Threshold of Actual Harm: Carolyn Hax Live (Friday, December 6)

Dec 06, 2013

In her daily column in The Washington Post Style section, Carolyn Hax offers readers advice based on the experiences of someone who's been there. Hax is an ex-repatriated New Englander with a liberal arts degree and a lot of opinions and that's about it, really, when you get right down to it. Oh, and the shoes. A lot of shoes.

Carolyn was online taking your questions and comments about her current advice column and any other questions you might have about the strange train we call life. Her answers may appear online or in an upcoming column.

E-mail Carolyn at

Got more to say? Check out Carolyn's forum, home of the Hax-Philes and Hax fans. Comments submitted to the chat may be used in the discussion group.

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Did I miss the date? Inquiring chatters want to know (and post beforehand):).

Next Friday--the 13th. WooooOOOOoooo.

Hi everybody.

Off to a blazing start--I've alread started an answer and bailed on it. One of those that definitely needed more thought. Sorry bout that.

I thought you might want to know ... I wonder if he/she will ask you ... (and, no, tis not I):


I know this isn't your typical question but I've come to the end of my rope with my significant other. I've mentioned at home more than once that I think we need to go our seperate ways and it's always turned into a full blown tear/fighting match and I relectuntely go back. This time enough is enough and I need to do this in a public place. I don't want to make or cause a scene so I'm thinking this might be the way to go. Prefer northern va. We'd both be driving seperate and going our seperate ways.

MAURA JUDKIS : Hmm, you may have taken us out of our comfort zone here, as we're not sure exactly what kind of place would be best for a potentially scene-causing fight (though, I guess, if any chatters out there just so happen to know a perfect location for such an event, they can weigh in?). I'm guessing the more important advice you may need is how to end this tumultuous relationship safely, so you might consider checking in with Carolyn Hax's chat tomorrow.

Thanks, I wasn't aware of this. I do have advice here: Call 1-800-799-SAFE. The hotline staff can help with a plan. Even if the only real risk is of over-the-top drama, taking precautions is still a good idea.




another apology: I wrote out a couple of those precautions before deciding to leave it all in the hotline's hands, so I'm on my second deleted answer in the first 15 minutes. Ehhhh. 






Dear Carolyn, Do you have any advice for being a good host or guest when you have little kids? I know a number of parents who travel frequently and entertain at home with toddlers, preschoolers, babies and they use words like "fun" and "relaxing" to describe their experiences. I, on the other hand, end up feeling so stressed. Entertaining at home, I'm conscious of how annoyed visitors can get sharing a dwelling with small, walking germ factories, having to observe nap time quiet, or curbing daytime grown-up TV-watching time. And at other people's homes I feel so drained making the best of an environment that may be far from child friendly, meals that may be much later than the kids are used to, or nap times that are short to nonexistent because people keep clomping up and down the stairs (what am I going to do, tell folks they can't navigate their own house?). Once we're back home and free of our hosts or guests I am so relieved. But I don't want to limit my kids' worlds by never leaving our house or inviting overnight guests. So what's the secret to these parents who travel, entertain, and host with such happy abandon?

I think the answer is there in your question, if you sew the pieces together into a little quilt with crusty applesauce on it.

Hosting goes well when your guests buy in to the limitations (and joys) of staying in a home with little kids. Visiting goes well when your hosts buy in to the limitations (and joys) of having little kids stay over. And it can really, cosmically suck when you've got a guest or host who thinks everything should be set up the way adults like it and little kids should just be told "no" and expected to respect that. Feh.

Since not every guest you have is going to be Fred Rogers, and since not every home you visit will be furnished like an Ikea Smaaland, there are ways you can pull this off that won't leave you stressed (which, as you probably already know, only exacerbates any discomfort you or your guests feel). For hosting, I suggest you be as transparent as you can upfront: "This is nap time, and if you want to use it to do stuff out of the house, I'll totally understand"; "This is bed time, and it can get ugly in the hour or so beforehand if Pookie gets wound up by having guests here, so that's a good time to take a stroll around the neighborhood if your nerves aren't up to a scene"; "Pookie needs about a half-hour to fall into a good sleep, but after that we don't have to tiptoe around and you can blast Tarantino movies." Setting realistic expectations actually accomplishes two things: It sets your guests' expectations at a realistic level, and it also lets them know that you aren't under the illusion that everyone should be overjoyed to be around small kids. I think that wears people down faster than anything--the idea that they, your inconvenienced guests, are supposed to be just as enchanted as you are by your Pookie. If you let them know that you get it, then they'll likely be more open to cooperating.






As for visiting child-unfriendly places, I have basically a two-tiered suggestion: When staying places that are okay for kids but not all that comfortable for you (dinner's too late, no kid-friendly stuff), you pack whatever coping strategies you need. Bring some kid food to reheat and feed your kids early, bring toys, bring media, bring containment methods (playpen, baby gates ...). And, when visiting a home where no mere supplies will make things livable for you, stay in a hotel. Assuming the locale and your finances permit, of course. The furniture in them is made to take heavy abuse, and they're a great way for youand your host to take a deep breath for the next round of togetherness.

A friend recently divorced her husband three years ago. He was verbally abusive and had an affair. Since then when we get together, she bashes her husband and men in general, bashes men on facebook, writes stuff for women to group together and stand up to men etc., and this is making me really uncomfortable. How do I tell her to ease off on her opinions, without ignoring her feelings of what she went through, not all men are that way. Disappointed

It's not your place to tell her to ease off on her opinions. They're hers and she's entitled to them.

You, meanwhile, are entitled to yours: "Your ex deserves every bit of your antipathy, but he's just one man. I expect that if a man publicly bashed all women out of disgust for his ex-wife, you'd be outraged by that."

It's another "just talk to her about it" answer, I realize. I also realize that someone who has gone scorched-earth against all men is going to receive your message badly, but I believe delivering it, with care to validate her feelings about her husband, is the only right thing to do.

My bf really wants to meet my parents. He was divorced a few years ago, and his ex-MIL apparently did a lot to make his marriage difficult. He says that he can't be serious with me unless he meets my parents. Whereas, I only bring a bf home if I am serious about him and we see a future together. But he basically admitted if he didn't like my parents, he would probably leave me. My parents are lovely people, but a bit elitist (my bf would not measure up to their standards, which are very different from my own). It would be a tough, judgmental meeting and probably a tough time for a bit after. I feel like we're not strong enough to take this step right now. Is there a compromise?

Maybe, but I'm having a tough time getting past a bias toward just throwing them all together around a bowla bisghetti and getting it over with. Your parents are either going to be an obstacle to your relationship, or not. Even choreographing things just so would only delay the inevitable.

I'm also not thrilled with his I either like your parents or I'm gone attitude. It's just another manifestation of the issue in the preceding Q and A--the idea that if X went wrong, then hereafter all situations will be screened for how they rate on the X scale. Life just is not that simple, and anyone who sees it as such is, through my X-colored glasses, suspect.

Aaaaand, since I've set the bar today at overthinking, I'll also add that even if I come up with the most excellent compromise to suggest to you, it'll still fail on the most important measure: It's not emerging from your and his desire to work with each other to ensure you both get what you need. That's what gets couples through everything--including nasty or elitist in-laws.

Meaning, the ex-MIL ultimately didn't strain his ex-marriage; his and his ex's inability/unwillingness to work together to neutralize her strained his ex-marriage. However you approach this, please don't lose sight of that. 

By the by, I've had some Hoot submissions arrive via email for me to post. My posting them for people quickly gets too labor intensive, so I will not be submitting anything I receive. Instead, please use this link to post to the Hoot directly (this link, yoo hoo, right here, the Holiday Horrors Hootenanny Express). If you've emailed me already, please dig into your sent mail file to copy-paste to this link. Thanks muchly. 

Now that turntable has died (may it rest in peace and their live events site fail), where's your new hangout? I had a blast with y'all during the last hootenanny.

Producer here.

I know! Sad days (although I wish them nothing but the best in their new venture...the world of Internet businesses is hard!)

Would love for the chatters to weigh in with thoughts on this. I spent some time looking into alternatives and found one that looks really good - it's called and integrates with Spotify. How would that work for everyone? Are there other suggestions?

Haven't tried soundrop, but a lot of refugees have made the move to It draws from youtube and soundcloud, which may cause some folks issues, but it's a pretty cool site. Yes, Monday was a very sad day, but they managed the site poorly and decided to focus more on their live venture than their community. Happens. So far, plug's staff has been VERY responsive and communicative, especially considering they got CRUSHED with all the traffic.

I tried this one out and found it VERY buggy. Which was disappointing because it did seem like the most promising alternative. But I'll give it another shot - maybe it was just suffering a little under the initial rush of traffic.

I have a group of girlfriends that I enjoy spending time with. The problem is, anytime we get together it's because I organize it. I'm a little tired of doing it all and if I don't, then we go months without seeing each other. What's the best way to do this? I miss them, but feel that they don't miss me? I just want to be shown a little love!

Maybe they are showing love, their way, by showing up.

In other words, I think the "best way to do this" is to avoid comparing them to you. You participate in a friendship by making an effort to organize things. When you don't like someone or don't miss someone you haven't seen lately, you show that by declining to organize ways to see that person.

Other people participate in friendships differently. Some show it through staying in touch regularly by phone, some by forwarding things they think you'll like, some by keeping your secrets, some by always being there when you're in crisis (but maybe not so much when everything's fine). etc.

To reorient your thinking on these friends, I suggest not bothering with the "Why do I always get stuck with the planning?" question, and instead ask yourself, "How much effort are these friendships worth to me?" When you come up with an answer, I also suggest you avoid the extremes of harrumphing them out of your life or of ignoring your doubts and maintaining your same high level of effort. Really take the details seriously, and figure out what would sit right with you. Can you fully embrace that it's in your nature to plan things and not in theirs, and take new, knowing pleasure in being their cruise director? Or, do you need to cut back to bring yourself to a place where you won't feel resentful? Say, instead of planning something once a week/fortnight/month, would you feel better about cutting back to every-other? Or do you really just not want to keep counting on people who don't share your way of showing friendship? If that's the case, then consider making a conscious effort to find people more suited to your temperament. You can always keep organizing the occasional gathering of the old crowd as you make this transition.

While you're teasing all this apart, take a closer look at each of these friends as individuals. Give some thought to what their strengths are as friends. Maybe there's a way you can handle your arrangements with this group that taps into people's strengths a bit more, instead of running entirely on (the fumes of) yours.

In a previous column you advised someone that they should start dating again when they met someone they wanted to date. I'd like to hear more about that. I've been single for a number of years, mostly because I haven't met someone I want to date, and I'm not very good at the online thing (shy, awkward, etc.). It seems like online dating is better suited to extroverts. I'm perfectly happy with my life as it is, but eventually I'd like a partner. Should I just keep on living and enjoying life, and date when there's someone I want to date, or do I need to make a more concerted effort to date people just to date?

I think the more comfortable approach for an introvert is to "just keep on living and enjoying life," but in ways that are deliberately geared toward circulating among new people. There's a lot of room between being perfectly happy socializing with your familiar crowd of people (and then staying home for three nights afterward with a good book), and forcing yourself to go on dates just to date. Think of it as getting out just to get out.

If you can gear this out-getting toward an existing talent, skill, interest or strength of yours, all the better. Maybe you'll meet someone promising, maybe you won't, but either way you'll be broadening your social horizon, smoothing out some of the awkwardness through the extra practice (a shared interest is the ideal icebreaker), and maybe picking up a new hobby or interest that will improve your quality of life in ways you weren't even seeking.

My husband is increasingly losing control of his temper with our elementary school aged kids. I know the reasons (stress from health problems, family history) but that is no excuse. And although he's very good (even wonderful) with them most of the time, I don't believe these kinds of things cancel each other out. I'm at the point where I'm wondering if I will have to take a big step (i.e. separation) to make it clear that we cannot live in a house with this anger. I know that there are other options, like counseling, assuming he would go with me. I do not believe in bluffing or forcing ultimatums, but I know I have a responsibility to my kids to act. I just don't know where to start...

Start by talking to your pediatrician and/or the counselor at your kids' school to get the name of a family therapist with a track record of getting results (the school might be in a slightly better position to see improvement in the families this therapist serves, fwiw, just by virtue of seeing the kids every day, but not if the counseling office is understaffed/overwhelmed).

Then, explain to your husband that his losing his temper is a real problem that's getting worse, not better. Then say you'd like to start working with a family therapist to find better strategies for both of you. If he refuses to go, then go without him knowing you just got the agenda for your first appointment: Since the anger is already to the point you deem unacceptable, what are your options?

Separation might be the best one, but starting therapy is also a way of showing you're serious, and it doesn't involve the huge upheaval (and likely worsening of temper loss, near term) of dividing the household. Better to keep that one in your pocket until you're sure you need it.

That said, if you fear for your or your kids' safety, then that's a different answer. 1-800-4-a-child. That's the Childhelp hotline. Please know I'm putting this out there not because I think every angry parent is an abuser, but because I can't tell from here who is and who isn't, so I need to cover the range of what's possible.

I am the friend that never organizes things but generally shows up when I am invited. But I am also the friend that you can call at 1am to take you to the ER or to pick you from your local bar 30 minutes from my house. Why don't I organize things? Primarily because I am by nature a homebody and loner. Add in a crazy interpretation of the "do unto others as you would have them do unto you" guideline. In my world, I mostly want to be left to my own devices, so I assume that others would want that too. For example, I ended up in the hospital for emergency surgery and didn't tell anyone, not because I didn't want them to worry, but because I didn't want them to visit. And when a friend is in the hospital, I don't jump up and run to visit them unless they ask me to bring them something, which I will gladly do. That doesn't mean that I don't value their friendship and that I don't want to see them at some point. But it does mean that I don't set up dinners or happy hours "just because".

Great examples of different ways of showing friendship, thanks. I do think it's worth some effort to meet your friends where they are, emotionally speaking, and just talking about this stuff can accomplish a lot of that. For example, saying to your plan-making friends, "Hey, I appreciate that you make these plans. If it were up to me we'd never do anything--not because I don't care, but because my default is not leaving the house." Then fill them in on what you do well, like those 1 a.m. emergencies. 

Presumably good friends will know this about you already, but that can have a lulling effect, where you don't think to bring it up to newer friends because you're used to it as something everyone just knows.

If you can go further by going against your grain occasionally and inviting a friend somewhere, even better. Or, if your brain just never goes there, you can respond to invitations by offering to help with the planning/logistics. Just wave the flag occasionally, even once a year.

I'm an introvert and online dating really worked for me. Even if it had not ended with marriage, which it did, I did it because it was a way for me to meet people. I was doing other things to meet people but I wasn't running into anyone who I would date so I signed up for online dating. I also work well one-on-one so online dating did not scare me as big groups/public speaking would.

Good point, thanks. I do think we all have different comfort zones, though, that don't fall straight down an introvert/extrovert line.

Can you think about what your friends ARE good at doing, and plan around that? I am terrible, just terrible, at planning-- so much so that my boyfriend completely runs the calendar of our social life. But I'm great at cooking for large groups of people and coming up with really cool new board games. If anyone pitched the idea of a board games cookout, I would be all over that, as long as someone else could field the whole business of picking a time and place and inviting people.

This is what I was getting at, yes, thanks.

Hi Carolyn, your column the other day (yesterday maybe?) talked about the difference between cutting off a harmful family vs. dealing with a disappointing one. If I read correctly, I believe you were saying if the family member is merely a disappointment to keep the lines of contact open (paraphrasing). I have a family member who definitely falls on the disappointing end of the scale, but I wonder how much disappointment I'm really supposed to take. Where's the line? How far do I need to adjust my expectations down before the family member is at the same emotional level as stranger on the street? Thanks

I guess I'm not opposed to pegging your expectations that low. 

Here's where I'm coming from:

I get a lot of mail and I've gotten it for a lot of years, and there are definitely standout issues and I also see trends. One topic that has always been common, but now is also trending even higher, is the distress of a parent of a grown child who has cut off all contact. There is nothing, just nothing these parents can do about it. Their kids might write to me (and do, actually) to suggest all kinds of things, usually along the lines of having the parents recognize their mistakes, or their general awfulness, or their willful refusal to listen when the child patiently explained the reasons for the impending estrangement--but I don't get these letters in neat succession so I can connect parent with child and get them talking. All I have is a parent saying that calls and letters go unreturned and there's a hole in their lives they can't fill. Maybe it's the parents' fault, maybe not, can't possibly tell.

So, taking that, I've developed my threshold of actual harm. That is, when a family member causes you actual harm, then, by all means, cut the tie. 

But short of that, my advice is not to be the person who helps put that hole in someone's life. Send a birthday card, pick up the phone once a month/quarter/year, clip and send the kids' school photos, something. Figure out what you can bear, and do it. If all evidence tells you the recipient just doesn't care, then make the decision that you're doing it for you and your conscience alone, and keep doing it. Ultimately you don't know what the disappointing family member thinks or feels, or how deeply it'll cut if you vanish. You just know you're availing yourself of a chance to be the bigger person, and those rarely lead to regrets.


Thanks for the feedback. Great thinking points. I do readily admit that I'm an organized person, I do like to plan because I like to ensure things are done a certain way. My friends recognize that, and I do thrive in it. But the point I'm trying to get across, and hopefully clearly is that, if I don't suggest something, we don't interact in person at all. yes there are occasional emails here and there, but nothing too human in the physical form to foster this friendship. I'd be completely ok if one of the girls just said, hey we haven't seen each other, I miss you. I suck at planning, can you organize something? I'd be TOTALLY over it. I'm just tired of always being the one to REACH OUT. So for those that replied with your opinion about you're the person that doens't organize, YES, do tell your friend that DOES organize that you appreciate them sticking their necks out to get together, and admit you suck at it, and that you still love them and are there for them no matter what.

Thanks for writing back. I think it might also do you good to talk candidly with the friend in this group to whom you feel closest. You'll have to call to set something up, ha ... but it'll give you a chance to say your piece, and it will give your friend a chance to see how to be a better friend to you. I think that's something most people would appreciate from their friends--a few non-obnoxious but clear instructions. "I'm not picky, and if X never happens I'm not going to stomp out of the friendship in a huff, but I'm also so grateful when someone does X." Actually, the obnoxious instructions can be useful, too, but in a very different way.

I also think it would help you if you took the emails as their version of staying in touch and dropped the hope/expectation of in-person efforts. Maybe you need and want all new friends, and that's both your prerogative and sometimes the sensible answer, but if you don't feel like starting over, then do yourself the favor of setting your baseline expectations at accepting what these friends offer instead of continually wishing they offered something different. Your frustration is justified, but it might ultimately not be practical.

Go that route and any request you successfully make for them to start inviting you places becomes not the minimum you'll accept from them, but instead a pleasant bonus.


To the OP - thank you for recognizing that they don't cancel each other out. I grew up in a household where one parent's temper escalated as the kids got older, and it became impossible to function once the children started challenging boundaries. The other parent wasn't aware of (or ignored) the escalation and none of the kids have healthy or loving relationships with either parent. And we've all had to relearn from scratch how to handle anger appropriately as adults - which was especially difficult when we had our own kids. I think being aware of the situation, and being prepared to take steps to handle it in a fashion that's going to be best for your kids is a huge first step. From someone who didn't have that parent - it's appreciated.

Thanks for this. 

Thank you for the advice. I do not fear for their physical safety, but for their emotional well-being, one child in particular who is very emotionally sensitive, but also more likely to do things that set off his dad (not blaming the child, just clarifying the dynamic). But this whole situation obviously affects both kids. I had a very serious private conversation with my husband last night after an outburst that I actually stepped in and stopped (I usually try to do the 'united front' thing but I couldn't let the outburst continue). So he knows how I feel, but I'm not sure he realizes he is putting the future of our family in danger - I cannot in good conscience let this continue but I cannot force him to change. My son saw the school counselor last year, and a couple of weeks ago he actually said he would like to see the counselor again, so I'm pursuing that option for him. I also have a counselor outside the school (recommended by pediatrician) that I've seen for myself, and also for advice about our son in the past. I'm going to make an appointment with her (maybe the first one for just me). It's frightening and sad to be in this position. Thanks for everything you do...

You're welcome, and I hope these efforts do the trick for your family. I agree with the previous poster that you're helping your kids--and your husband, too--just by taking the problem seriously and dealing with it head-on.

We don't have kids, but had 3 families with kids come to our house at different points over the weekend and it highlighted how to be a good guest. Family A brought an iPad, sippy cups, and kid food. He was an angel and she wasn't stressed. Family B didn't bring anything special, but had taken the kids to the playground to get all of the energy out before the grownup party. The kids entertained themselves with office supplies and found kid friendly options of the food we were having. Family C brought their kids over full of energy, allowed them to eat ridiculous amounts of sugar, run through the house, and hadn't thought about how to entertain them. There was no way they could behave-- they needed to run around then nap. The parents were so stressed and it highlighted that a little prep by Family A and B made it so much smoother for all of us.

Useful, thanks. 

For what it's worth, I think we've been Family A, B and C at different points, and it's not just a matter of where we were on the learning curve. Sometimes what preceded a visit has a lot to do with the way we showed up--and so to those who hosted us when we were in disarray, my blanket apologies. The parents of small kids are definitely responsible for being good guests, but if there's such a thing as heaven, I hope it's populated by forgiving hosts.

Carolyn, I think this question deserves an additional "don't judge yourself by other people," Maybe it is easy for them, or maybe they are putting up a good front. But you don't have to like it if it doesn't work for you.

Yes, it does deserve that, thank you.

Need a minute to find something that a reader has requested ...

Can't find it, ahhhhgh. Sorry for the delay. If I do find it, I'll post the Q with the duly supported A on my Facebook page (link).

Carolyn, I have to respectfully disagree with you about the harmful vs disappointing threshold, primarily due to the fact that people who have been emotionally abused often have a distressingly low threshold for "actual harm" already. For someone who has difficulty grasping concepts of what is safe or acceptable behavior BECAUSE of a parent's bad treatment, it is really disheartening to hear regular drumbeats of "you owe this person [x]." Ultimately because no one outside of the relationship can ever actually know what that relationship was like, there is no way of determining what an objective criteria for the harmful line is. As a result, I've come to the conclusion that if your life is better without that person in it, then you deserve the better life. Without qualifications.

That's your prerogative, of course--I've just seen both "no objective criteria" -and- the "you owe this person [x]" arguments abused, terribly. Maybe the interest of not exploiting either drumbeat to selfish ends would be best served if the people considering a complete tie-severing at least sought the counsel of a trained, reputable, objective third party, where feasible. It's similar to the family of the dad with anger issues: Instead of deciding independently to jump to separation, make a reasoned series of steps toward that, with the guidance of a pro where possible, with the intent of ensuring that the only ones who get to that point are the ones who actually have to. It's not possible to execute this to perfection, but it's an important steeple to chase.

Please also note the arm's-length nature of the contact I suggested. A card, a photo, a phone call. Those are deliberate choices, because if even they are greeted with mistreatment, then that's further, important evidence in support of full severance. Again--something I support fully as a last resort.

Mr. Space-vs-Dialogue--just saw your Q in the queue. I am answering you in a column. Next week I think, since I already filed it. 

I would love to go to a board game cookout, and would happily find a place and a time and invite everyone. Board Game cookout girl, please suggest it to your friends just in case I'm one of them!

This has been a public service announcement.

This question has gotten me thinking about my own parenting. I grew up in a family where both parents had terrible anger issues - often manifesting itself in physical abuse. Consequently, my husband and I have a very strict no physical punishment rule in our home. However, I find myself not knowing where the line is with my kids in terms of yelling/losing temper. Is it NEVER ok to yell at your kids? I never ever insult them or call them names but I do raise my voice especially when I've had to tell them 10 times to do something. This may seem like a basic question, but I honestly have no idea not having a healthy model to base my own parenting on.

I think of yelling as inevitable but a mistake. I apologize to my kids when I do it: "I'm sorry I lost my cool." Quick and out, unless I need to apologize also for being wrong about what upset me. I also think there's a difference between yelling and raising one's voice. 

And, too, I think this is a great topic that warrants more discussion. I'm kicking it to Philes because Kenny's away and I have to go pick up my kids. Give me about 30 min and I'll post it.

Thanks everyone--have a great weekend, and start submitting those Hoot stories. The more I read early, the more I can post. 

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Carolyn Hax
Carolyn Hax started her advice column in 1997 as a weekly feature for The Washington Post, accompanied by the work of "relationship cartoonist" Nick Galifianakis. The column has since gone daily and into syndication, where it appears in over 200 newspapers. Carolyn joined The Post in 1992 as a copy editor in Style, and became a news editor before turning to writing full-time. She is the author of "Tell Me About It" (Miramax, 2001), and the host of a live online discussion on Fridays at noon on She lives in New England with her husband and their three boys.

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