It's 9AM, and I spot a friend I haven't seen in awhile in the Target parking lot. She's alone, lifting an unwieldy car seat from her cart into an empty SUV, her two older kids deposited at school half an hour earlier. We say hello and spend a few minutes exclaiming over her one-week-old daughter, how much hair, what long eyelashes, how much she looks like her sisters. We talk about breastfeeding, how no one is getting any quality sleep, and laugh a little too forcefully. Wishing her luck, I take her discarded cart and head inside.
My son instantly asks for a toy (darn you, “The One Spot” and your strategic entryway placement!). My toddler stiffens her legs in protest as I try to wrestle her into the unthinkable prison of a child seat. In an attempt to pacify both, I veer into the dollar section and hastily grab a book of miniature stickers, which they immediately demand to be opened. Sighing, I decide the prospect of a screaming 18-month-old and a whining four-year-old outweighs whatever fight there is in me to require waiting until we've actually paid for them. Seconds later, stickers dot the cart handle, my purse, our faces.
For the moment, the kids are occupied and I take my attention off them for the first time since entering the store. Just ahead, I see another woman with a little boy crying in her cart, an infant strapped to her chest. She glances up as I pass by, and our eyes meet above his tear-streaked cheeks and my daughter's stickered hair. We raise our eyebrows and give a tiny shrug, instant understanding passing between us. We don't say a word—what is there to say?—we're living the same life in the early morning aisles of Target.
Khaki- and red-clad employees straighten shelves and chat in the checkout lanes as they wait for business to pick up. The population here is dominated by others wearing an optional but just as obvious uniform. Yoga pants, ponytails, and yesterday's makeup identify us as mothers just as much as the kids we corral—one, usually two, in varying states of dress and frown.
I bump into another friend near the baby section. Her baby, she sighs, is finally—mercifully—asleep. We just had to get out of the house, she explains, gesturing broadly to the cart in front of her that holds only her two children, despite the surrounding aisles of obvious necessities. It's a glorified stroller on a morning like this, when sanity seems so fragile and the day already too long by breakfast. I nod reassuringly, recounting our own disastrous morning that included spilled milk, a forgotten backpack, and deep scowls all around. “Livin' the dream!” I quip, as we share a tired chuckle and part ways, feeling strangely buoyed.
I love my kids, my husband, my life. But the women here well before lunchtime, whose dark-circled eyes match my own? These are my people. For a brief, glorious hour, we are rulers of our own fluorescent kingdom. We wander, sometimes completely aimlessly, through comfortable company that simply gets it.
I'm sure CEOs and managers and corporate headquarters think they own this place, but in these moments, this is our turf. We walk through the sliding doors, load our reluctant tagalongs into oversized red carts, pull wrinkled lists scrawled in crayon out of diaper bags that double as purses—and search for sanity amid diapers and detergent.
What we don't find is judgment. None of us will toss dirty looks at the three-year-old throwing a mammoth tantrum in the Lego aisle; he could just as easily belong to us (and maybe he does). We won't shake our heads at the woman who wears no makeup, morning hair shoved haphazardly under a hat; we are her. Etched on our faces isn't shame or embarrassment; it's pride because we're here. It's understanding. It's sisterhood. Motherhood is hard, but in spite of the difficult mornings, the restless infants, the elusive showers, we're here—and that's worth celebrating.
A young worker, a college student, perhaps, greets me at the checkout with a slightly funny look. “Did you find everything you needed…?” she asks, her eyes not quite meeting mine. Suddenly, I remember: there's a sticker that says “WOW” stuck to my cheek, gleefully placed aisles ago by a giggling toddler. I touch it with a smile, leave it right where it is, and tell her yes, I found exactly what I needed.