An Ode to the Perfect Part-Time Baby

Jacob (aka J-Baby, aka Part-Time 3rd Baby, aka Jake The Slug*) is doing one of my all time favorite baby moves these days. Every few minutes, as he plays with toys and big kids, he looks up at me to check in with a goofy, dimpled grin. Then he rapid crawls over, flings himself into my lap, and grabs a quick snuggle. Sometimes he pulls himself up into my arms for a full hug, leaning his head on me and sucking his finger briefly before flinging himself back to the carpet. It is one of the things that makes sitting on the floor to play endlessly (when I have to heave my baby belly back up to stand) totally worth it.

Oh. This. Baby. He has a special place in my heart.

I have been lucky to provide childcare for a baby I am allowed to fall in love with, because he belongs to one of my oldest and best friends, Melissa. While it is paid employment, he has come to feel like family. The months of intimate caretaking – all of the soothing and rocking to sleep in my arms – has formed a strong bond between us. When he leaves my care (freakishly soon) he will remain in my life. I will be able to hug and kiss him for years, watch with pride as he grows, and be there at his high school graduation to remind him that I used to feed him baby bottles and wipe his butt.

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4 month old squish during week one at my house.

Jacob was only a squishy four month old baby when I started watching him. He spent his time observing the chaos of my house from the rock and play, being hauled around in the carrier while we chased Owen, and trying tummy time on the playmat (with TONS of help from my toddlers). I learned the differences between feeding him and feeding my own babies (no spitup!), and the particular bounce and rock that soothed him to sleep.

We played and snuggled and got used to each other during the first couple of months, through an amazing phase of growth and change. I got to watch and help him learn to grab toys and play, to move his arms and legs, and to mimic facial expressions.

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All of the help, all of the attention, none of the regard for personal space.

I had him in the six to nine month phase, when routines had formed and fussiness had (mostly) subsided. We experimented with food together, Melissa telling me the new things he was trying each day. Feeding babies is one of my favorite messy activities; it gives so much insight into their personalities and preferences. J-Baby (the nickname my kids gave him) quickly exhibited his desire to self-feed, long before he was able, like Owen did. He vehemently spit out any food that did not please his taste buds, like Addie did.

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Happiest, busiest, little bee.

In the nine to twelve month phase, we survived spring colds, teething, and ever changing needs together. The kids and I moved furniture and play spaces around to help Jacob learn to pull up to stand. We worked on baby sign language. He left the carrier to wiggle at gymnastics alongside Owen.

Now I get to watch the one-year-old, as he gets busier, funnier, and sweeter. Every day he makes noises that sound more and more like conversation (if you speak baby gibberish that is, which I do fluently). He no longer accepts just any toy Addie and Owen offer as a trade to get something from him; he has the drive and ability to go after the red car, or the green ball, or any contraband items (paper, shoes, dog toys). He has finally increased from slug to normal human speed in these specific moments, or when a door is open that he would like to use as an exit.

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Caring for J-Baby, as meaningful and joyful as it is, is not without challenges. Babies are WORK. It has been a long effort (collectively, with his parents and other caretakers) to get him to self-soothe for sleep. He has his quirks, like all the rest – do NOT try to wipe his face or nose without protest. And he never gets my undivided attention, with my two around. Through exhausting sleep protests, clingy teething, and painful hair pulling phases, he has been mine three days a week, and I would not go back and give up this time for the world.

We have a daily, rhythm, the three kids and I, and the beginning of the end is bittersweet. This week I switched to only two days a week, and before long he will go off to new horizons and I will prepare for another third baby (who I do not pass off to someone else at the end of the day). I owe Jacob the world, though, for teaching how to care for three at a time.

* Slugs do not have feet, and so they – SLOWLY – drag the back of their body by inching the front across the ground, or drag the front of their body by pushing the back. This is also J-Baby’s preferred method of transportation. He does it around the floor, up and down the steps, and in and out of my arms. When not moving like a slug, he tends to drop like a limp noodle and/or curl into a ball. Although he has recently begun to crawl like a real baby, he has no need to move faster or better; his irresistible charm will have other people doing things for him for years to come.

Round 3: Just One More Baby

My recent 20-week ultrasound, for this third pregnancy, was quite different than for the other two. The first time I counted down the days, triple checking where to go, what to do, and that Kevin had the day off. I had no idea what to expect, and then the concept of new lives – my daughter’s and mine as a mother – solidified into reality when I saw her tiny body growing.

During my second pregnancy, we left the flailing 15-month old at home for the big ultrasound, but talked more about her than about the new life we saw on the grainy screen (oh, second babies). I was more aware of potential problems, and my anxiety was at a new and treacherous peak, so all I cared to see was that my son was healthy.

To ultrasound round three, we brought the whole four person family fiasco. The lab room is not large, the equipment is not indestructible, and my kids are (many good things but) not well behaved. It could have gone two ways: meltdown disasters or heartwarming sweetness. It was somewhere in between and perfect.

Addie was fascinated by the blue “goo” on my stomach (“Is it sticky? Can I touch it? I want to eat it!”). Owen, already used to going to checkups with me, settled right in and snuggled. He asked all morning “We go to doctor appointment? At Kaiser? See baby sister?” Kevin wrangled both of them, no one fussed too much, and I was relieved to see my healthy 3rd baby squirming.

I hoped it would make the idea of our family growing a little more real to the kids. Who knows if that happened, but they were excited and involved. They know that we are in this together, as a family, as we prepare for her arrival.

Ultrasound Snuggles

Not so long ago, after careful deliberation on the matter, Kevin and I were solidly done having babies. Turns out we were wrong, obviously. I blame this blog post: No More Babies. The natural law of parenting is that once you proclaim the way things are, they instantly change. Doubly true for announcing it on the internet.

Wherever the blame belongs (with Kevin, my super cute part-time third baby, or my bold public announcement) the new reality is pregnancy and planning.

The first round, pregnant with Addie, I was both plagued and relieved by the unknown of it all. With no images of what daily life would look like, no anticipations of the challenges, I was also blissfully unaware that crossing the line from no kids to kids would be a permanent shift in every fiber of my being. I was unencumbered by dreams of false perfection or preconceived notions of how things should be, and had no prior mistakes upon which to improve.

I started out by accepting less control over life and was forced to live in the vast unknown for nine or so months. It turned out to be great preparation for parenting; damn, this business is unpredictable. The only constants are change, chaos, and a love so heavy it shatters and puts you back together every day.

Round two, pregnant with Owen, I had a better sense of how much a new human changes everything, which was a source of grave anxiety. I spent those nine months anticipating every challenge from the first time reoccurring. I was prepared for an early baby with jaundice and months of extra concern over growth charts and milestones. I was braced for the spit-up, the sleepless nights, the unexplained crying, and the total lack of personal space and time. I dreaded postpartum anxiety and the anguishing recovery from giving birth.  Knowing that babies are 24-7 curveballs, I figured we were in for a whole heap of new issues too. I felt doomed.

I doubted my ability to handle it all – the moment to moment, day to day, around the clock, work of parenting two under two. What would I do when both babies were crying, sick, or clingy?  

More than anything, I worried for Addie. I did not yet appreciate the resilience of kids to change. My heart broke every time I imagined having to put off soothing her to tend to the needs of some stranger baby.

I took comfort in the overwhelming, automatic, primal love that I felt for my baby boy.

I took comfort in knowing that, even if Addie’s life was temporarily destroyed, she would get a sibling out of the deal – a lifelong companion, a little buddy to boss around.

I took comfort in her being so young that she would never remember life without him.

Everything (and everyone) is different this third round – from the group appointment to the ultrasound photos tossed haphazardly on the coffee table, instead of on the fridge or placed carefully into a baby book.

This round, I make no assumptions about her personality, our challenges, or the kids’ reactions.

This round, I am not focused on every little pregnancy symptom – I have no time to do that.

This round, I have less concern for the logistics; I pretty much know where she will sleep, and I have a car seat for her – that seems good enough for now.

Baby #3 will find her place in our home, our family, and our hearts. I know now that all of those areas of life stretch and multiply to make room for more love.

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Fruitless Efforts

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A friend posted this quote recently and I made a half-kidding comment that it was a good #parentingtip. It echoes a true sentiment in raising the under 5 crowd, at least. The gist of it – that trying to alter permanent conditions (or people) only brings misery – keeps rolling around in my mind. It has been guiding my moment-to-moment parenting in a positive direction since, or at least pushing my mood up a notch.

Although not a new philosophy (in parenting or life), and certainly not my original idea, it came as a well-timed reminder. Addie is a homebody-to-the-bones by nature, but I cannot change that school starts at 8:30 am and does not take place at our house. What I can control, for my own happiness, is how I reconcile the two conflicting facts. She also cannot change (at least until more of her frontal lobe develops) that transitional times feel, to her, like an emotional assault, or that she has to cover her body with clothing anyway. All I can do is give her the tools to smooth it all out and wait until she grows up.

Owen, to his core, maintains high anxiety about talking to unfamiliar people. Neither of us can change that he is sometimes inclined to clam up, look away, and tremor when a waitress tells him “good morning, cutie!” But we are not interested in disrupting the social nature of pleasant greetings among humans. I am long past the times of stressing myself out in navigating his interactions, or attempting to cajole a reply from him. I refuse to thwart his genuine feelings by telling him not to be shy or that it is all okay – when it is so clearly NOT okay, to him.

Instead, I try to help him balance his need for space with the common courtesies required to participate in the world. I pat his back so he feels the safety of my presence; I gain his eye contact to keep him from checking out of the interaction; I ask him if he wants to say good morning back, or if he wants mommy to say it for him; I show warm smiles to both my bashful boy and the kind waitress.

As humans (I think) my kids have no control over fears and preferences that are parts of their temperaments, or of the natural occurrences in life that stir them up. I want them to learn that they can work with their own outlooks, attitudes, reactions, and behaviors instead.

Do not waste your lives in fruitless efforts to change others: an important lesson for my kids as well. Owen took your fairy tales book and pulled your hair? Addie stuck her finger in the frosting on your cupcake? That behavior was not okay but you still need to use your words, move away, ask for help, or let it go.Those are the reactions my kids can control, the responses for which I want them to strive, and the behavior that gets everyone back to copasetic with the least grief.

The most fulfilling shift is when I can reframe things that may not be permanent, but make me crazy in the moment. If I change my verbal reaction to their shitshow, and help them to look at themselves more positively, it is a win for us all. It sure feels better to hear: you are so creative and have the biggest ideas for art projects, BUT we will have to save that one for another time, than: I told you six times already I am NOT getting out glue and scissors and making a mess right now – stop pestering me! It feels better to say: it is so great that you love to drive your trucks around, and you are such a good boy to play quietly by yourself, BUT we have to say goodbye to them now and take a nap, than it does to get exasperated and toss him into his bed while he cries.

“The fountain of content must spring up in the mind, and he who hath so little knowledge of human nature as to seek happiness by changing anything but his own disposition will waste his life in fruitless efforts and multiply the grief which he proposes to remove.”  – Samuel Johnson

I realize, with these wise words in mind all week, that it is foolish trying to control other humans in the first place (not to mention infuriating, exhausting, and utterly pointless). In no other circumstance would I attempt it. I cannot make the person in front of me in line move faster because I am running late, or expect my husband to change into a mind reader to better suit my needs, or require better grammar from strangers just to please my picky ears. All fruitless efforts, and who has the energy for those?

As for my mama mental fountain I am finding it unfair to rest my feelings of content or discontent on my kids. They are small, and their own people, and right now there is a disconnect between their true nature and the rules of the civilized world. My happiness is instantly thwarted when I get sucked into the why can’t my kids be different vortex. I can guide and assist them, and I can control my reactionl when they act like monsters, and that is it. Except when they have I love you more contests with me, or offer unsolicited acts of kindness to each other. I am more than willing to let those good vibes change my disposition.

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38

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37 … 38

38 years old … What does this feel like? Is it the same as 37, as 36? It should be, but instead it feels like a long stride closer to 40. 38 is the difference between picturing my 40’s as a blurry time in the future, and realizing that it will just be another year, then another.

When I was a kid, my grandma claimed for a few years in a row – with her unique and baffling tone of kidding, but really was she? – that she was turning 38. I remember knowing it was a joke, but not quite getting it. It does seem like a good place to stop.

In my memories, she – eerily and eternally young – could have been 38 all those years. To my brother, cousins, and me, in our little kid days, she gave a plethora of her time.. She owned a huge part of our weekends, holidays, summer breaks, and the joyful spaces in our hearts. Technically 38 or not, the memory is my standard for the energy and dedication of the age.

Clearly, I am in a different place than my grandmother, who was packing seven grandchildren in the Suburban for a day trip to Marine World. 38, for me, is growing a third human while chasing the first two (as depicted in the family portrait birthday card, by Addie my artist, below).

 

How about my mom at 38? That would have been 1992 and right in the middle of her new lease on life and passion as a teacher. Like everything else, I failed to note how inspiring her drive to start a career late in life was. I try to imagine now how she managed to go to college, get her credential, and start teaching when my brother and I were elementary school brats.

I would be tempted to derail at every station of that nonsense. Not Sandi, though. At 38, she would have been in her first few years of that madness and – if memory serves – loving it all.

Oh the irony that my plan is basically the same. At 38, I’m not exactly marking off days on the calendar until I can go back to a life that isn’t overwhelmed by tantrums, needs, nagging, and carseats, but I do have a countdown to it in mind. (Obviously, Baby #3 is pushing back that timeline.)

My mom’s 38th was also one of the first years when we clashed over each wanting to be the sole epitome of the grunge movement. We fought over being the most disaffected, multiple pairs of Doc Martens and jars of Manic Panic, and loving Pearl Jam the most (she won that last one hands down).

We both wanted independence during these years, while somehow retaining our mommy and daughterness. I can feel that, now that I am on the mommy side of the equation. Addie and I are years off from clashing our teenage and middle age angsts, but I have a taste of my mom’s perspective now.

So how do I feel then, if not the same as 37, but not different? If not like my mother or grandmother (in her real or faux 38th years), but not totally unlike them? What is 38 to me, if I’m not unsettled with my daily grind, nor perfectly satisfied with my place in the world?

I have no concrete answers to those existential questions – not yet nor maybe ever. 38 is peachy keen so far, despite feeling older and slower all day every day (which could be my symptomatic of my geriatric pregnancy). 38 feels fine; maybe it will get good enough that I too stay here for a few years.

Birthday Present
Gifts at 38, from my husband: paintings by my favorite local artist (more on him in a future post).

 

Scooter Dude

It happened in the backyard, where there really is not enough room to ride scooters. The kids made a course anyway: up and down a strip of concrete between the house and lawn, then a loop around the patio perimeter – skirting the table and chairs, the BBQ, the playhouse, and me (barely).

It happened in one single, unplanned moment. After six months of insistently pushing his scooter backward, Owen turned it around and finally rode the damn thing. Like a pro.

Addie – who never misses a detail of someone else’s life, yet remains unaware that her shirt is tucked into her underwear on the regular – noticed it first. “Owen’s riding his scooter the right way! Good job, bud!”

With his left foot on the scooter, right foot poised to push off the concrete, and toddler sausage fingers gripping both handles, he went for it. He became pure concentration: lips pressed together, eyebrows knitted, staring straight ahead. But his eyes revealed wild joy, recognition of fun, and a look that said: get some.

I truly thought he would never do it. I was about to put the scooter in storage, to avoid the frustration every time we tried it. This was the progression: after hours of Owen begging: “Scoo’ ride! Scoo’ ride!”, and then talking Addie the hermit into going too, we would set out. Along the way, I would casually suggest trying to ride forward and he would shake his head with a quick, firm, “mmm mmm”. No way – not interested in your conventional scooter ways.

Owen always had a predetermined route; at every turn, there was only one acceptable way to go. The problem was, we had to make our way home eventually and those 13-inchlegs max out at around seven blocks. Inevitably, we would end up too far away, tired, thirsty, and disgruntled. After bribes and reasoning failed to turn him around the right corner, I would end up carrying both the screaming boy and the scooter. Meanwhile keeping the tired girl from riding into traffic or stopping altogether.  And, often, pushing the baby in the stroller. While pregnant.

 

Like I said, I was one failed ride from putting the scooter away for good. My kids always know when they have pushed an obnoxious phase to the absolute limit, though.

We seized the moment, on that first day he rode around the backyard course, and set out immediately for a neighborhood ride. After a quick thirty-six minutes of sneakers, sunscreen, and helmets (Addie’s with flowers and Owen’s with flames) we were on our way.

 I could not judge who of the four of us was more proud on that first scooter ride: me, Kevin (who we passed working in the yard on our way out), Owen, or big sister. We made our way to the high school near us, with a big open blacktop for lots of practice.

Pushing off with his right foot he could not immediately get a stride or momentum.  His foot stayed up too long, knee bent behind him as though it knew it had just accomplished greatness and was trying not to blow it with more movement. Or else his foot went back to the ground too quickly, stopping forward motion.

His first big success came when he found a nice little slope leading away from the school’s gym. The kid has always loved a low ramp on foot. On wheels, it was just enough to get him a little speed without scaring him.  

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From that first trip out, he was riding along as though he had always been able to and was merely waiting for the moment he felt like it. Going from not-scooter to scooter happened for him in an instant, much like walking. There was a long time of not doing or visibly trying, and then suddenly charging ahead with little fumbling.

I feel pride swell outside of my body when I get to witness him master these milestones, so undeterred by difficulty. He knows exactly what he wants and is willing to put in the work for it. I admire (and envy) his beauty, determination, focus, excitement and then pride.

He’ll learn, like Addie did, how to balance and steer and other technicalities. He’ll find a whole new thrill when he gets some speed. He’ll eventually get over the stubborn need to go whichever way he wants at every turn (or maybe not – but we have lots of M&M’s). He’ll become overconfident, like Addie is now, and try fancy tricks that lead to skinned knees and tears. He’ll find only bigger and steeper ramps from here on out.

Hopefully I can curb my anxiety as I watch it all unfold, remember my pride and his joy first, and give him the freedom to take risks. With any luck, our emergency room visits will be infrequent.

 

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Things I Want to Tell My Daughter About Friendship

 

I steal every moment I can to observe my daughter interacting with other kids. I watch her at the library story time, the park, birthday parties, or play dates (which are rare – my personal parenting downfall). During the school year I could sometimes peek through the lunch room door (before another kid spotted me and yelled “Addie, your mom’s here!”).

I notice how she buzzes around kids who interest her, not quite knowing what to say. I see her whole body try to engage – rocking tentatively back and forth on her feet, hands half waving, leaning her face in a little too close for a chance to smile. Frustration often clouds her face though, furrows her teeny brow, and makes her walk away from another kid (or worse), instead of successfully engaging.

Even as a baby she has always turned into a ray of sunshine around others. Since she obviously lacks my social anxiety, I never thought she would struggle to make friends. It turns out there is more to it than fearlessness and longing.

Before preschool started last year, we talked to Addie a LOT about how to be a good friend: be kind, play nicely, share, use words, and to expect the same treatment from others. We gave her a script, a trick we have used since she started talking, to relieve any anxiety. She practiced with us, and Owen, and Penny Dog: “Hi, I’m Addie. What’s your name?” and “What’s your favorite color? I like pink and purple.”

She listened, but spent a lot of the year pushing, yelling, and hair pulling instead. Like I said, it turns out there is more to making friends than mere aspiration.

No big deal – at three years old, she has plenty of time to learn social skills, and the emotional control to employ them. It will take ongoing conversations and practice, but I have things I would like to teach her about friendship.

  • It should be easy to fall into a friendship, even though it may require a little work here and there to maintain it. It should not be the opposite – difficult and forced to start.
  • The very best kind of friend is one whose company is effortless. One you don’t have to try to be anything around. One who understands your silly jokes, and your silence, and also your deepest secrets. If you find a single person like this, you have hit the jackpot.
  • Not everyone has to be friends. It is fine – admirable even – to try, not have it work out, and simply be acquaintances. As long as it is all done with kindness.
  • Pick friends to whom you can (and want to) tell anything. As much as I would like to think otherwise, the time will come that you no longer tell your mom everything, and feedback can help you make the best decisions. Have friends who will listen and talk through situations with you.
  • Be loyal, and demand loyalty, but be realistic. Accept mistakes, flaws, and human nature.
  • Don’t be a sieve; don’t be molding clay. Admire different traits among your friends without feeling like you have to try them on for yourself. (Unless they are getting straight A’s and speaking kindly to their mom – feel free to adopt those behaviors as your own.)
  • Be part of a group of friends. Or don’t – have a few here and there. Both are perfectly good ways to go through life. Just try not to be lonely.
  • You have to be a friend to have friends. Show up sometimes, even when you would rather not. The time will come when you need them to show up too.
  • Have trust in your friends, but never blind trust. You are still responsible for your own thoughts and decisions.
  • Whoever you choose to spend time with, and however you choose to spend it, make sure your soul is happy. Friends are fun.

It took me decades to learn some of these lessons. Many I only know in retrospect, in light of their absence. But don’t we always want, for our children, the things we feel we lacked? Will it screw them up in the opposite direction – giving protection from some of my hardships, yet opening them up to alternative issues I never faced? (I am purposely leaving those questions hypothetical because I know nothing and choose not to guess.)

Addie still has everything to learn about socio-emotional skills and relationships, and she will. It’s tricky, but rewarding, business. Soon it will be a new school year, at a new school, and then kindergarten before we know it. Soon she will truly turn the corner from toddler to little kid. Soon her world will expand beyond the scope of our home and family. I hope to be ready to help her navigate friendships, in some ever changing form, for many years to come.

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The Snail Days of Summer

Summer break is here, in all its snail-paced, infuriatingly unscheduled, glory. We’re relishing the relief from the mad morning dash, from shuffling people around (and being shuffled around), and have quickly relaxed into the slow.

It has only been two weeks for Addie (Kevin’s break starts today), but we have glimpsed many phases of summer already.

The best times have been the luxurious morning snuggles while watching cartoons and snacking on dry cereal. The kids lounging in their cute pajama shorts and nightgowns until way too late in the morning and in tank tops in front of the fan in the stale afternoon heat. And all the lounging in between.

We have done pool days, sprinklers in the backyard, and popsicles. The kids have attended birthday parties, parks, and library events. Home has been filled with hours of reading, Lego fests, and movies. Art projects have been created from kid imagination, and also completed through Mom/Pinterest instructions.

There have been copious amounts of fussing, whining, fighting, biting, destructive behavior, and spinning in wild circles. We have had a solid taste of summer grumps. But mostly, the tone has been downtempo.

The days are literally long; the sun is out, so we are up, early and late. We move slowly and so do the hours. The minutes often drag past. In the snail days of summer, everything slows down.

This pace, these lack of plans, are hard on my nerves. Having an idea of what is coming next, having some structure, curbs my anxiety. And it doesn’t help when the kids get wild and troublesome from too much free time. But everyone needs a break from the scheduled, at least for the start of the summer.

Addie needs the break from structure and transitions. She needs free time and fewer restrictions, after a tough year of preschool. Her emotional health is my number one priority this summer. The year was damaging, and she needs to feel like the good kid that she is on the inside, so she can act like it on the outside, when she starts a new school in the fall.

Owen is thriving on independence and the need to figure things out for himself – whether it’s how to put on his own clothes, or how to pass the time when left to his own devices. He needs me next to him without holding his hand, reminding him of the rules of life and patiently standing by while he absorbs their weight. And it all takes time that we don’t have during school days.

I need the slow pace too. I’m wiped out, and on my two week vacation from babysitting. I miss the baby shenanigans already, but am regaining some energy from a lighter workload.

This is how the first chunk of the summer will go: snail days, in which we soak up each other’s company (for better or worse), take things day to day (mostly), and slow down to relax and recover. Adventurous days will follow soon, and then the dog days of summer will be upon us before we know it.

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