Monday, March 27, 2017

Buying a Chicco Stroller and Car Seat Abroad

We are in the home stretch! With less than a month until Baby Maximus' due date, we are assembling all sorts of baby things, washing ALL the baby clothes and anxiously waiting for our little guy to make his appearance.  Shortly after we broke the news to my parents about their upgrade to grandparent status, they graciously offered to buy us our stroller and car seat combination (aka travel system).

We began researching our different options for travel systems, as well as car seat requirements in both Germany and the United States. I knew that our car seat would have to meet American standards since the majority of our driving would be done in the United States.  The last thing I wanted was to get pulled over shortly after our return to the States and get a ticket for a car seat that didn't comply with American requirements.  That would be quite the welcome back!  We decided to go with the Chicco Bravo Travel System.

Because of this, we had to order our car seat, and therefore the entire travel system from the United States. I didn't really think this would be an issue since we have a DPO box and have things shipped to it whenever we need something from the United States without any issues.  What I didn't think about was the size of the box the travel system would come in.   There is a limit of a combined 108 inches in length, width and height on any package shipped to an APO/FPO/DPO address.

Whenever I tried to put the travel system in my online shopping cart on Amazon or Babies R Us, it quickly notified me that the travel system couldn't be shipped to our mailbox.   Buy Buy Baby would let me place the order, but I got an email the next day saying that my order had been cancelled because it couldn't be shipped to my address. My mom called Buy Buy Baby and spoke to someone who assured her that it could be shipped and placed the order, only to have it cancelled the next day.

She called back and after lots of troubleshooting, my mom and the representative decided the best way to have them shipped was to order a car seat and a stroller separately.  I guess when you order the travel system, both items are shipped in the same box, which exceeds the shipping dimensions.  If you order them separately, they are shipped in two smaller (although still pretty big) boxes.   Two weeks later, they arrived at our DPO box and we are now the proud owners of a car seat and stroller!

Thanks to my mom for spending lots of time figuring this all out and to both of my parents for their generous gift!

Saturday, March 25, 2017

Five Pregnancy Favorites

We don't have a ton planned for this week besides Mike working on a paper, so I figured I'd update you on all of the pregnancy things we've been doing around here to get ready for our little guy.  

We found out that one of Mike's high school friends and his wife are expecting (YAY Reidels!) and I was talking to the mom-to-be about pregnancy.  It got me thinking about things that have made this pregnancy easier physically and otherwise.  I figured it'd make a good blogpost for those who may be pregnant and for those of you who know someone who is pregnant (all of these would be great gifts!).

Burt's Bees Mama Bee Belly Butter, 6.5 Ounces
I ordered this at the end of my first trimester out of fear of stretch marks.  TBD if it actually prevents stretch marks, but let me tell you, it feels so good on my stomach.  The few times I've failed to apply it after a shower, I've found that my stomach is kind of itchy, even if I've used other lotions.  An added benefit is that it isn't greasy like other lotions.  It literally feels like butter. 

2.  Snoogle

Go ahead and laugh at the name of this body pillow, but this thing has been a lifesaver the second half of my pregnancy.  My aunt sent this to me in December and I started using this as soon as my stomach started growing and I haven't gone a night at home without it.  I'm a die hard stomach sleeper when I'm not pregnant and this helped transition me to a side sleeper.  Now when I'm much larger, it has saved my hips, my sleep and my sanity.  When we were travelling, I was constantly requesting more pillows from the front desk to replace it, but I was always happy to get home to my Snoogle.

3. LuLaRoe Clothes

LuLaRoe leggings and Irma top

Anna brought me a few pairs of leggings and a few LuLaRoe shirts when she came to visit and I fell in love.  They aren't maternity clothes, but I am 35 weeks pregnant and still wearing them comfortably. The leggings are fun, the shirts loose and everything fits wonderfully.  I did move from their One Size leggings to their Tall and Curvy leggings around week 30 for a little more room in the waist (do I still have one of those?), but I'm still able to fit in the OS leggings.   I've pretty much given up on maternity pants at this point, so leggings and dresses have become crucial.  There is a reason that you are seeing LuLaRoe pop up all over Facebook.  Their clothes are so comfortable and I know I'll be enjoying them even after Baby Maximus comes. 

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This was another gift from Anna and has been such a fun way to document the pregnancy.  It has a section for each week where you can put pictures and document what you did and how you were feeling, as well as any notes about the baby.  It also has pages for important doctor's appointments, how we told people, and lots of baby milestones for after the baby's arrival. I've had so much fun filling out each week of the pregnancy and I can't wait until I can document all of Baby Maximus' milestones.

Normally, I just sleep in tshirts and gym shorts and don't bother with fancy pajamas, but as my stomach grew and there was less room for my belly in my tshirts, I wanted something a little more comfortable.  Plus, I knew once Baby Maximus was here and I was breast feeding, it would be nice to have a shirt that buttoned down the front for middle of the night feedings.  I ordered this set, as well as another brand of button down pajamas and this set wins the prize.  It's stretchy and soft, plus it's airy enough that I don't get hot. They're in my hospital bag right now, so I'll have to go a month without wearing them, but I know they'll be perfect for the hospital and afterwards.   I'll probably be purchasing another pair once my body has returned to (somewhat) normal because I think this pair might be a little too big, but they're so comfortable I will definitely keep wearing them. 

Honorable Mention

Ingrid and Isabel BeBand

My mom sent me this after I mentioned that my regular pants didn't fit anymore, but I actually didn't start using it until this week. After my regular pants stopped fitting, I started wearing maternity pants or leggings without any major issues, but within the past few weeks, even my maternity pants are struggling to stay up.  This band just slides over the elastic part of my maternity pants and adds a little extra support since it's a little bit tighter.  I also think it will be great post-partum to help transition me back into my old pants and shorts (hopefully!).

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Happy birthday Andrew!

Russo family birthday #3 of 3 is here and it's for one of the coolest people I know, my brother Andrew!

I was talking to my family and Andrew last weekend and he was saying how he followed in my footsteps in so many ways; typical for a middle child. He joined similar clubs in high school, applied to the same colleges as me, and did City Year after graduation.  On paper, he looks like my younger brother (and he is!).

In reality, though, he's the cooler version of me.  I've always been quiet and reserved, while Andrew is the people person.  His sense of humor and lovable personality make him a big hit with anyone and everyone. I've never seen him interact with his students, but I'm sure he's one of the "cool City Years" that I always envied.  I always knew that Andrew should have a job working with people.  His personality is so fun that it should be used to inspire and motivate people to do something, whether it be to buy a product or help inspire people to be a better person.  That being said, I couldn't be prouder of his choice of career path.

I know it's hard being the middle child.  You aren't the first, so you don't get to pave the way and are constantly being compared to your older sibling by your teachers and parents. That being said, I'm glad that I didn't have to follow in Andrew's footsteps because he's an incredible guy. He took what I did and made it his own, which is incredibly inspiring.  Everyday I am so thankful to have Andrew as my brother and my friend.

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Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Rachel Comes to Berlin!

Mike and I got invited to a wedding in South Africa for one week after my "no travel date."  South Africa has always been high on my list of places I wanted to visit.  I knew people who studied there in college and loved it.  The pictures I've seen only bumped it up higher on my bucket list, so I was pretty devastated when I realized that Mike would be going without me.

Around the same time Mike was booking his trip to South Africa, my friend Rachel reached out to me and said she was thinking of doing a European trip sometime in the spring.  I knew I would want a distraction for the week that Mike was gone, so when she asked for dates, I recommended the week that Mike was away.  It was also a little reassuring to have someone with me this late in the pregnancy, just in case something were to happen.  Luckily, it worked out well for Rachel and we planned for her to come and "babysit" me.   Plus, I got to spend a week with Rachel. :)

Rachel arrived late Sunday night, so we came back to our apartment and hung out before going to bed.  Monday morning, we took it easy and slept late, which I think Rachel appreciated. She came from the UK and it sounds like her itinerary was pretty full, so a day of sleeping in and recovering was much needed (at least I hope!). I had a doctor's appointment late that afternoon, but we had plenty of time to do our standard visitor's walking tour. It's such a great start to any visit to Berlin because it knocks off a lot of the sights that don't require going inside and can be done in about two hours. I had to leave after I gave the tour, but Rachel spent the rest of the afternoon at the Topography of Terror Museum reading about the Stassi and their effect on WWII.  I'm really bummed because the Topography of Terror used to have this great timeline of Hitler's actions and how they affected Germany and WWII.  It was outside, so I'm hoping they will bring it back once it gets a little bit warmer, but it was the best part of the Topography of Terror Museum by far.

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Tuesday was an earlier start because we wanted to hit up two museums and grab lunch.  We started the morning at the German History Museum.  I had never been there, but Mike had and said it was worth it. They had an exhibit on German Colonialism that I thought was captivating because it was an area that I knew very little about. The permanent exhibit is also extremely engaging but be prepared to allot a whole afternoon or morning at this museum.  We didn't even make it to the WWII portion of the museum because we were both hungry at this point, plus the whole city is like a WWII exhibit.  We walked around Museum Island and down to the Hofbrauhaus Berlin, which is just a fun, Bavarian themed restaurant.  The Hofbrauhaus in Munich is iconic, but the one in Berlin is worth a visit if you aren't heading south.

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Some music while we ate spaetzel.  Not pictured: the older couple dancing. 

After lunch, Rachel headed to the DDR Museum and I sat in a cafe and read my book.  The DDR Museum is one of my favorites and is perfect for almost everyone because it's interactive and gives such a great feel for what life in East Germany was like.  I've been two or three times and was feeling pretty tired, so I opted out this time, but Rachel agreed that it's worth a visit if you have time.  

Wednesday, we were up and out the door by mid-morning to make our first stop at the East Side Gallery.  

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The most famous (and most crowded) painting at the East Side Gallery!
The East Side Gallery is such a fun stop and something that everyone can enjoy while still getting a little bit of history. The art is so diverse that everyone can find a piece they like and can relate to. After we explored the East Side Gallery, we headed to the Jewish Museum.  I hadn't been here and had kind of been saving it for when we had a visitor.  Having Rachel as my companion for this was perfect because she was able to provide personal anecdotes throughout the museum about her family's history or just how certain things (like pomegranates) are incorporated into Jewish culture. Even without Rachel, the museum would have been fantastic.  It's interactive enough to keep anyone, including children, engaged.  Maybe the best part of this museum is the layout.  There are three axes which symbolize the three paths of Jewish life in Germany- continuity in Germany history, emigration from Germany and the Holocaust.  It was so well done and Rachel and I were both impressed.

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Holocaust tower in the Axis of the Holocaust.
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Axis of exile.  Some of Rachel's family emigrated to Shanghai from Germany, so it was cool to see Shanghai featured!
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Like I said, the Jewish Museum was so cool.  I think I've told Mike at least five times he needs to go. Plus, it's not huge, so it's doable in a couple of hours and isn't too overwhelming.

Thursday was Rachel's last full day in Berlin so we wanted to make sure to check a few things off of her sight seeing list.  Since we live so close to Tempelhof Field where the Berlin Airlift took place.  The runway that was built for the airlift is still there and now the entire field is a huge park where people can go and hang out. I had lots of visions of walking with Baby Maximus down the runways once we're ready to venture out.

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We came back to our house for an early lunch before heading out to West Berlin for the afternoon.  Rachel had a few things to do on the outskirts of the city, the first being try to exchange some German Marks.  Pretty cool, right?  She had about $15 worth and had heard there was a bank that would give you euros for them. Unfortunately they were closed (possibly just for lunch), so that was a fail, but it was on our way.  Honestly, I think I'd just hang on to them because they're so cool.  

The next thing on our list was the cemetery where Rachel's great-grandfather is buried.  How cool, right?  We had some vague directions from Rachel's relatives and had researched where to go, but apparently we weren't quite right.  After a little bit of wandering around the cemetery looking for the Jewish section (I got really excited when we saw a gravestone with stones on top (a Jewish custom) only to see Josephine Marie buried next to it with a big cross on her gravestone...obviously not the Jewish section) and no success, we finally asked someone who told us we were in the wrong cemetery.  Luckily, he was able to direct Rachel to the correct one, so she decided to go back the next day.  

While discovering that we were in the wrong cemetery was disappointing, it wasn't a complete bust because it was located right next to the Olympic Stadium.  Hitler had this all built with the intention that this would become the permanent location of the Olympics, starting with the 1936 games. Rachel's grandfather was actually there! How cool!

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The Olympic Bell that was destroyed during WWII.  Not pictured: the swastika on the other side. 
The stadium is a functioning stadium today and I think we both agreed it would have been better to just go see a soccer game there, instead of paying the 7 euros to get in, but it was still kind of cool to see.   By this point, I was exhausted. A week of sight seeing was catching up with me, so we headed home. Rachel packed a bit before we ventured out to an Austrian restaurant in our neighborhood so that Rachel could get one last "German" meal before she headed back to the United States. 

The next day, Mike's flight got in at 9:00, so I went to pick him up from the airport while Rachel headed back out to find the Jewish Cemetery. Luckily, she was successful this time!

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Her solo stone on top.  So cool!

Afterwards, she did part of Rick Steve's walking tour to take in the city one last time before coming back to our apartment to pick up her bags.  Mike and I drove her to the airport and bid her farewell.  She was spending the night back in London before catching a noon flight back to DC the next day. I think we were both exhausted after such a fun week! Although it was sad to see her go, it won't be too long before the Hogans are back in the United States!

PS thanks to Rachel for all of these pictures! I didn't take my camera out once!

Monday, March 20, 2017

Happy birthday Dad!

March is one of two big birthday months in our family, so here's to birthday post #2 of 3 for this month!

I texted my dad the other day to ask him what he wanted for his birthday.  You can't go wrong with anything Notre Dame themed or any sort of chocolate, but years of Irish themed apparel and chocolate covered peanuts have left me wanting to be a little more creative.  He didn't have any real suggestions either, especially since he gave up sweets for Lent, so he replied "Just put whatever you would spend in the little guy's college fund."

His response didn't really answer my question, but I read it and thought "that is so Dad."  My dad is a giver of the purest sense.  Sure, he'll indulge in almost anything sweet if it's in front of him, but in the grander scheme of things, he's willing to give his time, talent and treasure if means helping others.

He works hard for his clients, especially the children.  He is constantly following former clients' children through school and has formed many bonds with his clients that have lasted well past his work with them. 

He gives back to countless charities with his time, serving on boards and with his treasure through monthly and annual donations. 

He is an active member in our church, constantly doing whatever it takes to make sure our little church doesn't get run over by the big bad guys in Richmond. ;)

He gives back to his community by attending town hall meetings, writing in to the newspaper and participating in all sorts of community events.  He even ran for city council once, but he'll tell you that loss was the luckiest thing that ever happened to him! 

And last, he gives back to our family, working long hours and weekends to ensure that we get to do fun things like go on vacation or spend hours at the barn (cough cough Mom and I), as well as coaching our sports teams, going to countless parent/teacher conferences, and watching many theatrical and musical performances over the years.

I can't wait to watch my dad become a grandfather.  I know that his sense of giving will only be heightened when he meets his grandson and I hope that it is a lesson that our little guy learns quickly because giving of yourself to others is one of the most admirable traits one can have.

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Happy birthday Dad!  Your big heart is one of my favorite things about you, but your sense of humor is a close second! Thanks for helping me in my times of need...homework, scrapes and bruises, and most definitely refugee assistance! 
And don't worry, I still sent him a gift! ;) 

Sunday, March 19, 2017

One Year with Google's Project Fi

When we moved abroad, one of my hesitations was being able to stay in touch with my family and friends back home.  Between the time difference and the international fees, I was worried it wouldn't be so easy to stay in touch.  While it is definitely harder to schedule video chats with friends (they get off work right as I'm going to bed), there are so many different and cheap ways to stay in touch when abroad that no one really has to be worried.

We are big fans of Google.  We each have multiple GMail addresses, share a joint Google calendar, and use GChat for video and messaging almost every day. When Google came out with Project Fi, Mike was on it. It came right around the same time I needed a new phone and right around the time we had given up hope of every convincing the Turkish bureaucracy to allow me to have a cell phone plan. Instead of continuing to spend hours arguing with some random Turkish government employee, we decided for me to make the switch to Project Fi.

What is Project Fi?

  • Project Fi is Google's own cell phone plan.  It costs $20 a month plus $10 for each GB of data you use.   If you don't use a whole GB, you get credited on your bill! So, for example,  in February, I used 1.5 GB of data.  I was charged the $20 monthly fee plus $15 since I only used 1.5 GB of data, bringing my bill to $35. Hooray!  Some people are really intense about not using data and only using wifi.  It's not worth it to me to not use my phone just to save a few extra dollars, but I do think twice about downloading my next podcast or aimlessly stalking people on Facebook when I'm not in wifi. 
  • I have the same phone number I did when I lived in the United States, so it's easy to remember and all of my friends and family already had that number saved, so the transition was super easy.  
  • In the United States, you get unlimited calls and texts, so chat away!! Abroad, it's unlimited calls to the United States when I'm using wifi, but it's unlimited texting no matter where I am. I don't actually use my phone that much to call people, but if I need to make a phone call back to the states (the bank, our insurance, my parents, etc) I just make sure I'm in a wifi zone so that it's free.  Otherwise, it's 7 cents a minute (I think!) to make a call.  Not too expensive, but avoidable.
  • It works in 135 countries for no extra cost.  We looked into a million other international phone plans and weren't able to find anything that comes super close in price.  Everything else was extremely expensive.  Plus, it works when we travel internationally, which is so nice. We are always able to be connected in case we get lost or something happens. 
Here's what my current month of data usage looks like.  I have 16 days left on my current cycle and I have used about half a GB.  Since I plan on being home and within wifi most days, I should have no problem staying under 1 GB, which means my monthly bill should be right around $30!   

The Pros
  • Being able to text and call home!! This is by far the biggest positive of this whole plan!
  • Not being tied down to a contract.  When we got this plan for me, we didn't realize that I would be leaving Turkey in a few months or that we'd be moving to Germany for a year.  If we had to commit to a two year contract in either place, we'd still be paying for it because we would be bound by the contract.  Project Fi is month to month, so I can technically cancel whenever we want.  Mike plans on getting this plan when we get back to the United States and it will be perfect for deployments and long underways because he can just pause his service for the month(s) he's gone and we won't have to pay anything. 
  • Having a phone when we travel to other countries.  Gone are the days where we'd buy coffee just to use a cafe's wifi so we could figure out how to get somewhere. Plus, Mike can always give his Navy guys my phone number as an emergency contact so that if something comes up, they can get in touch with him. 
  • It's cheap! Not as cheap as the cell phone plans here or in Turkey, but not that much more expensive, and definitely cheaper than any international plan we were able to find. 
  • Having an American number abroad.  When I had my iPhone, I was able to iMessage with anyone who had an iPhone, but for my Android friends, I had to ask them to use WhatsApp or Google Hangouts to message me.  Not a big deal, but I never wanted people to have to download an App or create a new account just for me. Now, I can just text them like I would if I were in the states.  Plus, it's so nice to have an American number that we can give companies, like our bank or insurance, so they can reach us. 
The Cons
  • By far the biggest con is that you have to have a Google phone.  I have the Nexus 5x and I don't like it.  It's camera is slow, it's glitchy and it doesn't compare to my old iPhone.  In fact, I scheduled this post for a week ago and then my phone stopped working and I postponed it. Mike has the Pixel, which is the newest Google phone and enjoys it, but I still love the iPhone.  Plus, I'm just not an Android fan.  Every Android fan I talked to said that I would love it after I got used to it, but a year later and I'm still not convinced.  I don't dislike it enough to go back, but if Apple came out with a similar cell phone plan, I'd be going back to the iPhone in a heartbeat.* 
  • Every once and while, someone will tell me they texted me and I don't think I ever got their text.  That issue seems to have worked itself out and really was only happening when it was someone with an iPhone, so I think (fingers crossed! knock on wood!) that problem has solved itself. 
  • There have been a few times when we're traveling where I haven't had service, even though we've been in major cities like Rome where I was told I should have service.  Not a huge deal if you don't live in Europe, but it's been a little frustrating. 
  • I haven't been too impressed with the Project Fi support staff.  I've contacted them a few times to try and trouble shoot the texting issue and the lack of service issue.   When I told them I thought I wasn't receiving texts from iPhone users, they were pretty helpful, but ultimately told me they couldn't do anything like send a sample text because they don't keep iPhones in their office.  The same thing happened when we were in Rome and I didn't have service.  After a few suggestions, they ultimately told me to buy a sim card to use during my time there. Not quite the help I wanted.
  • I don't think it's cheaper for an entire family to have Project Fi.  My monthly phone bill averages about $40/month.  So, for two or three people, it might make sense to make the switch, but for a family of five cell phone users, probably not worth it. There is a family "plan" but it's not that much cheaper once you start adding in the cost of data. 
  • You do have to have an American address to get the phone and sim card shipped to.  They won't ship to an APO/DPO and definitely won't ship to an address outside of the US, so it makes the most sense to start Project Fi before you move abroad (if you're planning to use it abroad).  Not really an issue for most people, but we've had to have everything mailed to my parents and then they've sent it to us. 
Overall, I'm extremely satisfied with Project Fi.  I've yet to have a cell phone provider that I've had no issues with, but Project Fi has met all of my needs most of the time and the cost and the availability have made the issues I've had bearable.  Like I said before, if Apple came out with a plan like this where I could use an iPhone, I'd switch in a heartbeat, but until they do, I'm a Project Fi fan! Mike hasn't made the switch to Project Fi yet because we've learned that at least one person in each household must have a local number.  Mike's German number is the number that we give my doctor, the utility companies and our landlord, the embassy here in Berlin and tons of other German offices. I don't know how we would function without a German number.  That being said, we're planning to have him switch to Project Fi when we get back to the United States because it's so much cheaper.  Project Fi came at the perfect time for us and we haven't regretted making the switch!

If you are interested in making the switch, here's a little link for you!

*Apparently, you just need a Google phone to activate the sim card and then you can put the sim card into lots of other phones, including the iPhone, to use Project Fi.  I've heard mixed reviews on this and it only works if you have a Google phone to activate it with. 

I'm also not getting compensated for this post.  Google has no idea  I'm writing this! I just really like Project Fi and have had a few people ask what I do for a  cell phone plan here. 

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Happy Birthday Mom!

I'm writing this post on International Women's Day in preparation for a busy week ahead, but it's fitting because there is no one who embodies everything that is so great about being a woman more than the birthday girl, my mom!

I've been thinking a lot about what it means to be a great mom recently.  I guess being pregnant will do that to you. There are tons of blogs, articles and books about the different ways to excel in motherhood, and while I've been reading them like it's my job, I've come to realize that I have the best resource a phone call away. My mom.   Being so far apart for the past year and a half hasn't been easy and there isn't anyone I miss more than my mom, but it's deepened my appreciation for her as my mom, my friend and a woman. I can't wait to watch her be an incredible grandma to our little guy and continue to be a great mom and friend to me.

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Both of my parents exemplified what it means to be a great spouse. I'm sure it wasn't always easy, but they are and always have been the example of what I want my marriage to look like. 

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I think my brothers would agree that my mom was a great mom to all three of us.  She set high expectations for all of us, held us accountable for our actions, all while loving us unconditionally.  

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One of the greatest gifts my mom ever gave me was her love of horses and animals.  It's so much fun to share that passion with her and watch her love on those big guys as much as I do. 

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My mom and dad at the Women's March! I can't think of anyone who embodies what it means to be a woman more than my mom. Girl power all the way!

Happy birthday Mom!