Throughout my career I’ve met students who claim they don’t need to learn whatever I’m offering because they know exactly what they’ll be doing in a few years – they have it all figured out. I tell them that if someone had told me when I was a teenager that by the time I was thirty-six I’d be married with three children and living in rural Tennessee, I’d have laughed my head off. At eighteen, I was mildly interested in getting married at some later date, but I knew for a fact that I’d never have kids and I’d never move away from California. Surprise, surprise, surprise.

I was 28 when Delaney was born; I liked the idea of making a family someday, but I had just quit my job and was planning a cross country trip in an old VW with the girls’ father “to look for America.” Then we found out I was pregnant and everything changed. We were thrilled and I have never regretted having children – I often tell expectant parents that you will never fall in love again like you will with your babies – and Delaney was my first healthy, all-consuming love affair.

I approached motherhood in the same way I take on any new challenge; I studied, planned, and organized my home and myself. If I was going to do this, I was going to give myself over to it completely. I had been a teacher for a few years and had begun to build a reputation as having a way with even the most difficult teenagers. A baby would be a piece of cake.

What threw me was the fact that motherhood was a 24-hour gig – I’m sure I intellectually understood that, but I was not prepared for the fact that for the next seven years, I would rarely experience anything close to a full-night’s sleep. Also, I’m the type of person who works hard when I’m on the job, but I need privacy and quiet every day to refuel. Babies don’t understand that. And I solve problems and create relationships with words. Luckily, Delaney was verbal at a very young age, but there were definite parameters to our conversations. Often, when I was home with a four-year-old, a two-year-old, and a newborn, I felt like I was just surviving, which made me feel guilty. I thought I should be reveling in this experience. I have a sister-in-law who lamented the fact that her babies would become children who would become adults. I couldn’t wait for my kids to grow up.

But the odd thing was, from all accounts, I did a pretty good job as a mom. I was far from perfect, painfully human, but my daughters tell me that when they have kids, they’ll use me as one of their role models. I think that’s the greatest compliment I’ll ever receive.

I do know that we don’t raise children on the side; even if we’re working parents, our first commitment must be to our children. When you’re submerged in toddler-land, it can seem like you’ve lost your identity or your dreams, but the time period that kids need your full attention is shorter than you think. Well-raised kids get on with their lives, so the day will come when all they need from you is your interest and encouragement.

I often tell my students that no one teaches us how to parent. Most of us will do what we observed as children. As a mother, I embraced my father’s example of consistency and my mother’s example of unconditional love; but I struggled with my father’s inflexibility and my mother’s martyrdom. Without question, parenting is the best and most difficult work I’ve ever done. In the following pages, I’ll share with you what I learned.