In my early twenties, I wasn’t sure if I ever wanted to become a mom. I’d always loved children, which is why I pursued a career as a classroom teacher, but I also happily gave the children back to their parents at the end of the day.

There was another thing I was certain of too—that if I ever became a mom, I would never want to stay at home. At that time in my life, being a stay-at-home mama sounded about as exciting as staring at a plant, waiting for it to grow.

I believed being a stay-at-home mom meant freezing my own personal growth and wearing high-waisted jeans. I thought it meant having little-to-no structure or purpose to my days. I believed it meant an end to my personal aspirations.

However, in my mid–twenties, my life took an interesting turn when I had a relapse of Lyme disease leaving me unable to lift my head, much less work in a classroom. This event in my life left me quite unsure of my future—in every sense. Over the next couple years, I regained physical strength gradually, but wasn’t healthy enough to go back to the classroom.

During this season of my life, something happened that changed my life forever—my first niece was born.

I remember the weight of her in my arms, my eyes glued to her tiny features. I couldn’t put it into words at the time, but it awakened an ache in my heart. In that moment, I knew I’d become a mom someday. I wasn’t sure what that would look like or when it would happen, but I was certain that I wanted it.

Just before my 30th birthday, my husband and I decided to have a baby. Since my health was still unstable, staying at home with my child was literally my only option.

Fast forward a few years and here I am: a stay-at-home mama with a 3-year-old daughter.

Perhaps the most surprising thing is that—for the most part—I am quite happy about it. It’s not boring, in fact, it’s quite eventful. And I don’t wear high-waisted jeans, surprisingly enough. I do wish I’d had a choice to stay home or to work, but the fact remains, I love being at home with my daughter and truly enjoy most aspects of stay-at-home parenting.

In all my speculating about what it would be like to be a mom, I got some things right and somethings totally wrong. But there was one factor I missed entirely—the one thing that makes all the difference in the equation—LOVE.

Love makes the poopy diapers worth it.

Love makes the sacrifice of time and self-worth it.

Love makes life feel more complete.

Being a mom looks a lot different from the outside than when you’re in it. It’s a lot harder than it looks—and also a lot better. And more rewarding. And more fulfilling.

Perhaps the aspect of motherhood that has taken me by surprise has been that becoming a mom (even as a stay-at-home mom) has not stifled my development as a person at all; if anything, it has accelerated it.

As I raise my daughter, I understand my own parents better.

As I fail as a parent, I see my own weaknesses and strengths more clearly.

As I teach my daughter, so my patience and ability to love increase.

Frequently there are days when I long to be back in the classroom. I miss there being a beginning, middle and end to my days. Sometimes I feel like bedtime will never come. There are also days when I wonder what my 20-year-old self would think of me now.

But more than anything, I feel a joy that I never could have imagined, when I hear my little girl call me “mama.”

And I’m so very grateful.

I’m grateful to my niece for opening my heart to the possibility of motherhood.

I’m grateful for my husband for being on this journey with me.

And most of all, I’m grateful for my daughter for giving me the best ‘job’ in the world.