What is your happiest moment?

Before my first child was born, I assumed that the moment of her birth would be the pinnacle of all my life experiences.

To put it bluntly, this did not turn out to be so.

My daughter was born when I was 24 years old at the end of an easy pregnancy and fairly straightforward delivery. I’d spent most of the previous nine months narrowing down names and daydreaming about finally having a little person around whom I could love as much as I wanted. This was the kicker of motherhood for me—the idea that there would finally be someone in my life who needed all the love I had to give and would never (until adolescence, anyway, by which point I would have regained my cool) tell me I was too much or too intense. I couldn’t wait for the moment when I could love this baby on the outside as much as I’d loved it on the inside.

After thirteen hours of labor, I grit my teeth, bore down, and within a handful of pushes, she was out. She came out silent but began screaming just a few moments later. She looked exactly like an alien, and yet she was the most perfect creature I’d ever laid eyes on. I had only a moment to look at her before my doctor, concerned about my uterus’ delayed contraction, possible hemorrhaging, and the likelihood therefore of surgery, handed her off to a nurse to be brought to the nursery.

I was finally given the all-clear hours after her birth, and that was when I realized I hadn’t actually really seen her, except for that one fleeting moment. So I decided to take a walk. I gathered the back of my hospital gown with one hand and dragged my IV pole behind me with the other. As I shuffled down the hall toward the nursery, I recited what I remembered from my glimpse of her: Black hair. Mohawk. Red lips. Covered in gunk.

I reached the nursery and stood in front of the window, staring at the babies and waiting for that maternal feeling to wash over me. I stared through that window at the four or five little baby burritos, all fast asleep in their bassinets and what I felt, instead of elation or excitement or gratitude, or even subdued resignation, was horror. I had no idea which one was mine. They were all bathed—no gunk. They were all wearing hospital caps—no mohawk or black hair. They all had red lips. I stared and stared, desperately trying to intuit through the glass some precious me-ness, some essence that only my baby could have. Hadn’t I carried this girl around for nine months? Hadn’t I fed her from my own body? Hadn’t I nurtured and protected her with my own blood, my own heart? What kind of a mother was I, to not recognize my own flesh and blood, mere hours after she’d been inside of me?

I shuffled back to the room, shaken. My entire life, I had known one thing: I was going to be a mom. I had only just started, and already, I had failed. If I wasn’t good at being a mom…what was left?

In the following months (and years—I finally relented and accepted a prescription for antidepressants about two years later when my second child, a son, was six months old), I struggled mightily with that question. Had I somehow carried, nourished, and given birth to the wrong child? Maybe my child was out there somewhere, being raised by someone who was as terrified of her as I was of this fragile creature.

For terrified I was. It was ridiculous. She weighed seven measly little pounds, for crying out loud; she was the most breathtaking little baby; she didn’t even cry much (for an infant). And yet, I was scared to death of her. I held her when I was nursing and when she was inconsolable (which never helped, but it was all I could think of to do) and let others take over the rest of the time. I was sure that the more I held her, the more opportunities there’d be for me for me to screw up. It didn’t help that she was always staring up at me with her piercing, bright blue eyes, her mouth in a solemn straight line. She would keep her gaze on me for minutes at a time, and I just knew she was thinking things like, “I know what you should be doing right now, and if I could speak, I would tell you,” or “It’s only because I’m pre-ambulatory that I’m putting up with this nonsense.” (She was using the word penultimate in casual conversation by age three; it wouldn’t surprise me in the slightest if she was thinking the word pre-ambulatory as an infant.)

Friends commented on how generous I was with her; apparently, most new mothers are wary of passing their babies around. I welcomed it. I figured there wasn’t anything I could offer her that she couldn’t get in abundance with anyone else (including milk—nursing was going terribly for both of us).

I would look at her and see that she was beautiful, and see that she was vulnerable, and see that she resembled me, and I would dig and dig and dig, but I simply could not find that feeling, the one that I had, in my mind, already named mother. My fears led me to believe that we would never have a bond. How could we? We were like ships passing in the night.

And then something unexpected occurred at her one-month checkup. After all the measuring and weighing and warnings of dire consequence should I so much as use a Q-tip on her, the nurse came in to give our daughter her scheduled vaccinations. I laid her down and held her hands in mine as instructed. The nurse unwrapped the band aids and double-checked that she had the right syringe. My husband stood by, looking for some way to be of use. The nurse pinched my baby’s skinny little thigh in her gnarled fingers and pushed the needle in. Beneath my fingers, my daughter’s whole body spasmed, and her pitiful little face jumped as a shriek of pain, insult, and betrayal came ripping out.

I felt a fury rise up in me, the likes of which I had never known. My animal instincts, long-buried beneath modern niceties like civility and custom and humane behavior, told me that this nurse posed a threat and that the threat must be vanquished. It was only because I had been raised to behave as a human being and not, in fact, as a howling she-wolf, that I didn’t rip the needle out of the woman’s hand and throw her against the wall. How dare you? I wanted to scream. That is my child!

The moment passed before I had time to act on my crazed desires, and the baby, clearly much tougher than I was, stopped crying. As I gathered myself and walked out of the doctor’s office with my family, I poked and prodded that phrase cautiously: That is my child.

The thought had come unbidden, and I suddenly realized that it was true. For the first time since she’d been born, I had a moment of hope on which I could rest. I was not the mother I’d assumed I would be—and I did indeed mourn that fact—but when I found myself willing to injure a complete stranger for the sake of my daughter, my attitude changed from What have I done? to I may not have even the slightest clue what I’m doing, but at least my basest instincts are intact.

That baby is now seven years old, and my husband and I have gone on to have three more children. It still surprises me how little I as a mother resemble my childhood expectations of myself. I love my children fiercely—I would die for them, and I would kill for them, and I would sacrifice everything for them. I would even, God forbid, play Barbies with them or carry on nonsensical conversations that last for hours and feature an ever-evolving cast of characters (there is almost nothing I hate more than Barbies and nonsense), but these truths have never borne themselves out in the ways I always expected. I have needed help and enormous grace in order to succeed at something that I thought should come effortlessly. I have needed to let go of standards I thought were nonnegotiable. I have mourned my own inadequacies in tiny stolen moments throughout these many long, long days. But that moment in the doctor’s office is one I fall back to again and again. At that moment, I came face to face with the fact that, to my own great surprise, I am a mother and that yes, this child is mine.