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Korean Otters

My friend Maryse called me the other day with a question, she said, about her daughter Laurie-Maude, who is in the same grade as my daughter Caroline. It was Korea Day at school, she said, and Laurie-Maude wanted to dress as an Otter. “How do Otter’s dress?” Maryse wanted to know.

At least, that’s what I thought she said. Maryse is French Canadian, from Montreal, and it’s sometimes hard to understand certain words she says, particularly over the telephone. Nevertheless, that’s what I encoded: “Laurie-Maude wants to dress as an Otter for Korea Day.”

And as one part of my brain was struggling to decipher what else she might have meant, another part set to work trying to recall an otter: What does an otter look like? Is that the one with a flat tail? Or tiny front paws? Like a meerkat? Like a beaver?

Then it occurred to me: Why is Laurie-Made, who is Chinese by birth and both Canadian and American by nationality, honoring Korea Day… when my own daughter, who is not Korean, either, hasn’t breathed a word of it? And, further, what do otters have to do with Korea?

Wait a sec—the first sliver of light peeks over the horizon!—Maryse is asking about Career Day, not Korea Day! And Laurie-Maude doesn’t want to be an Otter, she wants to dress as an Author, because she is one of the best 10-year-old writers I know. The sun hangs full and buttery in the cloudless sky.

I grew up quiet and nervous, the youngest by far in an extended family with a wicked sense of humor and a tendency to unleash it on each other. As the smallest, I was at best the mascot of the family, the one cute and clueless and in the dark, as if I really did live inside a giant padded suit. At worst, my tendency to cry easily made me the natural butt of jokes. In truth, my collection of parents, siblings, aunts, uncles and cousins could have easily been the most mild and benign unit that ever lived—although they weren’t—and I still would have been reserved and guarded. Some things just are.

As I grew older, I did my best to mask that extreme sensitivity in various ways, but friends—often inadvertently—poked at it regardless. So I spent much of my childhood embarrassed in one way or another. Sometimes, I understood exactly why the joke was on me, and sometimes I only suspected that it was—which was, in a way, worse. And sometimes I was embarrassed for no good reason at all, other than judging myself obtuse, simple-minded, imperceptive. A lifetime of feeling out of the loop will do that to you.

Which is why now, on the phone with Maryse, I’m suddenly embarrassed, and then I’m embarrassed that I’m embarrassed. And for whom? Not for her—because she has an easy laugh and an open nature. She doesn’t take herself—or her mistakes—too seriously, and she brushes it off whenever she butchers a word, or she asks plaintively, “How do you say it…?”

Instead, I’m embarrassed for myself, because of some perceived lacking, for an inability to understand what Maryse was actually saying. Because of my general inability to lighten up and laugh easily.

Later, I called Maryse back and told her jokingly, “You know what Laurie-Maude should carry? A fifth of scotch, or something else to take the edge off the pain. Writers lead miserable lives.”

She laughed with me and then said, “Well, I’ll do it and then blame it on you, because what do I know? I’m foreign!”

If only we could all laugh as such, inside our alien skin.

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79 Responses to Korean Otters

  1. Mack Collier says:

    Funny because I think this reminds me of my ‘social media is making us all extroverts’ post for DF. It’s funny how we carry our perceptions and tendencies from childhood into a usually completely different adult environment. Some of us can adapt, and some cannot. I can sympathize with anyone who feels as if their childhood is still holding them back in some ways, but am proud of you for letting your present have its influence on you, just as your past does. Not an easy trick for many of us.

  2. Mack Collier says:

    Funny because I think this reminds me of my ‘social media is making us all extroverts’ post for DF. It’s funny how we carry our perceptions and tendencies from childhood into a usually completely different adult environment. Some of us can adapt, and some cannot. I can sympathize with anyone who feels as if their childhood is still holding them back in some ways, but am proud of you for letting your present have its influence on you, just as your past does. Not an easy trick for many of us.

  3. At least you weren’t embarrassed to admit that you were embarrassed about being embarrassed about your embarrassment. THAT would be embarrassing…

  4. Angela says:

    I love this entry.

  5. At least you weren’t embarrassed to admit that you were embarrassed about being embarrassed about your embarrassment. THAT would be embarrassing…

  6. Angela says:

    I love this entry.

  7. David Reich says:

    Great story, Ann.

  8. Mukund Mohan says:

    The thing that’s really funny when I read this was I am a little deaf, so regardless of accent or phone I would have still heard Korean Otter or something like that.

    How did you figure out Career Day BTW, which part of the brain was that? That part of my brain hardly works I think.

    did your daughter tell you?

    Very good BTW. Welcome back slacker. :)

  9. Mukund Mohan says:

    The thing that’s really funny when I read this was I am a little deaf, so regardless of accent or phone I would have still heard Korean Otter or something like that.

    How did you figure out Career Day BTW, which part of the brain was that? That part of my brain hardly works I think.

    did your daughter tell you?

    Very good BTW. Welcome back slacker. :)

  10. Ann Handley says:

    Mack — I’m not sure my childhood is holding me back, anyway… it’s rich with all this great material!

    Steve — I know exactly what you mean… although I actually *am* a little embarrassed to talk about the embarrassment here after being too embarrassed to acknowledge the embarrassment to Maryse. So puzzle over that one…. ‘k?

    Angela & David — I’m honored you think so highly of it. (Worth the embarrassment of retelling, even!)

    Christopher — Band name…. PLUS, can you imagine the SEO I’ll get from “korean otter”? Sweet!!

  11. Ann Handley says:

    Mack — I’m not sure my childhood is holding me back, anyway… it’s rich with all this great material!

    Steve — I know exactly what you mean… although I actually *am* a little embarrassed to talk about the embarrassment here after being too embarrassed to acknowledge the embarrassment to Maryse. So puzzle over that one…. ‘k?

    Angela & David — I’m honored you think so highly of it. (Worth the embarrassment of retelling, even!)

    Christopher — Band name…. PLUS, can you imagine the SEO I’ll get from “korean otter”? Sweet!!

  12. Ann Handley says:

    Mukund — Your comment made me laugh; although I didn’t have a good excuse. Anyway, I only connected “Korea Day” and “Career Day” because my own kid was at that point scavenging around the house for accessories for her own Career Day get up. (As an aside — she dressed as a blogger, wearing the “I’m blogging this” t-shirt I’m wearing in my avatar here, a “Blogger Social NYC” hat, laptop case, cell phone, but (alas) no fifth of scotch.) Which is why I felt especially stupid not to have understood what Maryse was talking about….

    (And thanks!)

  13. Ann Handley says:

    Mukund — Your comment made me laugh; although I didn’t have a good excuse. Anyway, I only connected “Korea Day” and “Career Day” because my own kid was at that point scavenging around the house for accessories for her own Career Day get up. (As an aside — she dressed as a blogger, wearing the “I’m blogging this” t-shirt I’m wearing in my avatar here, a “Blogger Social NYC” hat, laptop case, cell phone, but (alas) no fifth of scotch.) Which is why I felt especially stupid not to have understood what Maryse was talking about….

    (And thanks!)

  14. Julie says:

    Like Mukund, my life is full of Korean Otters… I’m so sure everyone notices and I get embarrassed… Then I remember that Korean Otters are cute little critters with goofy teeth and laptops – as I drink yet another fifth of scotch…

    I’m so glad you’re my friend Annie.
    xx
    Now to see if I succeeded in making my name a link like you and Mukund…

  15. Julie says:

    Like Mukund, my life is full of Korean Otters… I’m so sure everyone notices and I get embarrassed… Then I remember that Korean Otters are cute little critters with goofy teeth and laptops – as I drink yet another fifth of scotch…

    I’m so glad you’re my friend Annie.
    xx
    Now to see if I succeeded in making my name a link like you and Mukund…

  16. Julie says:

    Yes!!
    God Ann… It was like having a baby and you were the midwife… A virtual midwife of course! xx

  17. Julie says:

    Yes!!
    God Ann… It was like having a baby and you were the midwife… A virtual midwife of course! xx

  18. Mukund Mohan says:

    Now I am curious Julie, what were you trying to do? Or did you achieve it all 5 times? I am not being funny, just curious

  19. Mukund Mohan says:

    Now I am curious Julie, what were you trying to do? Or did you achieve it all 5 times? I am not being funny, just curious

  20. pete says:

    until the 5th paragraph, I was thinking about relocating to the north shore

  21. pete says:

    until the 5th paragraph, I was thinking about relocating to the north shore

  22. Barbara Ling says:

    That was an otterly interesting story!

    I often have to translate my younger boys when they ask questions at karate or other places. Sometimes I think a parental translator is simply another example of how humans evolve to cope with their world. :)

    Thanks for sharing,

    Barbara

  23. Barbara Ling says:

    That was an otterly interesting story!

    I often have to translate my younger boys when they ask questions at karate or other places. Sometimes I think a parental translator is simply another example of how humans evolve to cope with their world. :)

    Thanks for sharing,

    Barbara

  24. I think I must be a very visual learner. This happens to me all. the. time.

    But only on the phone. In person, I never have this problem.

    Then again, maybe I’ve got a crappy phone.

  25. I think I must be a very visual learner. This happens to me all. the. time.

    But only on the phone. In person, I never have this problem.

    Then again, maybe I’ve got a crappy phone.

  26. pprlisa says:

    Ann,

    This reminds me of the embarrassment with always getting the lyrics to songs wrong and belting them out in front of people – of course, I still do that now. :)

    Awesome Korean Day choice for your daughter by the way.

    I feel for you on the teasing as a child, I am from a famly of very smart, quick witted and painfully sarcastic people and it can take a toll sometimes, something I try to remember with my own kids. Thanks for the reminder again.

    -Lisa

  27. pprlisa says:

    Ann,

    This reminds me of the embarrassment with always getting the lyrics to songs wrong and belting them out in front of people – of course, I still do that now. :)

    Awesome Korean Day choice for your daughter by the way.

    I feel for you on the teasing as a child, I am from a famly of very smart, quick witted and painfully sarcastic people and it can take a toll sometimes, something I try to remember with my own kids. Thanks for the reminder again.

    -Lisa

  28. I thought I was the only one who got embarrassed about being embarrassed. For years, I avoided embarrassment to the point that I almost became a total recluse. (everything embarrassed me – especially compliments). Then, when I figured out that I couldn’t hide from my children’s friends and had to do PTA meetings and such, I went out and… got embarrassed but…I dealt with it.

    What great stories you share here. They always unearth memories – some good, some not so good. Still, what are we but the sum of our memories?

  29. I thought I was the only one who got embarrassed about being embarrassed. For years, I avoided embarrassment to the point that I almost became a total recluse. (everything embarrassed me – especially compliments). Then, when I figured out that I couldn’t hide from my children’s friends and had to do PTA meetings and such, I went out and… got embarrassed but…I dealt with it.

    What great stories you share here. They always unearth memories – some good, some not so good. Still, what are we but the sum of our memories?

  30. Toby says:

    Ann – once again your writing touches chords that have not been played in many years. speaking of blogging = being a writer .. i would love to see your posts as a collection in a book one day ;-)

    does Laurie-Maude have her own blog? perhaps there should be a social media network/community (safely guarded) where children can write together? by the way your daughter has the most interesting friends!

  31. Toby says:

    Ann – once again your writing touches chords that have not been played in many years. speaking of blogging = being a writer .. i would love to see your posts as a collection in a book one day ;-)

    does Laurie-Maude have her own blog? perhaps there should be a social media network/community (safely guarded) where children can write together? by the way your daughter has the most interesting friends!

  32. Beccy says:

    So the whole embarassment thing resides with me no-matter what its origin. Add to that, my continual ability to mix up metaphors and I continue to perpetuate the embarassment…now all I can do is laugh at myself along with the rest of the world.

  33. Beccy says:

    So the whole embarassment thing resides with me no-matter what its origin. Add to that, my continual ability to mix up metaphors and I continue to perpetuate the embarassment…now all I can do is laugh at myself along with the rest of the world.

  34. I live in Montreal. Korean Otters are common. At least she didn’t say Korean Phoque. Pronounced like the F-word, phoque means seal in French.

    Which of course leads to the story of the French Canadians at Sea World who were looking for the seal exhibit. Not knowing the word in English, they asked passers-by where they could find a phoque. The perfect set-up for a hidden camera show.

  35. I live in Montreal. Korean Otters are common. At least she didn’t say Korean Phoque. Pronounced like the F-word, phoque means seal in French.

    Which of course leads to the story of the French Canadians at Sea World who were looking for the seal exhibit. Not knowing the word in English, they asked passers-by where they could find a phoque. The perfect set-up for a hidden camera show.

  36. Zane Ssafrit says:

    Being the youngest myself, you bring back so many memories with this post. It’s very sweet, very touching.

    I noticed that you kept that sensitivity alive, possibly made stronger for the ‘conditioning’ you survived.

    Ok. But now bottomline….did she take a bottle of scotch? I hope not, and expect not, as schools have no sense of humor any more. On the other hand, what a scene that would be! I know I’d probably fall out of my chair laughing…

  37. Zane Ssafrit says:

    Being the youngest myself, you bring back so many memories with this post. It’s very sweet, very touching.

    I noticed that you kept that sensitivity alive, possibly made stronger for the ‘conditioning’ you survived.

    Ok. But now bottomline….did she take a bottle of scotch? I hope not, and expect not, as schools have no sense of humor any more. On the other hand, what a scene that would be! I know I’d probably fall out of my chair laughing…

  38. Cam Beck says:

    What a great reflection of the human psyche. Now what you said in last week’s video is making sense: Your highest aspirations, your worst fears… they are all subject to scrutiny on a blog.

    It reminds me a bit of my own experiences growing up, and how I felt embarrassed because I thought others look at me like everyone looks at Napoleon Dynamite (not literally, just with the same awkwardness). Like you, I suspected I was the butt of some joke and that I should be ashamed of it.

    Eventually, I learned to embrace the joke. Sure, you may be laughing at me, but at least you’re laughing. :)

  39. Cam Beck says:

    What a great reflection of the human psyche. Now what you said in last week’s video is making sense: Your highest aspirations, your worst fears… they are all subject to scrutiny on a blog.

    It reminds me a bit of my own experiences growing up, and how I felt embarrassed because I thought others look at me like everyone looks at Napoleon Dynamite (not literally, just with the same awkwardness). Like you, I suspected I was the butt of some joke and that I should be ashamed of it.

    Eventually, I learned to embrace the joke. Sure, you may be laughing at me, but at least you’re laughing. :)

  40. I never woulda pegged you for being a quiet and nervous child! You get more and more interesting.

    Oh, and I’m totally going as an otter for Korean Day. It’s a great idea :)

  41. I never woulda pegged you for being a quiet and nervous child! You get more and more interesting.

    Oh, and I’m totally going as an otter for Korean Day. It’s a great idea :)

  42. Ah, getting embarrassed over being embarrassed … I’m right there with you, Ann! My face is flushing just thinking of all those embarrassed-of-embarrassed times. ;)

    This is such a great story and such a wonderful example of the active imaginary worlds we still carry around in our own heads, even as adults.

    P.S. I love the game “Telephone” where we all sit in a circle and someone starts with a sentence, and after ten or twenty whisperings, it comes out completely different when done. Such fun! How could anyone ever be bored with everything that goes on in our own brains?

  43. Ah, getting embarrassed over being embarrassed … I’m right there with you, Ann! My face is flushing just thinking of all those embarrassed-of-embarrassed times. ;)

    This is such a great story and such a wonderful example of the active imaginary worlds we still carry around in our own heads, even as adults.

    P.S. I love the game “Telephone” where we all sit in a circle and someone starts with a sentence, and after ten or twenty whisperings, it comes out completely different when done. Such fun! How could anyone ever be bored with everything that goes on in our own brains?

  44. Ann Handley says:

    Wow — thanks for the comments, all. I gotta say — it’s very cool the way folks relate to my posts, which I always partly regard as a little too weird and personal. (And yeah, feel embarrassed over them, too… lol.)

    Zane — No scotch. You are right: schools are quite humorless. Not that I blame them, but…

    Christian — Dispatching Otter suit to you. Check your mail.

    Kristin — My imaginary best friend is happy that you can relate!! : )

  45. Ann Handley says:

    Wow — thanks for the comments, all. I gotta say — it’s very cool the way folks relate to my posts, which I always partly regard as a little too weird and personal. (And yeah, feel embarrassed over them, too… lol.)

    Zane — No scotch. You are right: schools are quite humorless. Not that I blame them, but…

    Christian — Dispatching Otter suit to you. Check your mail.

    Kristin — My imaginary best friend is happy that you can relate!! : )

  46. Oh my. This was great. Hurray for Korean Otters!

    I can sympathize with the butt of the joke comment, although with me, it was mainly because I never understood the jokes being told. I learned quickly to laugh when other people laughed. I think that’s why to this day, I only ever remember two jokes. :D

  47. Oh my. This was great. Hurray for Korean Otters!

    I can sympathize with the butt of the joke comment, although with me, it was mainly because I never understood the jokes being told. I learned quickly to laugh when other people laughed. I think that’s why to this day, I only ever remember two jokes. :D

  48. Maral says:

    You make me laugh out loud!

  49. Maral says:

    You make me laugh out loud!

  50. Lani says:

    As the mother of two Korean children, we celebrate Korea day at least twice a year on the anniversary of my children’s arrivals. I was preliminarily excited to learn that schools were catching on to our otherwise small family ritual celebration. We also often dress up, however it is more frequently in HanBoks than in otter suits, but we are open to whatever makes everyone feel comfortable and at home. I think we should nationalize “Korean Otter Day” to ensure that everyone feels “in the loop”, overcomes any tendency towards embarrassment, and works through miscommunications with hearty humor and a fifth of scotch. It all sounds good to me.

  51. Lani says:

    As the mother of two Korean children, we celebrate Korea day at least twice a year on the anniversary of my children’s arrivals. I was preliminarily excited to learn that schools were catching on to our otherwise small family ritual celebration. We also often dress up, however it is more frequently in HanBoks than in otter suits, but we are open to whatever makes everyone feel comfortable and at home. I think we should nationalize “Korean Otter Day” to ensure that everyone feels “in the loop”, overcomes any tendency towards embarrassment, and works through miscommunications with hearty humor and a fifth of scotch. It all sounds good to me.

  52. Great story! I can so understand the misunderstanding as I’m familiar with French syllables and pronunciation – esp. when I sounded them out.

  53. Great story! I can so understand the misunderstanding as I’m familiar with French syllables and pronunciation – esp. when I sounded them out.

  54. Shelley says:

    I only wish Kinsey would follow in Caroline’s footsteps with aspirations to be a blogger. Right now? Her dream is dog grooming. Yeesh.

    But at least it’s a LITTLE easier to dress up like a dog groomer on Career Day. A sloppy lesbian-ish gal in a pediatrician/nurse smock covered with poodle fur?

    Don’t hate me. That’s what our schnauzer’s caretakers look like. :)

  55. Shelley says:

    I only wish Kinsey would follow in Caroline’s footsteps with aspirations to be a blogger. Right now? Her dream is dog grooming. Yeesh.

    But at least it’s a LITTLE easier to dress up like a dog groomer on Career Day. A sloppy lesbian-ish gal in a pediatrician/nurse smock covered with poodle fur?

    Don’t hate me. That’s what our schnauzer’s caretakers look like. :)

  56. Julie says:

    Well Makund…
    Ummmm… It’s like this you see…
    Midwife eh?
    Well… what you don’t know about Ann… And me of course…
    She has been helping me give birth to my inner blog…

  57. Julie says:

    Well Makund…
    Ummmm… It’s like this you see…
    Midwife eh?
    Well… what you don’t know about Ann… And me of course…
    She has been helping me give birth to my inner blog…

  58. When you are learning another language, you also learn to read the body language of people, and like Chelle, I also laughed when other people did. And when I made mistakes, I would find it funny and laugh at myself, which really helped to lessen the embarrassment.
    This reminds me when I first came to the US as an exchange student, my host family they had this joke about two cars crossing the street and one of them ending up as a vegetable for the rest of its life, I thought it was strange, but funny that a car would turn into a veggie, and we would all laugh, especially when I told the joke. It wasn’t until years later when I learned that the joke was about two carrots, not two cars. Now that was embarrassing and funny. They thought I could not pronounce the word! Another opportunity to laugh at ourselves!

  59. When you are learning another language, you also learn to read the body language of people, and like Chelle, I also laughed when other people did. And when I made mistakes, I would find it funny and laugh at myself, which really helped to lessen the embarrassment.
    This reminds me when I first came to the US as an exchange student, my host family they had this joke about two cars crossing the street and one of them ending up as a vegetable for the rest of its life, I thought it was strange, but funny that a car would turn into a veggie, and we would all laugh, especially when I told the joke. It wasn’t until years later when I learned that the joke was about two carrots, not two cars. Now that was embarrassing and funny. They thought I could not pronounce the word! Another opportunity to laugh at ourselves!

  60. Ann Handley says:

    For the record, this blog post is now the #1 search result on Google for “Korean Otters.” Sweet glory! Indeed a moment to celebrate — as getting to the top spot on Google isn’t an easy task, and the position is quite coveted. As Peter Kim noted, by taking #1, I have made many biologists very, very disappointed.

  61. Ann Handley says:

    For the record, this blog post is now the #1 search result on Google for “Korean Otters.” Sweet glory! Indeed a moment to celebrate — as getting to the top spot on Google isn’t an easy task, and the position is quite coveted. As Peter Kim noted, by taking #1, I have made many biologists very, very disappointed.

  62. That was just laugh out loud funny. I snorted. Thank you.

  63. That was just laugh out loud funny. I snorted. Thank you.

  64. Julie says:

    I didn’t realize there were any Korean Otter biologists to disappoint?

    xx

  65. Julie says:

    I didn’t realize there were any Korean Otter biologists to disappoint?

    xx

  66. Alan (Toad) says:

    Great post Ann. I’ve often wished that I was less sensitive to and aware of the opinions of others.

    Unfortunately, it’s our ability to observe the human situation, to accurately perceive what others are feeling– both about us and about themselves– that makes us good writers. Those who lack that ability are often, it seems, able to press on without the embarrassment or self-consciousness that plagues so many of us.

    To them, “Korean Otters” would (at best) be a funny joke that they’d retell at parties without the slightest tinge of embarrassment, or (equally likely) just something else that annoyed them about Maryse- it would be her fault, not theirs!)

    You’ve obviously hit a nerve here though- I think I’m comment #35! Thanks so much.

  67. Alan (Toad) says:

    Great post Ann. I’ve often wished that I was less sensitive to and aware of the opinions of others.

    Unfortunately, it’s our ability to observe the human situation, to accurately perceive what others are feeling– both about us and about themselves– that makes us good writers. Those who lack that ability are often, it seems, able to press on without the embarrassment or self-consciousness that plagues so many of us.

    To them, “Korean Otters” would (at best) be a funny joke that they’d retell at parties without the slightest tinge of embarrassment, or (equally likely) just something else that annoyed them about Maryse- it would be her fault, not theirs!)

    You’ve obviously hit a nerve here though- I think I’m comment #35! Thanks so much.

  68. Terri says:

    utterly sweet, wonderful writing, Ann. thank you. I’m the opposite personality-wise, but sometimes I live my whole day wrapped in mondegreens – best relax and enjoy!

  69. Terri says:

    utterly sweet, wonderful writing, Ann. thank you. I’m the opposite personality-wise, but sometimes I live my whole day wrapped in mondegreens – best relax and enjoy!

  70. I loved this post and having a 12 year old daughter (Emma) I can totally relate to all the school stuff. And being a shy 12 year old myself – totally relate to all the school stuff. :>)

    When Emma was in 3rd grade I sent her to school dressed in her pajamas on Pajama day but as it turns out I was a week ahead as I had written it down wrong on the calendar, so she was the only one there that day wearing pajamas. bad mom.

  71. I loved this post and having a 12 year old daughter (Emma) I can totally relate to all the school stuff. And being a shy 12 year old myself – totally relate to all the school stuff. :>)

    When Emma was in 3rd grade I sent her to school dressed in her pajamas on Pajama day but as it turns out I was a week ahead as I had written it down wrong on the calendar, so she was the only one there that day wearing pajamas. bad mom.

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  73. Dana says:

    This entry really struck a chord with me. I grew up much the same way you did — sensitive, easily embarrassed, unsure of myself and timid.
    I still deal with some of that today, which can be terribly infuriating as a 33-year-old mother of three. I am still waiting to outgrow that.

  74. Dana says:

    This entry really struck a chord with me. I grew up much the same way you did — sensitive, easily embarrassed, unsure of myself and timid.
    I still deal with some of that today, which can be terribly infuriating as a 33-year-old mother of three. I am still waiting to outgrow that.

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