I always thought of myself as this crunchy granola "earth mama"—breastfeeding, cloth diapering, babywearing—I had a specific image in my head of how I wanted to be. On the go, my daughter had to have the organic cheesy crackers for a snack. At the pool, it was the expensive sunscreen that cost more than my own shampoo and conditioner combined. And sleep training? Forget about it. I was attachment parenting all the way.

But there was one topic that always left me silent when it came up at playgroup—birth.

My daughter was breech and had been born via C-section. It was a decision my doctor and I mutually agreed upon after talking through my options, yet I still felt as if I'd been cheated out of the full birth experience.

So when other mamas would share their birth stories—hours spent in labor, pain management techniques, an exact number of pushes—I listened quietly, feeling like I didn't have anything to contribute to the conversation. For me, becoming a mother had been a relatively easy and painless hour in the operating room under the care of my skilled OB-GYN. I felt like a sham. Like, I'd somehow taken the easy way out.

I envisioned the perfect birth as hours (perhaps days!) of painful contractions that I would need to breathe and meditate through (no pain medication of course). My partner would speak lovingly to me as I tapped into my true maternal power and pushed the baby out in a few quick pushes.

That's what I thought birth should be and so I felt like a failure.

Two years later when I was pregnant with my second child I was determined to have a vaginal birth after cesarian (VBAC). Early on, I expressed my wishes to my doctor and she reassured me I was an excellent candidate for TOLAC (trial of labor after C-section). I did everything I could to remain healthy and active during my pregnancy—walking, swimming, prenatal yoga, mindful meditation, healthy weight gain. I was a model patient.

And when my second child was also found to be in a breech position near the end of my pregnancy, I really stepped it up. Under the guidance of my doctor, I tried chiropractic care to coax my baby into a head-down position and spent every evening lying inverted on an ironing board.

It didn't make a difference. My second daughter remained breech and arrived unexpectedly at 38-weeks, also via C-section. I was devastated my birth hadn't gone as planned, but as a second-time mama, I could better appreciate that my daughter arrived safe and healthy.

Labor with my third child threw us for a loop. After more than 12 hours of painful contractions, no sleep, and very little to eat, I told my midwife I needed help. I needed the epidural. Now.

Everyone around me sprang into action and swiftly got me pain relief. I blissfully took a power nap. Good thing, too, because my son took nearly three hours to be delivered. When he was finally resting on my chest I felt relief. But mixed in with that and my overwhelming happiness, was still the sense that I had somehow failed. I had been "weak" in choosing pain medication. I should have kept going. I should have been able to deliver him naturally. I should have…

I was so hung up on not achieving the "perfect birth," I couldn't appreciate what I did have. Three beautiful children. Healthy and happy. An easy recovery after each birth.

Looking back I can see how ridiculous it was, but at the time the sense of failure was very real to me.

I know now that everyone's journey to parenthood will be different. That there is no such thing as a perfect birth. No perfect path. But what really opened my eyes to that truth was my fourth child's birth.

My fourth child, our last, was born quickly. No time to consider an epidural quickly. Three big pushes and she was born. I was elated! But I also remember saying to my husband over and over, "Who would do that more than once?!" The pain (for me) had been almost unbearable.

It was with that birth that I realized I had been chasing a fantasy that didn't exist. It didn't matter how my babies were born. There had been pros and cons in each scenario. Pain and joy with each birth. In a way, birth is the perfect primer for parenthood—things rarely go exactly as planned and each child's timing is unique.

I try to be more gentle with myself these days and eliminate any parenting fantasies. I am grateful for my four unique children and their unique birth stories.

And over time I'm finding, with fewer expectations for myself, I am better able to appreciate both the joy and the pain of parenthood.