this really knee-jerk reaction to this very tiny slice of me as a human and for her mind to go directly to the health of my child was such an aggressive leap from how I train for my job."

Arnot has not only learned to navigate the reality of being a public figure subject to scrutiny — particularly around the choices she makes as a mother — but she's also learned how to moderate her own exposure to uninvited commentary. To start mitigating her intake of input, she looked to the lessons she learned while taking a 32-day break from social media during her historic Everest climb in 2016. "I just wanted to do it for something other than what other people thought and that has persisted," she says. "I have so much better personal insulation on the highs and lows of public commentary on me, which is good because I'm working on a book and that's a very scary thing to put out there and involves a ton of people having an opinion on me and my work so I keep rooting into that. The best things I've ever done in my life are when I focus on really value-based actions and don't worry about validation or criticism or what the world is thinking about what I'm doing. I have a much healthier relationship with the internet now for sure, and that may be age too — I'm so glad I didn't grow up with TikTok, I think I would have lost my mind."

Arnot says she also turns to close clients and friends, including actress and climber Mandy Moore, with whom she climbed to Everest base camp in 2019, for support. "Mandy and I met and did our very first trip when my daughter was seven months old, so she's only ever known me as an adventure mom," says Arnot. "She had just gotten married to Taylor [Goldsmith], and they knew they wanted to have kids. So we had these really good first conversations right away." (

And the feelings were clearly mutual. "At a time when I was trying to wrap my brain around what it could look like to be a working mom and still maintain my own identity and ability to pursue my passions, Melissa truly embodied an example of both a present parent and consummate professional," Moore tells Shape. "She knows how to show up for herself and models that discipline and drive for her daughter (and countless others, myself included)."

Arnot says she has taken inspiration from how Moore has handled criticism over the course of her career. "One of the things I appreciate so much about her is that she's so calm about it and just knows how to brush off what isn't important," says Arnot of the actress. "And she's really kind and supportive of people having an opinion. She's been somebody who I feel elevates the positive aspects of the way I've chosen to raise my family and the way I choose to parent, and she wants to do the same thing. I would endure all the internet hate possible just to have one person say, 'I decided to raise my child close to my values which included travel or adventure or nontraditional raising because I saw you doing it.' If that happens, that is a huge win, and I feel like that has happened with Mandy." (

Arnot says she's continuing to stick to her values and passions in the face of public scrutiny. "I have a three-year-old who is curious and full of joy and she and I have an incredibly connected relationship — that is the great eraser of anyone else's opinions on what I'm doing," she says. "I haven't lived a traditional life so it makes sense that I wouldn't parent traditionally, and I'm okay with that."

Finally, she offers this advice to moms who may be dealing with unwelcomed opinions: "If people are facing that — especially moms — root into that connection you have with your child or your own desires and life because that's the stuff that keeps you from spiraling, and that can be an incredibly healing thing. And I genuinely try to be the person who extends a lot of grace to the people criticizing me because I know there's some sort of projection happening there. However, you can also go into the room and curse out Becky for saying that to you on the internet because damn you, Becky! That also helps. I think balance is essential."

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