As Mother’s Day approached during the first year I was a mother, I was absolutely pumped. It was Christmas-morning excitement. Our twins had been adopted for a few months, we had a date set to adopt our foster daughter in the coming weeks.

I was going to go to church and stand up when they passed out the bags of jordan almonds or the single pink carnations, and I was going to cry reading the little poem printed on the program, and I was going to watch my little sons sing a song about mothers in front of the congregation while wearing their matching bowties, and I would be so happy.

“I did it!” I told myself. “I’m in the club now! I can celebrate this day that has previously brought so much pain and heartache!” As if the ultimate goal of motherhood was to get a card on the second Sunday in May.

Instead, this is what happened: The first Mother’s Day I was a mother, I threw out my back and spent the weekend in bed. I was crushed. This one day that represented so much to me about this place we had come to, this journey we had been on, and I didn’t get to participate in the way I thought I deserved to.

The next year, I was ready. I would go and hear the song and read the poem and cry and beam and feel like I had arrived. I dressed up, dressed my kids up. We got there early enough to get a good seat. (A rare occurrence.)

At the end of the service, all the mothers were asked to stand and be recognized. And I stood, and I was so happy. For a moment, I was so happy.

The youth scurried about handing out the little offerings, and as I stood, watching the chaos unfold, I saw a single woman visiting her family for the day. I didn’t know her well, and would have had no way of knowing whether or not she wanted to be married or wanted to be a mother, except for that when I saw her face, it was so familiar to me. The face of a person in pain, smiling and being fine. I knew that face well, because I had worn it myself, this day and many others, for four years.

As I tried to shake off the sadness that came with my new understanding of this day, I got my gift — a chocolate bar — and I read the first lines of the poem attached. It spoke of mothers being the givers of life and babies at the breast and other lovely, beautiful things that had nothing to do with my own motherhood. And in a moment, I understood that the kind of significance I had assigned to a single day meant very little in the grand scheme of my journey to motherhood.

How had I allowed myself to assign so much value to this experience?

I genuinely wanted to run from the building as I realized that the hurt of being excluded from not just Mother’s Day, but from the club exclusive to mothers, was still so much a part of me. I could recognize it in others. I could feel the sting when, at the park with my children, other mothers started talking about their pregnancies and birth stories. I felt an illogical sadness over not having seen my children in those first moments of their life or knowing if my boys had cupcakes at their second birthday party—illogical because I didn’t know them yet, how could I have been there?

Miraculously now, though biology said differently, I am not childless. But Mother’s Day is still hard. I remember that hurt too well, and I know others feel it, too.

I find myself thinking of women who’ve lost their babies before they ever got to hold them, and how this day must feel.

Of mothers who held their babies, but had to let go far too soon.

I think of my beautiful children and the beautiful, troubled women who gave birth to them.

I think of mothers who do it all alone. I think of mothers parenting children who are theirs in some ways, but not in others. Of women who lovingly and selflessly mother children who will never call them “mom” and of the many women who mother with their whole hearts, regardless of whether their children will stay.

I think of the brave women looking through profiles, choosing families for their babies.

I think of the women still waiting. Waiting for someone to start a family with. Waiting to hear from their doctor. To take the test. Waiting to be chosen. Waiting on paperwork to go through. Waiting for the right time to parent. Waiting for sticky little hands to grab their faces and call them mama.

Have you felt any of this, friend? Please know that you are not alone.

Your worth is not tied to how many little heads sit beside you. It is not whether your body will allow you to carry a child, or if you are ready to start a family yet. It’s not in an invitation to stand and be recognized as a mother.

It is, though, found in your strength, and the love you carry with you—whether you have carried a baby or not. It’s the wealth of knowledge you share freely with others, or the note you send to a friend you know is struggling.

It’s that beautiful, tender nurturing that ties us all together as women and keeps humanity moving forward.

Motherhood is deserving of celebration, certainly. But there are stages, there are variations. There are infinitely many more versions of motherhood than there are greeting card options. There are so many women unable to experience motherhood in the way they had dreamed, and finding the joy in that is more than one day can represent.

Motherhood is beautiful and it’s hard, whether you have children or not. It’s isn’t a finish line. It isn’t a chocolate bar and a poem.

Hopeful mother, give yourself grace this Mother’s Day. Birth mother, be gentle with yourself. Adoptive mother and foster mother and stepmother, know that you matter.

Mothers everywhere, find the beauty in your unique story. It might be hard to see, but I promise it’s there.