The Impossible Price of the Motherhood Tax

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Children are expensive. But what may surprise you is children are far and away more expensive for women than men. The “Motherhood Tax” is a term that describes the difference in the financial burden women and men pay for parenthood.

How much does it cost to be a mother?

The cost to raise a child from birth to age 18 is pegged at $250,000. But this number represents only out of pocket costs: food, clothing, extra-curricular activities, and so on.

It doesn’t reflect the hidden costs and sacrifices parents make in lost income by switching to less demanding jobs, declining promotions, switching to part-time work, or even withdrawing from the workforce, temporarily or permanently.

These costs are not borne by each parent equally.

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Mothers disproportionately shoulder the financial, physical, and emotional burden of raising children because they are almost always the primary caregiver. Their role is reinforced by cultural stereotypes, societal expectations, and our own biases.

The Motherhood Tax

The “Motherhood Tax” or the “Motherhood Penalty” is used to describe the financial penalty women experience for having children. It encompasses everything from being passed over for a job to being perceived as less competent in the workplace. For women, having a child is singlehandedly the largest financial risk they can take in their lifetime.

The best predictor as to whether a woman will file for bankruptcy is motherhood. – Jean M. Twenge, Generation Me

In fact, motherhood appears to be at the heart of the gender wage gap. Women and men actually enjoy similar pay for their work throughout their 20’s, then women experience a sharp drop in their earnings that coincides with the birth of their first child, from which they never recover. To add insult to injury, men actually enjoy slightly higher earnings when they become fathers.

It’s worth noting is that the Motherhood Tax affects women who don’t even have children. In the workplace, even the perception that you might someday go on maternity leave makes you less likely to be promoted or paid fairly.

As a woman, you may never want kids, but you’ll end up paying part of the motherhood tax anyway because people do not respect, believe, or understand your choice. In other words, the lack of support for mothers is bad for everyone.

Whether or not to have children is an individual choice, but it is not a national one

We need people to have babies. 

The short of it is a country needs to have a fertility rate (number of children born per woman) of at least 2.1 in order to maintain their population. However, most first-world countries are far below that and their populations are growing by immigration alone.

Immigration isn’t bad, but it maintains a consistently aging population, and a healthy society needs a young workforce to be productive and profitable, and take care of the old! However, if we make having children unaffordable, we can’t raise that younger generation to sustain our society.

When I’ve suggested things like government or employer-sponsored childcare in discussions with my childless friends, I’ve experienced ignorant protests like, “but it was your choice to have a kid!” and “I don’t want to pay for your kids’ daycare!”.

You need my child much more than my child needs you

You need my baby to grow up and get a part-time job serving you coffee. To get an education so she becomes a working professional that contributes to technology, science, medicine, engineering, law, or art. You need her to be your doctor or your real estate agent or your car mechanic.

To pay taxes so you have access to healthcare, public parks, and roads. You need her to pay employment insurance so you are protected from a layoff. She will contribute to the national pension plan so you have income in retirement.

You, as a citizen that enjoys the benefits of living where you do, need women to have children in order for those benefits to continue. So why, if women are the bedrock of our society, do we treat them so poorly? Why must we pay the Motherhood Tax on top of everything else?

If you have 15 minutes to spare, there’s an excellent TEDTalk that laments how a lack of support for mothers is a national issue.

The primary focus of that TEDTalk is a lack of paid maternity leave, but her points can be easily applied to the sky-high financial costs that run right alongside it: childcare.

I think affordable childcare is a woman’s issue, with a priority second only to a woman’s right to choose. It seems an extreme position until you break it down.

Lack of access to affordable childcare is singlehandedly the biggest driver of the Motherhood Tax

There are plenty of financial and non-financial reasons to stay home with your children, just like there are plenty of financial and non-financial reasons to go back to work. We’re not discussing the non-financial reasons here. This is a financial blog and we talk about financial things.

If you want to leave a comment about how the emotional benefits of leaving work to raise babies is the best ever, I’m just going to assume you didn’t read this post in its entirety. The reality is most mothers will work in some capacity, by choice or otherwise, and we need to find ways to support them.

Children have two parents, and both parents are responsible for their care

When you read that above statement, it makes sense. Why then do we say nonsense like, “so much of my salary was going to childcare, it just made more sense for me to stay home”

A woman’s salary goes no more to selectively pay the whole childcare bill as it does to selectively pay anything else. Imagine giving a friend a tour of your home and saying your salary paid for only the living room and the guest bathroom. You wouldn’t because that’s ridiculous.

It is equally ridiculous for a woman to claim her income alone pays for childcare. That’s what the Motherhood Tax is.

Children are the responsibility of both parents, financially and otherwise. If your partner makes twice as much as you do, when splitting the daycare bill, you should think of 2/3’s of it being paid by your partner and 1/3 being paid by you.

Men do not get to pay $0 in childcare costs.

Part of their wage goes towards childcare, just as it goes towards the mortgage or the grocery bill, or whatever other household expenses you have.

But it’s hard to change our perspective. Women are almost always the primary caregiver for children, and this role is continuously reinforced by familial, cultural, and societal expectations. This is something that needs to be remedied so fathers can become more equal parents, but in the meantime, it creates an extraordinarily unfair connection between the financial cost of childcare and women:

Lack of affordable, accessible childcare is anti-feminist because women disproportionately bear the brunt of childcare costs.

90% of stay-at-home parents are women. They are the ones that withdraw from the workforce to raise their children, sacrificing their careers to do so. This is a more insidious part of the Motherhood Tax because it makes it feel self-imposed. As indicated in the graphs I shared above, their income never recovers.

Those that go back to work, do so part-time or in less competitive and demanding (and therefore, high-paying) jobs. But when we bring this up, it makes people so uncomfortable they feel the need to immediately justify their lost wages as “worth it” because they got to have children.

But let’s not forget that men get to have children AND high incomes.

How to support working parents

Honestly, the first thing everyone should do is recognize that parents are holding up the entire future of our society and deserve our praise, respect, and encouragement. They are literally keeping the next generation alive and there is no recognition for that. But on a more practical level, there are a few things we can do:

“Use it or lose it” paternity leave of at least 3 months.

Designated paternity leave, instead of simple parental leave that can be taken by either parent, will accomplish a few different things to help make things easier for both men and women.

First, it will make it easier for dads to take leave to care for their newborn and better support their partner. After I gave birth, I likened the first few weeks post-partum akin to recovering from a traumatic car accident. You need someone there to help you. But aside from supporting the mother, providing fathers with paternity leave also helps them.

Fathers too, are adjusting to becoming a new parent. They’re also sleep deprived. They also want to cuddle and care for the new member of their family. Paternity leave is a way for us to value fathers, and to support and empower them to take a larger role in the care of their children.

Flexible choices in paid time off.

I personally felt physically and emotionally ready for longer stretches away from my baby by the time she was 6 months old. Some mothers are ready to go back to work sooner, others need more time.

Canada offers up to 18 months of partly-subsidized parental leave, which is great but lacks flexibility. Parents can take either 12 months or 18 months. They cannot take 6 months or 15 months or any alternative time span.

While overall a minor issue when compared to the complete lack of paid parental leave in the USA, it is still something that could be adjusted with positive results for parents and employers.

Reduced hours, part-time work, flex days, and work-from-home options.

The ridiculousness of the 8-hour workday deserves its own post entirely, but we’ll save that for another day. I’m going to assume most employers have an inkling their employees are not productive every minute of every workday. Furthermore, a sleep-deprived stressed-out new parent missing their child is NOT at their working best.

Rather than trying to force parents to adhere that serves their childless colleagues, you’re like to see more success if you cater to moms & dads instead. Let moms return to work 10 or 15 hours per week for a few months before they jump right back into 40.

Give parents flex days that they can use to pick their child up from school or take them to a doctor’s appointment. Let parents work from home when possible, so they can avoid the hassles of commuting or have a shot at conquering the never-ending mound of laundry.

This is the point childless people will start crying that parents are getting more “free time”. Anyone that thinks parenting is a “vacation” or “time off” can come to babysit while I go into the office.

On-site, employer-sponsored childcare.

If you don’t want your employee to work from home 2 days per week and you do believe you can squeeze more productivity out of them by chaining them to their desk more hours of each day, one of the easiest ways to do that would be to put a daycare in your office building.

This would also help women return to work sooner after having a baby. It would shorten the time they have to spend away from their infant, as well as make it easier to do things like breastfeeding.

I have yet to have an 8-hour workday since having a baby. But that’s only because it’s logistically, emotionally, and financially challenging to be apart from my child for that long. If I had affordable care in my office building, it would be easier for me to sit down at my desk for the whole workday, popping down to the daycare to breastfeed or to take a break and spend some time with her before returning to work. I’d be happier, she’d be happier, and I’d also be able to get way more work done.

It’s true that children are 100% worth their exorbitant price tag. But maybe we should start making people other than mothers pay the entire bill. The Motherhood Tax is one that should be eliminated.

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20 Comments. Leave new

  • I keep starting a post about what my maternity leave cost me, and then I pause it. I’ve been back to work now for almost six months, and the truth is that I still don’t know the full cost. Sure, I know what I lost from my salary, but I’m still realizing all of the opportunities (paid and unpaid) that I had to turn down, chose to turn down, and WASN’T EVEN CONSIDERED FOR because of our baby. In teaching, we cobble our income together through a series of stipends and extracurriculars. It’s also a significant chunk of our evaluation. The number of “Oh, you would have been great, but we thought you’d be busy with your baby” comments that I’m still hearing is stunning. Meanwhile, my husband (also a teacher) is a three-season coach. Do you think he hears any of this?! I’m so glad you wrote this. Thanks, Bridget.

    (And yes. They are 100% worth it.)

    Reply
  • Honestly I can’t do anything more than just share this. I have these arguments with people on the daily, who think it’s within their right to tell me I should be grateful should I have the choice to be a parent, not thinking of the sacrifice or tax it will be to my future too

    Reply
  • “Keep working so I can keep collecting my social security cheques!” My grandfather is always haggling me – but he gets it. He understands how healthcare and postal service and roads and all that gets paid – and he knows it isn’t by him. I don’t have kids atm, but is always baffled me that people don’t understand how important children are (when I ask, “Who’s going to staff your nursing home when you’re 90? Other 90-yr-olds?” usually gets a stunned stare in response)

    I’m seeing a shift in the Millenial generation – I remember grabbing coffee in the work kitchen, and there was a Boomer and a Millenial chatting: the Millenial was lamenting that his wife hasn’t gotten much sleep because she was looking after the baby that night. The Boomer laughed and said something along the lines of, “Yup, that’s because the important one (read: the one actively earning an income) needs to go to work in the morning!” as if somehow that made her need for sleep less important than heis. The look of complete SHOCK on my male Millenial coworkers face was so genuine I honestly found it comforting. It’s a small step, not even remotely financial, and thank God we’re not in the US, but shit we still have far to go.

    Reply
  • As a non-female I’m cautious to comment on issues such as these. However, over the years I have employed many women during in their reproductive years – and one of the worst surprises was arriving at work and finding a bottle of scotch on my desk and a card requesting a meeting….

    But, it comes with the territory of employing young, energetic and hardworking women (who in general don’t BS you over their abilities). It meant planning for Mat leave, finding and training a replacement, and also planning her re-integration to the team upon return.

    Being super flexible with part time work, schedules, and duties makes a difference. But so does honesty from the employee -tell me early what you want, how much you want to work -don’t say you”re coming back full time, only to only to change your mind a week ahead of return.

    I’ve always tried to have a supportive workplace, from creating private spaces to pump and store milk, to changing schedules and duties to fit with the “family schedule”. One of the biggest obstacles has been some fathers unwilling to stay home and “babysit” (parent), when the mother wants to integrate back in to paid employment. Hopefully millennials will be better at that.

    And that’s why highly subsidized daycare is a no brainer. Give me back my skilled, trained employee where it won’t be a financial hit to a (usually) young family.

    And anyway, doesn’t research show that subsidized daycare is self funding from increased tax revenue from working parents?

    Reply
  • I don’t have kids but I’ve always supported my tax dollars to be put toward reducing student debt, reducing tuition and the cost of childcare. I’m a little biased because I love kids and I think they’re all adorable.

    I attribute a part of that to attending post-secondary in the province with the second cheapest tuition in Canada. I attribute the larger part to my mother having a degree, a professional designation and being the higher income earner in my family. She was permitted 12 months of maternity leave over five years and 3 daughters. But, my dad is also a spectacular parent who is phenomenal with and he probably would have loved to have mandatory paternity leave in 1987.

    I also work in a female dominated organization with shift work and I think having an on-site, 24 hour care would speak volumes to the employees. It would be wonderful for the parents to not have to turn down work to build-up seniority because of lack of available child care.

    It’s definitely not an easy road but society needs to keep up with the times and support the younger population in their families if they want the lifestyle to which they’ve become accustomed to continue.

    Reply
  • Avatar
    Layla Michaels
    March 23, 2018 8:14 am

    Wonderful article, really nailing on the head!
    I have honestly had these debates, as i’ve seen my mom friends go through this, and the plans my partner and I are preparing for ourselves.
    The reality that full time child care costs an average of 3/4 or more of one parents full time salary is outrageous – we should be able to have options to provide for our families as well as care for them, without the “tax”.
    You really said it all, so well. Thank you!

    Reply
  • This is amazing. Thank you for writing this. I have a 10 month old and will be heading back to work as a teacher in two months and this piece really articulated my thoughts. I lost not only income on maternity leave, but also opportunities and my job ‘no longer exists’ as I was told. It truly is unfair how women in the workforce are still treated. Granted, better than in the past, we have come a long way, but gender gaps and issues still exist, employers seem to just be a bit more clever in covering them up.
    Society still has a long way to go here in Canada. 12 month maternity leave is amazing, but I so agree with needing flexibility as well as mandatory paternity leave – why should everything be on the mothers shoulders is right!! And why should we have to make a choice – either dad stays home or mom stays home? That is actually archaic thinking , research shows how important dads are in the parenting equation. I’ve actually heard of men being denied paternity leave in some sectors as well – come on. Let’s invest in childcare, education and the future of our society.

    Reply
    • YES. Supporting mothers would be better for BOTH parents — and everyone else.

      I think I read somewhere that >80% of people will become parents in their lifetime, so it’s crazy that we are not supporting the majority of the population!

      Reply
  • Great post! I find that with my job, I’m able to strike a pretty decent balance between working and raising a child. My hours are Mon-Thurs, with one day from home. I too believe that the Mon-Fri 8-hr model is a crock and that many of us can do our ‘five day’ jobs in four days. Employers need to get on board and save themselves some money too!

    Reply
  • “Canada offers up to 18 months of partly-subsidized parental leave, which is great but lacks flexibility. Parents can take either 12 months or 18 months. They cannot take 6 months or 15 months or any alternative time span.”
    I was confused by this paragraph- though I have no experience with the longer leave I understand it’s the same $ for the longer time period. So did you mean that you can’t take an alternate time period and get the same overall benefit for the shorter timeframe? I suspect it would be an administrative nightmare unless they could offer a lump sum to make up the shortfall if you took less time than entitled. The program does have flexibility in that (I believe this is the case) you don’t need each parent to take a prescribed allotment of months/weeks – just that the total of leave for both needs to equal 52 weeks (or the longer 18 month period).

    Reply
  • Excellent post, Bridget. Laura Vanderkam’s book, “I Know How She Does It” makes some of these solid points as well.

    I want to hear more about the ridiculousness of the 8 hour workday. We are like-minded!

    While working corporately, I long lobbied for reduced workweeks, flex weeks and the ability to work remotely. I now speak, coach and consult on helping busy professionals manage their mojo.

    Looking forward to reading more!

    Reply
  • I was glad the author brought up work-site daycare, because I think this alone would make a huge difference. Commuting kids to and from daycare before and after work is a huge source of stress for a lot of people – mostly women. Even if they aren’t doing the pickup, they are still coordinating who does it – rarely do I see men owning that piece.
    Were I an employer, daycare would be a priority because I know how much of a stress-reliever that would be for my staff with kids. My partner and I are childless by choice, and we both absolutely get this.
    Ironically, my partner’s employer can’t quite wrap his head around how costly this is, because he never had to do it with his own 3 kids. His wife is SAHM.
    Meanwhile, of his 40+ staff, 80% are women of child-bearing age, and had 21 children in a 7 year period. His boss considered daycare, because he does want to support families, but dismissed the idea because daycare isn’t a profitable business. I pointed out to bf that all the dividends it pays are in staff productivity, retention, and happiness and he brought it up with his boss again, but no dice.

    Reply
  • I fully agree with the statement, “Honestly, the first thing everyone should do is recognize that parents are holding up the entire future of our society and deserve our praise, respect, and encouragement. They are literally keeping the next generation alive and there is no recognition for that. ” But why then is this whole article about working, rather than being about parenting? There is little any or will ever do in an office or a business that will have as big an effect on society as will bringing up good, decent, productive, and confident children. Why not say something about the derision that many individuals who choose to become full-time parents (which means working overtime every day) receive. Women and especially men who choose to work from home everyday by being full time parents are looked down upon for their choice. Should there be a subsidy for them to make up for their lost wages?

    Also, do you know women wanting to work without a break who are choosing husbands with a desire to become the primary caregiver for the children? This would make the most sense if you wanted to eliminate the “motherhood tax.”

    Reply
    • Because this article is about money, not parenting, and you are paid money to work, not parent.

      The notion that there is “little or anything you’ll ever do in an office” that can compare to raising children assumes every single moment of childcare is of utmost importance in determining your child’s future. It’s not. Most of parenting, particulary when your children are small, is drudgery. It’s feedings and diapers and naps on rotation ad nauseum. But a baby doesn’t grow up to be a better human because its mother changed more diapers than the nanny did.

      Most families cannot afford to have one parent stay home. Even many of the families that do it can’t actually afford it (even if they think they can — they don’t do the appropriate calculation in the context of lifetime earnings, or risk assessment in the context of potential outcomes like divorce). I really think on-site employer-sponsored daycares makes way more sense than a subsidy. It would be way easier and way more economical to execute.

      Sexism in parenting runs both ways. Fathers are perceived as less competent parents, and treated with a range of negative responses, including condescension, suspicion, and outright mockery. There isn’t exactly a huge population of men whose primary ambition in life is to be a stay-at-home dad, so the idea that you can simply find these men and marry them to eliminate the motherhood tax is silly. It’d really just be better to support parents of both genders in the workplace, instead of simply trying to swap traditional gender roles to the opposite sex.

      Reply
      • This is really interesting and I can’t help but to keep coming back. One interesting thing is that you say it is about money, but money is really an IOU for you to get something you want for having provided someone else something that they wanted. To use an extreme example to illustrate this, let’s say that a woman who works as a nanny has a child. She could continue in her career, taking care of someone else’s child and continue to earn money, which she could then use to pay for a nanny herself, except she would lose money in the deal since she would need to pay the other nanny for the time in which our first nanny is commuting, pay commute costs, and also need to pay taxes. In this case she would lose no money if she chose instead to take care of her own kids when she went back to work since she would not be losing experience. And that is really the reason for the loss in pay – the loss of experience during the time in which the woman (or man) is not at the job, often coupled with a reduction in reliability and flexibility.

        Now while you might be able to get childcare more cheaply than the cost of lost wages factored in over a lifetime, would you be able to get the same quality of childcare. A good fulltime mother or father can provide one-on-one care, including life lessons and devoted play time. Hiring someone to provide the same would cost quite a bit, even more than the $1500 per month you complain about on Twitter. Really when a parent sacrifices for a child, they are paying for a luxury, just like paying for private college even though a state school is cheaper. Having a parent raise the child, if the parent is good at parenting, is the most cost-effective way to get that luxury,
        Now what about the idea of providing child care at work? Would you accept $30,000 less per year in salary in exchange for getting childcare if your employer offered the choice? Perhaps you’ll say that it is unfair fro just the parents to pay, so we should spread out the costs to everyone, so let’s say that you and everyone gets paid $20,000 less per year because a place provides childcare (the money needs to come from somewhere). You might work there while you have children, but most people would move on to the place across town that paid $20,000 per year more, but without childcare, once their children were in school.

        So, I’m guessing you would require that every business in your city provide child care by law. Fine, but then people would leave the city for other cities once their children were older, and businesses would set up shop elsewhere to reduce their costs and keep their workers. If you made it law for the whole province, they’d change provinces. If you made it for the whole country, Canadians might not leave, but many businesses would leave the country for the US or other countries since they would be undercut in price if they did not. That’s the trouble when you try to create uneconomical things by dictate – the results are often not what you want.

        Reply
        • You must not be a parent. Most of childcare is not “life lessons and devoted playtime” that only a biological parent can adequately do. Most of childcare, particularly of a baby, consists of changing diapers, feeding, and getting them to nap. Of the 6 hours, my nanny spends will work in a day, my baby will sleep for 2-3 of them. I’m fairly confident my nanny can change a diaper as well as I do, and all evidence seems to indicate my child is also being fed while I’m away. Not sure about the “life lessons” but my nanny seems to be doing just fine on ~2 hours of “devoted playtime” in the day.
          On the upside, I get to work to earn money to provide financial security for my family. I also get a break from the diapers, feeding, napping routine, which believe it or not, is boring af. I come home refreshed and wanting to play with my child, instead of looking to take a break from singing the itsy-bitsy-spider all day. Furthermore, my child gets to experience the care of the other adult, who does everything at least slightly if not very different than I do. She also gets a different playmate, from whom she learns different songs and different games.

          The notion that parents provide a “superior” level of childcare day-in, day-out than a paid childcare provider is, quite frankly, bullshit. Your child is not missing out on “life lessons” because someone else is occupying them 20 hours per week. The romantic notion that every moment of childcare is filled with magical bonding time, developmental milestones, and the exchange of life lessons can only be believed by people who have never spent any real time with children. Children have short attention spans and no control of their emotions. Like any other human, they experience boredom and frustration, of games and toys but as well as of people. Your child can and will get sick of your from time to time, and they will need a break of solo play or another playmate (or yet another nap) to refresh.

          Your scratchpad American conservative economics is great, but logically and mathematically unsound. The data and research have already been done showing that every dollar invested in early childhood education and chare will return $3 to $7. Subsidized childcare already exists in many places, including Canada (it’s only $165/mo in the entire province of Quebec). I live in a province that is in the process of rolling out $25/day daycare centres — we’re waiting for a spot, it would bring my daycare bill down to only $500 per month.
          More than 80% of people will have children in their lifetime, which means over 80% of the workforce could benefit from employer-provided childcare centres. No one needs a $20,000 or $30,000 salary cut for their employer to provide that because it’s not that expensive, particularly if it has an 80% participation rate. If we did want to reduce the cost for businesses, instead of governments providing subsidized childcare centres they could provide corporate tax breaks to businesses that provide this for employees. The more businesses that offer childcare, the more spots would open up at daycares that are not part of a business, providing accessible childcare to employees who do not have employer-provided care.
          Providing on-site childcare could be a way of attracting and retaining top talent, the same way other benefits like retirement matching, healthcare, flex days, unlimited vacation, etc sways people to choose one company over another. The idea that people would simply leave a company when they no longer need childcare assumes that the only reason people would work somewhere is for childcare, which isn’t true. Not everyone can work everywhere. If this were true, everyone would work for Google (which I think actually does provide childcare), but they can’t. Not every employee is good enough for every job, and if one of the perks is childcare — which as, previously mentioned — as much as 80% of people will need at some point– it would just make things more competitive, not less.

          Likewise, the idea that businesses would simply up and leave for another country where they wouldn’t have to provide childcare also has no grounds in reality. If you really believe that providing a daycare would be a make or break business decision, I can only assume that you don’t understand business. At all. The idea that Canadian companies will flee south to set up shop in the USA is unfounded, particularly given your current president. No one wants to go near that dumpster fire. But even the shitshow that is the USA aside, some businesses cannot economically operate out of the USA because they provide local products and services in Canada for which it still makes more economic sense to stay within the country even if there was an additional cost of childcare (which as I mentioned previously, could be mitigated with corporate tax breaks).

          Reply
  • I’m on the reddit beyondthebump forum and I’ve read dozens of posts where the poster decided with their partner that because their wages were “basically as much as” or less than what daycare would cost, they have decided to become a SAHM. Those posts always bothered me (not because someone wants to be a SAHM) and you perfectly articulated why and it never dawned on me until now that the poster was assuming 100% of daycare should be borne by them because they are the mom. Now that you put it that way, I’m like yo that’s freakin’ crazy! You both share the cost! I also think your previous post on Daycare is an investment, not an expense was the perfect complement to this post.

    Reply

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