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What Happened When I Had the Kind of Birth I Thought I Wanted

Two weeks before I gave birth to my second son, I was wrapped up under a blanket on my couch – eyelids heavy and a beleaguered throw pillow between my knees – listening to a guided meditation track specifically designed for those of us terrified by surgery. I took slow breaths. I did not think about needles or internal organs. My heart beat at a steady rhythm. Everything was going to be great.


For my entire pregnancy, I’d had a low-lying placenta stubbornly situated 1.4 centimeters from my cervix. According to my doctor/midwife practice, and approximately one million Internet message boards (yes, I read them all), such a placenta would make a vaginal birth too risky to attempt. After several weeks – er, months – of denial and terror, I’d made a kind of peace with the situation, downloaded Peggy Huddleston’s surgery prep MP3s, ordered those really soft C-section recovery underwear, pored over an Instagram account featuring harrowing yet beautiful pictures of gentle cesareans, and decided I wanted Johnny Cash playing in the operating room when the surgeons got down to business.

A week later, an ultrasound technician took one last measurement of my jerk of a placenta. I dubiously watched the TV screen in the cramped exam room, scraping ultrasound jelly off the edge of my t-shirt. Then, I noticed a number. Two. Then another. 2.14. 2.05. Things, I realized, had shifted. My placenta had somehow moved the requisite two centimeters away (though the tech betrayed not an ounce of surprise or hopefulness, well-trained tech that she was). Four days later, my OB popped breezily into another exam room, where I braced myself for the news that I had grossly misread the ultrasound or that two centimeters was still too close for comfort or that now there was some other good reason for me to not give birth the way I had the first time. “So I saw the scans,” the doctor said, waving a folder at me excitedly. “They looked great. Looks like you’re good to go for a vaginal birth!”

“Okay!” I said to my grinning doctor. Okay. Okay. That was when I yanked those invisible strings you yank when you know you’re supposed to be smiling but it just isn’t happening naturally. “Great! What a relief!”

It was then that I realized how I’d not only accepted what had originally been a bewildering twist in my birth plan, I’d gotten profoundly attached to the idea.

Okay, I’ll just say it: I wanted a C-section. I wanted a medicated surgical birth. I was told I had to have it and so I had subconsciously figured out a way to want it with every fiber of my being. I couldn’t say this out loud though, not yet, I couldn’t even acknowledge it to my self. So instead, when the “good news” about my placenta came up with friends and family, I’d quickly add in, “You never know, I might need an emergency C-section! So, we’ll see, right?”

A week later, I was at last able to articulate the truth, to put into words what I really wanted this birth to be. Of course I happened to be lying sideways on a hospital bed, having rapidly dilated to 9.5 centimeters and also having halfheartedly turned down the epidural just a few hours earlier. But I said it. I finally said it.

“I WANT THE C-SECTION! I CAN’T DO THIS! GIVE ME THE C-SECTION!”

My first birth, three and a half years earlier, involved 24 hours of labor and concluded with some dramatic fanfare: the vacuum extraction of my baby after three hours of pushing. I’d opted not to have an epidural, as my overwhelming fear of needles beat out my fear of pain. And yeah, it hurt, but the whole thing moved like a car in midtown Manhattan around 5 p.m. (nice and slow), so I never felt out of my depth, never cursed out the universe, never imagined being anywhere but exactly where I was. At the end, even before my placenta had cleared the decks, I was making jokes. I felt a thousand pounds lighter, figuratively and literally. I couldn’t stop grinning. And it turns out that the elation I felt seeing my swollen son on the examining table across from me was a birth high that for me wouldn’t be replicated.

My second birth was, on paper, exactly what I wanted – before my low-lying placenta scrambled my brain. Again, I perhaps foolishly turned down the drugs. I went from four centimeters cm to 10 centimeters in less than four hours. I pushed for just 20 minutes. I left my apartment at 7:30 a.m. with manageable cramps and had a slippery baby on my chest by noon.

It was fast and straightforward and nearly without injury, but ultimately the whole thing felt to me like a rickety rollercoaster I had not wanted to get on and could not get off of. Turns out that what looks good on paper is not necessarily relevant when you’re on hands and knees on the floor of the triage room, barking at the nurse “No, there is simply no way I will be able to stand up and be wheeled to the delivery room. SORRY.”

I wanted to believe – don’t we all – that there was a perfect birth for me and, if I played my cards right, such an experience was mine for the taking. But even if that’s true, which I doubt, what does a perfect birth ultimately mean? Does it ensure a perfect baby, a perfect toddler, a perfect mother child relationship, a perfect life? Seems unlikely!

As I write this, I wait for my nearly four-week-old to wake up at any moment, obliterating this perfect chunk of writing time I’d so carved out so carefully for myself. I wait, too, for him to start sleeping more than two hours at a time. I wait for my breasts to stop leaking milk at inopportune moments (like every time I leave the house without those bra pads in). I wait for the shape of my new life with two children to emerge in front of me so that I may know what to call it, as though by saying its a square or a triangle, it will suddenly make sense and be manageable.

It is my most recent birth that reminds me that while I wait for things to sort themselves out into what I want them to be, my older son is telling me a weird and incredible story about how to hide graham crackers in pieces of chocolate and my younger son is not screaming and my husband has procured dinner and we are all okay and together and that is in fact exactly and all I want.

Who said motherhood doesn't come with a manual?

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My Instagram feed has been full of pictures of friends that their kids to the beach. I get it, I like the beach a lot. But the forest and the mountains are my real loves.

The way the damp leaves smell in the morning. The peace of walking underneath a canopy of trees. The sound of firewood crackling at night. Sigh, heaven.

I also grew up camping with my family and have done some intense hiking, backpacking and search and rescue. So it's kind of in my blood—I wear my frostbite scars with honor.

So I couldn't wait to get my future kids out into nature (minus the frostbite). I had visions of us hiking to a stream, swimming and splashing all day, then cooking a big meal over a campfire as we sing songs and laugh.

Then, I actually became a parent. Of three kids, actually, all of whom are still very young… and a dog… and a husband who doesn't really like camping.

Despite the realization that it wouldn't be exactly as I planned, this summer we finally decided to take our first camping trip as a family.

Here is what I learned:

1. Set the bar low

I had to remind myself over and over again that this trip would not live up to my expectations. I know this sounds like a bummer way to start a trip, but it really helped. I have the tendency to over-plan and get really (really) excited about things. This is not a bad quality, but it can lend itself to disappointment when things don't go as hoped. I didn't want us to leave the trip feeling like it was a failure in any way.

This trip was a success, and a big moment for our family, no matter how it turned out.

Instead of forcing activities or memories, I forced myself to just… be. Not expecting the trip to be magical opened us up to appreciate the unexpected moments of magic as they occurred naturally, without being forced.

This got harder, of course, when our car got stuck in the mud (true story), and we had to wait three hours for AAA to arrive. But when our kids talk about the camping trip now they still squeal with delight as they recount the story of the tow truck coming. You're welcome (I guess)?

2. We made it really easy

I put my camping ego aside, and we took a lot of shortcuts on this first trip. We didn't stay in a tent but rented a barebones cabin instead. For dinner, we ordered a pizza. And we let the kids play on our phones for a little bit in the evening.

Those things didn't make for a truly authentic experience, but goodness, they really helped. I have started to realize that there is no shame in making things easy, especially when you have little kids. And they didn't know any different. As far as they are concerned, we hiked the Appalachian Trail and gathered all our own food from the earth.

This was a lazy camping trip, for sure—and that was exactly what we needed.

3. I over-prepped for safety so I could calm down

I have hiked and camped in the White Mountains of New Hampshire in February—this was not that. At any given moment on our trip, an ambulance could have easily reached us, and we were only a few minutes away from a hospital at any point. But it made me feel much better to know that we were safe and ready for anything that should happen.

We bought a first aid kit, a survival kit, too many flashlights and bottled water. I was really big on everyone wearing good footwear and teaching them how to walk carefully on uneven terrain.

We also used the opportunity to teach about other areas, like water safety. Rita Goldberg of the British Swim School recommends "[teaching kids] to avoid water hazards and to not approach a fountain, river, pool or lake without an adult's supervision and permission."

We also incorporated their "Water Watcher" program, which assigns a "badge of responsibility" to one adult at all times, who maintains a constant watch over the kids while they are near water.

These easy steps, that we decided on ahead of time, made me feel much more relaxed, and therefore better able to enjoy our time.

This trip took some emotional adjustments on my part. It wasn't glamorous, or particularly exciting. But that was exactly what it needed to be. Emily Glover wrote that "by getting away from the distractions of home and focusing on each other...we're reminded of what really matters."

We found that in the woods—together.

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In the moments after we give birth, we desperately want to hear our baby cry. In the middle of the night a few months later it's no longer exactly music to our ears, but those cries aren't just telling us that baby needs a night feeding: They're also giving us a hint at what our children may sound like as kindergarteners, and adults.

New research published in the journal Biology Letters suggests the pitch of a 4-month-old's cry predicts the pitch they'll use to ask for more cookies at age five and maybe even later on as adults.

The study saw 2 to 5-month olds recorded while crying. Five years later, the researchers hit record again and chatted with the now speaking children. Their findings, combined with previous work on the subject, suggest it's possible to figure out what a baby's voice will sound like later in life, and that the pitch of our adult voices may be traceable back to the time we spend in utero. Further studies are needed, but scientists are very interested in how factors before birth can impact decades later.

"In utero, you have a lot of different things that can alter and impact your life — not only as a baby, but also at an adult stage," one of the authors of the study, Nicolas Mathevon, told the New York Times.

The New York Times also spoke with Carolyn Hodges, an assistant professor of anthropology at Boston University who was not involved in the study. According to Hodges, while voice pitch may not seem like a big deal, it impacts how we perceive people in very real ways.

Voice pitch is a factor in how attractive we think people are, how trustworthy. But why we find certain pitches more or less appealing isn't known. "There aren't many studies that address these questions, so that makes this research especially intriguing," Hodges said, adding that it "suggests that individual differences in voice pitch may have their origins very, very early in development."

So the pitch of that midnight cry may have been determined months ago, and it may determine part of your child's future, too. There are still so many things we don't know, but as parents we do know one thing: Our babies cries (as much as we don't want to hear them all the time) really are something special.

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There are certain things that get less challenging with each child you have—like changing diapers or figuring out how to tie a Moby wrap—but breastfeeding just isn't one of them. Breastfeeding is different for every woman, and it can even be different for the same woman at different times in her life.

Mom of three Jessica Alba knows how true that is. She tells Motherly she's no longer nursing her 6-month-old son, Hayes, and while she's been through the end of breastfeeding with her older daughters, 10-year-old Honor and 6-year-old Haven, this experience was different and challenging in its own way.

"Emotionally, I know kind of what to expect. But every time, with all the hormones, it's so overwhelming. It doesn't get any easier," she says.

Alba and her husband Cash Warren welcomed little Hayes on December 31, 2017, and in the months that followed Alba shared several sweet breastfeeding photos on social media. In one, the Honest Company founder nursed during a board meeting, in another she breastfed Hayes in a Target fitting room. To her social media followers it seemed like she was always breastfeeding—and now we know that's because she was.

"I felt like he wanted to nurse 24/7, which was obviously really challenging when you're trying to go back to work," says Alba, who wasn't just busy with the Honest Company in the early weeks and months of Hayes' life, but also shooting her upcoming TV series with Gabrielle Union, 'LA's Finest.' The timing of the opportunity wasn't ideal, but the project was.

"I was actually bummed about it, I really did want to take four months but I got the pilot offer and it just happened to be shooting, so it cut into my maternity leave."

Alba was used to juggling the demands of working and nursing, having brought Honor to movie sets a decade ago and having welcomed Haven right when she was launching the Honest Company, but this time there was another hurdle, one many moms can relate to.

"Also my milk supply was challenged with him. I felt like I had the most milk with Honor and then it got less with Haven and even less with Hayes. And so that was just tough for me," she tells Motherly.

Although she had more milk supply back when she had her daughters, she's never been able to exclusively breastfeed for as long as she would have liked. She wrote about this challenge in her 2013 book, The Honest Life: Living Naturally and True to You.

"I breastfed as long as I could, but not as long as I wanted. I had to get back to work, and I wasn't able to keep it going. But I am proud to say I did the best for my daughters and I'm proud of all of my mom friends for doing the best they can on this issue."

Alba is hardly alone in having to stop breastfeeding earlier than she wanted. According to the Centers for Disease Control and prevention, "Although most infants receive some breastmilk, most are not exclusively breastfeeding or continuing to breastfeed as long as recommended."

More than 81% of American mothers start out breastfeeding, but less than half are exclusively breastfeeding by the time their baby is 3 months old and fewer than a quarter make it to the 6-month mark without formula.

Studies show that although it is incredibly common, supplementing with or switching to formula is a decision fraught with feelings of guilt, failure or "shattered expectations" for a lot of moms.

But you don't have to breastfeed for a full year or two for your child to benefit from the cuddles and the antibodies, and no mother should feel guilty about doing what is best for her child and herself.

Take it from the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists: The organization recommends exclusive breastfeeding but also recognizes that a mother "is uniquely qualified to decide whether exclusive breastfeeding, mixed feeding or formula feeding is optimal for her and her infant."

A bit of advice Alba wrote in her book echos the ACOG's statement:

"Whatever you do, trust that you're doing the best that you can for your baby."

Still, weaning earlier than you wished to doesn't get easier even if you've experienced it before.

Years after writing that line in her book, Alba tells Motherly, "The only thing you kind of know the third time around is that it will pass."

Alba is an amazing mama, and she is obviously doing what's best for Hayes. And by being so honest about her breastfeeding struggles, she's also doing a great service to other mothers who are facing similar challenges.

Thanks for the honesty, Jessica.

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I have a confession to make.

I once completely ruined a (rare) date night out over... popcorn. Seriously.

Who knew such a delicious, buttery treat could be such a catalyst for drama?

So, we were at the movies and after sitting down in our seats I asked my husband if he could go get me some popcorn. I mean, I didn't want to miss the beginning of the movie… He said something along the lines of, "Ugh, can you just go get it?" And I said something along the lines of, "You better sleep with one eye open tonight." 😜

I sulked off and got my popcorn. Then, I proceeded to watch the movie with a scowl and a bad attitude, similar to the combo my 2-year-old threw me a few days prior because I wouldn't give her my hot coffee (logical). This nonsense carried over into the car ride home. The evening that could have been a light, carefree night out with my partner turned into a bit of a dud.

But the thing is, it was never about the popcorn.

It was about my stress levels of being a work-from-home mom. It was about my exhaustion around having children who weren't sleeping well during the time.

It was about the mental load of motherhood that I carry around like a boulder in my brain. It was about feeling burnt out by all of life's responsibilities. It was about the fact that we hadn't been out on a date in over a month.

It was about the fact that our lives are consumed by preschool pickup and decisions about childcare and guilt over parenting fails and to-dos. It was about the pressure. Of parenting. Of adulting. Of date night.

Who has time to think of a new place to try for dinner? Who has the energy to shower, do their hair, put makeup on, and pick out a cute, flattering outfit on a Friday night after a long, long, long week? Who has the determination to make sure your date checks all the boxes—Is what we're doing exciting enough?

Are we going to the perfect restaurant? Does it matter that these Spanx are making me feel miserable? Should we do something spontaneous after dinner? Should I come up with some options for our spontaneous activity so we are prepared for spontaneity? 😂

The only question we should be asking ourselves is—what do we WANT to do on our date? The only goal we should have is to ditch the pressure and Just. Have. Fun.

The point of a date, especially as parents, is to connect. To have some alone time together. It's not to plan some magical, unicorn, non-existent "perfect" night out. This isn't The Bachelor. This isn't a planned-by-ABC one-on-one date involving a helicopter and bungee jumping. We both have already accepted the rose—we don't need perfection. What we need is to get out.

We're talking a meal at a restaurant and a rom-com. Sometimes we get wild and throw in an after-dinner drink somewhere. We go on dates to get away from poopy diapers and screaming toddlers. To go somewhere for a couple of hours so we can speak to each other at a normal decibel without pausing to answer questions like "WHERE DID YOU PUT MY WITCH HAT, MOOOOOM? I CAN'T FALL ASLEEP WITHOUT IT!" or "CAN YOU WIPE MEEEEE?!"

After more than a few dates like the popcorn-drama-night, we both have learned our lesson.

The recipe for a great date night is simple:

1. Leave your children home with someone you trust.

2. Exit the house and go somewhere together.

3. Wear clothes that are comfortable.

4. Have a good attitude.

5. Talk to each other.

(Bonus points if you can leave your kiddos home with a family member you don't have to pay!)

Recently, my husband and I went on a day date, to the beach, just the two of us. We left our girls home with their aunt (thanks, Liz!) and hightailed it outta there. We got iced coffees and sat on the sand under the warm sun.

We chatted and laughed and even just relaxed, laying there, closing our eyes—enjoying the peace and quiet. No one was eating sand. No one was complaining of the heat. No one had to go potty.

It was pretty amazing.

There was no bickering and no disappointment. It just worked.

I think we've found the secret to the elusive perfect parent date night: decrease your expectations and then you'll decrease the pressure. By doing that, you'll automatically decrease the chances of something or someone sabotaging your date, like an adult-sized tantrum caused by slick buttery popcorn.🍿

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