WHAT IS “PROGRESSIVE PARENTING?”

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Nico and Ross, Monday.

For a while, I’ve hesitated to write this blog post. Partially because I didn’t have the vocabulary yet to describe the way I was feeling, and partially because I was afraid of pissing people off. I believe I’ve got the former figured out now. The latter remains to be seen!

Anyway, the question I’ve been circling around and around as a rookie parent is: what does it mean to be a progressive parent?

As an Austinite, and left-leaning person in general, my knee-jerk response is:

*organic food

*cloth diapers

*breastfeeding, but if we have to do formula, we’ll make it ourselves out of goat’s milk

*baby wearing

*A charter / private-ish school for Nico when the time comes

*Either no vaccines, just some vaccines, or hand-wringing and fear if we do in fact vaccinate (note: we have).

These are all things that we do with Nico, and I love them. We probably won’t stop.

But they are also big, flashing markers of social class. And that is what I’m conflicted about: not about having the resources to do special things like private school or organic food, but because I have this sneaking suspicion that by diverting these resources to Nico and Nico alone, I’m taking away resources from larger systems that could make things better for EVERYBODY’S kid.

Allow me to explain.

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So that whole set-up sounds pretty damn self-important, right? Yeah. It does. It also sounds like Ross and I are kinda rich. We’re not, but we’ve admittedly got a lot of great things going for us lifestyle-wise: we both work from home, we live in a city where access to organic food and alternative education is easy, we have parents who bought us a monthly subscription to a local cloth diaper service (I love you Mom and Dad).

As I say, I looooove all these things. Love ‘em! Baby wearing shouldn’t be a political choice, but let’s face it: it is. I feel more crunchy or natural or just “better,” for some vague and not well-thought out reason, when I put Nico in a sling and carry her around that way. (I also like kissing her fuzzy baby head.)

But lately, I’m beginning to feel like my draw to crunchy/natural/Dr. Sears-esque stuff may not in fact be “progressive,” if by that term, we mean “progress for all.” I guess what I’m getting at is: opting out of more traditional, mainstream, and government-involved systems of childrearing has become synonymous with “caring.” Because I care, I won’t vaccinate. Because I care, I won’t enroll Nico in public school. Because I care, I won’t make a fuss out of the fact that no soy-free formulas exist in the U.S. formula market (more on that in a minute); I’ll go out and buy pricey ingredients for a goat’s milk (soy-free!) version and call it a day.

I’m troubled by the fact that it’s that way.

There’s a book out there by Emily Matchar called “Homeward Bound: Why Women Are Embracing the New Domesticity.” It’s pretty fascinating, and while I don’t necessarily agree with the whole thing, there’s a pretty bracing paragraph at the end of her chapter titled “DIY Parenting,” which I read while I was pregnant, and read again the other day:

“In the twenty-first century, parents with resources and education feel they can best protect their child by “opting out” of the system. If the government isn’t doing a good job at regulating the food supply, then parents with money and education can buy organic, local food from the farmers’ market. If the schools aren’t good, parents can homeschool or choose a charter or private school – weathy parents are “abandoning public education,” Golden says. If parents worry about chemicals in household products, then those with the time, money, and inclination can make their own cleaning products or buy pricey VOC-free rugs and paints. Which is all well and good, but these options are not so freely available to working-class parents with less time and money. They’re the ones who will be left behind if we collectively abandon the effort to push for better social and governmental solutions.”

A-ha, there it is: “they’re the ones who will be left behind.” That is what’s giving me pause, now that I’m a parent.

Matchar is basically saying (I think) that in our move to privatize parenting, we’re creating a competitive market for those who can enter it, and generate demand for better food/school/etc. And trust me, looking at Nico each day, I want to sing to her sweet little face: “only the BEST for you, baby! Corn syrup solids shall never pass these lips!”

But again, back to my central question: is that really progress?

I don’t think this is a simple question with a simple answer, so I’m putting this post out there mostly as a way to start a conversation. I am genuinely curious to know how parents who think of themselves as “progressive” define that for themselves, and I apologize right now for the abundance of scare quotes in this post, which is making the whole thing sound more sarcastic than I want it to. But by using those quotes, what I’m really trying to signal is the fact that I’m not convinced by current definitions, and am ready for other interpretations.

Now, full disclosure: this post has also been written by a card-carrying Democrat, so in theory, I’m a fan of social systems. But in practice, am I really supporting them as a parent? Not really. Am I agitating for free, quality child care? No, I’m pre-registering Nico at a neighborhood Montessori. This isn’t anything I feel guilty about when it comes to my own child – I can’t wait to see her carrying home her special little books! And singing her special little Montessori songs! It’s going to be so freakin’ cute and I think about it all the time.

The thing I feel guilty about, though, is that it took me this long to even stop and consider that this lovely, early school experience isn’t normal, and perhaps it should be.

Here are two more examples of parental privilege from my own life, the way they got complicated, and the way I now see those complications as good things:

1. BREASTFEEDING VS FORMULA: When I was pregnant, I reflexively thought I would breastfeed Nico exclusively. We still do breastfeed, but she wasn’t gaining weight quickly enough, so her pediatrician asked us to supplement with formula. I cried about this for about a day, feeling like a failure. And then, I got over it.

Now forgive me, non-parents, if I lose you here: this next part might be pretty boring. But (whips the chair around backwards), we’re gonna talk about milk supply! PARTY!

Long story short, my supply was low, and at first I projected all kinds of evil thoughts on Nico’s pediatrician for telling me this. Typical mainstream, Western doctor, I thought. Only going by the weight percentile chart. When was that thing created, anyway? The ’70s?

But once I got over myself and we gave Nico some formula, she was, in general, a happier little baby. Exclusive breastfeeders might argue it’s because formula takes longer to digest, resulting in short-term satisfaction and long-term obesity. Maybe they’re right. But if there’s anything I’ve learned about being a parent, it’s that you can find scientific studies to back up basically any point of view, and just as many scientific experts who can point out why the studies that oppose your point of view are flawed in their methodology. So…I’ve let it go.

Anyway, because this post is about class more than anything, we should point out that exclusive breastfeeding is definitely a privilege of mothers who can afford to live this way, i.e., nurse their babies every few hours. This is not to say it’s wrong, it’s just to point out that in the crusade to exclusively breastfeed, we should be real about the class of people that is even able to do this. (The other way you can make exclusive breast milk happen as a working mother is to pump a LOT at your job, which may or may not be possible in one’s particular work setting. So bottom line: a lot of people have to do formula because it’s the only practical way they can also go to work and earn money.)

So what was I really lamenting in giving Nico formula? Health-for-baby guilt, or class guilt? Probably a bit of both. In fact, definitely a bit of both, because as I mentioned earlier, we’re totally doing the DIY goat milk formula thing which pacifies both my class reflex to pay for better (“better”) solutions, and also my genuine befuddlement that formula, even the organic kind, has about 80 ingredients and that seems weird.

2. VACCINES VS. NO VACCINES: The lion’s den of parental ideology! Here we go.

So we ended up saying OK to Nico’s first round of vaccines, except for one which was against an STD that neither Ross nor I possessed. By now, you’re all probably familiar with the debate surrounding vaccines: there was that study linking vaccines and autism which was later dismissed, but anecdotes linking the two are still out there scaring people (including me).

I know parents who don’t vaccinate, and they aren’t refusing because they scare-quote “care,” but because they care! Genuinely! They don’t want to give their kids autism, and I completely, 100%, totally get that. Oh man, I get that so hard.

The second half of this debate is now starting to emerge, though, and it’s the resurgence of diseases like whooping cough, and that scares me too. There are basically no good solutions here, because you feel like an asshole parent either way.

We went with the vaccines, though, in a collectivist spirit. Am I still a little bit terrified of mercury in vaccines? Yes! Holy shit, yes! But do I also think that the issue has gotten politicized, and that maybe it’s time to not be so reflexive in our immediate dismissal of vaccines, or to think of those who decline them as more “progressive?” As more “caring?” As more left-leaning and therefore more embracing of natural things?

Yes.

I want to think of myself as progressive, caring, left-leaning, and embracing of all things natural. Parenting yields a whole host of egoic concerns, and these are mine, the labels I want to stick on myself.

But I also want to (cue violins) live in a world where the collective, social solution is actually one that we can trust, ‘we’ meaning families of all classes. And I guess I want to shift the locus of what it means to be a progressive parent to a more activist, populist approach, rather than creating my own sparkly baby bubble that Nico alone benefits from. I’m not sure what that approach looks like, yet…voting for people who support child care initiatives?

Signing petitions that ask for corn/soy/whatever ingredient to be taken out of formula?

Actively seeking out good public school options for Nico, rather than just assuming they’re “lesser” and thereby diverting both my child, and taxes, away from what could be a really neat experience?

Being part of the social media conversation that asks doctors to keep on educating us about vaccines?

Maybe it looks like all of those things. And, maybe it looks like things I haven’t thought of yet. But let me know – please let me know! – if you have ideas.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go dress Nico in a yoga onesie.

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HOW WRITING GIGS HAPPEN

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Austin Kleon and I, promoting literature.

On Wednesday, I was inspired by author/speaker/creativity dude Austin Kleon, our guest this week on Statesman Shots. In the mode of his new book, Show Your Work, and also because I’m trying to get back into the swing of blogging more regularly, I thought I’d share a quick post about a particular writing gig I scored recently.

As any freelance writer can tell you, writing for high-profile sites are like the pot of gold at the end of the blogging rainbow. We put our work out there for months, often years, shouting into the yawning void for anyone who will listen. We hope that one day, our words will fall on the right pair of ears, and we’ll be invited to contribute to The Hairpin, or This American Life, or Modern Love. Everyone I know wants to write for Modern Love.

The problem is, it’s often unclear how one makes the leap from blogging to uptown classy, website property writing. In my case, it almost always come down to relationships.

My latest gig is with The Atlantic, reporting for the health section of their website. My first piece was on Williams Syndrome, a condition that compels people to trust too much, and I’m reporting a piece now on the effects of capital punishment on prison wardens. I do most of my reporting with a baby on my lap, who nurses happily while Mommy discusses hardened criminals.

Now between you and me, the pay is just OK. But! The writing is still worth it, because I’m trying to expand my “beat” from Austin-y stuff to broader cultural issues: health stuff, sociological stuff, and sometimes TV stuff. Also, if you told my 25 year-old self – who would have been crazy thrilled  to get a byline just about anywhere, including your refrigerator door – that I’d get to write for The Atlantic someday, I would have died, revived myself, and died again. What I’m saying is, I’m not complaining.

So how did it happen? Here’s how:

A few months ago, I was part of a storytelling night for Austin Bat Cave. It’s called Story Department, and takes place once a month at Home Slice Pizza. I was very pregnant/hormonal/bloated at the time, but thought, what the hell?  This was probably the last time I’d get to do something like this for a while, with a baby coming and all. So I went, and told the story of attending a naked yoga class. (More on that in a moment.)

There in the audience was a fellow writer for The Atlantic, a guy named Jon Fortenbury. He wrote me after the event to say he liked my story, and we set up a coffee date / networking meeting of sorts to talk about freelancing. So we traded editor names over cappuccinos, then nervously pumped each other up over email for the next few days:

“Hey, have you pitched Salon?”

“Yeah. Haven’t heard anything. You? The Atlantic?”

“Same. Here’s what my pitch said. It’s stupid, right? It’s stupid.”

Writers are very insecure.

Anyway, fortunately – we both got accepted! So the moral of the story is: go on those coffee dates. With other writers, I mean. Mine each other for contacts, then exploit those contacts. It’s an economy of connections.

But the second, and what I consider to be more important, moral of the story?

Go to a naked yoga class.

By which I mean, your metaphorical naked yoga class. Keep your ears open for that irrational, scary experience that you would normally never do but would make an amazing story, then go do it. Exploit it for material. In absence of great connections / an impressive degree from a journalism school / an internship at The New York Times, I find that weird, unique, off-the-wall material can also open doors.

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Wholly unrelated, but can we conclude with a baby picture? Can I exploit my child for your love and Facebook likes? OK, let’s do that:

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In the words of my wise friend Jason Silverberg, “this is what I’m like now.”

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MY TRAVEL GUIDE TO AUSTIN

Since mainlining episodes of The Millionaire Matchmaker over last month’s maternity leave, I often forget that I still have a brain. But I do! [Taps finger to temple]

Before binging on trashy TV, I produced a couple of pieces of work that I’m pretty proud of. Here’s the first one:

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I wrote a travel guide to Austin! It was released by a cute little publishing company called The HUNT Guides and required me to sample roughly 50 restaurants in two weeks, including places like Qui and Swift’s Attic. Life is just so hard sometimes.

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I was familiar with a lot of these businesses already, but did uncover some surprises along the way. Case in point: north Austin’s Tomodachi Sushi, which is not only beautiful, but peddles delicious specialty rolls with names such as Say My Name!!! and Who’s Ur Daddy?!? (basically, each roll gets three punctuation marks). The chef explained the sushi names to me this way: “we wanted to make them memorable.” Sir, you were successful.

We – and here I mean my buddy Amy and I – also got to sample Noble Sandwich Co., i.e., the Uchi of sandwiches. Everything, right down to the thin-sliced pickles, is made in-house and is so fresh and tasty you just can’t even believe you’re eating a sandwich. The humble sandwich! That most utilitarian of meals! It is made special here. Transformed into something beyond its quotidian status. So good, it inspires me to use words like “quotidian.”

Alas, there were several new restaurants in the works that weren’t quite open by the time I finished “research:” chavez, LaV, Odd Duck. What a shame, The HUNT Guides will just have to hire me again to write the next edition!

You can order the book here, and I believe it’s also being carried at local bookstores. I’ll update this post once I find out.

UPDATED 7/3/14: BookPeople‘s got it!

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I also wrote my first article for TheAtlantic.com, where I am now a health correspondent! It was a story on Williams Syndrome, a condition that compels people to trust – even when they shouldn’t – and is something I’ve wanted to write about for years, ever since I heard about a little girl with Williams Syndrome on NPR. My piece explores what it’s like to hold down a job when you have Williams Syndrome (tough), and the steps individuals with the condition have to take to make sure they don’t get taken advantage of at work (many).

I’m now working on my second piece, which is about prison executioners, and in a scene suggestive of my new life I started research for it the other day with a baby on my lap. “Hello, may I please speak to Mr. Jail Warden?” [Baby cries in background] “Oh, he’s not there? Can you – oh hang on, just have to position my nipple…get the whole areola in her mouth…THERE!  Yes, I’ll leave a number. Hey, you still there? Hello?”

I officially return back to work today, which means I’ll be picking back up with my copywriting clients and continuing to report that piece. Ross and I are extremely lucky in that we both work from home, so we take shifts looking after Nico while the other one does their job. It’s been ok during our practice runs, but poor Ross, who lacks breasts, is faced with a screaming newborn from time to time. She likes to head bang his shirt, and is clearly thinking: “HEY!!!!! I’m TWEAKING!!!! Milk please!!!”

We’ve improved the situation with a breast pump however, which took me a few weeks to face down, but now enables me to hand milk to Ross and have him feed her. She likes to look up at him while nursing, and (encouragingly?) grab his chest hair, as if to say, “I knew you could do it.”

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I GOT YOU BABE

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So I’ve been sitting and sitting on this blog post, trying to unspool something insightful about having a baby. But in the two and a half weeks since she’s been here, you know what I’ve come to realize? All the cliches about babies? Totally true.

Maybe you’ve heard things like this before from sniffling new parents, or have come across them on an Anne Geddes card:

Babies are miracles.

Babies are adorable.

The moment you have a baby, your whole life changes.

Looking at your baby, you finally understand true love.

In other words, babies inspire sap. Babies = Sap City! And I am Sap City’s new mayor.

Historically, I’ve never really been a baby person. Two years, three, when kids are starting to talk – that is my jam. My absolute favorite age. Babies, I always thought, were…fine, I suppose, if a little blob-like. You eat, you expel, you sleep? Ok. That’s cool, baby. I guess.

Until (and you knew this was coming) Nico arrived.

Now, I have to physically restrain myself from staring at her and openly weeping fat, salty tears all over her pink baby body.

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We’ve had a lot of delightful family and friend visits lately, and when they come over, I usually tell them something like the above. Then, I quickly qualify it with: “But that’s just the oxytocin talking.”

Why do I do that? Why the reflex to undercut my admittedly sappy and enormous affection for Nico with some cool-girl quip?

I’m not sure, but I’m trying to stop. As I told a friend the other day about having a baby, “it erases all of your cynicism and makes you feel like walking love.” That is how I actually feel. More to the point: I never thought I would joyfully cheer for chubby baby legs, or more surprisingly, diapers. Because every one is this unbelievable affirmation that things are working over here, and that holy shit — I’m keeping you alive! My body is making FOOD and you’re EATING IT and we’re DOING THIS THING! Game on, baby!

Here are some other realities / feelings I didn’t expect about having a baby:

* “I will never exploit my baby over the Internet.” Hahaha! Tooooooo late. This is something I said to myself a few times during pregnancy, born of some high-minded resolve that Nico would choose the time to share her own picture over the Internet. Sorry, Nico! I want to show the whole world my beautiful baby! Privacy be damned; the NSA will also be receiving your birth announcement.

* “I will never co-sleep.” As soon as you have a baby – hell, as soon as you’re pregnant – you start trying to figure out what kind of parent you’re going to be. You do this by assessing the available baby-rearing tribes out there: the attachment crowd? Bringing Up Bebe? Religious? There are lots of labels out there, but in the end everybody kind of mixes things up based on what kind of baby they get. Still, I knew enough about attachment parenting to determine that I’d never be into co-sleeping, the practice by which you and baby share a bed. Because, dude! What if you rolled over on them?! Or worse: had an eventual 15 year-old who insisted on crawling into bed with you? Terrifying.

What a surprise it was, then, that co-sleeping turned out to be 50 times easier than anything else we’ve tried. Maybe because Nico is still transitioning out of the good ol’ days in the womb? Whatever the reason, she sleeps the most soundly all cuddled up in our bed. I still feel guilty admitting this, because I’m still worried about rolling over on her; as a result we keep a bassinet next to the bed and usually start her off there at night. And even there, I thought I’d be such a hard-ass in terms of self-soothing (“oh, let her fuss! That’s what babies DO!”), but as it turns out, I’m just like every other freakin’ softie who jumps the very second their baby whimpers. And when she does, up into bed she goes.

* You’ll check if they’re still breathing roughly 100 times an hour. I always, always think Nico has stopped breathing. Even when she’s grasping my hand like a miniature vice grip, and her eyes are physically open as if to say, “hey, look! Still breathing!”

* You’ll constantly worry about dropping them. Here’s another paranoid thing: I envision her falling out of my arms constantly. My brain has no shortage of twisted/ridiculous scenarios for how this could happen, either, including but not limited to me stepping Three Stooges-like onto a rake and it stunning me into full-on baby drop (note: we don’t own a rake).

* You really will want to kiss their eyeballs. A fellow mom told me this once on Facebook when I mentioned I was pregnant. And actually, I think I successfully have (owing to the fact that I kiss Nico compulsively all over her face while she is crying, a new practice she probably finds extremely annoying).

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More to come.

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PHOTOS: WHO’S SEX POSITIVE? PREGNANT WOMEN ARE SEX POSITIVE.

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Moi.

So I’ve gone back and forth on posting these pictures. On the pro side, it’s:

“YAY! Pretty photos! To share on the Internet and prompt people to say nice things about me!!!”

And on the con side, it’s:

“Umm, ok. My pregnant body on the Internet! That’s a little weird! Vulnerable! Potentially embarrassing!”  

If you’ve read this blog for any length of time, you’ll know that the concept of self-branding eludes me entirely and I’m just not very good at it. As an aerialist/yoga person, I am a-ok with pictures of all bodies, including mine, because human physiology is fascinating (to me) and its capabilities beautiful (to me).

But as a writer, I have a knee-jerk hesitation to showing any skin, because, because…well, I’m not entirely sure. Life of the mind vs. life of the body, I guess.

However, as previously discussed, a topic that captures both my interest in bodies and my interest in thinkerly, writer things is that of sex positivity for women. And specifically, pregnant women.

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Hence, this maternity photo shoot. I did it a few weeks ago with a very talented local photographer, Whitney Martin, and my dear friend Fannie, a stylist-slash-video game programmer. (Slash-badass.)

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(Slash-model.)

We shot it at Bull Creek, a craggy park in Austin overhung with ancient oak trees and wrapped in mossy caves. It’s one of my favorite places in the world.

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Over these past 37 (whoa) weeks, I’ve found that it’s very, very easy to feel infantalized as a pregnant women. The maternity wear complex creates clothes that make you feel like a giant baby yourself, with frilly, pastel outfits and message T’s that say things like, “I’m baking a GIRL!” with appliqued cupcakes or “Mama’s little RASCAL!” with an arrow pointing down to your belly. Why?

Maybe it’s because pregnancy is a clear, visible sign of sex being had, and cutesy outfits like that take the edge off, making a woman’s sex-having body less threatening.

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Anyway, that definitely wasn’t the route I wanted to go for a maternity shoot, but conversely, I knew I didn’t want a pregnancy boudoir shoot either. I’ve seen beautiful, sensual examples of that, but I’m just too immature to pull it off. I’d be snickering the whole time and acting a fool for the poor photographer.

So what did this picky photo subject want? Well, something that felt like me.

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I wanted something that captured the all-encompassing womanliness I’ve felt during this pregnancy, something that felt nature-y/natural, and something that felt interesting. And, maybe, something like Stevie Nicks.

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So Whitney, Fannie and I collaborated on putting together a session that didn’t divorce sexuality from the whole maternity experience, which is a very formal way of saying we shared a Pinterest board.

And how do I feel about the result?

I am THRILLED. I love them! These photos will probably humiliate my daughter to no end one day, but until that time, I’m happy to have a visual memory of this little sliver of my life, thanks to Fannie and Whitney.

Pregnancy is a time where I haven’t always felt 100% awesome about my body, but you know what? I think that’s good for me. I like to think I’m a feminist, but my perception of what is beautiful is just as influenced by media / American culture / the “male gaze” as anyone else’s. On top of that, pregnancy always seemed like this freaky, science fictional thing to me (probably because most science fiction is written by men), akin to Alien or Gremlins.

But now, corny as it sounds, I’ve been converted. I’m shocked at what the female body can do, and I like the idea that baby and I are working together as a team to make her strong. Nutrition / good sleep / prenatal care / blah blah are all parts of that, but sex was (obviously) a pretty essential part of it, too. “Sex positive” and “belly proud” don’t have to be mutually exclusive concepts. You can celebrate the cute little baby growing inside your belly, and simultaneously celebrate the sex that brought him or her here. I don’t think anyone openly disputes this; I’m just ready for a culture that finds a portrayal balance between hyper-sexualized moms (i.e. MILF’s) and one that pretends moms are these harried, sexless creatures who are only focused on motherhood and THAT’S IT!

There’s a middle ground, I like to think.

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Thanks again to Whitney and Fannie – I love you both.

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