I tried not to look while I waited for the three minutes to pass. My hands were trembling when I finally picked up the stick. Yes, definitely pregnant.

It was my senior year of college, and I was committed to two things: my new boyfriend and having fun wherever life took me. While I had been doing fairly well balancing everything from a social life to a full load of classes, a part-time job, and volunteer work, apprehension over my impending graduation grew stronger as I tried to decide what to do with my life. Self-doubt, insecurity, and loneliness crept in; I had transferred schools two years in and missed my friends from my first college. I began to question everything I had previously been taught, and came up with two things that could help me feel better: adventure and fun—in stereotypical college-partying style. In January I had the adventure: I took a short service trip to Guatemala. It was eye-opening, but on my return I resumed my previous lifestyle. And shortly after that, something felt a little different. As the weeks went by, I sensed it was more than just readjusting to winter weather. I bought a pregnancy test and a bag of mini Oreos and ate the Oreos on the drive home.

And then the pregnancy test turned up positive.

Here I was with one semester to go, a boyfriend of way too short a time, and a tiny person already growing inside me, changing the plans, or lack thereof, that I had for myself. I felt—conflicted. The first emotion that came to me was new. I felt protective. My hand instinctively went to my stomach and cradled the non-existent bump. I looked in the mirror, tried to smile, and didn’t recognize myself. You’re going to be a mom. You are a mom.

But fear and shame quickly followed. What am I going to do? What will my boyfriend think? What will my parents think? I had been raised in a strong faith-filled household and was involved in my university’s campus ministry. I definitely did not feel like a leader in this moment. To this day, the most nerve-wracking moment of my life was walking up to my parents’ house to tell them the news and explain who I had become in the past year.

Discovering my identity

Now my son is a few months away from turning five, I am married to his father, and we have two more children. It may look like we got the picture-perfect ending to our unplanned adventure with a smooth adjustment to parenthood and family life, but the reality, for me, has been far from it.

When I got pregnant at age 21, most of my friends were graduating, beginning their careers, or traveling. Some of them were getting married. No one that I knew at college had kids. I began to internalize the disappointment I received from some as a judgment of my worth as a person. I felt isolated from many of my friends, and while I eventually made my way back to my faith, I felt like I didn’t quite fit in with the women from my church, either. This had nothing to do with the way they treated me and everything to do with the way I viewed myself. I over-analyzed every parenting decision I made for fear of revealing the irresponsibility and incompetence that I believed characterized me deep down. I had to prove to myself and others that I was not that person. The truth was, I didn’t know how to reconcile how I became a mom with who I wanted to be in the present.

Forgiveness and joy

A few weeks ago amidst the morning chaos, my oldest son came into my room to give me a beautiful red heart he had drawn. “I love you, Mama!” This red heart melted my own heart, and I thought about how blessed I was to have such a sweet, thoughtful son. He has always been so perceptive and is the first to come over with hugs or to try to help by cleaning when he notices I am tired or stressed. He continually teaches me what it means to be forgiving, loving, and generous. Even after a rough day, all my kids’ faces light up when they see me. They don’t look down on me for the times I am not perfect (which are plentiful). Rather, they smile because they see love, and they love back unconditionally.

What I have come to realize is that even more important than the way my first pregnancy came to be—or how others felt about it—is who came to be and how he, and later his siblings, changed me for the better. I believe that beauty can come from any situation, even if the timing is not right or it is less than ideal. This was the case with my becoming a mom. I did not feel mature or responsible enough then, and I was terrified. Slowly, by witnessing the unconditional love in my children, I have been overcoming the deep-seated shame and inadequacy I felt for so long. Becoming a mother has reawakened my faith, made me a more generous and other-centered person, sparked my creativity, and encouraged me to seek connection with other women and support them in their areas of weakness or struggle. From some of my darkest moments has sprung my greatest joy.

I learned several things through my experience becoming a mother.

First, there is always community for you, and you are never as alone as you think you are. Of course, not everyone was supportive when I told them I was pregnant and as I transitioned to being a mother. However, I was overwhelmed with gratitude for the friends and family who encouraged me, helped me, and simply hung out with me when I had a baby in tow. I know I would not be the person I am today without their positive influence. It is my goal to be that person for others in my life in whatever capacity I can, even if it is just to help them discover where to look within their own geographical or virtual communities for more support. If each one of us thought of one small way we could support another mom, I think we could help to make the transition to motherhood less scary and less lonely.

Second, you are not stuck the way you are. Watching my children has taught me that. My oldest did eventually potty train and stop calling me Dada, my middle child is learning to be a little less reckless, and my baby is growing and changing so much each day. They remind me that if I am patient, encouraging, and forgiving toward myself, as I try to be with them, then I can grow into the person I am meant to be, too. For me, this looks like prioritizing self-care practices that nourish my mind, body, and soul, and giving myself grace for the days I fall short. It has also meant having the courage to pursue my other callings, like the call to graduate school. I want my kids to know that they can do hard things, and that one effect of becoming the best version of themselves is that they can better serve others.

As a new mom, I feared that my pregnancy bump, and later, each decision I made while wearing the title “Mom,” was an outward reflection of every insecurity and inadequacy I tried to hide within. However, being able to witness and reflect on my children’s growth and having a supportive community has helped me to let go of my fears and reach out to other moms, pursue my own growth, and find forgiveness and joy in the ever-changing adventure of motherhood.

Editor’s Note: Making of a Mom is a Readers Write column. Share your own story here.