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As a tutor in writing and literacy for children, I learn so many valuable lessons from my students. Lessons like: paint the sky violet with pink hearts, ask how things work, and fall in love with the small things often.


For the last year, I’ve been sharpening pencils for an eight-year-old girl, Lilly, who fills her journal pages with scathing reviews of sad, soggy cafeteria food, stream-of-conscious rants about her younger brother giving her the finger when adults aren’t looking, bossy girlfriends, and how having to do everything grownups tell you to do is just, like, totally unfair. When we began working together, she was frustrated when I asked her to write fiction.

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“Name three things that you can’t live without,” I prompted.

“I don’t know,” she replied

“What do you want to be when you grow up?” I tried.

“Nothing.”

“What if a unicorn could fly you to school every day?” I asked, trying to get her attention.

“That could never happen.”

I surmised that her imagination may take a backseat to her rigorous extra-curricular schedule of piano lessons, soccer practice, gymnastics, and academic tutors. She rarely just plays outside or visits the children’s park steps away from her house.

While a lack of time may limit her daydreaming, Lilly is also an inherently a pragmatic person and, like me, she enjoys writing about the real. I stopped asking her to write about what she couldn’t see and focused on her feelings and real-life experiences – culinary delights, complicated friendships, and familial highs and lows. I cued up videos about Amelia Earhart, Rosa Parks, and Marie Curie and assigned her writing prompts involving inventions, discoveries, and top-secret cases. Anything that has a key or code is fascinating to her. She loves secrets and knowing the truth about things.

Last week, I asked her if she knew how our mail system worked.

“Planes,” she replied, rolling her eyes at me.

I pressed on. “What about before airplanes and trains?”

She shrugged her shoulders as I adjusted the volume of an animated film about the Pony Express. Afterwards, I gave her two options: write about delivering mail in the 1800s or choose a person to send a letter to and describe how it will be delivered to them today. She put her head down, pressed a number two pencil into the lined paper and stopped after the first sentence.

“Do you need help?” I asked.

“Why do I have to pretend to write a letter? Can’t I just write it instead?”

I squeezed the hand of my little memoirist. “Good idea. Write the real letter.”

I used to scribble down my own story alongside her and, at the end of the hour, we’d read them to each other. Since the school year started, we’d shifted focus to the editing process: penmanship, grammar, and spelling errors. I stopped writing and waited to correct her mistakes. As she was writing her letter, I was unconsciously doodling tulips on a piece of paper. Lilly looked down at my paper, flipped over my drawing, and patted the stark white sheet of paper. Write your letter, that pat said.

I nodded, wrote two words, and laid my pencil down to rest. I could’ve chosen anyone in the world, real or imagined, but these days, the only name my right hand will write is Dad. I knew that I couldn’t carry on without crying and, while I’d written and shared several essays about his recent passing in writing classes and at readings around the city, none of them were addressed to him. I looked at the glitter clips holding Lilly’s braided bun in place and remembered how my Dad weaved Goody barrettes into my hair and told me that everyone should see my pretty face. My eyes caught the edge of Lilly’s journal; she was writing about her dad too.

The pencil became a heavy weight to lift off the industrial wooden desk we worked from as I angled the leaden point onto the page and traced over the letters.

Dear Dad.

Lilly looked over her shoulder at my page, then respectfully gave me my space as I’d taught her to do.

Dear Dad,

The pencil negotiated the emptiness of the paper, creating loops and lines that were intrinsically intertwined. The soft “a” needed a straight “t” to be understood. Consonants and vowels spilled onto the page like a sudden rainstorm that left as soon as it came. I had no idea what my story was about. I frantically swallowed tears while racing through strategies to avoid sharing my letter with Lilly. Adults are not supposed to cry, especially tutors hired to teach verb-tense agreements, using the five senses, and how to be an awesome grammar girl. I checked my phone for the time. We had 10 minutes left for sharing.

“Let’s hear your story,” I said.

During our sessions, we’d worked on projecting our voices, pausing at the end of each sentence, and reading with intention and emotion. Our voice tells its own story, I’ve told her.

That night, she spoke uncharacteristically clear and loud. There was an urgency in her voice. A determination to be heard, for her needs to be met.

“Dear Dad, I miss you soooooo much!!!! When are you going to visit me? I hope that you will be here soon and we can go to the movies together. I learned that it will take eight or 10 days for you to get this letter, but it used to take a month with the Pony Express. Now they have airplanes and postmen. I was a bumblebee for Halloween and Jake was a pirate. So can you be here soon? Love, your daughter (who hasn’t seen you in a long, long, long time).”

I knew that her dad lived in London and visited a few times a year. I’ve picked up on the ways that his absence has shaped her personality. She’s guarded, but sometimes she forgets herself, slipping an arm around mine or resting her head on my shoulder while we read books to each other. She’s not overly sentimental, but she’s intensely thoughtful. She’s taught me the difference between the two.

“Read me yours,” she prompted me.

I inhaled. “Not today. Why don’t you design a stamp and envelope to send your letter with?” I tried, hoping to distract her.

If there’s something Lilly could do all day, it’s art projects. No matter how many times I’ve reminded her that I’m her writing tutor, she still begs me to let her draw and make things. I allow her to sketch pictures to accompany her stories; sometimes we make books or writing wands or mobiles. But that day, she ignored my question, gently removed the tear-stained paper from my hands, and read my letter aloud:

“Dear Dad,” she started as she swung her head back like an adult. “I was thinking of the time you bought me a kid’s bed that you swore was a full-sized mattress. You came to visit me because there was a train strike and called dibs on my bed. I listened to you tossing and turning from the pull-out couch followed by a loud thud as you fell off the stupid mattress.”

She paused. “Wait, why did he buy you a kid’s bed? Didn’t he know that you were a grown up?”

My irises sunk to the bottom of two wishing wells. “I guess not.”

She cocked her head and returned to the page.

“We laughed uncontrollably as the moon threw a spotlight on the wooden floor of my tiny West Village apartment, not just because the bed was ridiculous, but because we were both so stubborn.

“What’s ‘stubborn’?”

“When you really want to have things your way,” I supplied.

“Okay.” She continued. “We dress in rough leather jackets to hide our eggshell hearts.” She looked at me again. “How is a heart like an egg?”

“It means that our hearts are fragile and can be broken.” I knew that this was something she’d ask me about weeks from now. When we think that kids don’t understand or are aren’t listening, they are turning our words over in their minds like a song.

“You forgot to write ‘The End,’” she reminded me.

The end. Everything that I’d stuffed inside me found its way outside of me. I coaxed heaving sounds down my windpipe and wiped my face on my sweater as she put her tiny arm around my shoulders.

“It’s okay, Marnie,” she told me.

I cried even harder.

“You miss him a lot…I miss my dad too.” She hesitated. “Then, your dad… he died?”

“Yes, but he was very old.” I regained my composure, reminding myself that I was there to do a job. Not just to teach, but to be the adult for her. “You know, he’s an angel now, so I don’t have to write him letters. I can talk to him anytime.” I didn’t believe this, but it sounded good, I thought.   

She considered this. “I think that you should still write him letters.”

“Where do I send them?” I was asking myself, but I said the words aloud.

For years, I’d written letters to my dad that I’d never sent, especially during the times when, like Lilly, I felt like I wasn’t being seen or heard by him. I wanted to be the most important person in his life. But unlike Lilly’s father, my dad was a constant in my childhood. He was my best friend, my protector, my first date, my superhero. When I grew up, we drifted apart. I spent years trying to find a way back to him, but before I could figure it out, his heart gave out. Mine carried on, aching for the dad I knew that he was capable of being.

During that writing session, my eight-year-old first grade reader gave me the answer on how to speak to my father again.

“Just put it in the mailbox. They’ll know how to deliver it to him.”

Maybe it was that simple. If I write the words and address it to him, the words will find him.    

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As the saying goes, "failing to prepare is preparing to fail," and that seriously applies to parenting. With no fewer than one dozen items to wrangle before walking out the door on an ordinary errand, mamas have plenty on their mind. That is why one of the very best gifts you can give the mamas in your life this year is to reduce her mental load with some gear she can depend on when she's out and about.

Although it may be impossible to guarantee completely smooth outings with kids in tow, here are the items we rely on for making getting out of the house less of a chore.

1. Bugaboo Bee 5 stroller

This stroller is a dream come true for any mama on the go. (Meaning: All of us!) Lightweight, compact and easy to maneuver with just one hand, this is made for navigating busy sidewalks with ease—or just fitting in the trunk without a major wrestling match. It's designed for little passengers to love just as much, too, with a bassinet option for newborn riders that can be easily swapped with a comfy, reclining seat that can face forward or backward for bigger kids.

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2. Bugaboo wheel board

This wheel board will let big brother or sister easily hitch a ride on the stroller if their little legs aren't quite up for a full walk. We love the smart details that went into the design, including a slightly offset position so Mom or Dad can walk without bumping their legs. And because toddlers have strong opinions of their own, it's brilliant that the wheel board allows them to sit or stand.

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3. Nuby Keepeez cup strap

If you know a little one gearing up for the major leagues with a killer throwing arm, this is a must-have so parents aren't buying new sippy cups on a weekly basis. Perfect for tethering to high chairs, strollers, car seats and shopping carts, it allows Mama to feel confident she'll return home with everything she left with in the first place.

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4. Bugaboo footmuff

For those mamas who live anywhere where the temps regularly dip below 40 degrees Fahrenheit in the winter, this ultra-soft, comfortable footmuff is a lifesaver. Made with water-repellant microfleece, it keeps little ones dry and cozy—whether there is melting snow, a good drizzle or simply a spilled sippy cup.

$129.95

5. Bugaboo stroller organizer

Because we know #mombrain is no joke, we are all for products that will help us stay organized—especially when out and about. With multiple zipper pockets, a sleek design and velcro straps that help it easily convert to a handbag when stepping away from the stroller, it helps keep essentials from spare diapers to the car keys within reach.

$39.95

6. Bugaboo Turtle car seat

It may be called a car seat, but we love that this one is specifically designed to securely click into a stroller frame, too. (Meaning there is no need to wake up a sleeping baby for a car-to-stroller transfer!) More reasons to love it are the lightweight design, UPF 50+ sun protection shade and Merino wool inlay, meaning it's baby and mama friendly.

$349

7. Chicco QuickSeat hook-on chair

This hook-on baby chair will almost certainly earn a spot on your most-used list. Perfect for dining out or simply giving your baby a space to sit, it's portable and beyond easy to install. (Plus, it's a great alternative to those questionably clean high chairs at many restaurants!)

$57.99

8. Bugaboo stroller cup holder

Chasing after kids when out and about can work up a thirst, just like neighborhood strolls in the chillier months can get, well, chilly. So we love that this cup holder will help mama keep something for herself to drink close at hand. Designed to accommodate bottles of all sizes and easy to click onto any compatible stroller, it's a perfect stocking stuffer.

$29.95

9. Bugaboo soft wool blanket

Fair warning with this luxe stroller blanket: It's so cozy that you might want to buy another one for yourself! Made with Merino wool that helps it stand up to any elements parents might encounter during an outing, it will help baby stay warm during the winter and cool enough as the temps start to pick up.

$109.95

10. Munchkin silicone placemats

Made to roll and stow in a diaper bag, these silicone placemats will make dining out a (relatively) less messy experience. With raised edges that will help contain spills and a grippy bottom, they will stay in place on tables so that parents might be able to enjoy their own meals, too.

$8.99

11. Bugaboo Breezy seat liner

Designed to keep baby warm when it's cool and cool when it's warm, this seat liner will minimize fusses during all seasons—which is one of the very best gifts you can give a mama. Because accidents of all types can happen on the go, we also love that this seat liner is reversible! With a number of colors, it's also a fun way to help a stroller to stand out at the playground.

$79.95

12. OXO Tot Handy stroller hook

If you ever catch yourself thinking it would be nice to have another hand, these stroller clips are the next-best solution for when you are out and about. Perfect for lugging a bag or anchoring a cup, you'll want a set for every stroller you own.

$14.99

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

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New mama Shay Mitchell is the latest celeb to prove that breastfeeding can be so glam.

Eleven months after Rachel McAdams' viral breast pumping photo from her Girls Girls Girls shoot, Michell posted her own a gorgeous portrait she captioned "Breast friends."

The pun is so intended and Shay obviously intends to normalize breastfeeding.

Shay isn't the only celeb to follow in McAdam's footsteps.

Earlier this year Hilary Duff posted an Instagram shot comparing her own pumping moment to McAdams'. In the black and white photo she's seen using a manual breast pump while wearing a parka and a disposable plastic hair cap (it looks like she's getting her hair done).

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With plastic wrap on her head and a towel draped over her shoulders she looks a lot less glam than McAdams did in diamonds and Versace, but that's kind of the point.

"Am I doing this right?" Duff captioned a comparison of the shots.

Yes, mama. You're doing this right.

Whether you've got a Willow tucked into your ball gown like Nicole Phelps did, or are going hands-free with a double electric pump like McAdams, or are nursing in a Target dressing room like Jessica Alba did, or are feeding your baby a bottle full of formula (Alba did that, too), you're doing this right.

We don't all look like movie stars when we're living this mom life, but Duff reminds us that movie stars don't always look like that either.

Sometimes, they (and we) look like multitasking mamas, and it's okay to laugh about it together.

[A version of this story was first posted January 4, 2019. It has been updated.]

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It's officially matching family pajama season—okay, technically you can match all year round, but the holidays are the perfect excuse to get everyone in the family into the same cozy outfit. Hanna Andersson, one of our favorite destinations for all things matching and comfortable, just dropped a last-minute surprise pajama collection for the season and you're going to be obsessed, mama.

If you can't get everyone on board to wear holiday-specific looks, we can guarantee they'll sign up for these avocado or bacon and egg prints. All pajamas are made with organic cotton knit, making them incredibly soft and gentle on even the littlest kiddo's skin and high enough quality so they won't fade. Plus, the seams are flat so they won't be itchy. Kid sleepers start at $42 with adult long john PJs $48 for bottoms and $46 for tops—but we promise they're worth it!

If you're still in search of the perfect Christmas morning pajamas or holiday loungewear, we adore these:

Bacon + eggs 🥓

matching family pjs

What better print to wear for breakfast? The background blue is beautiful and kids will love the fun bacon slices and egg prints. This one even comes with a matching outfit for your family pet.

$46

Lemons in white 🍋

matching family pajamas

This is one of the most classic prints from the collections, and perfect to wear all year round. It features a sleeper, kids short set and women's long john set.

$46

Avocados 🥑

matching family pajamas

If we're being honest, this would 100% be our option for an Instagram post. What's cuter than a little one dressed in an avocado pair?

$46

Lemons in navy 🍋

matching family pjs

If white isn't your thing (or you're too worried about messes) you're in luck. The classic lemon print comes in a navy background, too.

$46

Bananas 🍌

matching family pjs

Go bananas over this bright and fun pajama. It comes in long johns for parents and a short set for kids. Plus, a sleeper for the baby.

$46

We independently select and share the products we love—and may receive a commission if you choose to buy. You've got this.

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I often joke that if I were to draw a food pyramid to represent what my toddler actually eats, it would consist of a wide, sturdy base of starches and fruit and a fat midsection devoted to dairy (but let's be honest, mostly cheese). Its pinnacle would be a nearly microscopic triangle representing the two vegetables he occasionally eats (carrots and cucumbers).

Though I like to think my son is a special unicorn in all sorts of ways, I know from my shared laments with other parents that his eating habits, as specific as they are, aren't all that unique — at least for many American kids (culture has a big influence on our food preferences). In fact, there's no shortage of ink (er, html?) spilled about how to feed toddlers and young children whose eating patterns, like my son's, don't deviate much from staples like macaroni and cheese, flavored yogurt, and fruit (give or take maybe a chicken nugget or hot dog).

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It made me wonder: Why do kids love the foods they love? Was society imposing these food preferences on our kids, or did they burst forth from their mothers' bodies craving fluorescent orange cheddar, buttered noodles, and bananas?

The answer is kind of the latter.

Babies are born with a preference for sweet and salty flavors

If you think about a typical toddler's favorite foods, many of them have either sweet (fruit, juice, flavored yogurt, and anything sweetened) or salty (cheese, chicken nuggets, hot dogs) flavor profiles. Meanwhile, their oft shunned foods (hi, green veggies) tend to be bitter. Scientists believe this has evolutionary roots.

Studies show that babies have a biological predisposition for sweet tastes before they're even born. And there's a purpose for this. While you may associate sweetness with sugar-sweetened junk food (not exactly a survival imperative), sugar is an easy form of energy, which young children need. "If you're developing, you have energy needs," says Rachel Herz, PhD, senses and emotion scientist and author of Why You Eat What You Eat.

In addition to signifying calories and carbohydrates, sweetness is a predominant taste signal for human milk, says Julie Mennella, PhD, researcher at Monell Chemical Senses Center. So an infant's hankering for sweetness primes them to like breast milk. But children don't outgrow this preference once they leave infancy. Throughout childhood kids gravitate toward sweetness, which could explain a toddler's preference for sweet foods, like fruit, juice, or flavored yogurt.

So what about other American kid favorites that aren't sweet, like cheese, chicken nuggets, or hot dogs? Part of the appeal could be their salty flavor profile. Children prefer a higher concentration of salt than adults. This too serves an evolutionary purpose. Saltiness is a signal for protein, Herz says. Plus, it's a mineral that our bodies need to function.

On the flip side, there's a lot of nature behind a child's reluctance to eat vegetables, which sometimes have a bitter flavor. "In nature things that are bitter tend to be poisonous, so it's advantageous to not to be consuming bitter foods. Having these predispositions are helping with survival," Herz says.

Texture and color factor into food preferences too

Of course, taste isn't the only factor that influences a child's food choices. Though less researched, a food's texture and color may also play a role. Children are naturally neophobic, meaning they're apprehensive about new foods. To a mild degree, this is adaptive, Herz says, because it steers them away from unfamiliar foods that could be poisonous.

Along these lines, a slimy, crunchy or uneven texture (think: yogurt with fruit chunks in it) can raise a child's red flags. "Texture can be a signal for food that could be contaminated," Herz says. "If you were eating something and detected grains of dirt or sand, you know you shouldn't probably eat it. Likewise, if you're eating something with little bits, your reaction is to be cautious. That's connected to biology." This could make the unnaturally smooth texture of processed meats, like chicken nuggets or hotdogs, more appealing than the less predictable consistency of a real chicken breast or piece of pork.

Color too may be a signifier. Children may show a preference for foods that are white, such as rice, plain pasta, or bread because they perceive them to be "safe." As far as why kids love the vibrant orange and yellow of processed cheeses, "foods that are yellow have been shown to make people happier," Herz says.

How to expand a picky palate

Despite the fact that there's a biological basis for flavor preferences, they aren't set in stone. One of the best ways to raise an adventurous eater is to start 'em young. "When introducing solids, expose a baby often to bitter vegetables, fish, and spicy foods — foods that most toddlers would refuse," says Dr. Natalie Muth, MD, RD, a pediatrician and registered dietitian based in California.

But what about those of us for whom babyhood is a mere memory? Is all hope lost?

Not quite. Food preferences will evolve over time, independent of how we parent. Though our partiality to sweet and salty foods lingers through childhood, it lessens with age. For instance, if you ask a four-to-six-year-old to sweeten a drink to their preferred level of sweetness, they'll put in 12 sugar cubes, while an adult would add only seven, Herz says.

Parents can also help shape and broaden their children's picky palates in a number of ways, as well:

Prioritize exposure over clean plates. For a parent desperate for a child to try new foods, the sight of a barely-touched plate can be stressful. But Muth urges moms and dads to try not to fret.

"Be as relaxed as possible about offering a food they'll probably reject," she says. "Don't be so invested in whether they eat or not. Focus more on exposure," she says.

It can take 15 to 20 exposures for a kid to come around on a food. The key is that they're trying it. "They don't have to chew and swallow," Muth says, it just has to touch their tongue."

Make food more appealing. Rather than forcing toddlers to try new things, "the key is to find tricks to make them want to try the food out of their own volition," Muth says. A few ways to drum up interest in new foods include getting kids involved with meal prep or letting them pick out foods at the store. Or you could gussy up a disliked food by cutting it into a fun shape or putting it in a bag covered in stickers.

Try 'bridging.' Strategically bridge the gap between your child's likes and dislikes. Start with a food your child likes and use it to introduce a food that either has a similar flavor but different texture or a different flavor and similar texture.

For example, if your child likes french fries, offer sweet potato or zucchini fries because they have the same texture, Muth suggests. Or, if your child likes sweet potato fries, you could introduce them to mashed sweet potatoes, which feature the same flavors, but a different texture.

If that goes well, move to similarly prepared but gradually less sweet foods, such as mashed squash or mashed carrots.

Pair likes with dislikes. Bring your kids around to bitter-tasting foods by serving them with sweet or salty flavors (depending on what they like). Add cheese sauce to broccoli to make it more alluring. "Once they like that, progressively take off more cheese, until they've transitioned to eating it plain," Muth says.

Model an enjoyment of eating. One thing that becomes more important with age that may influence flavor preferences from a psychological perspective is the social context of eating, Herz says. A meal becomes more than meat and veggies on a plate when it becomes associated with having fun or being surrounded by loved ones. Parents can nurture this by showing their kids just how enjoyable eating can be when everyone sits down for family dinners.

This story originally appeared on Apparently.

Learn + Play

As a mom, I often find myself in a rut of self-doubt. I endure a lot of critical comments—and even some side-eye—and it can start to wear on even the most confident of mothers. So many people in our lives "never had to deal with a child doing such-and-such" or "didn't do it that way" or "think things would be better if we just 'fill in the blank.'"

That's why a simple pat on the back goes such a long way. Personally, words of encouragement have always been my love language. That means I would gladly forgo a nice gift for some acknowledgment, recognition and praise.

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Tell me I'm doing a good job.

Tell me you appreciate me.

Tell me my kids are lucky to have me (especially if they can't tell me themselves).

I'm so grateful when my husband takes the time to notice all the things I juggle on a daily basis or when he acknowledges the special talent I've developed for talking our 2-year-old out of a tantrum (which is successful only some of the time). Even the unsolicited advice that pours in from family members is softened quite a bit when it's followed by an encouraging word or two.

For example, I especially appreciate when people tell me, "You'll figure it out." It reminds me that I am the one in charge of this whole beautiful mommy journey. Yes, people can make one suggestion after another. They can think they have all my parenting challenges figured out. But, ultimately, I'm the one who will do what's best for my children. I love to be reminded that this motherhood thing is not only my greatest responsibility, but it is also my most amazing opportunity.

As a matter of fact, my kids (and partner) are probably craving the same words of encouragement too. I can remember growing up that I had a deep need for my parents' approval and praise, and honestly, I still do. I see my toddler and infant respond so gleefully when we applaud what they do or tell them, "Good job!"

So my hope for all of us this holiday season—especially those with busy, overloaded, tired-but-trying mamas in our lives—is that we can all pass along some words of encouragement to one another.

This time of year often finds us plowing away at our holiday duties and obligations. Wouldn't it be nice if we all pulled our heads out of the fog to thank the mothers in our lives?

You can even turn this encouragement into an actual gift if you want to. Buy the mom in your life a journal and write your own inspirational quotes throughout. Write a compliment or reassuring message on each day/week of a calendar for next year. Or even get out a pen and paper, sit down, and write that mama in your life a good, old-fashioned letter. It's a sentiment I guarantee she will remember forever.

To be clear, I don't want to discourage you from buying her that spa gift card or that fabulous necklace she has had her eye on if you want to, but I do think the holidays are a perfect opportunity for all friends and family members to throw a little love each mama's way. It's nice to know that someone sees and appreciates our dedication to surviving this roller-coaster journey called motherhood.

The good news is that a compliment doesn't cost a dime, so we can freely spread cheer and praise to everyone around us.

Life
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