“Let me play devil’s advocate: What exactly have you done that a housekeeper couldn’t?”

If I were a cartoon, smoke would start coming out of my ears. “You want to know what I’ve done? Taught your kids to cook, for one thing. Taught them to get off the stinking couch. You have an eleven-year-old who didn’t know where the washing machine even was and an eight-year-old who can’t make toast. He told me he had literally never used a toaster before.”

Wendy looks sheepish but shakes her head. “You can’t understand. When I get home from work, I haven’t seen my kids in hours,” she tells me, as if I haven’t been her for a week. “I miss them; I care about them; I think about them all day. If Linus wants toast, I’m happy to make him toast.”

“But not dinner,” I say sharply. “As far as I can tell, your kids are surviving on pizza bagels alone.”

She rubs the back of her neck. “Celeste, does it matter what they eat on any single day, as long as they are fed, safe, and healthy? Honestly. Be real.”

I think of this question. The old me would have said no. Fed kids who are loved . . . of course that’s good enough.

But the me of this moment isn’t so sure. “They need to see you modeling good food choices. They need to eat organic so they don’t get Red Number Three disease, and avoid excess carbs so they don’t get bullied, and eat the rainbow every day even though there are really only so many blue foods. And they need to eat local. Being the family food gatekeeper is one of the last acts of useful environmental activism,” I say.

“I think we read the same mommy blogs,” says Wendy. “I’ve heard all that before. But unless you have nothing to do all day but cook, it just translates to ‘You have to be perfect all the time, in every way, and do nothing that doesn’t better the childhood of your precious offspring, or you’re a parenting failure.’”

I frown. “Is it women staying at home with their kids that you have a problem with,” I ask Wendy, “or just ME staying home with my kids?”

“It’s how you do it, Celeste,” she says, and my name comes out with such a weight of compassion that I find myself leaning forward to listen further, or maybe to get ready to slap her, if the need arises. “We both know there’s nothing fundamentally wrong with choosing not to work outside the home. If you can’t earn enough during the day to afford childcare, then it can be absolutely necessary. Conversely, if you just don’t want to work and can afford not to, fine, be my guest, Mrs. Moneybags. But what you do, the designer baked goods and the perfectly planned birthday parties, the vegan organic school snacks and the sanctimonious health tips—that would offend me whether you did it during the day or after working hours. You are basically creating busywork to make the rest of us feel bad. Most women need to work, not just for money and health insurance but because we want to have a life outside of our kids.”

“Oh, so now I’m the one making YOU feel bad here.”

“Actually,” she tells me, “you’re the one making both of us feel bad, because all of this is at the cost of your own happiness. If sewing kids’ clothes and cooking three-course weeknight dinners and slicing SunButter sandwiches into the shape of 3D endangered species lights you up and fills up your heart, then fine. Tell me that’s the case, and I’ll lay off. But if you’re just competitive mom-ing on Facebook to try to make others feel they’re losing at something that’s unwinnable . . .”

I say nothing. Do those things light me up? The lunch boxes, the craft projects, the meal planning? I don’t know. Maybe, kinda, sorta?

I’ve wanted my own kids since I was the boys’ age. That’s when I started taking care of my own siblings while my mom was at work, and that’s when I felt most of use. But even before then, I had a dolly with me everywhere. I changed her diaper, cooed to her, burped her after her “bottles” of water that dribbled down her plastic chin.

But those days are coming to an end. And after that . . . I don’t know what will become of me.

“I rest my case,” she says into my silence.

“Can I ask you a question, Wendy?” I finally say. “What about you? Does your lifestyle light you up? After work, which I now understand is a consultancy that tells other insanely busy people how to take on yet more in their lives, you come home to two sweet but pretty demanding kids. You shove subpar food into them, basically do their homework on their behalf, and then let them watch TV while you clean up their messes, cover for your husband, and torture yourself on a basement spin bike.”

Wendy makes sort of a dismissive noise. “You just described the second shift,” she says to me. “You’re finally understanding how ninety-nine percent of the female population lives.”

“Well, let me tell you, the second shift first-degree sucks.”

Wendy actually laughs.

“Pardon my French,” I add, feeling the margarita acutely. But still I go on. “Your life would be so, so much easier if you taught your clients to stop bugging you after hours, made your kids do some chores, and asked your husband to, you know, participate in the family.”

She lets out a joyless laugh. “In the week you’ve been there, have you had any luck with Seth?” she asks.

I shake my head. “But I’ve had some luck with Davis,” I reply too quickly.

Wendy nearly snorts her margarita. “Don’t even start with all that. Davis is a work friend,” she tells me. “I’m not having an affair.”

“I know. Seriously—I can tell. But he’s nuts about you. You may be leading him on.”

“I’m not leading him on!” she says. “I’m trying so, so hard not to lead him on,” she amends. “He’s an amazing guy. He deserves the best.”

“He seems to think you’re the best.”

“Well, what does he know?” she jokes.

I shrug. “It seems like he knows you pretty darn well. He knows you’re a workaholic with a secret soft spot for the underdog,” I say, thinking of that meeting we took with the director of the halfway house. “He knows all about what’s important to you and what’s important to your kids. Unlike me, I think he even knows what makes you tick.”

A blush of recognition crosses her face. “You’re right, Celeste. Davis is amazing. He makes me smile, cares—there’s no question I could love him if I wasn’t married. But I am. And yes, the situation isn’t perfect, but if it’s what it took for me to get my kids . . .” She shrugs. The sentence doesn’t need to be finished, not for the sake of any mother I’ve ever met.

Maybe that’s what makes me soften at last. That realization that no matter how different Wendy and I may be, we are in complete alignment on this most vital thing. There is nothing, literally nothing, we wouldn’t do for our kids, and it starts before they are even born. Whether that means the way my mom worked eighteen hours a day so that we could eat, Wendy selling herself out for a baby, or me setting aside everything else to make sure my children get the perfect childhood I always dreamed of. How much we all give up, we mothers. How much we willingly hand over. Our bodies. Sleep. Sometimes safety. Often passion. And, of course, our dreams. We’ll give up our very dreams, if that’s what it takes to see to theirs.

To my surprise, Wendy reaches over the table and puts a napkin in my outstretched hand. “Don’t cry, Celeste. Don’t cry for me, at least.”

“I’m not crying,” I tell her. But I do dab my eyes with the napkin and give her a meek little smile. “It’s the margarita. Is that server ever coming back to take our order?”

“Oh. No.” Wendy gives a little laugh. “I sit in her section whenever I come here, and I never order anything but chips and drinks,” she tells me. “We can’t eat dinner and drink this many calories. Not if I’m going to get into my normal clothes when I get my body back.”

“Who cares if you do, Wendy?” I gesture to the bias-cut skirt and flowing blouse I chose this morning. “These clothes are nice, and you can breathe in them. And besides,” I say as I wave the server over, not just for some darn tacos on the double but also for another drink, “Davis likes these clothes.” My eyebrows arch high to the sky.

She sighs. “Davis is a good man,” she says.

“He is. And he would like you wearing anything. Or better still, wearing nothing.”