My four pregnancies had their own journey, essence and conclusion. While my body was making a new life, I was on this journey too. With each pregnancy, I experienced wonder and awe all over again, and the effort and fatigue of growing a baby. And with each pregnancy, I discovered another part of the strength within me.

Baby one: Strength of my body

At 30 years old, some might think that we started late. We were married six years and had been dodging all of the when are you going to have a baby? questions for the past five. So, we were relieved when it was easy for us to get pregnant, surprising us on our first try. Even before I peed on a stick, my sore boobs teased that I was expecting.

Three months of constant nausea was made more exhausting by giving up coffee, which caused some of the worst headaches of my life for the first few weeks. Knowing I had a responsibility for a new life inside of me helped me through those weeks. And I was always hungry, so I ate instead. I adored spring rolls and abhorred onions. If my husband ate them, he was banished until my heightened sense of smell could no longer detect them.

I was working full time and feeling the toll it started to take on my changing body. By 23 weeks, my Braxton Hicks were developing a regular rhythm lasting all day and night, growing stronger as I grew more tired. By 26 weeks I was dilating, so I was put on early maternity leave for the remainder of my pregnancy and told to stay off my feet to avoid total bed rest. I worried about telling my employer that my mat leave was starting now. I worried that I hadn’t prepared at work, that I would be judged, overlooked, seen as frail, relegated to the dreaded “individual contributor” tract. But I found the strength not to care, to know I was more than my work, to be okay with whatever was going to happen. It was freeing.

In between naps and spring rolls, I grew. And I grew. Once I reached 32 weeks and got the go-ahead from my OB, I walked every day to regain the muscles that had waned while I lounged and ate. It felt good to move my body. But at 38 weeks my joints and ligaments started to loosen and I found I needed shorter walks because of the weight bearing down on my pelvic floor, hips and feet.

By the end of my pregnancy, I couldn’t sleep through the night without getting up to eat and pee. Everything ached and took so long to move, so I was happy when my water broke the day after my due date. It was a difficult birth. After more than 20 hours of labor, I pushed for four hours. Her little head would almost crown, and then disappear, over and over again. I found the strength to understand I needed and to accept help, to remain present and not give up on what seemed would never end, to push more and know that I was not failing. Never did I ever feel closer to death than that moment I brought a new life into the world.

And never did I ever feel stronger than that moment I used everything I had and more.

Baby two: Strength of my soul

Even though this pregnancy was a welcome surprise, this baby wasn’t long for the world. Before I was able to reveal this special Christmas present to my husband, there was blood. Instead of a baby, I carried a sadness in me that I could not shake—that whole year there was dull underlying melancholy to life that never rested. My mind would drift daily to the What did I do? What should I have done? What if…?

She was here so briefly, but she brought with her a lesson in the strength of faith. I learned I could let go and trust my body again, and I could part the clouds and know her beautiful spirit was there to teach me, then and even now. This brought a purpose to what seemed senseless, which soothes the pain of her absence still.

Every year on her due date, I catch myself daydreaming about what she might have been like “at this age.” She is as real to me as my other children. And where she is still in my life, is where I find gratitude for my children with me now.

Baby three: Strength of my heart

At 34, my mind and body were never more ready and prepared to make another baby. I knew what to expect, and I was excited. I felt exactly when I ovulated, and I told my husband it was time to make a boy. I felt the instant this little guy implanted—that swoon of hormones announcing his unmistakable presence. And in that moment, I turned to my husband and told him we were pregnant.

This pregnancy was easier than the first two, even if I was a little older. Barely a whiff of morning sickness the first 12 weeks and plenty of time to nap with my toddler daughter helped. I ate and ate (especially peaches and baked potatoes). By the end of the second trimester, I had gained 60 pounds. That’s when my OB suggested I should think about eating less. But I didn’t. I listened to my body instead, and it wanted all the food. All those naps left me with plenty of energy, so I countered with walking three miles every. single. day. By the time my due date arrived, I still had gained only those 60 pounds, and I was strong and ready to go.

Over the months, my silly and active daughter watched the movements of her sibling growing inside of me. She called him Iggy. I knew then that there would be enough love all around for both of them. When my son was born, they put that sweet baby boy on my chest and my heart doubled in size.

Baby four: Strength of my voice

Truly a surprise, we were not even considering another baby. We had a girl and a boy filling every corner of our lives, and we were barely making ends meet with my husband halfway through grad school.

My first clue was the dark nipples I noticed when I got out of the shower, which reminded me that my period was a couple days late. I was excited about this bonus baby in our family. But I kept my pregnancy to myself for a while, enjoying my secret bond with this little stowaway. Also, I had no idea how to tell my husband.

When it was time for my first prenatal visit, I was a little insulted when my condition was referred to as a “geriatric pregnancy.” Though I was almost 40, I didn’t believe that was the hallmark of an aged uterus or that I had passed some best-if-used-by procreational expiration date. The confidence that I could do this at my age was undermined by that phrase, and I found worry where before there was none.

Gravity was winning this time around—this pregnancy was the hardest. I had been taking ballet for five years and danced three times a week up to the day before I delivered. And even though I put on far fewer pounds this time and was staying fit, I still felt parts of my body begin to complain—my “older” joints hurt more and sooner, I tired more quickly, I swelled more everywhere… and I craved dolmas. Of all things.

Though my body was older, I was wiser and far more in charge of it, having learned so much along the way. My own experiences, and those of all the other women in my life who had given birth in those ten years, had taught me a lot about having the right to make the best choices for me and for my baby. This time, I felt empowered and enabled to speak up for what I did or did not want—like an amniocentesis—rather than just accept being told what to expect and how to endure it in a cooperative manner.

My previous deliveries were managed in ways that were best for the hospital, not me. But this time, my OB and I worked together on what were my best options. On delivery day, I felt trust and control and strength. I felt seen and heard. And I felt powerful and so grateful for all the mamas’ who shared their experiences and showed me that I had a say in how I would give birth.

In many ways, pregnant at 30 was easier than pregnant at 39. But what was harder physically was balanced by the power of owning my strength in every way. The wisdom I gained and the love I thought was ultimate continues to strengthen me and expand as my children grow and I grow along with them.