January 30, 2014 02:00 PM

Eric Charbonneau/Invision for Focus Features/AP

For Tia Mowry-Hardrict, it was worth the wait.

But for the record, the actress was starting to wonder — not that she was counting — but it had been two and a half years.

And then it happened. The Instant Mom star’s son, Cree Taylor, said those three little words that every mother longs to hear (and no, they were not “I want Daddy!” after a 3 a.m. nightmare).

“He just told me for the first time, ‘I love you!'” the 35-year-old told PEOPLE while attending the Los Angeles Premiere of That Awkward Moment.

“I gasped when he said it because I’m always saying, ‘I love you, Cree! I love you, Cree!’ I’m not expecting to hear anything back, and he goes, ‘I love you.’ And I was like, ‘Aww!'”

It happened when the first-time mother least expected. That’s the genius of these toddlers, they know how to build suspense and then strike with unfailing cuteness.

“It was in the morning, and of course I’m into co-sleeping, so he was in the bed with my husband and I,” Mowry-Hardrict explains.

“We were playing Angry Birds on my iPhone — because he loves that game first thing in the morning — I lean over to him, I give him a kiss on the cheek, and I say, ‘I love you, Cree,’ and he reciprocated and said, ‘I love you.'”

The actress adds, “Then, of course, I started bawling. I was just floored and my husband was looking at me like, ‘Oh my God, Tia.'”

While motherhood has proven to be one joyous surprise after another for Mowry-Hardrict, there was one aspect of this unconditional love that no one prepared her for.

“No one ever told me about the guilt that you have as a working mother — and I wish someone had,” she says. “I’m all about keeping it real, and I got the, ‘It’s great being a mom! It’s the best thing in the world!’ I wish someone would have been honest with me about that because the guilt is so strong.”

To help herself mitigate the misguided self-reproach that she feels being away from her child, Mowry-Hardrict focuses on what she sees is the bigger picture. Not the paycheck, but the ultimate maternal payoff.

“I’m like every other mom out there that goes to work to help provide for their family, and take care of their child, and I really had to learn how to change my perspective on it,” she says.

“I want my child to grow up seeing that his mom works hard for what she gets. If I can instill that with my son, that, ‘Mommy works hard, and things aren’t just given to her,’ then I’ve done a good thing.”

– Reagan Alexander

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