Five.

Ziggler turns five next week.

Our love, these days, is mercurial.  Sometimes, I’m great. I am pretty, kind and I smell nice, and I’m just the right kind of squishy.  Other – I’ll be honest most – times, I am the spawn of Beelzebub. 

On Tuesday, she said between sobs that everything in the whole world was MY FAULT (I wanted her to eat an apple).  On Wednesday, she came downstairs for a cuddle after lights out (she couldn’t sleep and had missed me at school).  On Thursday, I was a schweinhund (she wasn’t invited to Daffodil’s for tea).  And so on, to exhaustion.

Now.  I am not perfect.  I probably don’t let her have enough chocolate biscuits.  It may well be that everything in the word is my fault.  I must admit to feeling quite smug about my incredible power, destructive though it evidently is.

I love my children with my gristle, but you know what? It is a tiny bit difficult to actually like someone at the moment their rage-filled spittle is showering your face because you didn’t bring the car on the eighth-of-a-mile school run.  And as that, no doubt, makes me a terrible mother and a hateful human being, I have decided to dedicate this post to Ziggler, and the wonder of Five.

Ziggler turns five next week.  I remember five.  Roly-poly, wide-eyed, hold-up-all-the-fingers-on-one-hand Five. 

She reads everything. Cereal packets, calendar entries, adverts on bus shelters, and the front of the Viz annual somebody inadvisedly left in the bog.  She writes tiny stories about prinssesess, leaves little notes for Trulove to find when he gets home, and adds ‘a toi for Ziggler’ at the end of my shopping lists.  She knows everything about dinosaurs, and realised the other day that Trulove and I are herbivores.  She doesn’t find things funny, she finds them hilarious.  She’s incredibly proud of the boncano, complete with glittery lava, she made at school.   

She skips everywhere.  Ballet skipping.

She starts a bit of gossip with a scandalised ‘DID YOU KNOW mummy…?’ and then tells me who went on the Thinking Chair that day, and why.  She herself will NEVER, of course, go on the thinking chair.  Unthinkable.  She pretends to be a stripy towel-covered rock after bath time. Pickle and I have to be astounded it has appeared in the living room, and try to sit on it.  It ends in tickles.

She wears one plait and one pony tail in her hair.  “Not bothered,’ said she, when I said people would ask her about it all day.  And she’s not.

And so, lovely, exasperating Ziggler turns wonderful, topsy-turvy five.  She’s embarking on a childhood she’ll remember, and one that will form her grown-up self.  And so, I tell myself, I’ll gloss over the tantrums, and insults, and rage.  Ziggler’s world is getting bigger and more exciting every day.  And I am safe. 

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The Marvellous Secret World of the Day.

Come closer.  Check behind you.  ‘Lean in,’ as the Americans say.  Here’s a secret.  We stay at home parents know it.  Retired people know it.  Freelancers and gas engineers probably know it.  People who’ve taken the day off to move or the morning off for a dentist appointment know it momentarily, but soon forget.

During the day, in London at least, people who are not at work are nice to each other.

There.  I’ve blown it open.

Neighbours greet each other in the street.  People help you on to buses with your buggy, and passengers on the bus stand up for those more in need than themselves.  Passersby smile at your toddler as she sings her way along.  You easily find a table at lunch and waiters and waitresses smile and take an extra five minutes for a chat.  The toddler lunch-rush at 11am is a much more relaxed affair than the actual lunch-rush which begins an hour later, since the point of a toddler’s 11 o’clock lunch is generally to pass as much time as possible with the added bonus of a few crumbs making their way into your kid’s mouth.  Fellow customers smile indulgently at your Cinderella-clad screaming three year old.  Somebody is always available and willing to hold the door as you leave.

Posties really are cheery and they even shout ‘good morning’ as they whistle their way down the road (with the exception of the lady who drives a van delivering parcels round our way.  She beeps her horn and chucks your parcel at you with a grunt before squealing off in a cloud of burnt-rubber smoke.  My mate down the street told me the only time she’s seen her smile was when she – the postwoman – nearly knocked her – my mate – off her bike.  But she’s probably got a lot on). 

Recently I’ve been feeling a bit Januaryish.  The drudgery of the school run, the nursery run, and the drizzly dash from one to the other.  The frustration of food refusals, tantrums and the Heath Robinson nature of the day with small kids.  My feet have been dragging and shoulders hunching, my mood dreary-hearted and filled with ennui.  Also, I think, I really need a job, before my brain is finally devoured by the fearful and self-propagating laundry creature.

But today was Saturday and we were all at home, together.  A walk through the park and lunch out seemed a relaxed way to spend the day.  We fought for a table in the cafe and the waiter was perfectly polite but distant, hurried.  Sharp-elbowed Pickle had found a swing free in the packed playground and was not best pleased at having to get off it.  We’re planning a new bathroom and  thought it a good plan to have a look in the bathroom showroom down the street (yes, I KNOW).  Amongst other horrors that occurred in there, we got told off for letting Pickle open and close a ‘very expensive’ toilet lid (lucky the man didn’t see her other crimes against sanitary ware).  On the bus on the way home everyone studiously ignored my three-year-old as she stood, holding on for dear life as we lurched over speedbumps and round corners.  Then a guy in a car revved his engine aggressively as we crossed the road in front of him.  And we were there FIRST.   Staying at home has its definite down-sides, I thought, as I flipped him the bird in a white flash of rage.  But you would never have a day like this in the Marvellous Secret World of the Day.

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Inspiring Women: The launch of a national campaign.

Before I mention that I LEFT THE HOUSE last night and before I begin on my usual self-obsessed internal travelogue,  let me tell you about the important bit.  Inspiring the Future: Inspiring Women campaign was launched last night at an event hosted by Nick Clegg and Miriam Gonzalez Durantez in Lancaster House.  Ten inspiring women – women with successful and high-profile careers – were invited to ‘speed network’ with one hundred London school girls, exploring career interests, choices, and routes to success.  This was the start of a campaign to get successful women into state schools nationwide,  talking to girls about their futures, their passions, and how to realise their potential.  Have a look at the website http://www.inspiringthefuture.org/news-events.aspx.  I’ll tell you more later.

Anyway, there was this swanky reception afterwards at Lancaster House, with Nick Clegg, and Miriam Gonzalez Durantez, and the ten inspirational women including Athene Donald, Professor of Experimental Physics at the University of Cambridge, and Fiona Bruce (have I owned up to my Antiques Roadshow addiction yet?), and Carolyn McCall, CEO of Easyjet, and Carrie Longton, Co-founder of Mumsnet.  And there was wine, and canapes, and people in suits who had been in the real world all day talking to actual people who can take their own selves to the loo, and I WAS THERE.

I volunteered to go thinking it wouldn’t happen and when it was confirmed I was of course thrown into wild-eyed panic.  What would I wear?  What would I say while mingling with high-powered professionals and politicians in a governmental mansion?  How would I stop myself swooning and curtseying in the presence of such amazing women?  And what the hell would I wear?  Shit!  Shit!    There were no excuses.  I’d volunteered myself.  My mum happened to be around to babysit, and I had scraped together an outfit. 

So with Pickle hanging, wailing, off one arm, I applied mascara with the other, readied myself and managed to sneak out while they were eating their bangers and mash.  And then as I travelled through London at rush hour – as I have done a kerjillion times before – I remembered that actually I’m still a proper person.  I can catch trains.  I know which door to choose on the tube.  I am a grown-up and a Londoner.  And then I was stopped by a film crew making a documentary about female genital mutilation and did a quick vox pop for them and felt like quite a competent, intelligent, grown-up Londoner, which was a pretty good way to arrive at a frankly terrifying networking event.

At my northern comprehensive school it was not The Done Thing to have crushes on fellow schoolgirls as I’m led to believe (by Mallory Towers) it is at girls’ boarding schools.   But if I were a schoolgirl now I would have an unashamed crush on Miriam Gonzalez Durantez.  She spoke with such passion about the Inspiring Women campaign and and in doing so she won my complete and quite possibly fawning support.  Generally I like to fence off a cynical little corner of my heart when people are plugging a concept, but this time I couldn’t.  ’75% of women still work in the five Cs of employment’, she said.  ‘cleaning, catering, caring, cashiering and clerical.  There is nothing wrong with that – but girls should also feel free to make a difference in science, IT, engineering or maths if that is what they like.’  I was nodding.  Maybe I imagined that somebody cheered.

’55 per cent of girls aged between 11 and 21 say they feel there are not enough female role models.  However, in reality, there are not only enough female role models, but a surplus of them’.  Yes.  I know loads.  I know women who are architects, scientists, teachers, web managers, psychologists, doctors.  I know genealogists, management consultants and project managers.  I know women who work for tech companies, universities, and the police.  And those of us at the coal face, who are bringing up girls to be clever, ambitious and curious.  The idea of the project is that we are all inspiring women, and if we can give up one hour a year to go into schools and talk to girls about all the fascinating opportunities there are out there, girls can feel more able to do what they like.  And that might be catering and caring but it might be gardening, computing or making scientific discoveries. 

After the speeches I was able to elbow my way to Salma and Wahida from Mulberry School for Girls.  They are currently organising a conference on International Relations in their home borough of Tower Hamlets. They had loved the networking event, they said, eyes shining.  They had loved Fiona Bruce because she was so kind and had been so honest about sometimes feeling small.  What had they learned?  ‘That we are as good as anyone,’ they said, and the defiance in their voices told me they meant it.  What did they think I should say to my girls, I asked, who are two and four?  ‘Make them believe they can do anything,’ was the response.  ‘And send them to the Mulberry School so they can do things like this.’

I managed to mingle a bit, and met some great women from LinkedIn, The Womens Room, and Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer LLP.   I was not going to tap Dame Barbara Stocking on the shoulder, or interrupt Thea Green, CEO of Nails Inc, partly because I didn’t know what the hell I would say to them if I did.   I’ll admit, I felt a bit of a fraud as a small-time blogger and Stay at Home Mother.  But if I learned anything from my Night In the Real World it was this: we’re all inspiring, us women.   Collectively we have done loads of amazing things, large and small.  Historically we’ve been restrained by lack of good careers advice, lack of access to female role models and limited expectations of what we ought to do.  But if we can help this generation of girls feel they can do anything, then, well, they really could do anything.

Before I left, I introduced myself to Carrie Longton, Mumsnet co-founder.  After all it was Mumsnet that allowed me to attend at all and I wanted to thank her for the invitation.  She was friendly, gracious and unintimidating and I managed not to swoon.  Might have accidentally bobbed out a little curtsey though.

For more info about Inspiring Women visit www.inspiringthefuture.org.  Please take part!  You could be helping turn young women’s career dreams into achievable ambitions.

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I hate Page 3.

Don’t get me wrong. I love boobs.  My own in particular have nourished my two children, provide a useful extra storage space for small toys, loose change and my car keys, and have probably saved me from drowning on a couple of occasions.  Other people’s boobs, too, are fine in as far as they concern me at all.  And if men find boobs sexy, well, great I suppose.

I’m not objecting to boobs, naked or otherwise.

All my knowledge of the life of a page 3 girl comes from a soft porn book called Shameless that Sausage and I found in a holiday cottage once.  Its heroine was discovered at 16, left home, changed her name to ‘Honey’, and shacked up with the photographer who spotted her.  Then she went on to shag descriptively a succession of rich but sleazy men before eventually fleecing one for millions of pounds, enrolling on a business degree course and settling down with her old Geography teacher with whom she’d been in love all along.  Realistic? Doubt it.  Many people argue that getting your tits out for a newspaper is empowering, and that page 3 girls choose to do it, make a good living and are not exploited. Not sure who first thought of the word ‘empowering’ to describe wapping your baps out for the breakfast-table crowd but I’ll bet he’s bubbling in a golden jacuzzi, one of his investments on each gouty paw as I write this. I sincerely doubt that no page 3 girl was ever underpaid, or groped during a photo-shoot, or exploited in some other way.   However I’ll accept all this if necessary.   In some ways I hope it’s true.  It’s beside the point really.

I’m not complaining about the women who get their boobs out.

Objectification is one of those words that’s chucked around so often we’ve forgotten what it means.  The definition from the Merriam-Webster online dictionary: to treat (someone) as an object rather than as a person.  And when someone is running their eyes over the topless form of, let’s say, Danni Wells, I’m not convinced they’re thinking about the fact she’s from Coventry and was training to be a beauty therapist when her  ‘potentials’ were spotted.  Nope.  She has become a body rather than a person – specifically, she has become a pair of boobs.  (It’s worth noting here that while I was doing my research on Danni Wells a). I could only find her vital statistics and b). I came across a wiki called ‘Boobpedia’, two facts that really got on my, er, tits but rather illustrate my point). And if one woman has become a pair of boobs, then what do the rest of us become?  How do we differ?

I’m not arguing against porn.  As long as it’s viewed in private by adults and made by adults who are themselves not being exploited it’s a different beast (with two backs, fnurp).  I don’t believe that most porn is made without exploitation and I do take offence at the grotesquely submissive nature of porn’s portrayal of women, but ultimately I can avoid it.  And I can avoid my daughters seeing it.

Not so page 3.  A busy commuter train, filled with professional, capable women going to work.  A cafe, where my young daughters are enjoying fish fingers and chips for lunch.  A van outside a school, where teenage schoolgirls jostle each other on their way home, hemlines high.  All places I have seen men ‘reading’ page 3, enjoying the 45p thrill of seeing a pair of knockers with legs and a face.  Surrounded by women and girls who are no different from those with their breasts exposed in the newspaper. Women and girls whom men have a perfect right to view as items for their sexual perusal: permission is granted by the easy and mainstream availability of images like these, right next to a news piece about David Cameron’s last speech, in a newspaper sold on eye-level shelves in the newsagent.  The men know it and the women know it: We Are Our Tits.

‘Don’t buy it then’ is more or less what Cameron himself has to say on the subject.  Here he spectacularly and no doubt intentionally misses the point.  Nobody can be arsed to deal with this issue. Page 3 is so low-level, so inconsequential, so vote-winningly popular.  Politicians don’t like to spar with The Sun and politicians like Cameron don’t have to think about its wider impact on women.  I’m sure he’d tell me to calm down dear.

Anyway nobody can be arsed except Lucy Holmes who started the No More Page 3 petition about a year ago and the women and men who’ve signed it.  It needs more signatures.  Please sign it.

I feel very strange talking about Ziggler and Pickle’s tits.  I hope when they develop them those boobs give them all the joy and handiness that mine have given me over the years.  I hope, though, that it’s a personal joy and they don’t feel that their boobs make them fair game for a bit of a leer and a squeeze.   And I want them to know that the whole of their person is important — how sexy they are, not so much.

If getting rid of page 3 is a single step on the way to our girls having that knowledge then let’s begin the journey.  And if it isn’t, what do we sacrifice?  A few men’s midday stiffies and some bubbles in a tycoon’s jacuzzi?

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9 Lessons.

Ziggler has completed a whole nine days at school.  In this time I have no idea what she has learnt, of course, but I have learnt something new every day.  Literally.  Not corpus literally but actual real literally, as Ziggler herself would say if she knew the word or either of its definitions.  Anyway.  9 things have I learnt, and here are they.

1. School? It’s just another thing. For Ziggler that is.  For me and the adults in my family, her starting school is A Major Event.  Relatives keep ringing and asking to speak to Ziggler and then grilling her.  Who is her teacher?  Who are her friends?  Is she happy?  Does she enjoy it?  What does she have for lunch? She is predictably unforthcoming on the subject, except to maybe describe what socks she’s wearing that day or who hurt their knee so it actual bleeded.  I think she may have a case of squeaky new-school clean.  Also, two weeks is bloody aaaages in the life of a four year old.  So there’s me, shaken as if by a major life change, moping about, missing my Zigs and not sure what to do with myself.  There she is, dashing headlong in to what is, after all, just The Next Thing.

2.The School Run is a flippin’ pain in the arse. And Lo! There was discovered another form of drudgery.   Before Ziggler started school and Pickle went back to nursery, I was really excited about the three mornings to myself I was going to have.  The coffees I would enjoy!  The work opportunities I would investigate!  The regular exercise I would take!  Alas.  Turns out the travelling to and from school and nursery cuts that time in half.  The day is carved up into precise sections of time. At the end of each you must be at an appointed place to drop someone off or pick someone up, and being a punctual type I start worrying about the forthcoming deadline at least half an hour in advance.

3. The things everyone tells you are true. Yep, she is more tired than she has ever been.  A couple of evenings have consisted of me doing my disaster-management fake calm voice for the duration of the walk home, and once there gently placing her on the sofa, plugging Cbeebies directly into the little socket on the side of her head, carefully curling her fingers round a mug of hot chocolate, and dashing off to prepare chicken nuggets STAT. Yep, also, she always does nothing at school.  Or she’s forgotten.  Or she doesn’t want to tell me.  Sometimes she will deign to reveal what she ate for lunch, but I’m never sure she’s not making it up.  She is quite verbal about other people’s injuries and wrongdoings.  I make do with that.

4. You Will Not Know The System.  I got told off for taking the dinner money to the wrong place.  I Failed to leave the water bottle where it should go.  I did not follow proper protocol when picking Ziggler up from French Club (we can discuss my hothousing tendencies later).  I always hated being told off when I was little, and you know what, I STILL HATE IT.  Whining that nobody told you what to do does not wash.  You have become part of a vast, chuffing institution that rolls along, squashing those who are stupid enough to get in its way by not giving their dinner money in properly.  A rather tortuous metaphor I give you.  Anyway my friend Marj, whom I met in Prague when I briefly taught there in my other more carefree and generally less bothered life, reminded me (on Facebook where I had broadcast my chagrin) of how traumatic visits to the Post Office there used to be.  There was a very definite system but it changed with every visit and if you put your parcel on the scales before you were supposed to or dallied for a second before taking your turn at the little communist window – which you always did – a torrent of angry and  high-pitched Czech would be directed at you until you accidentally complied with what was demanded of you.    My daughter’s lovely South East London primary school is admittedly not all that much like that ex-communist bureaucracy, but I felt far more glamorous when I told myself I was suffering a form of culture-shock rather than a dislike of getting done off Miss.

5. Don’t buy stuff for one kid when the other is at school. Or if you do, hide it.  I have a sister.  I don’t know why this one was not blindingly obvious to me.

6. The time before school really is short, just like everybody is always banging on about.  I don’t include this in number 3 because it may be true – it does seem like two weeks ago that Ziggler was born – but I have to keep reminding myself that the time Before School was incredibly hard.  Despite loving my girls more than anything I was miserable as sin for a lot of the time and it says something about how much better things are now that my memory of that misery is fading.  To remind myself I revisit my moanier blog posts, like this one.  I say this in case you are reading with two (or one, or seven) small children and think you are crap for not being happy all the time.  You’re not.

7. Girls’ friendship politics start early.  I knew this.  But wow.  Who is going to whose house to play and who plays with whom in the playground and whose hair is the nicest and who pinched whom and so on forever.  I think Ziggler is good at making friends.  I can only hope that she is kind about doing it, and make an immense effort to set a good example by never bitching about other people.  In her earshot.  I have told myself that other than that I really must keep out of it.

8. Human beings love routine.  It’s amazing how quickly little kids learn to settle into a place if they know where their peg is, in what order things happen and where everything belongs.  I was struck by this very forcefully in Ziggler’s first few school days.  Then I realised that actually I’m quite happy if I know where my peg is and in what order things happen.  And that everything we do – our school life, our work life, our family life, and our sex life revolves around knowing where our peg is and roughly what happens next.  I was joking about the sex.  I was.  So anyway the model that the girls and I have followed for the last few years – of free-form days and not even bothering with pegs – that’s different from the usual.  And Ziggler has loved discovering the usual.

9. Nine days is aaaages in the life of a four-year-old. And she has changed immeasurably in just those nine days.  She’s chatting like a grown up lady.  She’s getting jokes.  She’s become a bit full of herself (I’m glad).  She skipped down the road from school the other day swinging her book bag and singing ‘school girl school girl school girl’ and making passersby smile.  She is obviously happy in her new role.  And today, a real development.  In the bath, giving her toy dinosaur a drink, she asked, ‘how does the seed get to the egg to make a baby?’ so I took a deep breath and began the story.  Luckily we’ve recently inherited a book on the subject, with fabulous 70s illustrations to assist, so we can talk some more over the next few days, and months, and years.  I won’t deny a sense of wistfulness.  Is this the loss of innocence?  I don’t know, but I always preferred experience anyway.

And number ten… who knows?  Exciting times.  I expect I’ll find out tomorrow.

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The Big S

So, this is the first weekday morning in Pickle’s lifetime, more or less, that I have bothered with mascara. And, of course, this is the morning I cried.

I’m writing this in a coffee shop, alone.  No one’s blowing bubbles in their apple juice. No one’s wailing because they’re not allowed another piece of chocolate cake.  No ketchup is being smeared upon the furniture.  Actually, all these things are most likely happening.  Crucially, I am not responsible for them.

So first of all Pickle was moved up to the Big Room at nursery. This is obviously neither here nor there, since Pickle’s nursery basically consists of a chaotic rabble of little kids marauding from finger paints to play kitchen and back again.  Yet this morning, to me, this felt like an enormous milestone.  I wept.  Pickle ran off with a vague wave, saying ‘see you soon!’ I pretended I wasn’t crying but the fact that the nursery lady gave me a quick hug suggests I wasn’t as surreptitious as I’d hoped.

Then it was Ziggler’s turn. The big S. She has been wriggling with excitement all summer about starting school, so much so that I was wondering whether I ought to, erm, ‘manage her expectations’ a bit. I didn’t. In glad I didn’t. On the way there she wondered aloud what would happen if she hurt herself at school. What would be for lunch?  Would she do any learning? I wondered internally if the teachers would be strict. Would Ziggler be stressed out at lunch time? Would she eat anything?

School is not what it once was. Thinking about it my reception teachers were in all likelihood not terribly strict and I have to confess that I was something of a wuss. Ziggler was patently a bit nervous when we arrived but I could feel her steeling herself and deciding to Just Get On With It as she went in. We located a peg. She saw a best mate from nursery. She went in, turned and waved, and was off. She set forth and I flapped around ineffectually in her wake. She was fine.

And then, as I had a small cry outside the school gates (where I might set up a stall selling hankies next September), I realised that for the first time since Pickle was born not only was I wearing mascara but I had a guilt-free, regular morning off. The kids were having fun, the immediate locality was my oyster and I was my own woman. And of course I didn’t have the foggiest idea of what to do with myself.

Funny how the big days in our lives are also the most commonplace. How many people get married every week? Babies are born, loved ones die, new jobs are begun.  Four year olds start school. Thousands of ‘em, enormous-bagged and crest-jumpered, grinning up from Facebook photos. But today is a day my life changed. It will never be quite the same again.

Ziggler, Pickle and I have spent the last 9 weeks (I’ve counted) in each other’s company, pretty much 24 hours a day.  We’ve had an unexpectedly lovely time together, along with the times when everyone was crying or there was poo everywhere or nobody was doing anything they were told. But it’s safe to say that we all need a break from each other.  Perhaps they make the school holidays so long so that by the end everyone is so desperate to get away from their immediate family the transition to wherever they’re headed is easier to make.  

Ziggler may feel differently about school tomorrow and almost certainly will when she realises she has to go there every day for the rest of her childhood. Pickle may realise her peg is in a different room and rebel (more than usual) next nursery day. But this morning has taught me that they have inner resources, my kids.  Did I give them to them? Dunno. Probably not. But I am as proud of them as if I did on this big, and insignificant, day.

I hope they’re not serving liver for lunch though.

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For Sausage and Zaffion on their wedding day.

My sister and her partner got married today, after ten years and two boys together. It was a very South East London wedding at the register office and the pub. I wrote and read this poem for the occasion. Best love, Sausage and Zaffion!

Today was real long ago.
No striplings we.
When we agreed to live in tenderness together
And share our good selves and our bad with one another,
We promised.

With our sons was born our marriage;
Their births a vow to know each other to the end.
Through blurry newborn days and nights we held each other fast.
And as our children grow we grow together.
Though sometimes chaos took and takes us
And cleaves us to a fingertip alliance
We remain true.
In this way, we promise.

Our children honour and obey us. Sometimes.
We together cherish them always.
We promise and we keep our promises.
We love and comfort in bereavement and sickness,
In triumph and in joy.

We work together for a common cause:
Our family, each person in it, and our place in the world.
Today we pledge the truth of our promises.
We declare them anew.
We confirm in public what our life has quietly told.
We promise.

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