I’m just going to come right out and say it: Mothering in your 30s is about getting your proverbial sh*t together. School is out, and playtime is over. If you’re like most working mothers in America, by the time you hit your third decade, you’ve woken up to a few things. Unless you’ve been studying physics for the last 10 years, chances are you’re not going be a rocket scientist. You probably won’t be winning the lottery, either, and the sexy, financially solvent, psycho-spiritually evolved knight in shining armor isn’t going to show up at your door ready-made.

Mothering after 30 isn’t about giving up your dreams, but it is about taking responsibility for them. You’ve got another human being to take care of. You can’t get away with dating the hot guy even though you know something’s not quite right. You can’t casually experiment with mind-altering substances and trip your way through the next five years without a plan, a point of view and some kind of vision.

By 30, you’ve come to know the pitfalls of leading the unexamined life. You can still take risks. But now they have to be calculated. It’s time to grow up, Mama. And it might be the best thing that’s ever happened to you. You’ve got a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to take stock and make some decisions. Big ones. About who you are and who you have been. About who you want to be.

Are you, for instance, going to marry a black man? Are you going to marry a white woman? Why? Do you believe in God? What about spanking? What’s your risk threshold—are you stocks or bonds? Just how motivated are you to turn that mountain of debt into a 529 college savings plan? Are you going to go to therapy to work out those childhood issues once and for all? Are you going to acknowledge that almost all of your relatives have diabetes and do something about changing your diet?

And here’s the big one. In the moment of truth, what matters more: your family or your career? What are you willing to lose? What will you sacrifice everything to keep?

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The answers may shock you—and the people who have known you since elementary school. You may decide that a solo fellowship in Spain isn’t as important as maintaining the fragile daily ecosystem of your family. Or that time with your significant other, the one person who is there for you when the whole world isn’t, is more important than getting a Ph.D. Or that you were put on this planet to become a Supreme Court justice, and everyone who loves you needs to get with the program.

Mothering in your 30s: Know thyself. And then, to thine own self be true.

Which doesn’t mean 30-something moms have it all figured out. We don’t, we just spend the whole decade trying, because we know if we don’t, our kids will pay the price. Their inner compass will be off, their sense of self off-kilter. If we lack clarity about our goals and objectives as human beings, they will, too.

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Thirty-something moms are suddenly, uncannily familiar with the adage, If not now, when?

The rest is, well, the rest.

Like all moms (and dads!), we stalk the elusive “life balance.” We flock to blogs and books that tell us how to do the dance of home and work and money and charting a course for a functional future. We draw strength from mothers a little farther along who generously share their insights. From Suzy Welch’s plan in her book, 10-10-10, that reminds us to make every decision based on its impact in 10 minutes, 10 months and 10 years, to Rene Syler’s warmhearted debunking of the supermom in her book, Good-Enough Mother, we’re drinking it all in, mixing it into our motherhood.

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If we’re lucky—and if we work really, really hard—by the time 40 hits, motherhood has made us smarter, richer, sexier and more prepared for the road ahead. We know what works and what doesn’t because we took notes and made adjustments accordingly. We’re more confident about our ability to ride turbulent waters because we made decisions about what matters and didn’t lose sight of the important things on our list. And we don’t see our lives as endlessly compartmentalized—we realize at last that we don’t have to be corporate to be empowered, and we don’t have to be alone to be free.

Like our sisters in their 20s and 80s and every generation in between, we find that if we do it right, motherhood enhances our love of glamour, style, and spiritual and intellectual growth because we can harness the power of bringing new life into the world and apply it to whatever, whenever. … We still relish spontaneous trips to life-changing places, and we still get fabulous new haircuts that make us feel “kind of young, kind of now, Charlie!” thanks to all the women who showed us we didn’t have to sacrifice sensuality and self-love after we brought home children. And finally, we keep seeking to touch and know the transcendent place within that is larger than any role we play. It’s just that now, miraculously, we are not alone.

Rebecca Walker is the author of Baby Love: Choosing Motherhood After a Lifetime of Ambivalence.

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READ MORE on motherhood: Helena Andrews on the 20s. Salatheia Bryant-Honors on the 40s. Mireille Grangenois on the 50s.