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Once we became parents, we had to throw our old version of 'normal' out the window

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Life is seldom what is portrayed in magazines, in TV shows or on social media even. Pregnancy is not always a quick push and then boom!—seven hours later you look like you're ready for a romantic date night with your partner. Yet we are surrounded by this disillusion everywhere we turn—in both pregnancy and motherhood.

With my first child, I let the sex of my baby be a mystery which turned out to be the greatest surprise of my life. Yes, it drove everyone around us bonkers, but I didn't care. I had a well thought out birth plan all typed up. I was going to be a tough mama and power through and have my baby the "normal" way.

That was all until I heard the words, "Heart rate dropping, C-section NOW. Dad get suited up and scrubbed in, we're taking this baby out stat." Wait—that was not typed on my plan. Did they grab another mom's printed out birth plan?

That was my official introduction to what would be my new "normal," which was very far from what I had planned.

It was time to birth baby number two, and again, the sex of my baby was a mystery. My pregnancy had gone beautifully—no issues other than a few more aches and pains, and the intense exhaustion—after all, my first little boy was very busy being a 2-year-old, running around and testing limits and boundaries.

I was able to choose when I wanted to schedule my second C-section, which was one of the few things I was able to plan for. I chose a time that was convenient for someone to look after my firstborn. The day arrived to have our second (and last) baby, and the stress level was much lower this time around. The blue tarp went up and I held my husband's hand and stared into his eyes as we anxiously waited for the sound of the first cry and for the doctor to announce the sex of our baby.

Yes, I was secretly hoping for a girl. One of each is the "normal" thing—right? Our names were ready—Oliver was our boy and Adyson was our girl. All the doctor had to do was just say the words…

Our baby's first cry was heard; Oliver had arrived. And according to my plan of only having two kids, I realized I would never be a girl mom. But Oliver was healthy, and while our emotions were all over and adrenaline was high—that was what mattered.

In the first moment that we held Oliver, we could tell something was different. There was a strange vibe in the air among the medical staff. We fell in love instantly, but we also felt something unexplainable.

While in recovery, holding my second beautiful, healthy, strong boy that a crew of white coats came in led by my OB-GYN. This was not feeling "normal." My OB sat down and confirmed that our baby was healthy, he needed a few extra labs done and at that moment she asked me if I was familiar with Down Syndrome? My answer was "no." I was then told that she believed that our son was born with Down Syndrome and that they were going to confirm with tests. She later confirmed that yes, Oliver had Down Syndrome. And we knew that, yes, we were chosen to be his parents.

Regardless of these tests, this was my son and nothing else mattered. I loved him. He was breastfeeding, we were bonding with skin-to-skin and we were a proud family of four now.

Down Syndrome was now in our lives. Sure, we were going to need to learn a few things and our journey was a little different and yes we were scared—but he was our son and our hearts were wide open.

I left the hospital and within weeks knew that I wanted to have more than two children. I didn't want my oldest to one day be the only person to look out for and make decisions on behalf of his younger brother with special needs.

I wanted to build a squad of siblings for my children to look out for and take care of each other. This time—boy or girl—it didn't matter. All visions of "normal" planning were completely in the rear view mirror.

Almost two years to the day, we went in for my third planned C-section. We walked by the exact room that we were told our son had Down Syndrome in. My husband and I stared into the room, held each other and with tears in our eyes said, "We were chosen. Thank goodness we were chosen."

It was because of that day May 14, 2013, when we welcomed Oliver that we were back in the hospital on May 29th, two years later, welcoming Adyson Maeve to this world.

My family was complete and perfect, and very far from what we first considered "normal."

Sometimes it's the unplanned things that get thrown our way and take us down a new and foreign path that make us stronger. They make us believe we can conquer things we never knew imaginable. They make us realize that the only "normal" that exists is the new normal you create with your family.

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While breastfeeding might seem like a simple task, there are so many pieces to the puzzle aside from your breasts and baby. From securing a good latch, boosting your milk supply and navigating pumping at work or feeding throughout the night, there's a lot that mama has to go through—and a number of products she needs.

No matter how long your nursing journey may be, it can be hard to figure out what items you really need to add to your cart. So we asked our team at Motherly to share items they simply couldn't live without while breastfeeding. You know, those ones that are a total game-changer.

Here are the best 13 products that they recommend—and you can get them all from Walmart.com:

1. Medela Nursing Sleep Bra

"This fuss-free nursing bra was perfect for all the times that I was too tired to fumble with a clasp. It's also so comfy that, I have to admit, I still keep it in rotation despite the fact that my nursing days are behind me (shh!)." —Mary S.

Price: $15.99

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2. Dr. Brown's Baby First Year Transition Bottles

"My daughter easily transitioned back and forth between breastfeeding and these bottles." —Elizabeth

Price: $24.98

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3. Multi-Use Nursing Cover

"When I was breastfeeding, it was important to me to feel like a part of things, to be around people, entertain guests, etc. Especially since so much of being a new mom can feel isolating. So having the ability to cover up but still breastfeed out in the open, instead of disappearing into a room somewhere for long stretches alone to feed, made me feel better."—Renata

Price: $11.99

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4. Lansinoh TheraPearl Breast Therapy Pack

"I suffered from extreme engorgement during the first weeks after delivery with both of my children. I wouldn't have survived had it not been for these packs that provided cold therapy for engorgement and hot therapy for clogged milk ducts." —Deena

Price: $10.25

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5. Medela Quick Clean Breast Pump Wipes

"Being a working and pumping mama, these quick clean wipes made pumping at the office so much easier, and quicker. I could give everything a quick wipe down between pumping sessions. And did not need a set of spare parts for the office." —Ashley

Price: $19.99

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6. Earth Mama Organic Nipple Butter

"This nipple butter is everything, you don't need to wash it off before baby feeds/you pump. I even put some on my lips at the hospital and it saved me from chapped lips and nips." —Conz

Price: $12.95

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7. Medela Double Electric Pump

"I had latch issues and terrible postpartum anxiety, and was always worried my son wasn't getting enough milk. So I relied heavily on my breast pump so that I could feed him bottles and know exactly how much he was drinking. This Medela pump and I were best friends for almost an entire year" —Karell

Price: $199.99 Receive a $50 gift card with purchase at walmart.com

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8. Lansinoh Disposable Stay Dry Nursing Pads

"I overproduced in the first couple weeks (and my milk would come in pretty much every time my baby LOOKED at my boobs), so Lansinoh disposable nursing pads saved me from many awkward leak situations!" —Justine

Price: $9.79

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9. Haakaa Silicone Manual Breast Pump

"This has been a huge help in saving the extra milk from the letdown during breastfeeding and preventing leaks on my clothes!" —Rachel

Price: $12.99

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10. Medela Harmony Breast Pump

"Because I didn't plan to breastfeed I didn't buy a pump before birth. When I decided to try, I needed a pump so my husband ran out and bought this. It was easy to use, easy to wash and more convenient than our borrowed electric pump." —Heather

Price: $26.99

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11. Milkies Fenugreek

"I struggled with supply for my first and adding this to my regimen really helped with increasing milk." —Mary N.

Price: $14.95

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12. Lansinoh Breast Milk Storage Bags

"I exclusively pumped for a year with my first and these are hands down the best storage bags. All others always managed to crack eventually. These can hold a great amount and I haven't had a leak! And I have used over 300-400 of these!" —Carla

Price: $13.19

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13. Kiinde Twist Breastfeeding Starter Kit

"The Kiinde system made pumping and storing breastmilk so easy. It was awesome to be able pump directly into the storage bags, and then use the same bags in the bottle to feed my baby." —Diana

Price: $21.99

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This article is sponsored by Walmart. Thank you for supporting the brands that support Motherly and mamas.

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There's nothing more important than the bond between a newborn baby and their parents. And while an emotional bond and attachment between parents and a child happen overs years of development, the first year is the most important because a baby's brain grows most rapidly in the first 12 months of life.

In fact, According to Scientific American, paid parental leave benefits baby's brain development. Research shows infant's brains form up to a thousand new connections per second, but those connections form best when the babies are exposed to the kind of stimulation parents on paid leave can provide.

Every parent in America should have the chance to bond with their newborn child, and America deserves a national paid leave policy that supports families.

While the nation works on a single policy, there are some very special workplaces stepping up to the plate and leading the way when it comes to helping parents do what they do best: parent.

Here are 11 employers who get it.

1. Patagonia

Holly Morissette, a recruiter at Patagonia, recently went viral with a post on LinkedIn in which she shared her experience as a breastfeeding mama working at Patagonia.

"While nursing my baby during a morning meeting the other day after a recent return from maternity leave, our VP (Dean Carter) turned to me and said...'There is no way to measure the ROI on that. But I know it's huge.'" Morissette wrote.

"It got me thinking...with the immense gratitude that I have for on-site childcare at Patagonia comes a responsibility to share a 'call to action'. A PSA to tout the extraordinary benefits that come along with not asking employees to make the gut wrenching decision to either leave their jobs or leave their babies. TO HAVE TO LEAVE THEIR JOBS OR LEAVE THEIR BABIES."

Morissette is right here. A recent survey found for 49% of expectant women, it can feel like a choice between breastfeeding or job growth and in two-thirds of cases when breastfeeding mothers point out when they are being discriminated against they ultimately lose their jobs.

That is why Morissette wrote her viral post, to raise awareness of how Patagonia is supporting parents. She hopes that maybe parents will reference her post in conversations with their bosses.

"That perhaps just one person will brave the subject with their employer (big or small) in the hopes that it gets the wheels turning to think differently about how to truly support working families. That with a bit of creativity, and a whole lot of guts, companies can create a workplace where mothers aren't hiding in broom closets pumping milk, but rather visiting their babies for large doses of love and serotonin before returning to their work and kicking ass. It's no wonder that Patagonia has 100% retention of moms. Keeping them close to their babies keeps them engaged. And engaged mothers (and fathers!) get stuff done. Thank you, Patagonia, for leading the way," she wrote.

This is hardly the first time Patagonia's commitment to parents has received attention. The company's family-friendly policies are well known and go way beyond breastfeeding acceptance.

As Quartz reports, Patagonia has been a leader in family-friendly policies for decades. It's had an on-site daycare for over 30 years and busses drop kids off at the corporate headquarters after school. The childcare isn't free, but it is quality care run by teachers and is conveniently located for busy parents. Anyone who has been waitlisted for day care or had to add an hour to their commute for drop-offs can understand why Patagonia employees love this so much.

The company also offers 16 weeks of paid maternity leave and 12 weeks of paid paternity leave. In 2016, Patagonia reported that for the previous five years it had seen 100% of its new moms return to work after maternity leave, and it's no wonder.

[This post was originally published July 8, 2019. It has been updated.]

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Dear mama,

This isn't how you wanted it to be, I know. In all those months of imagining what motherhood would look like, you never expected it to look like this. I know from experience—I was a NICU mama too.

You thought you'd spend these first precious days snuggled up in bed, holding your baby skin-to-skin. You'd watch for her hunger cues, feed on demand, and marvel at the tiny person lying on your bosom. When it was time to sleep, you'd tenderly swaddle her and place her in the bassinet, just an arm's reach away.

Instead, you watch your sweet babe sleep in an isolette. The IV looks enormous in her little arm. Wires extend from her body. Monitors beep. The bilirubin light shines bright blue.

The distance from your hospital room to the NICU feels like miles. Maybe your C-section incision hurts with every move. Maybe you're stretched, torn, and sore from a vaginal delivery. Or maybe you were discharged before your baby, and your heart breaks every night when you have to go home. Like you're leaving a part of yourself behind.

I wish I could sit beside you and hear your story. But since I can't, I'd like to send you some love and offer encouragement.

You are a good mama. And you will get through this.

You will find strength you didn't know you had. You'll learn new terminology, talk to doctors, and make decisions. You'll take pictures and rejoice in the smallest of victories — an ounce of weight gained, a treatment tweaked. Your sweet moments will look different from everyone else's, but they will be sweet, nonetheless.

You will also discover your weakness. Sometimes, you'll fall apart, and that's okay. Let someone else be strong for you — your husband, a parent, a sibling, a friend, a nurse. Allow yourself to mourn the loss of the way you thought things would be. But as you process all those emotions and adjust to your new normal, remember, you are still mothering.

You will find a way to bond that is unique to your situation. Maybe you'll touch your baby's tiny toes through the side of the isolette and savor the soft warmth of skin on skin. Maybe you'll squeeze out a bit of breastmilk, like love in liquid form. Maybe you'll whisper a prayer, sing a lullaby, or simply tell your baby you love her, over and over again. In this big, unfamiliar world, your voice is the one she knows from her time in the womb.

Every gesture, no matter how small, is an expression of your love. Even if you can't be by your baby's side, you're still the one who carried her inside of you. No matter how much or how little contact you have, nothing can change the fact that you are her mama.

I know you want nothing more than to take care of your baby. But these NICU nurses are some of the most vigilant, big-hearted people you'll ever meet. Your baby is in good hands. You need to make sure you're taking good care of yourself. Stay on top of your pain meds. Eat. Take a shower. Get some fresh air. Sleep. You need it—physically and emotionally.

In the most difficult moments, remember that you are not alone. Your family and friends are beside you. Beyond your inner circle, you're surrounded by a community of other NICU parents. There's even a NICU awareness month — it's September.

Every baby has a different story. But there's no competition for which baby is the healthiest or who has it the hardest. That's one of the NICU's hidden beauties. Everybody simply wants their baby to be OK. Whether you share stories with your NICU neighbors or keep to yourself, the other parents are there with you. They get it. And so do all the other NICU mamas who have come before you.

With all my support,

A fellow NICU mama

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Life

I hear your requests all day, every day. They're like little birds chirping in my ears. I'm with you when you wake up and ask for breakfast, I'm with you when you're tired after playing and want to rest, I'm with you when you wash up after a long day before you protest bed.

When we're at the park, I know what I'll hear before I say we have to go. "Mom, can I do the monkey bars one more time? Can we stay, just one more minute?"

Honestly, it usually frustrates me. Because we have to go. We have errands to run or chores to get to at home. We need to do pickup or cook dinner. We have our lives to live. We can't stay at the park all day. When you don't listen and we have to move onto the next thing, sometimes I want to yell. Or cry. Or sit down and give up.

When we're trying to get out the door on time, I always hear, "Mom, I'm just finishing this drawing, okay? One more minute?"

When I ask you to get out of the bath, so we can move onto stories and bedtime, I can guarantee what you're going to say. "Mom, I'm just finishing this game with my mermaid. One more minute. Pleeeease?"

When I get up out of your twin-sized bed, after lying with you so you'll calm down for bed, I can mouth the words as you say them. I know exactly what's going to happen. "Mommy, lie back down. For one more minute, okay?"

I'm in my head and running through my to-do list and sometimes my stress screams at me louder than your requests. So sometimes I tell you "no." No, I can't do it for another minute. Not even one more second. Because I have to get to the next thing—I have so much stuff to do, so much to get done. I couldn't possibly do this for one more minute.

But today, after looking through photos of you from this summer and all our adventures, thinking about you starting kindergarten in a few weeks, I know just how you feel when you ask me that question.

Because now I want to ask you that same question.

So, to you—my big kid who I can still see crawling around the house, who I can still feel lying sound asleep on my chest, who I can still remember meeting for the first time on the day you were born. To you I ask, could you stay with me, by my side, just as you are—for one more minute, please?

Could you snuggle up next to me and fall asleep in the curve of my hip where only you can fit, for just one more minute?

Could you look at me with wonder in your eyes, hanging on my every word as if they are the most important sounds you'll ever hear, for just one more minute?

Could you call me "Mama" instead of "Mom" for just one more minute?

Could you let me hold you in my arms, in the quiet evening hours, and rock you sleep singing your favorite song, for just one more minute?

Could you giggle uncontrollably over our silly inside jokes for one more minute?

Could you sing at the top of your lungs, without caring if you sound "good" or not—for one more minute?

Could you ask me to dance with you and sway to the beat of Hakuna Matata as we twirl in circles for one more minute?

Could you stay this little, this wide-eyed, this innocent, this playful—for just one more minute?

Before you leave me before your world widens before you find yourself not needing me to be by your side every second...

I want you to see the world and take everything it has to offer. I want you to know love the way I know it today. I want you to make best friends and go on adventures. I want you to feel your soul light up when you're doing what your heart knows you are meant to do.

I want it all for you. And I know all of it won't include me. I'm okay with it, and I'll figure it out along the way.

But before you go out there, before you take on this wild and busy world… could you sit with me, right here on my lap like you've done so many times before, for just one more minute, please?

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Life

If you're at all worried about how to prepare your young child's math skills before school starts, you can relax, mama. Teaching the early fundamentals of math is something you can do just by playing games and pointing out math in everyday life.

"You can be really impactful doing very informal, playful experiences that are math-related," Erica Zippert, PhD, a postdoctoral scholar of developmental science at Vanderbilt University, tells Motherly. "These skills are important because they predict later academic achievement, and not just math domain, but in reading as well...You have to have a strong foundation in math in order to learn more challenging things."

In her research into how parents lay the groundwork for their children's understanding of math, she found that many assume it's just about the numbers and counting. But math is also about patterns, shapes, and spatial relations, which parents might not be consciously teaching to young kids.

"Spatial knowledge is important because it early-stage projects later math," Zippert explains. "There are spatial concepts where you have to be able to juggle a lot of things in your head."

Zippert, along with her postdoctoral advisor Bethany Rittle-Johnson, PhD, are currently looking into why studying patterns early helps kids with math, but she has some theories. "There's something about shared reliance on rules and structure in both math and patterning, the idea of predicting what comes next."

While teaching your children skills is important, you don't have to force your 4-year-old to sit still while you instruct her.

Zippert has found that once parents have these guidelines in their toolkit, they can bring them up in a way that engages their young brains:

1. Play games.

Classic board games, like Chutes and Ladders, and card games like War are perfect for combining number cues with space.

2. Use blocks and puzzles.

This is one of the easiest ways for children to learn spatial dimensions, locations, and directions.

3. Point out numbers, patterns and spatial relationships in everyday life.

Ask your child to fold the laundry with you and arrange the socks in a simple pattern (such as, red, blue, red, blue). Notice the patterns in a nursery rhyme or a song. Talk about the direction you're driving, the spatial features of household objects, and the numbers on street signs.

"There's different little ways to entertain your kid and entertain yourself that can really focus on math," Zippert says.

Parents don't actually have to call these concepts "math." But if they can cultivate a child's curiosity and give them a good introduction to these concepts, they might find themselves with a kid who will enthusiastically embrace that term later in life.

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