It’s just after 9 a.m., and I spot a friend I haven’t seen in awhile in the Target parking lot.

She’s alone, hoisting an unwieldy carseat from her cart into an empty SUV, her older kids deposited at school half an hour earlier. We say hello and I exclaim 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 and 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 tiny round stickers, which they immediately demand to be opened. Sighing, I decide the prospect of a crying 2-year-old and a whining 4-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.

But for the moment, the kids are satisfied 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 already-stickered hair. She raises her eyebrows and I 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 refuge of Target.

Red- and khaki-clad employees straighten shelves and chat in the front lanes as they wait for business to pick up. But the population here is dominated by others wearing an optional, but just as obvious, uniform. Yoga pants, ponytails, and yesterday’s makeup mark us as mothers just as much as the kids we corral—one, usually two, in varying states of dress and demeanor.

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 at 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 huffy 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 and this is our playground.

For a brief, glorious hour, we are rulers of our own fluorescent kingdom. We wander, often aimlessly, through comfortable company that simply gets it, no qualifiers necessary.

I’m sure Target CEOs and managers and corporate headquarters think they own this place, but in these moments, it’s only ours. We walk through the sliding doors, load 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.

The only thing we don’t find is judgment.

We don’t toss dirty looks at the 3-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, dry-shampooed hair shoved haphazardly under a hat; we are her.

And etched on our faces isn’t shame or embarrassment—it’s acceptance, understanding, and sisterhood. Motherhood is hard, but in spite of the difficult mornings, the restless infants, the elusive showers, we’re here—and that’s everything.

A young cashier—a college student, perhaps—greets me at the checkout with a strange look. “Did you find everything you needed, or . . .?” she trails off, her eyes not quite meeting mine.

Suddenly, I remember: there’s a sticker that says “WOW” (or, one could argue, MOM) stuck to my cheek, gleefully placed aisles ago by a delighted toddler.

I touch my face with a smile, leave the sticker right where it is, and tell her yes, I found exactly what I needed.

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Carolyn Moore

Carolyn traded a career in local TV news for a gig as a stay-at-home mom, where the days are just as busy and the pay is only slightly worse. She lives in flyover country with her husband and four young kids, and occasionally writes about raising them at Assignment Mom