I operated as if there’d be a verdict. An easy answer. A story. I operated as if we were setting the tone for the rest of our lives. It did not occur to me that we could simply muddle through. Change things later. Forgive ourselves.

I was a freshman in college when Jerry Maguire came out, and I remember watching through my fingers the scene in which he wrote his explosive mission statement (NOT memo) and wondering why he was getting so excited about interrupting the status quo. What’s wrong with just doing your job and flying under the radar? I thought. You’re getting all weird.

At the time, I was desperate to fly under the radar and keep all the rules (other than the ones concerning underage drinking). I thought the rules would surely lead to the life I had planned: engaged in college, married just after, kids just after that, happily ever American after.

It didn’t go like that, needless to say. I’m a forty-year-old sitting in Sydney with a husband I didn’t meet until I was thirty and two young boys who came along well after that. Anytime my life has been disrupted, it’s been less about a few slices of bad pizza and a conscience and more about grace and its overhauls, which often come dressed as decisions I made/assented to but carry the suspicious fingerprints of a power that has gone beyond my specifications.

Freshman me would have been horrified that, last month, I wrote a post about shitting my pants as an adult. She would be horrified at most of the things I write. She was kind of a drag, to be honest. And more than a little afraid. There are rules, after all, about what’s polite to share and what’s not. My Southern grandmother, for example, would have kicked you out of her house for uttering the word snot (racial disparagements, however, were a different story…).

Freshman me was the one who chose a major that led to a career I am not currently involved in, for various reasons. She had all her ducks in a row, her house in order. Poor thing. She had no idea what was about to hit her: fifteen years of singlehood, some really bad relationships, an escape from Alabama to New York City, a banishment to Sydney, the autism spectrum. All of which drew, and often beat, out of her–out of me–a current intolerance for BS. I don’t need pizza or even Ambien to spout off–this whole time, I just needed grace.

I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was doing something that had been oversold to me, something that was both more difficult and less important than all of the books and articles and websites suggested. They had undervalued my time and my sanity. Or was it that they’d overestimated it? I couldn’t figure out whether motherhood was showing me how strong I was or how weak.

Last week I saw Tully upon recommendation from several friends, along with the promise of Charlize Theron not looking her glamorous best. By the end, I sat weeping in my chair in the darkened theatre. This was not the movie I had seen about motherhood before: the one where everything is magical and motherhood is an exclusive club full of secrets and joy and expertise and capability. This was not the marriage I was told about before my own wedding, the one that’s “so great” because it’s like “a sleepover every night with your best friend.” Gag. Most nights my husband and I each end up with one kid in a different bed, not playing “light as a feather” or hiding each other’s bras in the freezer. There are mornings we wake up and don’t even want to look at each other. And sometimes we even have fun! But it ain’t no damn sleepover. And neither was the one in the movie. It was flawed, and struggling, and founded on deep and abiding love. SIGN ME UP.

Marlo (Theron) wasn’t always happy with her maternal lot. She screamed at her kid when he kicked her seat in the car (BEEN THERE). Her son was quirky, like one of mine–afraid of loud sounds and in desperate need of sameness. She sometimes found it too overwhelming to even get dressed. GIRL REQUIRED A PSYCHOTIC BREAK TO MAKE CUPCAKES. I AM SO HERE FOR IT.

It was the sort of message that was ambient on Facebook and parenting blogs. You’ll never get this time back. It’s a threat. What was work compared to being face to face with a life unfolding before you? Now I am increasingly convinced that I do want to miss out, at least a little bit. ‘Your baby will only be a baby once’ sounds less like a threat than a small mercy.

More and more of us are saying it: that this isn’t what we signed up for, that motherhood isn’t the sepia-toned dream we imagined, that our kids, God bless them, can be such ungrateful little assholes, and this is probably our fault along with everything else. I hear it in schoolyards and on phone calls, in texts and emails: the truth is that it’s a hell of a mixed bag and not what was advertised AT ALL. We carry, nurse, deliver, wear, and raise our babies, and we are too tired for sex.

Upon reviews of it, I ran to watch Ali Wong’s Netflix Special, Hard Knock Wife. Oh thank God for this woman who, onstage in her flats with her heavily pregnant belly, talked about being on the verge of putting her daughter in the trash, who said she had to be away from the baby so that she could miss her, who described breastfeeding as “the savage ritual that just reminds you that your body is a cafeteria now,” who recounted of a mom’s group she joined, “I don’t find any of these bitches particularly interesting or fun.” YES. I remember stumbling upon a Facebook group once called The Joyful Moms Club or something equally odious and wanted to fling my computer across the room after ordering a bag of flaming poop to be delivered to all the members’ doorsteps.

It goes without saying that I hate-follow several people on Instagram.

If only I had the sort of spiritual stamina to stay in profundity longer, to not find it oppressive after ten minutes.

I find, looking back, that so many of the biggest decisions we make come from a place of deep ignorance: of having no idea of what it means to be a career professional, a wife, a mother. I walk into these roles as though I should, at the outset, be fully equipped to do them before failing spectacularly (and regularly) and realizing that I am so not. “I wanted to be worthy of my son,” writes Meaghan O’Connell in her memoir, And Now We Have Everything, which I’ve been quoting throughout this post–and I do too! And worthy of my husband! And of my God! And I am so not. It’s devastating.

It’s also freeing. And it changes me. The other night, my older son and I engaged in a battle of wills over his homework that led to me tossing his book across the room, his crying, and his younger brother asking me to please not get angry. It was an awful moment that I’ll probably remember forever. Minutes later, I sat with them in their bedroom and cried. I told them I love them. They listened more closely than I think they ever have. “Put your face by mine,” my older son said as the three of us lay down together in the dark, echoing the son in Tully: “I want to be by you.” It was a grace I didn’t earn, didn’t deserve. I wasn’t worthy of it.

It was a wonderful moment I’ll probably remember forever.

We are a family. Somehow it happened. Somehow I let it. Or else it happened despite me. In the end I find it doesn’t matter.

And so we are here, in this place where life is never all it was cracked up to be because the people with the loudest voices never seemed to tell the whole truth. Here I am, stripped of my delusions and alternately resentful of and thankful for it, depending on the moment. Here I sit, nestled in a family that cramps my style and sets me free, in a grace that asks for everything only to turn around and give it. I chose to be here, and I didn’t. In the end, it doesn’t matter, because it is exactly where–and how–I’m meant to be.