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About a decade ago, I sat with a close college friend at our local Barnes and Noble over summer break. We spent a rejuvenating hour catching up on life, our summer internships, and mutual friends from campus. In between sips of lattes and bites of a shared muffin she told me that her roommate had just decided to step off the pre-med track, a path she had doggedly trod for the last three years. Because I had thought that this mutual friend wanted nothing more than to be a physician, I was confused. “What does she want to do instead?” I asked my friend. “Marry her boyfriend,” she said, “and be a mom.”

I was dumbfounded—not because I was judging her choice, but because I simply couldn’t understand it. Depart from a promising career trajectory and plan to be a stay at home mom? What?

I attributed my confusion to the only plausible answer I could scrounge up: I guess I didn’t get it because I was never really the “maternal” type. I was more of a career woman, I supposed. Sure, I’d probably have kids someday, but I’d definitely be in my thirties—maybe my late thirties.

At any rate, I’d certainly never dreamed of being a stay-at-home mom.

Growing up, my friends played with dollhouses and Barbies, but I loved my stuffed animals and National Geographic Kids magazines. Instead of rocking my baby dolls and playing house, I peddled lemonade and cookies on the sidewalk outside our house and looked for salamanders in the creek. So by the time I worked my way through high school and college, I figured that, unlike my friends, who seemed to have been stamped with a maternal gene from birth, I just wasn’t the motherly type.

But I also had a very limited understanding of what being “maternal” actually meant. My definition was a stilted mix of the little girl who carried her baby dolls everywhere, the tween whose heart melted when she saw a cute baby in church, and the young adult who knew, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that, yes, she wanted kids—and soon. It made me think of my grandmother and my mom, who were kind and generous and so willing to sacrifice the last cookie and put down their work to comfort a crying child.

Fundamentally, my belief that I wasn’t maternal went beyond the fact that I preferred Beanie Babies to Barbies and was, at best, indifferent to the prospect of starting a family. It was something deeper than that: I thought I was far too selfish to ever be a mom. I couldn’t imagine putting aside my own dreams, goals, hopes, and aspirations for the sacrifices that my idea of motherhood required. I knew I felt this way, and I acknowledged it, and I felt horribly, horribly guilty about what I saw as my selfishness—but nonetheless, that thought was there. I considered my nature hermetically sealed: not maternal.

Discovering—and living with—the ache

I met my now-husband in law school. Within three years, we were married, and something inside me clicked. I don’t know what catalyzed it, but it was an intense desire for family. An ache. A primal need. A yearning. It was utterly foreign and completely disarming, and it intensified with each passing year.

One day, for reasons even I cannot fathom, I picked up my phone while at work and texted my husband. “I want to start a family,” I tapped. “I’m ready.” Ever imperturbable and even-keeled, he texted back: “Haha. Sounds good. Let’s discuss.”

I don’t know what it was that shifted in me, or why all of a sudden I was ready for kids at 26 when I was so convinced that I would be, at the youngest, 36 before I was ready. I wasn’t prepared to abandon my career dreams—those dreams were still there. I just knew that I wanted a family, whatever particular form that would take for me.

A watershed event

In a serendipitous turn of events, we did start a family.

My son was born on a sunny September afternoon, entering the world peacefully as the sun streamed in the hospital windows. Slightly delirious from labor, I did not even realize that he had been born until the nurses started shouting, “Happy birthday!” and the doctor laid his impossibly tiny body on my chest—a mess of long limbs and umbilical cord and fuzzy, barely-there hair. “I’m your mama,” I told him, through a blur of tears. “And you’re my baby.”

I never carried around my baby dolls, but now I carry around my real baby boy, and, inexplicably, being his mother is the most natural thing I’ve ever done. Certainly not the easiest, but definitely the most joyful. It’s not that I was suddenly overwhelmed with a desire to be a stay-at-home mom. And by no means have I morphed into a paragon of selflessness. No, I am still the same deeply flawed person I was, and I still harbor my perennial young-adult fear: how can I pursue my own dreams while being a mom? It’s just that I’ve found myself able to live in that tension, being comfortably uncomfortable juggling the demands of mothering and working, writing, and running a business.

Motherhood has its sweet, Instagram worthy moments of baby coos and cuddles and I-feel-like-I-was-made-for-this moments, but it has infinitely more messy, chaotic, and challenging ones. Plans now implode right before coming to fruition. Messes seem to spring up spontaneously. Sleep is a coveted rarity and “me time” is a figment of the distant past. These days, what sustains me isn’t the knowledge that “I’ve always wanted this, never anything else,” but rather continually building up my adaptability muscles. I’m learning to be flexible, and growing comfortable with living amid a mess—both literal and figurative. It’s slowly sinking in that it is okay when plans unravel, when things look less than picture-perfect, when I need to ask for help.

I’m starting to realize that this is part of what it means to be maternal. Constantly weighing priorities and (hopefully, sometimes) pursuing the right one—even when that means choosing more time with hubby over healthy, homemade meal and popping a preservative-laden frozen meal in the oven once again. I’m finding myself living amid a healthy tension between sacrifice and self-fulfillment. Incidentally, navigating this tension was also what helped me thrive in the corporate and entrepreneurial worlds. My twenty-year-old self would have been baffled to learn that a seemingly non-maternal, career-focused mentality actually contributed to—rather than detracted from—my ability to “mom well.”

Before my son was born, people told me how much motherhood would change me, how I would never be the same. But I disagree. Being a mother has actually magnified who I already was all along. And although it demands far more of me than any other challenge I’ve taken on, never before have I felt so completely grounded in the reality of who I am: I’m a mom. I’m maternal, through and through.