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When my nest emptied about five years ago with the last of my three boys leaving home, it took a while for my feelings to fully compose themselves.

I felt some relief. No more shoes the size of boats damming up the foyer. My fridge could be mine again. There was also an end-of-an-era wistfulness and excitement over what could now be possible. (Breakfast in the nude came to mind.) But over time, and with the realization that the nest can fill and empty as regularly as a bathtub, with short-term returns of university-educated children and now step-children, I understood an aspect of motherhood I hadn't appreciated, at least not when I was in the throes of it.

I had developed a competency and a cast of mind that will stay with me forever, a mothering muscle and sensibility, conditioned out of necessity, habit and instinct. I had changed, in other words. Which came as a surprise – and understandably so. It's not a popular idea, and rarely discussed. We live in a culture that seems bent on denying how the experience of motherhood can shift the way we think, feel, look and lead our lives. We fear that change, in fact.

How else to interpret the focus on celebrity bodies that "bounce back" from pregnancy as if they never had a child? To me, that's a reflection of a broader, subconscious wish that motherhood need not change anything. You have a bump: You get a mini-me. That's all. It's a state you can recover from, like an illness.

Of course it's true that you can resume your old, pre-bump life, work outside the home and look hot in your bodycon dress. Do we need reminding that Marissa Meyer, CEO of Yahoo, took only a few weeks of maternity leave? How women choose to braid motherhood into their lives with competing responsibilities, financial imperatives and interests is completely subjective. Everyone finds her own technique; what suits her family; what makes her happy – or better put, what she can manage. But I think every mother knows, not necessarily right away but little by little with each passing year, that motherhood has shaped her differently. We get stretch marks of the heart and mind.

There was a period, after my firstborn, when I swear I could feel my brain bulking up with new grey matter and spouting new dendrites daily. I was in my mid-twenties, a bounce-back kind of mom, eager to get back into my job and my jeans after a couple of months. But the multitasking took some practice. My brain hurt. By the time the third son came along 41/2 years later, I was proficient at it most of the time. The only problem was my career as an advertising copywriter: Too much travel; not enough meaning. So I went home to be the primary caregiver and reinvent myself as a freelance journalist. I craved work that I found as meaningful and as important as my babies. In that way, motherhood, for me, was far from being an ambition buster; it was an ambition clarifier. It feels like anathema to say this but motherhood gave birth to a more interesting, more focused and motivated me.

Recently, I came across research that showed how motherhood changes women's brains. One behavioural neuroscience study at Yale, based on brain scans of mothers before and after giving birth, showed an increase in the volume of grey matter in the mid-brain section, growth the researchers linked to the mother's enthusiasm and affection for her child – a somewhat frightening calibration when you think about the cultural and political interest in determining what constitutes a good mother. Are we all to be brain-scanned for attachment competency? I also discovered Katherine Ellison's book, The Mommy Brain: How Motherhood Makes Us Smarter, in which the Pulitzer-Prize-winning foreign correspondent (and working mother of two) outlined the brain-boosting benefits of bump-dom: perception, resiliency, motivation and emotional intelligence. Ah, I thought, that explains it.

It wasn't just that I continued to multitask as a empty-nester. (At least, that's how my new husband explains my desire to renovate the house while planning a holiday while scheming how to return to painting while writing a column and thinking about a novel.) I realized that while I had come to the end of that 25-year period of hands-on motherhood, I was still looking out at the world with a compassion I can only describe as a mothering muscle.

When one of my boys was born, my mother, who has five children and 15 grandchildren, looked at him in his crib and sighed, "Another human bean." It was her term for that little being, and it was said with a mixture of appreciation, wonder and anticipated exhaustion, I now realize. With each child, mothers (and fathers, too) enjoy an intimacy with another human life that doesn't compare to any other relationship. You learn to identify a need based on the nature of a newborn's cry; predict a looming earache from the colour of his snot; anticipate and avoid a tantrum before it happens. You get to witness, the day-to-day unfolding, the flowering, of a human life. It's tough. It sometimes feels thankless. But I can tell you as someone who has seen three human "beans" grow into towering stalks of men, that it's also rather beautiful.

Part of the compassion mothers know and carry forward is what I call the "love despite" capacity. You love your children because of their strengths but also despite how they might sometimes disappoint you, despite their shortcomings, their weaknesses, their limitations, just as hopefully, they love you – eventually when they're no longer crabby teenagers – for your complicated, imperfect humanity. That's the lesson of motherhood, of family: the control you can have and the control you can't. And that's worth applying to life in general, I think.

At the same time, comes the appreciation for the agency of others – not just the difference you can make as a mother or as a father but of all the people who have an influence and help to shape a child.

That understanding of the potency of individual agency is a hard thing to drop. One friend of mine, a retired teacher, went off to Africa to help set up schools in Uganda. She has four children, all adults who live in the United States. And she had the opportunity to do something meaningful. "I just couldn't spend my life playing tennis and playing bridge," she explains.

Mother's Day is often seen as a reward for what we have to endure and the sacrifices we make. But maybe also, if we dare, it should also be a celebration for what we have been given and how we have been forever altered.

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