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Returning to Work After Baby

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Amy E. Joyce
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 31, 2008; 11:00 AM

Former Life at Work columnist Amy Joyce was online on Monday at 11 a.m. ET to discuss the decision many new moms face after having a baby: whether to go back to work full-time, part-time or not at all. In her Sunday Business cover story Amy uses her own experience to illustrate the decision process.

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Read more in: After a Baby, Full Time or Part? (Post, March 30)

A transcript follows.

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Amy Joyce: Good morning, all. I hope you enjoyed Sunday's piece.

For those of you who remember me, I wrote the Life at Work column for the Business section until June, when I went on maternity leave. I returned to an entirely new job, as assignment editor in our Weekend section. I miss you (really!) and am excited to be here today to discuss Sunday's story and anything else you want to chat about. From the looks of my in-box, you have a lot to say, so let's get to it...

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Washington, D.C.: Thanks for your column. I found it interesting and certainly can relate to it as a working mom to a 2-year-old. Did you find any evidence that men face a similar situation? Although I earn more than my husband and it would have been feasible for him to stay home or go part time, my husband could not fathom this possibility. Is this the norm? I know a few men do but it does not seem generally "accepted" in today's society. Though I struggle with the work/home balance on a personal level, on a broader level it seems frustrating in today's world that women continue to bear most of this burden. Thoughts?

Amy Joyce: Good question, and I'm sure it's not the first I'm going to get of its kind. Jennifer Folsom of Momentum Resources (a company that started as a way to place moms into part-time or flex jobs) said they are getting a big influx of dad candidates in both their DC and Richmond offices. She even got her first grandfather last week!

But yes, I think there are lots of issues that go with the stay-at-home dad situations. In my past life, I wrote about fathers who decided they'd be the ones to be at home. It was lonely for them because there were so few, but they were making it work. However, they also were a bit concerned about how to get back into the workforce (just like women in the same situation).

I think women are paving the way to new work schedules or different attitudes about time off, making it easier for everyone to try. Over my years of writing the workplace column, I did find that there were more men staying at home or at least considering it. Anyone want to comment?

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Woodbridge, Va.: The thing is....most women in this area DON'T have the option of part-time, full-time, or just staying home. Most of us HAVE to return to work, like it or not.

Amy Joyce: That's very true. But more companies are rethinking this, and who knows... if you can, you might be able to find a way to make it work at your own workplace. (I hear the guffaws as I type this.)

It is very difficult to change a societal mindset, but I see lots of women (yes, yes, and men, too) doing that.

A few of the women in my story were the first to try it at their workplaces. It takes guts to propose it, and it takes guts on the company's part to give it a whirl.

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Arlington, Va.: Amy, your article was interesting -- but, as is unfortunately true of many articles on this subject, focused entirely on the choices made by professional women. I mean, how relevant is it to most peoples' experiences that a six-figure lawyer now has to decide whether to continue full time or reduce her hours and "only" earn 80k? (I'd really like to see an article on this subject that _doesn't_ include an interview with at least one lawyer.)

Amy Joyce: Well, this is Washington, Arl. Lawyers, lawyers everywhere.

But also, just because someone's a lawyer doesn't mean s/he makes six-figures.

On this point, though, part-time work does often only work for people who can afford it or who are at organizations that pay well. It's a shame.

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Gaithersburg, Md.: Your article rang so true. While I am at work, I am totally engaged and love what I do, but it's always in the back of my mind, I wonder what my little guy is doing, and I should be spending more time with him. This is a question my working mom friends and I often discuss. Why are all of the activities with children scheduled during the week? We are always looking for fun activities and classes, and almost all of them are scheduled during the week when we are working. Sigh. It's frustrating because I'd love to take him to do some of those things, but it seems like I never can.

Amy Joyce: So true. I took the best baby-and-me yoga class while I was on maternity leave. It was one of our favorite hours of the week. There's a class for crawlers now, but it's only on Fridays. And the weekend classes around the area are so jam-packed because that's the only time working parents can get to the events.

That said, keep your eye on the Weekend section of The Post. We list and write about a ton of activities for events and classes with kids for the week and weekends. We also started listing age ranges so you know if it's appropriate for your little one.

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Washington, D.C.: I recently went back to work part-time, working only enough hours to cover daycare costs and a small retirement contribution. I'm wondering if it was worth it though. I feel very disconnected from my work and feel as though I'm in the wrong company, wrong industry, wrong job. Is it common to change careers after having a baby?

Amy Joyce: Very common, though it doesn't happen overnight. You might want to start doing some research on other industries/companies that appeal to you. Talk to family and friends and ask what they could see you doing. You might be surprised to hear of some good ideas.

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North Carolina: I read your article with great interest. My husband and I are expecting our first child this year and we both work full time (I'm a pediatrician, he's a scientist). I'm going to take some maternity leave (6-12 weeks), but will be back at work full time because I LOVE MY JOB! We can easily afford to have one person stay home, but are made to feel guilty because we choose to work at careers we love. I've been told that I shouldn't have kids unless I plan to stay home with them (daycare = abandonment) and my neglect is multiplied because I CAN stay home and am not being forced to work. Fathers are not penalized for wanting careers, so why are mothers?

Amy Joyce: A common theme here. My feeling is if you want to work, you should. It will make a happier family. I know there's a ton of nastiness floating out there about working moms, but obviously, there are a few people out there who turned out just fine despite working parents. (hint of sarcasm here.)

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Odenton, Md.: I would like to thank you for this wonderful article. I have been a big fan of your career column and have missed it (not that Lily and Mary Ellen aren't great).

You can't imagine the timeliness of the article for me. I am 6 months pregnant and planning to return to work full-time after a 12 week (8 paid) maternity leave. Like one of the people mentioned in the article, I hope to cut down my hours when my kids reach elementary school age so I can be home when they get off school.

I don't have any specific questions but I feel like I'll have a ton when I get closer to my return to work. Do you have any recommendations on resources for new moms planning to return to work? Any key tips that made the transition easier?

Amy Joyce: For one, check out the helpful resources listed with the article.

Also, make sure to talk to as many working moms as you can. That was such a great help to me (and still is) as I transitioned in and out of work.

Tips that people shared with me: Don't start back to work on a Monday. Going back for a full week will be rough. Start off on a Wednesday so it's not so long for you or your baby. Figure out how to make errands easier so you can spend more QT with the babe. (ie: order groceries if you can, take help that is offered).

Anyone else have some tips for returning to work?

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Washington D.C.: Amy, Our first child is due in July so the article was definitely relevant and timely for me! I worked part-time jobs about 8 years ago and while I was in grad school. Though I loved the flexibility, I found that I was taken less seriously professionally, and that I was not thought of for promotions. Is this still an issue for part-time professionals? I think it's better to start somewhere full-time and then go part-time rather than start part-time.

Amy Joyce: Congrats!

It is still an issue, as a few of the women mentioned in my piece. I also think it's *easier* to start somewhere full-time, then go part-time. It's hard to find meaningful part-time jobs, sadly. But, again, it seems like there are more resources to help women and men find those spots. You might want to check them out (mom-entum.com for one).

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Washington, D.C.: Hi Amy - I just started a new job a couple of months ago, at a very family-friendly company with a good maternity leave policy, child care, etc. My husband and I have been married for a couple of years and have talked about starting a family soon. The only issue is that I'm still learning the ropes and feel like I should be here longer before we start trying to have a baby. Do you have a general sense of how long you should get acclimated to a new job before starting a family?

Amy Joyce: You're there now. If you get pregnant immediately (a big if) you'll be at work for at least 8-9 months before you go on leave. Seems like that's a decent amount of time to learn. There are no rules as to how long you should be at a job before you start a family/look for a new job/ask for a raise. Just use your best judgment and remember this is YOUR life. Make choices based on what works best for you, and what hurdles you think you can work through.

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Washington, D.C.: I have two very close friends with young kids. One planned to stay home with hers, and then got lonely/bored without her job (which she really enjoyed), and ended up going back to work part-time. The other knew she wanted to go back to work, and after starting to ease back in by working part-time, decided she couldn't imagine being at work instead of with her child. How do you handle planning when clearly you won't really know what you want to do until your child is born? I don't have kids yet, but hope to someday, and I'm having a tough time with this idea.

Amy Joyce: One other tip I got when I was pregnant: Always say you "plan" to come back to work/work full-time/do Life at Work chats while you're on leave.

You just don't know for sure what's going to come your way, how you're going to feel, or what situation might change that will throw all your plans out the window.

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Raleigh, N.C.: I gave three weeks notice Friday at my full-time job. I'm quitting to stay home with my kids and to have a saner life. I will keep my part-time, poorly paid, but completely flexible job that lets me work from home on my schedule. My son will enter kindergarten in a few months, and I wanted to have some time with him before he goes, and stop feeling like I'm losing the rat race.

I am so excited I can almost not sit still, but the reaction I've gotten from my female colleagues is astonishing -- ranging from outright hostility (I can't believe you're going to just stay home, it's so boring OR you'd better hope your husband never leaves you) to envy (God, I am so jealous of you). These are people who I considered friendly acquaintances, absolutely. Only one woman has said "Good for you, you won't regret it" and she's older and says she wishes she had done things differently with her kids. Every man (fathers and single men) has congratulated me. What the heck is the deal? Why aren't women more supportive of each other? I'm so hurt by this.

Amy Joyce: Congrats, Raleigh! Such a big decision, and you obviously made the right one if you're not able to sit still. I'd love to say that since you know this is the right decision for you, the comments shouldn't matter. But I understand that they do.

I've been reading "The Mommy Wars" book lately--the essays in it have a ton of insights of how some moms decided to work, not work, what reactions they got from folks and how they handled it. Not easy. And there's no answer for your question as far as I can tell.

So I'll take this moment to SHOUT LOUDLY: WOMEN, BE MORE SUPPORTIVE OF ONE ANOTHER.

Ha, think that worked?

But seriously, Raleigh, take solace in the fact that you are doing what's right for you and your family right now. You're better off than a lot of people. Congratulations.

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Gaithersburg, Md.: Tips on returning to work - I went back part-time the first couple of weeks, and it helped with the transition. Do lots of meal planning and cooking ahead - it will save you on week nights when you are in a rush. And if you can afford, hire a cleaning lady, one less thing to worry about. But most of all, even if you are busy like crazy, still squeeze in fun with your new addition.

Amy Joyce: Good tips, Gaithersburg.

What I found, luckily, is that I have a lot of time with Sam in the early morning (or, like last night, ALL NIGHT TOO... sigh). We get a lot of playtime in then. (All this from a woman who used to think waking at 9 am was early.)

Evenings are good times, too. Part of our bed-time routine now is dancing to some nice tunes. I make a point of doing that rather than running around cleaning. So I agree... make time where you can find it because there IS time somewhere. It will help keep you sane.

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Silver Spring, Md.: I've got a baby on the way...how the heck do parents juggle taking care of children and full-time work? I can barely get myself out the door in the morning, let alone someone who is completely dependent on me! And the cost...around $1600/month for daycare! Why does it have to be so hard to have a family? Why won't all those politicians preaching about family values help make childcare more affordable for the middle and working classes? Parents should revolt but they're probably too busy and tired.

Amy Joyce: Hearing this, folks?

I agree, SS. It's tough to be a parent. But you'll also find that you will find a way to make it work. If it doesn't, you'll have to change things.

Maternity/Paternity leave is rough in this country. Sick leave barely exists. Daycare is expensive, if not nearly impossible to get in to.

It's up to us to find a way to make it all work, but I'm guessing if you're like many parents around here, you will. In the meantime, revolt! Find ways to lobby for something you believe in, or get your local politicians to do so. There are a lot of "parental rights" movements out there (check out the Women Work! site, or Corporate Voices for Working Families, for instance.)

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Washington, D.C.: I wish more women thought about the impact of their uncertainty on the rest of us. I took my leave after my first child, I went back to work at my law firm. It's good -- I like my job, my son is happy, my husband is around a lot, things are okay. But, because so many women I worked with before took their leaves and THEN quit their jobs, contrary to office policy, my firm started pulling me from cases, keeping me from projects, etc, because their past experience showed that my word could not be trusted. Please don't only think about yourselves, women. Be a feminist, not selfish.

Amy Joyce: You're right that some bad practices (quitting after taking the whole leave) can cause companies to be a bit gunshy when the next woman comes in and asks for a flexible schedule. Are you sure this is why they are pulling you from cases? You might have an, er, case. Pregnancy discrimination can apply to situations like yours if you have proof, not that I'm trying to be litigious here or anything. Just might be worth pointing the situation out in a meeting with your boss. Talking about it could change the situation you're in.

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Springfield, Va.: Hi Amy,

Don't forget, certain professions (like mine, teaching) have great perks (holidays, leave time, shorter hours) but absolutely DO NOT allow for tele-work. This is not an option for many service professions either.

Amy Joyce: Absolutely. And many companies just don't go for telework, even if they are set up for it.

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Guilt, Trip: Tuesdays are MEANINGLESS without the Life at Work chat. Please come back to us. Sam won't mind.

And promise me you will slap anyone who writes in and says "If you didn't want to take care of them (kids) you shouldn't have had them." There is no place for self-righteousness in a world where people MUST work if they want to educate their children.

Amy Joyce: Ha. Thanks for that guilt trip. I miss you guys, too. Alas, I'm on to a new job--after giving you all career advice for years, I took some myself.

I'm not in to slapping, but I hear you.

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Columbia, Md.: Amy, It was great to see your name again in the Business section and I'll look for you in the Weekend guide now that I know that's where you are. Thanks!

Amy Joyce: Thanks Columbia!

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Returning to work: Besides starting on a Wednesday rather than a Monday, take the baby to daycare for a couple of days before you go back. That way you can leave him/her for just a couple of hours rather than a full day, so you can all ease into it. And you don't have to deal with leaving your baby at daycare for the first time at the same time you're dealing with starting back at work.

Amy Joyce: Another good one, thanks.

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23112: I chuckled at the "agonizing over choices" lede to this story. Read it aloud to my family...we come from a long line of "stay at home" moms, and not a one has ever thought "I really wasted my career/education/life by staying home." Just about every working mom we know has had to do the fulfilling dash out the door to get the kid from daycare when they call to say "Your son has a fever, he can't stay here." And you're paying how much to do that?

Amy Joyce: Not saying anyone who stays home is wasting a thing. I do think, however, we must stop judging one another's decisions. It helps no one/nothing.

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Philadelphia, Pa.: In your tips for returning to work, you recommended not starting on a Monday, which reminded me of something related: I negotiated a four-day week when I returned from leave three and a half years ago. While Friday seems like the optimum choice as the day not to work, a friend recommended having Wednesdays off, and it was great advice. It's a chance to recharge, especially in the beginning when you're likely to be getting too little sleep, plus you can still get almost all holidays.

Amy Joyce: Wise... It also breaks your week up nicely.

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Former D.C. resident: I enjoyed this article very much and would like to see more coverage of this issue. I have two comments though on issues I would like to see discussed further.

First, this article focused on higher earning workers and parents who had many options in terms of work and child care. What about the struggles of low-income parents? Many of these parents may only get time off from work after the birth of a new child through Family Medical Leave Act coverage which only provides up to 12 weeks of UNPAID time off.

This leads me to the issue of the value of care work in the United States. Why don't state and federal laws allow workers more paid time off to care for family? Why don't companies do the same? Why don't we value the role of caring labor and expect fathers to contribute as much to child rearing as mothers?

We all have something to gain from having healthy, educated and well-socialized children in our society. We should expect parents, employers and the government to contribute to this. In the future, I hope to see this issue covered from this wider viewpoint, rather than being presented as simply women 'opting' to work or not.

Thanks for the article Amy and good luck in your new position!

Amy Joyce: Thanks, and I think you make good points, all.

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Washington, D.C.: Here's a tip for those returning to work part-time:

On the days you are home, focus on you and your child. Do not use the time to "catch up" on chores. If you do, you will be more exhausted than ever before!

Amy Joyce: True, that. Errands are fine when there's a little little one who is just as happy to be asleep in a Bjorn at Costco as he is asleep in the Bjorn at the museum or park. But that certainly changes.

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Seattle, Wash.: Without taking into account any pay, how is your new job easier than the old job? I figured with your previous job you would have more flexibility in schedule and the ability to work from home. I thought editorial jobs were much longer hours than a reporter job.

Amy Joyce: We don't do much working from home here. In fact, as reporters, there really isn't any of that. As an editor is a weekly section, our deadlines are much more reliable. When I was in my (fun, great) job as a workplace reporter, I could be assigned a story at 4-5:00 p.m. for the next day's paper. In this position, along with a fun, great job, my hours are pretty much set which is pretty much amazing in this industry.

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Washington, D.C.: Hi Amy-

I've wondered why there is such little public awareness of the high cost and limited availability of child care (in our area and elsewhere). We see lots of articles on the high cost of housing, health care, etc. -- but I feel like this is one of these issues that you don't learn about except from your own experience. It would be great to see the Post explore this issue more.

Amy Joyce: Noted.

I put us on a waiting list at two daycare centers when I was just four months pregnant. Sam's now nine months old and we're still not in. It worked out well for us, though, in that we found a situation that's even better. But it is incredibly expensive and tough to find one of those situations.

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Atlanta, Ga.: And to DC feminist, I would just caution that probably almost all the women in your workplace that you've seen essentially renege on their commitments after taking maternity leave probably actually 100% planned to come back, but made different decisions after being faced with actual parenthood. A preemie, delivery complications for the woman, or just the impact of parenthood can drive women to change their plans. I felt the exact same way about an HR professional, no less, who pulled that at my former office, but once I had my baby, I understood she changed her mind for her family. No nefarious intent, is all I'm saying.

Amy Joyce: Said well, thanks.

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Burke, Va.: I am able to work part-time in my government job. My employer did not want me to work part-time, but I was ready to quit because there was no balance in my life. I spent my time rushing from one activity to another.

I think I was successful because I promised that they would not notice a difference in the quality of my work and I have worked hard to keep that promise. I work every day -- just shorter hours. I do all my work, take it home when I have to, travel when needed, and never miss important meetings.

I truly believe I have the best of both worlds. I am able to drop my kids off for school, make important contributions to society, earn good money with pro-rated benefits, and be home early to pick my children up from their sitter (needed primarily because of half day in Fairfax County on Mondays). I am able to make dinner almost every night. I am active in the PTA and their sports teams.

I often find a lot of people that want to stay home (or work part-time) when their kids are babies. I actually found that my working part-time made the biggest impact on my kids when they went to school. The continuity of their routine and the concept of time is so important to them!

I really wish all parents could have the opportunity I have had. Five years ago, I would have never thought it was possible.

Amy Joyce: Thank you. I hope employers are listening and considering...

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Washington, D.C.: How does one decide how long of a maternity leave to take? My company policy is up to 6 months, but it is "frowned upon" by management to actually take more than 3 if one is to be considered serious about pursuing a strong career path afterwards. Your article states that you took 6 months of leave -- did you feel any ramifications for your career when you told your company how long you were going to be out? Or when you came back?

Amy Joyce: We're lucky here in that we're allowed to take up to 6 months of leave. I think I didn't feel any ramifications of that, in part, because many women here do take the entire time. So it's part of the culture. But I know that's not the way everywhere. Just like part-time or flex-time work, it takes a cultural shift for the changes to be accepted fully. And that starts with one person, then several, then more until it's just accepted.

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Northern Va.: Amy,

Thanks so much for writing this article. I took a look at the comments section of this article and I cannot believe how much negativity people can type out in a post. A lot pointed out that there was nothing about dads. What is your husband's take on you going back to work?

I am in now my third week back from a too short maternity leave. My son is in daycare. Yesterday he was in the ER with a severe reflux episode. I have to take him to more appointments, which means more time away from the office (my maternity leave consisted of burning all available leave plus leave without pay, but that's another story). It took us almost 2 years and the help of fertility treatments to have our son - and I'm so grateful but yet guilt-ridden about going back to work.

Anyway, how can I keep all the balls up in the air? Why do I feel so guilty about leaving him to go back to work?

Amy Joyce: My husband's take? We make it work. He knows that I am someone who wants to work, needs to work. He also knows that between the two of us, Sam is the most loved kid in the world (as is yours of course!)

I think the guilt is constant. I think if I stayed home, though, I'd feel guilty about something else.

I'm still new to this, but I feel like you do the best you can and those balls stay in the air somehow. We change things to fit our lives and our children's lives as we need to. One decision now doesn't mean that's what you have to do for the rest of your life.

(Sorry to hear about the reflux. Good luck.)

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Va.: While no situation is perfect, I have achieved what feels like real balance by taking a job at the community center where my kids attend preschool and childcare. I was working someplace else when we enrolled them and after a few months I realized that I had skills that would translate well here. I made sure that people knew me all around the building and kept my ear out for opportunities. But my networking paid off better than I hoped and they approached me about a new position they felt would benefit everyone involved.

I took a pay-cut but made up the difference in reduced childcare costs. I work full-time, but my kids walk by my office all day long and blow me kisses. It's not the job of my dreams but for right now it works for me.

Amy Joyce: We all will transform ourselves throughout our lives to make life work, and this is a perfect example. Congrats. Sounds dreamy.

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Amy Joyce: Okay, gang. Time for me to sign off. I have enjoyed my time with you over the years. I wish you all well with family, work and all the stuff that comes with it. You can email me at joycea@washpost.com anytime.

Best wishes to all of you. Thanks for joining us today.

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Editor's Note: washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions. washingtonpost.com is not responsible for any content posted by third parties.


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