I was holding Briar on my hip, Sean was two paces behind me with Avery. It was hot, the kind of hot that creates a hateful, halo of frizz around my face and makes me feel ever so slightly as if I have wet my pants. They breezed past us, all purses and grins. They moved in classic friendship formation, shoulders touching, eyes dancing in shared merriment, heads tilted toward one another, the better to whisper and titter.

I looked away and buckled the girls in the cart. I tried to shake off the sensation that I should be there with them, that if I were more normal, more something, than they’d ask me to join. A part of me clung inexplicably to the notion that my inclusion in that mama-gang would somehow make for a better experience for our girls.

“Mama? Can we go and find the thing for the big room?” Briar asked expectantly.

I looked down, her bare shoulder, creamy and delicate, poked out from her dress. Her hair was pulled back with matching pony tail holders, while her feet were outfitted in de rigueur toddler Crocs, complete with little jeweled accessories. She was the picture of normal, girl-next-door, girliness.

“Of course we can.” And I pushed the cart toward the electronics section and our quest for a dvd player.

“Weg. Weg. Weg!” Avery shouted, each time her feet kicking out in an exclamation point. She too, wore little, hot pink Crocs, and a single purple band in her dark hair. Her indigo eyes twinkled.

“Do you see the red? Are you looking at the red circles?” I asked smiling at her.

“Weg. Uh-weg cucles!” She grinned back at me. I kissed her face and then hugged Briar.

Sean was looking at me quizzically, he hadn’t seen the women. I smiled and shook my head, universal spousal code for forget it, let’s just go, and I meant it. We rolled our squeaky cart through the diapers and wipes, then the car seats and baby bottle aisles. Eventually we made it to the electronics section. We picked a dvd player and some movies for the girls, then made a quick pass of the coloring book section to replenish our supply and we were done.

The girls sat in the cart, Briar holding a book, while Avery flipped through the pages. They took turns regaling one another with the spectacle on each page. The back and forth of their throaty voices, combined with the saucy flips of their heads made me smile, a deep, down in my soul, glad to have two daughters, kind of smile. I pushed the cart faster hoping to slip out of Target before the girls turned on us, their sweet, sibling chemistry soured by one minute too long spent browsing.

We rounded a corner and I was once again face-to-face with my failure. The team-shopping, motherhood brigade. They walked toward us like a Target-ad-come-to-life, beaming and moving at almost a skip, tra-la-la-la-la-aren’t-we-having-fun? I don’t think I imagined making an audible gasp.

Briar’s head whipped, seeing Heather and Catherine’s mom is like seeing a movie star for her. She was riveted, eyes glued to Tina and the inherent magic she possesses just by being Heather and Catherine’s mom.

They paused as our little pack met theirs.

“Oooh, what are you getting?” They asked, charging our cart as one, peering inside and examining the contents as if rubbernecking at the scene of an accident. They clucked and chortled over the things in our cart, exclaiming about “treats for mom and dad.”

And then, it was over.

They whooshed away in a gust of you-don’t-belong-gaiety, the tinkling of their chatter dancing through the aisles as we moved further away. I was nauseous. Disgust for buying a dvd player, guilt for not working harder to be invited into their gang, and despondence for the play date with all the other daughters-of-shopping-moms that our girls were not invited to.

We walked to the check out and quietly waited to pay for our things. Briar and Avery were good as gold, even when the checker began what would be a ten minute endeavor to scan the dvd player. Sean eventually took the girls to the car while I waited, deeply mortified at the rapidly growing line behind me as three, and then four different Target clerks tried to find a working bar code.

Walking to the car I felt wistful. How can I raise the girls to be strong and confident if I fall to pieces in a store at the thought of being excluded from something? Something I don’t even really want? And if I don’t want it, then what the hell is my problem? How do I ever find the balance between demonstrating that fitting in isn’t everything and that sometimes you have to do little things, make small compromises to get what you want?

I want them to belong, not because I fear them being different or unique, but because I fear them having to experience one moment more than necessary of not belonging, of not being wanted. You can say that it builds character or spew any number of platitudes, but the reality is being excluded hurts. My job is to keep these girls safe, teach them to make the decisions that will keep them from harm, and make decisions of my own with that same end in mind. Standing in that parking lot I truly felt as if I’d lost my way.

The problem is, I don’t know if finding my way means accepting that I, and we, don’t belong, or clawing tooth and nail until we do belong.