When my two sons were born, only 21 months apart, I was eager to embark on the journey of parenthood. Although I was young at the time, I felt confident about all that I was going to impart on those two virtually blank slates. Little did I know back then that all children are born with their own unique personalities and attempting to change those to fit my preconceived notions,well, let’s just say I wasted a lot of time spinning my wheels.

I had to learn the hard way to accept who they were and nurture their strengths and talents instead of create dreams for them. That was a long road for me, possibly because I harboured regrets from my own childhood. I never had the opportunity to learn a musical instrument, so when I sensed musical ability in my older son, I enrolled him in music lessons—at a very young age. We bought a piano, and for six years, I battled with him over daily practices and weekly lessons. I finally threw in the towel when he was 11 and grudgingly accepted the fact that he was more into sports and computers.

Any parent who has slogged through sleepless nights, soiled diapers, colic, teething, and tantrums has had to learn to dig deep. Young children have no appreciation whatsoever that a parent is running on four hours sleep, or has a work deadline, or isn’t feeling well. They are only aware of their own needs being met.

Because they are selfish little creatures, parents must be selfless. They must find those hidden reserves of strength they never even knew they possessed just to get through the day. Parenthood teaches us to put others first, to temporarily set aside our own wants and needs for the sake of our children.

I don’t mean to imply that being a parent is nothing but a school of hard knocks because children are the greatest teachers of one of life’s most precious gifts: unconditional love.

The love one has for their parents, siblings, or a spouse is special, each in its own way, but nothing can compare to the love a parent feels for their child. Our children have the power to bring us to our knees with one look, one hug, or one simple word or gesture. We would sacrifice our very life if need be without a moment’s hesitation if it meant their safety or well-being. And this unconditional love is there for each child, no matter how many you have.

When I was pregnant with my second child, I remember confessing to my mother that I didn’t know how I was possibly going to love that child as much as my firstborn. Little did I know my love would not be divided, but rather, it would multiply. This love drives parents to go to any lengths for their children, especially when their child is hurt or afraid. The desire to make things right for them, the sheer intensity of that desire, is overpowering.

Along with unconditional love, our children and their perspective give us a profound understanding of what is important in life. Children teach us an appreciation of the simple things; they force us to “stop and smell the roses.” We are able to see the world through their eyes and even the most jaded learn to find joy in simple pleasures whether it be the luxurious feeling of toes in warm sand, the harmony of a chorus of crickets, or the refreshing sensation of a cool rain on an upturned face. Sure children place demands on our time, but when we give them that, the rewards are endless.

I never thought about human frailty or mortality until I had children. When I was young, I figured I had my whole life ahead of me; I didn’t dwell on the future. But once I had children, I began to worry over my own well-being as well as theirs.

No one wants to think about leaving their children motherless, or worse yet, having to watch a child suffer a debilitating illness or disease.

For the first time, I began to experience real fear. And that humbles even the best of us. In the face of what could possibly happen, you learn to take nothing for granted and you consider each day as a gift. I vividly remember praying I wouldn’t be taken from my young children when they were babies, then praying to make it through their school years, then praying to be able to help them get a start in life and so on and so on. I was always greedily bargaining for more time with them.

Whereas I once thought I was the potter and my children were the clay, I have since learned that the reverse is true. My sons have been the ones to shape and mould me into a better version of the person I would have been had they not been in my life. Ironically, they have been the teachers, and I, the pupil. The life lessons I have learned from them have enriched my own journey in a way I could never have predicted or fathomed. And for that, I am truly grateful.

Susan Gnucci is a local author and a proud “nonna” to an adorable three-year-old grandson. She enjoys sharing her experiences as a first-time grandparent.