Becoming Mother

A book and a blog for first-time mothers

Category: Breastfeeding

I Heart Formula Feeding (and I don’t care who knows it)

Listen to me read this post here:

 

Or read the post below here:

Something that I should say first

(I shouldn’t have to, but I know how quickly the mind jumps to conclusions…)

I think breastfeeding is awesome.

My love of formula feeding in no way diminishes your breastfeeding experience.

Infant feeding isn’t a zero-sum issue.

(And by the way, when did it become one?)

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Formula feeding, one week old

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As I’ve written about extensively in my book and in other blog posts, breastfeeding was so much worse than childbirth for me. (And I gave birth without drugs).

With my first baby, I was overcome with feelings of guilt (This shit might actually keep her brain from developing as much as it would if I were breastfeeding…) and shame (If I were a better mother, I would have kept pumping, even just a little bit. Every little bit helps.)

In my mind, I wasn’t allowed to openly love formula feeding. Proclaiming how much I loved formula feeding would have been akin to saying that I didn’t particularly care about the health of my child.

That’s what I thought.

When I try to trace back where those thoughts came from, I realize how much of my own insinuations were responsible for the guilt and shame that I felt. I read four or five credible books about breastfeeding when I was pregnant. (The Breastfeeding Book by Martha and William Sears was particularly good.) My takeaway from this and the other books was that, as long as I stuck with breastfeeding, my chances of success were very, very high.

I just needed to buckle down and commit to the process.

Because, let’s face it, breastfeeding is better for me and the baby.

I LOVED THIS MESSAGE.

Because if there’s one thing my friends and family know about me, it’s that I CAN BUCKLE DOWN AND COMMIT like no other.

I’m like a dog with a bone when I move something to the top of the priority list.

And in those first weeks after my first child was born…

Let’s just say, Ruff, ruff.

***

There’s a difference between loving the way that you feed your child and doing it simply because you hate the alternative.

I had to learn this the hard way with my first child.

Because, I confess, I didn’t love formula feeding her.

I just hated the alternative of breastfeeding.

Breastfeeding made me absolutely miserable. It brought me no joy. It only brought physical and emotional pain. Feelings of inadequacy and resentment. And days and days of being awake for 22 out of 24 hours (and that brings you to the brink of psychosis, let me tell you).

So I quietly switched to formula feeding when my daughter was 12 days old. Every time, someone saw us feeding her tiny bottles of formula, the mental tape of guilt and shame ran its course in my mind.

I bit my lip and hoped no one would say anything.

Most people didn’t.

But some did.

And then I was prepared with my boilerplate speech that grew increasingly awkward as I tried to figure out on-the-fly if this audience really needed to know the shape of my nipples or the amount of milk that I was producing. (Does anyone really need to know that?)

It was agonizing.

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***

But this post isn’t supposed to be about how hard breastfeeding was for me.

It’s supposed to be about how awesome formula feeding has been for me.

I’ll admit, I didn’t automatically switch to loving formula feeding after having my second baby simply because I had done it before.

But once I realized the absolute deluge of work that having a second child heaped upon us, I was ALL ABOUT FORMULA FEEDING.

With no grandparents living nearby to constantly stop by and help out, we bear the full load by ourselves. (Read: full-time jobs, daycare drop-off/pick-up, hours of housecleaning every day, lawn mowing (a HUGE yard), shopping, doctor visits, dentist visits, blah, blah, blah…)

So trying to breastfeed when my body wasn’t cooperating?

Nope.

Breastfeeding even if my body were cooperating would have been a challenge.

I think the only way I would be breastfeeding right now is if…

1) I truly loved the experience of breastfeeding

and

2) I could hire outside help to pick up my share of the household chores.

Barring those two crucial factors, breastfeeding would just not happen.

Because now, the day is doubly full of responsibilities.

Now, there are no simply no free moments to wade through the quagmire of the Internet and second guess everything that I’m doing and compare this product and that product and this method and that method.

I no longer run Google searches like “infant formula obesity” or “does formula cause diarrhea?” or “comparison of intelligence breastfed and formula fed” or “mother child bonding only breastfeeding?” And then get sidetracked into a discussion board where self-righteous and insecure young mothers tear each other apart.

So unh-uh. Ain’t nobody got time for that any more.

***

If you’ve gotten this far, perhaps you want some specific reasons that I love formula feeding.

Here are my top reasons, in order of importance to me.

  1. I know exactly how much my baby has eaten (This always helped put my mind at ease in those early weeks when your baby is trying to regain their birth weight.)
  2. I know exactly what ingredients my baby has eaten.
  3. I don’t have to worry about how my diet affects my baby. (After ten months of pregnancy, this is a huge relief, I can tell you.)
  4. My body starts to feel like it belongs to me again, much sooner.
  5. I can more easily share night feeding responsibilities.
  6. I don’t have to pump at night or at work, just to keep my milk supply up.
  7. Actually, just, I DON’T HAVE TO PUMP. (Those machines are like a form of torture, I swear to God. And of course, they were invented by a dude.)
  8. I don’t have to scrape the bottom of my soul for the willpower to endure a baby’s incessant need to nurse all day, for several days–just to get my baby through a growth spurt.
  9. I can get a babysitter and leave the house–without wondering how soon I’ll need to pump or nurse before my boobs explode.
  10. I will never run out of food for my baby–even if my body isn’t cooperating (a statement of middle-class privilege, I acknowledge. Although… so are a lot of these reasons…)
  11. If I get sick, I can take time to recover without having a baby attached to me all hours of the day.
  12. I can exercise without worrying about diminishing my milk supply.
  13. Actually, I can just live life without worrying about diminishing my milk supply.
  14. I only spend 2 hours per day feeding my child (20 minutes X 5-6 feedings), rather than 4.5 hours per day (45 minutes X 5-6 feedings–that was about the fastest I could ever nurse).
  15. I didn’t have to worry about whether my baby would take a bottle at daycare.
  16. I don’t have to confront the frustrating situation of wondering if some nut job is going to find my breastfeeding “inappropriate.” (IT’S NOT. GET OVER IT.)
  17. I’m sure I could go on…

***

I write this post specifically for mothers who are formula feeding.

Because I know what it’s like to be sitting in a group of moms and overhear someone refer to infant formula as “garbage.” Or hear another mom say, “Well, if that’s how you want to feed your baby…”

It ain’t fun.

And, if you were raised to be “ladylike” like me, you didn’t stand up for yourself. (Instead, you just pretended that you didn’t hear… and then complained about it later to an accepting audience as a means to let off steam. Being female is a bitch, isn’t it?)

What I want to say to you is this:

There will be sooo many times in motherhood when you can’t please everyone, no matter what you do.

This truth hit home hard just a month ago when another daycare mom who was considering withdrawing her baby (who had started just weeks earlier) called our daycare center a “dirty”, “expensive,” “baby factory.” (Expensive, sure, but dirty? Uh, have you been to other daycare centers???) After I told her that I liked our daycare, she said,

“Huh. I just thought my baby deserved better. But you’re fine with this, right?”

Ick. I couldn’t get out of the conversation fast enough.

Trust me. There will always be someone who will try to make you feel badly about how you’re raising your kids. No matter what you’re doing.

And if you need even more assurance that everything’s going to be okay, here’s Adam explaining why baby formula isn’t poison.

Press on, moms.

There will always be someone who is sure you’re not doing the best that you can. (And for some reason, it’s their responsibility to let you know about it.)

Press on.

Breastfeeding: It’s Complicated

That’s how I would summarize my previous experience with breastfeeding.

Before having my first child, I envisioned myself being one of those women who breastfed throughout maternity leave, dutifully pumped at work, and kept up the routine as long as I could. That’s how I always pictured that first year with my daughter. Nursing and pumping. As long as possible.

But my body had other ideas.

Although I’ve always been a strong believer in the power and wisdom of my own body, breastfeeding was truly not in the cards for me. We could talk about what it felt like to have postpartum thyroiditis. We could talk about my boobs, my nipples, how often we nursed, how her latch was, and the interventions that we tried.

But I’m kind of over that.

I’m kind of done explaining and justifying my experiences, anticipating all the nay-sayers who would just write off my truth as “one more woman who didn’t try hard enough.”

Yeah. Done with that.

Let me just say that, to me, breastfeeding was like trying to pull a dry, fraying end of a piece of thread through the tiniest of needles. Over and over again.

I could only nurse in Just This Way. And even then, I missed the needle over and over again. Only a tiny amount ever making it through the needle.

And then finding out that, hey, I didn’t even have a full spool of thread to work with.

breastfeeding

***

So here we are, just weeks away from the reality of breastfeeding another child. Wondering if this time will be just as awful as the last time. Hoping that this time, I’ll at least be spared the insomnia (courtesy of postpartum thyroiditis) that came with nursing our first child.

Maybe this time, I’ll be able to sleep between feedings.

Maybe this time, I’ll make at least 50% of what the baby needs, rather than 20%. 

Maybe this time, I’ll be able to make it three weeks instead of twelve days.

Maybe these seem like low standards, but they are monumental to me. I don’t have high expectations for what nursing will be like this time. I don’t plan on committing to a die-hard schedule that will increase my milk production at the cost of my own physical and mental health.

The truth is, for me, breastfeeding was much, much harder than childbirth.

And I gave birth with no drugs.

With childbirth, my body seemed to know the procedure. My hips cooperated. My uterus contracted and my baby responded well. I pushed like a pro. My blood loss was typical. And my body succeeded in making the slow journey back to its pre-pregnancy condition.

But with breastfeeding, my body couldn’t get the procedure right. It kept trying to drop into the process, only to be stopped by barrier after barrier after barrier.

Finally, I was forced to accept the fact that–despite everyone who assured me that I could breastfeed if I worked hard enough–I simply could not.

***

So this time, the internal dialogue will focus more on my own self-care.

 I’ll do this as long as I’m healthy.

I need to sleep at least 5 hours a day. At the very least.

If the baby is still hungry, I’ll consider formula.

If I’m not producing more than 1/2 ounce in a pumping session, I should consider whether or not I want to stick with breastfeeding.

If I stop breastfeeding, the baby will be fine. I will be fine. And if people judge me for it, I know they have no idea what I’ve been through. 

There was a time in my life when I would have thought that even thinking these thoughts would ultimately lead to me exclusively formula feeding, which–according to strong breastfeeding advocates–was the unhealthiest decision I could make for my newborn.

I thought that.

And I was all about the healthiest decision for my newborn.

But I did not factor my own health into my decision-making.

I thought that what I needed was not as important as what my baby needed. And while new mothers definitely experience a certain amount of humbling and re-prioritizing, it should never be at the detriment of her own health.

Yeah, you feel shitty in the newborn period. You’re sore and exhausted and overwhelmed. But there’s a difference between feeling shitty and feeling like you’re clinging to the edge of life.

Sleeping 1-3 hours per day because you’re nursing or pumping will do that to you.

So if you’re reading this and you’re feeling like a failure for not breastfeeding your child, let me be the first to tell you a simple truth: You are a good mom because of who you are. Not because of anything that you do.

These decisions about feeding, diapering, and sleeping don’t have “winning” sides.

Just love your child. And your child will love you.

It’s that simple.

Book Club Discussion # 2: Who should intervene when women have trouble breastfeeding?

In this post, I include an excerpt from my forthcoming book, “Becoming Mother: A Journey of Identity,” (coming in August 2015) followed by commentary. I intend this post to be a springboard for a book-club-like discussion, so feel free to contribute!

From the chapter entitled, “Feeding”:

“So…” the pediatrician looks at the computer screen before she turns back to me. “Your daughter has lost eleven percent of her body weight in four days. That’s cause for concern,” she nods as she says this.

I am so relieved. I’m not crazy. I knew that she was hungry. I’m not crazy.

“Do you have any idea how much milk you’re producing?” she asks.

I shake my head. “We’ve just been trying to keep our heads above water, so I haven’t even tried pumping.”

“Okay… okay.” She is quiet for a moment. “Have you tried hand expressing any milk?”

“The lactation consultant said that I have flat and inverted nipples, so that’s why I wasn’t able to do that.”

“Okay… So I’d go ahead and try pumping just to get an idea of what you’re producing. It’s not going to be as much as what your baby can pull out, but it will do a few things. It will give you an idea of what you’re producing. It will give you a break from these marathon nursing sessions. And it will keep stimulating milk production.”

She stands up to examine Felicity. She looks into her eyes and feels her belly. “She’s pretty jaundiced, too. We’ll need to follow up on that.”

“Can I ask a question about me?”

She turns to look at me. “I’ve gained eleven pounds of fluid, and it’s all in my legs. And I can’t sleep. I keep trying to go to sleep between feedings, and I just can’t. I’m afraid that if this continues, it’s going to affect my milk coming in.”

“Okay, so that’s something that I’d talk with your OB about.”

Oh, wonderful, I think. Her.

“Great. She’s in Italy,” I say.

“Oh… She’s in a practice by herself?”

“Yeah.”

“Maybe the nurses there, then… But really your OB should be the one to consult about those kinds of issues.”

It seems strange to me how we’re talking about all of these issues: Felicity’s weight loss, my lack of sleep and fluid retention, and my milk production. It’s all related, but the pediatrician is responsible for addressing Felicity’s weight loss, not any issues with me. But the issues with me are causing Felicity’s weight loss. It seems to me that someone—I don’t know who—should be treating this problem holistically. This is the time and place where I need someone to help me first so that I can help Felicity. I thought maybe this doctor—my family doctor—would be able to help. After all, she’s also Felicity’s pediatrician. But perhaps there are some legal issues here to consider? Who knows.

“So because of her rapid weight loss,” the doctor explains, “she really needs to have formula as a supplement until your milk comes in.”

There it is. All the on-line breastfeeding forums have cautioned me about this: the dreaded supplementation discussion at the first visit to the pediatrician. But I gather all of their dire warnings about supplementing in the first week and throw them to the wind. I’ll do what I need to do in this moment—regardless of the shame that I know will befall me.

The doctor pulls a starter kit of formula from a cabinet and opens the box. She unscrews the cap of a premade bottle. For a moment, I cringe. But when my doctor hands it to me, I take it. I push aside all my thoughts about the most natural option being the best decision in this moment. Today, living off something synthetic is better than dying from the lack of something natural.

I nestle the nipple of the bottle between Felicity’s lips and she starts guzzling. Her eyes flip open in surprise.

“You want to give her breaks, every half ounce or so,” the doctor advises. “She needs some time for her stomach to realize how much she’s eaten. If you let her eat too quickly, it could come straight back up.”

“So… I should just take it away and check every now and then?”

“Yeah, until you get the hang of it.”

The bottle has useful measurement marks to keep track of how much Felicity has eaten. I pull the bottle away after every half of an ounce. Then, I burp her, and we resume the feeding. Once Felicity has finished the bottle, she is fast asleep in my arms.

“Thank you,” I say. “Just… um…” I shake my head, the heat of my tears stinging as they rise. “This means a lot.” I wish there were stronger words than thank you, but I’m too emotional to find them.

Author Commentary

Even as I share this excerpt, I know that there are plenty of mothers who had a similar experience at their child’s first pediatrician visit. What I write about here is hotly debated among mothers–to supplement or not to supplement?

There are plenty of women who can share an experience of their milk fully coming in after the first pediatrician’s visit–and then feeling like the doctors suggested supplementing too soon. And if they did supplement in the first days of life and suffered from low milk supply later on, they may blame themselves for not having faith in their bodies to do the job. Or they may blame the doctors for not trusting in the strength of women’s bodies.

In my case, I wouldn’t realize until six months postpartum that–while at was at that first visit to the pediatrician–my body was experiencing postpartum thyroiditis. This condition caused me to make about 10% of the amount of breast milk that my daughter needed to survive every day. But I didn’t know this. I could have chosen to say, “No, I’ll keep exclusively nursing.”

But I didn’t. Something just didn’t feel right. Maybe it was the way my daughter looked as she strained and strained to eat, as if trying to draw water from a rock.

Before becoming a mother, I was never one to really trust my intuition. I relied mostly on facts, observations, and research to make decisions. But something shifted in those first days of motherhood and I couldn’t ignore what my intuition was telling me.

We could get tangled up in this messy web of whether or not to supplement while nursing, but I think there is a much bigger question that goes undiscussed far too often when we talk about breastfeeding troubles.

Who should be responsible for intervening when a mother has trouble breastfeeding? 

Right now in the United States, the pediatrician is the first medical professional that a new mother and baby typically encounter after they are discharged from the hospital. But as you can see from the excerpt above, pediatricians don’t always frame their advice and suggestions based on the assumption that the mother and baby are still one unit. They are thinking about the baby–not the mother. But this neglects the fact that the new mother and baby are still so integrally tied to each other in those first few weeks. They still exist in symbiosis. What affects the baby affects the mother–and what affects the mother affects the baby.

After the first pediatrician visit, mothers typically shoulder the responsibility for seeking out help if they are experiencing problems with breastfeeding. They might call a lactation consultant (if their insurance covers the expense.) But lactation consultants (LC) can offer wildly different advice–which leads mothers to calling LC after LC after LC.

So here’s a broad question that I’ll just put out there for you to think about and respond as you feel fit:

What kind of support system do mothers need when they are experiencing troubles with breastfeeding? Who should be involved? And how should they help?

I look forward to hearing from you!

(Want to join other Book Club Discussions? Click here.)

Book Club Discussion # 1: Breastfeeding… or not

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Felicity, March 2014: 7 months old (exclusively formula fed since 2 weeks old)

In this post, I include an excerpt from my forthcoming book, “Becoming Mother: A Journey of Identity,” (coming in August 2015) followed by commentary. I intend this post to be a springboard for a book-club-like discussion, so feel free to contribute!

 

From the chapter entitled, “The Conflict”:

 

Why did my inability to breastfeed cause me so much devastation? Was it perhaps because I still felt so connected to Felicity? Certainly, this presented a paradox: How could our needs be in such conflict while we were still so attached? She needed food, and I couldn’t provide it. It seemed impossible.

But there was another, deeper layer to my devastation—the devastation of a wounded identity, one that was still a newborn itself. That fresh identity as a competent mother—hero of my own story, defender of my newborn baby—was now at risk. I was becoming some breed of mother who didn’t neatly fall into one category or another. How could I have had an unmedicated childbirth and now be formula feeding my baby? What kind of mother was that?

Mothers like me didn’t seem to exist in mommy blogs or on-line forums. Mothers who gave birth without medication always breastfed their babies! They endured the pain so their babies would be alert after birth and latch with no problems. If they could stand the pain of childbirth, the pain of nursing cramps and chomped nipples and mastitis would be child’s play.

This is what I thought.

But again, these thoughts emerge from living in a society that emphasizes choice. When our concerns are not simply feeding our children, we can refocus our concerns on how we are feeding them. And when those feeding choices are presented on a continuum of “good, better, and best”, it’s fairly easy to jump to the conclusion of “good, better, and best mother.”

Even after I reassured myself that I was a competent mother, I knew the stereotypes that follow mothers who formula feed today. Our identities are not solely composed of what we think about ourselves. They also include—whether we like it or not—what others think about us. We may not care what some people think about our parenting, but we want those whom we respect to see us at least as good parents, if not great parents. And so this was a major psychological blow at a time when I was already bottoming out because of the fluctuations in my postpartum hormones.

So when I was unable to breastfeed, I had to reconcile many truths. I had to surrender my commitment to breastfeed. I had to accept that my baby wouldn’t be eating what everyone was calling “the best.” I had to reconcile what this decision said about my new identity as a mother. And I had to accept a very definite separation from my baby at a time when I wasn’t ready to let go.

 

Until I decided to wean Felicity, I had relied on evidence-based research to make decisions about labor, birth, and feeding. And while all of this knowledge helped me to avoid an unnecessary labor induction, it was not the definitive authority that I had imagined it to be during pregnancy. Because I lacked confidence in my own instincts as a woman and a mother, I placed all of my trust in this research, believing that it would provide me the best counsel about how to solve any problem that I could encounter as a new mother.

In fact, Robbie Davis-Floyd (2003) explored this tendency of American mothers to grant more authority to scientific knowledge than their own intuitive and bodily knowledge. She asserts that this tendency arises from American cultural beliefs that possessing, “scientific knowledge about medical birth” gives mothers power and control in a culture where, “knowledge… is respected… (and) enables one to be a competent player of our cultural game” (p. 31). Not only does her cultural observation explain my intense desire to read and research during pregnancy, but it helps me understand my own distrust in my body’s signals.

But if I had been able to listen to my body and trust my instincts more, I would have probably stopped breastfeeding around eight days postpartum. It was at this time that I knew my milk supply was not going to increase. My daughter was already eating mostly formula despite my constant pumping and nursing. I had done all of the interventions that I could try and the outcome was the same—one to two ounces of breast milk per day. At this point, I had to start denying what was happening to me in order to keep going. Every time I nursed her, I reminded myself that breastfeeding was best and that I was doing the right thing. I refused to let myself focus on the fact that she could only draw half an ounce of breast milk during a feeding. Instead, I allowed statistics and the results of scientific studies to overshadow my own personal experience.

But it wasn’t just research that fueled my self-denial.

It was also my own pride.

 

I shared in today’s breastfeeding enthusiasm to the point of sacrificing my own health. I had read about the dangers of infant formula. I didn’t want processed food going into my baby’s body. Unlike women of my mother’s and grandmother’s generations, I live in a time when breastfeeding is now heralded as the best decision that mothers can make for the health of their babies. It supports their immune systems. Breast milk is more easily digested, so babies have fewer cases of constipation and diarrhea. It makes them smarter? It decreases their chances of developing obesity? Okay, those findings seemed like a stretch, but I was willing to believe them—since I was going to breastfeed.

But ultimately, it was my own pride that kept me nursing and pumping until I literally had nothing left to give.

I didn’t want to be criticized. But I also didn’t want to be wrong.

(This is only an excerpt from this chapter. Buy the whole book in August! Request an email when it’s available here.)

 

Author Commentary

This section of the book was extremely difficult for me to write because it required me to

1) honestly assess my attitudes before I began breastfeeding

2) honestly assess my actual experience with breastfeeding and position it within the context of modern society’s expectations and norms for motherhood

3) express the chaotic, internal dialogue that ruled my thoughts in those first months of motherhood

4) articulate the complex identity crisis I experienced with enough context for others to understand how and why it occurred

5) be vulnerable to an audience who could choose to write me off as a mother who “didn’t try hard enough”

6) not resort to sweeping conclusions about breastfeeding, but rather acknowledge the truth that other women have very different experiences with breastfeeding

To be clear, I don’t think that breastfeeding necessarily causes an identity crisis for women. Rather, I see it as one of the many ways that we–especially Americans–measure “success.” We do it in every other facet of life. We measure success by the things that we do–studying all night to get an A on that exam, practicing all year to win that dance competition, killin’ it at your job for three years to earn that promotion.

And then we reward this work: trophies, diplomas and degrees, promotions, new and better jobs, new houses. We’ve worked hard enough. Others see us as valuable. Banks trust us.

So if we do this in every other facet of life, why should we expect anything different from the process of becoming a mother? Doesn’t it make sense that we set up these goals to achieve in motherhood and then crumble when we feel like we can’t reach them?

And what happens if we don’t achieve these goals? Quite often, we resort to the fundamentals of attribution theory: If we don’t succeed, it’s because something else stopped us from succeeding, but if someone else doesn’t succeed, it’s because they are somehow flawed.

And this is crucial for understanding why it was such a big deal to me that I couldn’t breastfeed–I knew that a lot of people would ascribe my “failure” to breastfeed to flaws in my own personality. I wasn’t tough enough. I was uneducated. I wasn’t vigilant enough seek out the right help. And this is why I found it so critical to defend myself by oversharing the awful details of my descent into hell with others. If they just understood my situation, they would understand, I thought.

This happens a lot with expectations for birth, too. In my case, my expectations for birth rather closely aligned with what actually happened (with some frustrating deviations–to be told at another time). But I was able to come out of that experience with the feeling that I had “succeeded.” And so, my identity as a “good mother” was bolstered by this experience.

So I really think that the identity crisis comes from having strong expectations before you give birth, not living up to those expectations, and then feeling like the society in which you live is actively measuring your success in motherhood according to those expectations. That–I believe–is the perfect storm for this kind of identity crisis.

If you are a mother, what expectations, or even “goals,” did you have before you gave birth? Did reality match those expectations? If not, how did it make you feel and how did you cope?

Looking forward to hearing from you!

 

References:

Davis-Floyd, R. (2003). American Birth as a Rite of Passage, 2nd ed., Berkeley: University of California Press.

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