As I walk towards Belle’s apartment, I am uncomfortably aware of how unprepared I feel. I am here because Belle has a story to tell, and it is my job to interview her for a Narrative Medicine piece I am writing. I have never interviewed a patient in their own home, outside of the sterile environment of the hospital or clinic. I am not armed with my white coat, or my badge that shouts MEDICAL STUDENT in large blue letters across the bottom. Do I seem trustworthy enough without these things? Belle is a stranger to me. I have not had time to click through her chart on Epic, to studiously scribble down her age, past medical history, all these bits of information we collect to make ourselves feel closer to our patients. There has been no electronic window into her life for me to gaze through, no way for me to relate to her. I have only one piece of information about her identity—Belle is the mother of a NICU baby. This does nothing but make me more apprehensive—what do I know about the NICU? What do I know about being a mother?

My knock upon the door is greeted by a dog’s eager barking. Belle is quick to let me in, one hand holding back her dog, the other holding the door open for me. She smiles warmly despite the chaos of the moment. Her daughter clings to one of her mother’s legs and eyes me with suspicion. Belle beckons me into her apartment, where I sink gratefully onto the couch, the dog jumping up to join me. Belle takes a seat across from me, one hand resting gently on her pregnant belly. The child hovers close to her mother’s feet, sizing me up from across the room with wide, curious eyes. I smile and wave at her, eager for some sign of approval before I begin interviewing her mother. She remains unimpressed by my efforts.

Belle and I spend some time learning about each other’s backgrounds, laughing over shared interests. Her daughter begins to warm to me when I show interest in a cartoon spider video she is watching, and she spends the next five minutes excitedly yelling “PIDER” and climbing up my leg as I try to continue my conversation with her mother. I feel strangely validated by her sudden display of affection towards me. She climbs into my lap, placing her tiny hand in mine, and I feel an inexplicable rush of warmth, love even, for this child I do not know. Is this the allure of being a mother?

As the conversation shifts to Belle’s health narrative and birth story, I watch her demeanor change. She assumes a quiet strength, speaking with a new sense of conviction as she describes the unimaginable hardship she faced bringing her daughter into this world. She is unapologetically proud, steady, and grounded as she recounts the daily battles fought in the NICU. She recalls the way her world would stop each time a new complication arose, the hours she spent with her daughter just waiting to see if she would continue breathing. She asks no thanks for the months she spent in the NICU at her daughter’s side; she needs no validation. It is enough that her child is here now, tugging at her pant leg, asking for more juice. I am in awe. I think maybe this is what it is to be a mother.

My mind shifts to my own mother, who lost two babies before I was born. Who spent 9 months on bed rest when she was pregnant with me, and had to learn how to walk again after I was born. Who has faced unimaginable suffering, the extent of which I’m sure I do not know, to give me a chance at the most precious gift of all. Have I thanked her enough? Does she know how much I love her? Have I ever truly acknowledged just how much she has given without needing anything in return?

In Belle, I see the same strength I see in my own mother. In her voice, I hear echoes of my mother’s own wisdom. I feel the same love, a sort of love that escapes description. There is a moment when Belle describes what motherhood means to her, in a few simple, immediate words: “It’s amazing, nothing compares.” I don’t know what it is about this response, but I feel my eyes cloud over with emotion. Perhaps it’s because I see the parallels between Belle’s story and that of my own mother. Perhaps it’s because her two-year-old daughter is so oblivious to just how much her mother has given for her. Perhaps it’s the fact that I am only now beginning to understand the love, the fear, the sacrifice, the power that is embodied in every woman who is someone’s mother.

I leave Belle’s apartment feeling heavy and light all at once. I call my mother, just to hear her voice. I don’t know quite how to express to her what I’m feeling, so I leave the words forming in my mind, unspoken for now. I’m still not sure what it is to be a mother. But I hope someday I understand.