I heard a story once, a very long time ago, that I’ve never been able to forget.

It goes like this: A doctor treated a woman in the emergency room after she fell down a flight of stairs covered in ice. The woman had injuries to the back of her head and her spine, but no injuries to her hands. Why? Because she was holding her baby and she didn’t let go. She sacrificed her body to keep her baby safe instead of using her hands to break her fall.

I don’t remember any of the details of that story — who told me, who the woman was or where the fall happened — and I don’t know if it’s even true, but the image of a woman sliding down the stairs, overriding her natural instinct to fling her arms out and catch herself, has stayed in my mind since the day I heard it.

That day was long before I had children of my own. But as I heard the story, I remember thinking, what would I do if the same thing happened to me? Would my motherly instincts be so strong? I couldn’t blame myself if they weren’t. Humans don’t generally have much control in those kinds of split-second accidents.

But what would it feel like to fall and not catch myself? Would I realize what was happening, as my head banged on each step? Would I be able to hold on?

Luckily, I’ve never had to answer my own question, but the idea still remains. I don’t know what would happen, but I hope I could hold on.

As I had kids, I thought about that scenario more and more, especially anytime I held them when I walked on the stairs.

Then it dawned on me recently, that whether that story was true or not, it serves as a profound metaphor for motherhood in general.

I wrote recently about my newborn son’s aversion to chocolate, and how I gave it up.

But after that, I noticed his stool was an unusual color and smell, and it had blood in it. I noticed he was a little fussy, and he had a rash on his face. When I took him to see his pediatrician, she told me those were all telltale signs of a dairy allergy, and if I wanted to keep nursing him, I could not eat anything with any dairy in it. If I did, I could potentially compound his reaction to the point of long-term damage.

If I didn’t nurse him, I would have to buy expensive, hypoallergenic formula to feed him, instead. The doctor said he would probably outgrow the allergy by the time he was 9 months old.

At the time, he was a little older than 1 month.

That means no cheese, no sour cream, no whipping cream, no ice cream, no butter, no milk, no cookies, no candy bars, no yogurt, no cottage cheese, and none of the other myriad things that contain milk as an ingredient like most breads, granola bars and battered chicken, for me for the next eight months. Not even for Thanksgiving and Christmas.

Normally, that would be impossible for me to do. I love ice cream, I love cheese and I love butter. And if I were to attempt a similar diet for no other reason than myself, I don’t think I could do it. I think I’d make exceptions all of the time.

But the minute I left the doctor’s office, it was like flipping a switch. I couldn’t even eat most of the dinner I’d already prepared for my family that night, but it didn’t matter. And suddenly, although I never before paid much attention to food labels, I instantly began to vigilantly read the label on everything before I ate it. It was automatic and instinctive.

Like my mother working the graveyard shift for years when I was in elementary school so she could be home during the day.

Like my grandmother, who also worked the night shift as a nurse to earn money for her family.

And like my other grandmother, who scrimped and saved her whole life so she could leave an inheritance for her children and grandchildren.

We all make sacrifices. One way or another, as mothers, we all hold on when it really counts.

And if we fall, I think the person in our hands makes it hurt a little less.

Amy Choate-Nielsen is a full-time mom and part-time writer. She spends her days at the park and her nights at the computer. She writes about family history and her quest to understand life while learning about her deceased grandmother, Fleeta.