Mothering à la Mayim

Actress, neuroscientist, and mama Mayim Bialik can now add author to her impressive list of accomplishments. Her first book, Beyond The Sling: A Real-Life Guide To Raising Confident, Loving Children the Attachment Parenting Way, is currently out in bookstores and online. I recently had the opportunity to chat with Mayim about her book and her parenting practices. While the majority of our interview will end up in Bamboo Magazine‘s Spring issue, I have a few extra bits to tide you over with until then!

I have to be honest and share that it was a bit surreal to talk parenting with an icon of my childhood (come on, admit it: who else dressed up in babydoll-style dresses, crocheted vests & big floppy hats in the early ’90s along with me?), but as we discussed breastfeeding, co-sleeping, and yes! even feminism, I quickly got over it and was simply appreciative that somebody with a platform like Mayim was using it to talk to the benefits of Attachment Parenting (AP).

Parenting philosophies can certainly be a tricky topic to navigate. It can be even harder when you ascribe to one that is occasionally misunderstood, sometimes thought of as “avant-garde and radical,” and at times, declared dangerous. It was wonderful speaking with Mayim, not only because we both are into AP, but because as we talked, she reminded me why I am so attached to this parenting philosophy.

While my interview with Mayim for Bamboo focuses on the book itself and AP in general, these snippets strayed a bit from the beaten path. We talked about how important creating community is for any parent, but especially for folks who choose AP. We also talked about how society supports (or doesn’t!) parents in general, and how to navigate around that. And, we also talked about guilt – a word that seems to always creep in when talking parenting.

 * * *

I’ve noticed that sometimes, people who aren’t 100% confident or comfortable in their parenting, that’s when the defensiveness flares up.

And guilt, yes! That’s what I talk about that in the book, especially in the discipline chapter. It’s never too late to say, “this is not working, this doesn’t feel right.” Guilt is an indicator to change something. If you feel guilty, for example, that you are disciplining your children in a way that isn’t right, it’s never too late. You can say that about many aspects of parenting. And some things we can never go back and do again. And sometimes we have another child, and sometimes we don’t.

Someone, after I posted an article on Kveller, introducing the concept of the book, she said, “You know, I really thought it was all or nothing, and that I couldn’t call myself an Attachment Parenting mom. But this kind of philosophy helped me keep fighting the demons. I did not come from a family like this, but I’m trying. I can’t do it all the way because there’s a lot working against me, but it’s this kind of attitude that lets me keep going and believe I’m a part of something.”

I sent [her comment] to my editor and to my agent and said, “Look! Look at what we did. We made this one woman feel like she can do it, like it was worth it for this kid. Even if she’s not perfect.”

I think about all the Facebook “arguments” I unwittingly get into when I post articles on Crying It Out or nursing, and I just wonder why can’t we have healthy discussions before they spiral out into defensiveness and lashing out.

It’s also knowing your limits as a parent. I’ve learned when to shut up and not talk to people, and I’ve learned when people are legitimately asking me what are the benefits of breastfeeding your 3 year old. That’s something I didn’t know about as a new mom. Some people want to have a conversation with you just so they can be right. You know who those people are. You know the moms and the dads who start a conversation wanting to be right. And those are the people I’ve learned to just smile at and say, “it’s working for us.”

As I was reading the book, I really liked how you brought in scientific facts to back up your theories. Just the notion that we have these hormones that compel us to want to pick up and hold our kids seems so simple, yet… 

When you fight those hormonal instincts, funny things happen. You get really, really frustrated and confused. And I think that’s the state of parenting today  – at least for me, was one of confusion. I write about that in the book, like: “Hold them, but not too much. Love them but don’t touch them too much. It’s good to sleep with them, but not too much.” It confused me!

It’s interesting what those popular beliefs are and what realities are (I then went in to an overly long story of EZ & bedtime).

The notions of “sameness” are very, very important in Western culture. The notions of early independence are, I would argue, are clinically obsessive in Western culture. Bumbo seats are really cute, but a 3 month old should not…should not sit up. […] To me, it’s more of a cultural lack of support for surrendering. And people get really scared of that word, but surrendering to a new life as a parent. And it means that your arms and your heart are very full.

While it’s a bit outside the scope of your book, the topic of feminism certainly isn’t outside the scope of the conversation surrounding motherhood. There’s definitely a debate within feminism regarding AP, and I’d love to get your take on it. Can the two (feminism and AP) exist simultaneously? How do you reconcile the two?

I think that there’s a really interesting wave of the feminist mother, which is someone who believes strongly in her power as a mother and doesn’t feel that it’s antithetical to her power as a regular woman. I just read the Elizabeth Badinter article on “The Tyranny of Breastfeeding” in Harper’s. It’s really, really complicated. Feminist politics is very, very complicated. There are women who believe that any forced attachment to this lifestyle robs you of the ability to be part of society. I would argue that they’re not mutually exclusive, but yes, I do believe in the biology of the human body. I do. I don’t think it’s for everyone. I don’t want to be a tyrant about it. But I think there is also a tremendous sense of empowerment that comes along with being a nurturer.

* * *

What say you? If you are a parent, how do *you* reconcile motherhood/parenting and feminism?

Also – I am lucky enough to have a copy of Beyond The Sling up for grabs! Leave a comment below and you will be automatically entered to win!

(Book give-a-way ends Friday, 3/23 at midnight EST)

55 thoughts on “Mothering à la Mayim

  1. I love the “it’s working for us” answer when talking to others looking to argue about parenting decisions. I’d love to read this book!

  2. I’m still trying to figure it out. AP is the best fit for me and it doesn’t conflict with my views of feminism. I believe that following what comes natural as part of my biology is the best way to parent (home birth, breastfeeding, bed sharing) but I don’t think a woman’s role should be limited by biology and worry that this is the justification that has been used to oppress us.

    I’m really looking forward to reading her book. I also grew up with Blossom as one of my first feminist role models, it’s great to have her as a parenting one too!

  3. I’m incredibly lucky in that my feminism was informed by my mother, who firmly believed that mothers were the backbone of feminism. There was nothing to reconcile, as mothers taking care of their children was a feminist act. For her, and then for me, that means that I do what *I* think is in the best interest of myself and my child.

  4. I tend to think that Dorothy Dinnerstein and Alice Miller were right, that women of use “nuture power” for their own narcissistic purposes that is analogous to the “world-making power” that men use for their own narcissistic needs.

    Cordelia Fine’s books are also good on this issue.

    I certainly wish I had had two adult parents rather than a female-dependent and male-dominated childhood.

    Shared earning/shared parenting marriage is an alternative. Check it out on Wikipedia.

    • I am completely fine with women taking on the term “nurturer” as part of their identity, I don’t think it’s narcissistic in the least. However, painting women with a widespread brush as “nurturers” does present some issues for me. Also, it provides a gap for those men who identify as such. One thing I like about AP is that it provides multiples ways to have both parents involved. Co-sleeping & baby wearing are 2 ways (imo) that encourage and allow fathers to engage their nurturing sides.

      The way *I* AP would certainly fall under shared parenting.

      • Dinnerstein and Miller were writing about this from the child’s perspective not the mother’s.

        It is not that women should not take on the term “nurturer” as part of their identity; it’s when they use that as a guise for using children to meet their narcissistic needs that it causes problems.

        One good way to avoid narcissistic use of children is to set your family up in the shared earning/shared parenting model.

  5. I try hard not to attach MYSELF too stringently to any one model of parenting. Do most of my parenting practices align themselves with AP? They sure do. But adhering rigidly to AP without adjusting my parenting to the nuanced needs of my family doesn’t seem right either.

    As far as reconciling feminism and parenting/motherhood goes, I try to avoid the notion that nurturing my children and pursuing fulfilling projects and engaging with friends and family and having a meaningful relationship with my spouse and breastfeeding and birthing and writing and doing philosophy are somehow antithetical to each another. Navigating these parts of my life is complex, and sometimes/often difficult. But none of them need be pursued at the expense of my feminist commitments. (And I’ll admit that having a feminist partner certainly helps me to be a feminist parent!)

  6. “I think that there’s a really interesting wave of the feminist mother, which is someone who believes strongly in her power as a mother and doesn’t feel that it’s antithetical to her power as a regular woman.”

    I wouldn’t choose the same words but I do love her point. Feminism IS all about making choices and making new choices and making new choices after that and having all options on the table, including choosing to co-sleep, nurse your toddler, homeschool, and work at the same time (raising hand!).

  7. I saw her interviewed on some prime time show last week. Couldn’t stand the tone and language of the interviewer that her approach and the approach of whole group of women (AP) was odd or unnatural in some way. Media can sometimes make it sound cult-like. As if women just prescribe to an approach and don’t use their own minds. She did a beautiful job of answering from a solid. knowing, undefensive place. Must say it is nice to read your interview tidbits! Look forward to the book.

  8. I never really thought of myself as an AP mom… that is, not until I realised how much carrying my child calms her, how easy it is to get her to sleep 12 hours by co-sleeping and that extended nursing has turned her into an independent and compassionate child!

    With no energy or heart to CIO, wean or deal with sleepless night, I thought it was just laziness on my part😉

    But in all honesty, AP allows me to do the non-mothering activities I want to do — even if the baby is on my back asleep. But like Kristen O above, I also don’t see a disconnect between my need to nurture my family and my feminism.

    Thanks for sharing the interview!

  9. I feel a little…hmmm…perplexed at the notion that AP could somehow dilute or even corrupts a mother’s feminism. I was a feminist before I was a mother, and I bring those values and ideals to my caregiving. I don’t feel that AP has compromised my feminist ethic at all.

    I am looking forward to reading this book!

  10. I guess I’ve had trouble answering the question about reconciling motherhood and feminism because they’ve never been two aspects of myself that I’ve seen in need of reconciliation. In fact, I’ve experienced motherhood as revitalizing my feminism.

  11. Since the day I became a mama my motherhood has only managed to strengthen my feminism. What has been wonderful is finding so many like minded mamas in my journey as a mama myself! It’s always nice not to feel like the only one of my kind on this journey and it has only helped me to feel more confident knowing that there are others I can turn to who “get it”!

  12. I think feminism and AP can co-exist. I consider myself both a feminist and an AP and and i rejoice in my choice of AP parenting and in th empower of my body.

  13. For me, feminism can be dangerous when it’s taken too far, but by that same account, being a strong woman is what makes a good mother in my opinion. It’s my will to stay home and not work (and my husband’s job that allows it) and it’s my choice not to put my children in daycare and to homeschool. So while feminists always argue for equal rights and equal pay in the work force, I support them in their cause 100%, but I choose to put my family above a career. My inner feminist is still there. My children see female doctors whenever possible. My OB/GYN was always female. Things like that I still do. You don’t have to enter me for the book — I already have it. It’s amazing.🙂

  14. Cool interview! It’s so fun learning about your “other sides,” Mayim! As an AP mom, myself (& Big Bang Theory fan!), I enjoy hearing your stories.

  15. I am an AP “feminist.” Being a mother has only made me stronger. Thanks for this great interview. Mayim is a wonderful role-model and I am excited to see her taking a stand on some extremely important and misunderstood topics. I look forward to reading the book!

  16. I am very much looking forward to reading this book. I think it’s important that there be more voices out there speaking for the inner of the voice of parents and saying that it is ok to follow your gut about what rings true for raising your child. We are bombarded by how to books and “experts” and sometimes stop hearing our inner selves and our children.

  17. I’m looking forward to the article and the book.

    For me feminism and AP-style parenting go together. My Mom modeled both feminism and AP-style parenting. She was college educated in social work and a stay-at-home mom.

  18. Well, i dont even have kids yet, but i look at the ways my family and friends raise their kids, and I’ve thought a lot about the ways I would want to be with my kids, and how I am with my nieces, and honestly, reading about AP – everything you talk about has really clicked with me – like, I wanna be THAT kind of Mum. I’m really looking forward to reading your book, Mayim. And thanks for the great article!!

  19. I’m the first AP parent in my family and I actually didn’t know there was a name for what I do until recently, so it’s fascinating to read about other people’s experiences of it. I also like the “it’s working for us” comment in response to people who think they’re right! That’s what I shall do in the future!

  20. Forgive me, I am not very eloquent with words. I used to think that to be a feminist meant to hold yourself as an equal to a man. To be just as capable, to hold all of the same rights. I now realize that while that is true, what the feminist movement is really about is making empowered choices, and owning them. That means that I get to choose what to do with my body, my life, and how to do it. That does not fall outside of the realm of motherhood. Feminism is about strength. What is a better image of strength than A woman bearing down with all of her might, surrendering, channeling her mammalian instincts, grunting and moaning through pain, and birthing a child? The truth is that men and women are not equals. They deserve the same rights, but they are not equal. We are very very different, and being a feminist is about embracing our differences. I am WOMAN. That doesn’t mean I am less than a man. That doesn’t mean I am more than a man. That doesn’t mean that I am not capable of many of the same things as a man, or a man isn’t capable of the same things as me. He can raise children, I can go to work, we can challenge societal norms, or not. I don’t stay at home with my child because society tells me to. I stay at home with my child because I am a strong woman who believes in acting upon her instincts and my instincts tell me that this child needs me here and now. I will surrender my career, and control of my life to stay home with this child. I will breastfeed her as long as possible because it is natural, best for her, and honestly because it is easy. I will sleep with her in my bed because that is where we both sleep the best, where I know she is safe, and because I will not have the opportunity for long. I will put her in a sling because that is the easiest way to keep her near me, it is where she is happiest, and where she learns the most. What is important, what makes me a feminist is that I do these things because I am empowerd, confident, strong and because I CHOOSE to. Not because My husband tells me to, not because society tells me to, and not even because your book tells me to (although I can’t wait to read it). I believe in choice. I believe that If I had chosen not to bear this child that I had a choice to abort the fetus. I believe that I could have chosen a career, not to get married, and to never have kids. That is what feminism is about. The right to choose.

  21. Wow, I really shudder when I think of some of these distortions of feminism into MORE use of children to validate women.

    For me feminism is about letting go of that dominance and being an actual adult parent along with my children’s father. This means I take responsibility for earning half the money of our family as well.

    Freedom to choose does not mean freedom to exploit or hurt, We make choices within the larger context of how our behavior can hurt others who are dependent.

    This mother-centric conception of the family is really troubling; so many, many people have illustrated how this hurts children and how it is at the very root of the oppression of women by men in the broader culture. It basically builds misogyny, broken families, emotional problems in children, and repeats the cycle into future generations.

    As noted above Dorothy Dinnerstein and Alice Miller are psychologists who have tackled this problem of narcissistic mothering quite well. Others who are good at this include Kyle Pruett.

    There is also an empirical study in the UK showing the emotional disturbances in children, especially daughters, of mother-centric families.

    The children cannot speak for themselves, but these others have spoken for them quite eloquently. Please listen to them.

    • As one of those children, can I please speak for myself? My “mother-centric” family growing up in the 1990s was based on my father’s idea that only one of them could work outside the home; because he was smarter (he made this quite clear) that would be him.

      What made my childhood unhappy was that my mother was unhappy and my father was unhappy and my house was an unhappy house. It’s really narrow-minded to say that equality means earning half the money. You’re right in that narcissism is unhealthy. But was pretty hard for my mother to see past her own pain when she felt trapped in a life she didn’t want. That doesn’t mean she didn’t want to be a mom, but it did lead to some bad parenting choices. For BOTH of them.

      And how’s this for problematic? I now have my dream job, working in child care. I’m a nanny, spending all day with an infant I adore and loving it. When my husband finishes graduate school and gets a job, my modest salary will be about half of what he will be earning. Guess what else? I’m pregnant. I will get to bring our child to work with me, and he’s already jealous of all the time he’ll be missing out on.

      “Mom” and “Dad” are not jobs that are easily divided into equal shares. It’s complicated in another sense by the fact that my desire to mother and my husband’s desire to father are very different animals.

      I realize that these are just examples from my life, but when I read your comment about the research in the UK, all I could picture was my mother, still in her pajamas, staring vacantly out the window, feeling completely useless. Pretty much the opposite of Dr. Bialik and Avi and every other Attachment Parenting fan I’ve ever met.

      • Thanks for your comment, Anne-Marie.

        The study in the UK is not just about a mother like yours but also about women who harm their children’s emotional development by making mothering about them, rather than about raising a healthy, well-adjusted child, who can deal with the world well, including earning money and other types of adult responsibilities.

        It’s not really in the child’s interest to have a mother who doesn’t earn her share and a father who does not do his half of the unpaid work.

        The parents may feel this is easier in the short-run, but as UK study demonstrated, this will have serious costs in the long-run and possible in the mid-term as well. Most of these costs fall on the child, which is why many women don’t care (they are just thinking about themselves) but some will fall on the parents, so even women who think only about themselves might want to take a look at this.

      • Like I said, I know narcissistic parenting. I know what it looks like when parents make it all about them. It doesn’t have anything to do with “earning your share.”

        Neither AP nor anyone associated with it promotes the kind of parenting you describe.

      • Actually, a lot of child development experts are concerned that AP is hurting children’s emotional development. See Zeynep Biringen’s book, “Raising A Secure Child”, for example.

        Children have needs that don’t get met, and are likely stifled, by AP.

        Please don’t forget, you will be an impediment to raising your children to adulthood if you are not an adult yourself.

      • My sister is a child development expert who studies attachment in the traditional sense. A secure attachment and Attachment Parenting are actually quite different. My sister has no qualms about AP, and that’s good enough for me.

        I suggest you learn to deal with your past without insulting the parents brave enough to speak out about their beliefs. Your comments have been entirely negative, about what *not* to do. Come back when you have something to say about what *to* do.

        As a pregnant woman, I can tell you that it is 100% unhelpful to hear about how *not* to parent.

    • I think (especially in this day and age) it’s quite easy to find any number of studies to back up your point. For instance, I can find a range or research that concludes that Attachment Parenting produces confident, secure, and emotionally healthy/strong children who are independent, creative individuals.

      I think it’s great to provide research and information and then allow folks to then decide for themselves, which is what I feel Dr. Bialik is doing with her book. I’m not sure if you’ve seen any of the TV spots she’s had promoting the book, but the big take-away (besides the main aspects of AP) is that here is one method of parenting, and nobody should feel pressured to parent one way or another – take it wholesale or take it in pieces, just learn more about it.

      I also think it’s quite presumptive to paint such a broad paint stroke against all families who have a stay at home parent (which seems to be your biggest issue rather than the rest of the tenants of AP, [and even then, staying-at-home isn’t necessarily even one of the main points of AP]). In today’s society many families are choosing (for a multitude of reasons, hardly ever made in a bubble) to have one parent stay at home, and increasingly, you’re seeing more fathers stay at home while the mother works. What would the research say in that case? Would these so-called detrimental effects also be in play with a stay-at-home father?

      I also have to say that by accusing stay-at-home mothers of not “pulling their weight” you are completely dismissing the work that goes on unpaid within the home – for many (not all) it is more than a full-time job. A large part of your argument rests on the notion that the work done inside the home is less valuable and important than work done outside the home, and that in and of itself is a huge problem. Why don’t we focus on changing the way people view domestic work rather than just dismissing it as unimportant?

      • I am sorry but you didn’t look at any of the authors or studies I mentioned, nor do you mention any specific studies in support of your need for the AP model you are promoting.

        This type of vague “I’m no going to look at your evidence or reasoning, I’m right, you’re wrong, I’m sure there’s evidence out there of this” is the very definition of narcissistic, abusive behavior by a person in power.

        “Why don’t we focus on changing the way people view domestic work rather than just dismissing it as unimportant?”

        I am not dismissing domestic work as unimportant; to the contrary I think it is very important to get women out of the practice of narcissistic parenting and into more adult psychology. In fact, that is the reason domestic work is not respected by many. Too many women are not handling domestic work well and are using it and children for their own narcissistic issues and defenses and so it is not respected.

        I have given you quite a bit of quality feedback here and you’ve chosen to ignore it. I am sorry but I have better things to do. Goodbye.

  22. My best just had a baby and is scared to death of even co-sleeping. I am hoping this book shows better light into it for her. I know there is a balance where you don’t have to do everything for “independence” parenting (or, as my mom calls it, “disattachment” parenting) or everything for AP. My best friend is just so dead set on doing everything from the books “because they told her to”. :<

  23. I’m a Women’s Studies professor and new AP mom. I think MB has it exactly right when she says, “Feminist politics is very, very complicated.” Let’s talk wages for housework, the problem that has no name, the lavender menace, listen to girls, women fighting to work outside the home the same time women are fighting for the right to work inside their homes and take care of their own kids rather than someone else’s. (I respect MB very much for refusing to concede that nannies are AP.)

    I think that have more of a problem reconciling AP with capitalism than with patriarchy (although Dr. Sears is about as annoying as J. Marion Sims, as the founding “father” of AP– thank you MB for the new authoritative AP text!).

    But: “I do believe in the biology of the human body.” What does this mean? How does one “believe” in biology? MB says it as if biology is G-d. But biology is a human construction. Women are socialized to be nurturers, and it’s very hard for women to choose otherwise (it’s the path of least resistance); and vice versa for men, who are socialized to be stoic providers. Seems to me that MB’s husband has gone against the grain to prove that men can override “biology” if they try hard to undo the silly social constructions of patriarchy. To say it’s all biology is to diminish the work men like her husband do.

    • I wish more people thought about attaching wages to the work down inside the home – maybe then we’d have a better idea of what it truly “pull equal weight” within a family.

      I agree with you re:AP & capitalism (vs Patriarchy), and wish we lived in a society that was more supportive of families in general.

      I can’t speak for Mayim, but my understanding of “believing in the biology of the human body” is more about believing in the fact that our bodies are made for things like birth and breastfeeding and that hormones do have a very real role in parenting. That being said – I don’t think biology is the end all and be all of parenting (one just needs to look at adoptive families to know this).

      • Me too!

        Studies have shown that brain chemistry changes in response to extenuating external living conditions, to create what many psychiatrists diagnose as biochemical depression in their patients. So I wonder about things like breastfeeding and hormones– whether men parenting wouldn’t produce biochemical changes in male bodies to create what many of us see as biological characteristics of women’s bodies only– whether there is a feedback loop between bodies and external living conditions. For example, I didn’t realize until recently that women can lactate without giving birth. Wow!

        I think about Ina May Gaskin’s “law of the sphincter” and wonder whether we’re individualizing a systemic problem when we encourage women to do natural childbirths in environments that are so disrespectful of our bodies. Are our bodies made for birth in a world made for C-sections?

      • “We shared,” Ina May says. “Everybody’s tits worked. We even had a man lactate. Not because he wanted to, but because his girlfriend moved down the road with the baby. That’s the sort of thing that can happen if you love the baby a lot and feel anxious about whether they’re getting enough to eat.”

  24. I would love to read more about her ideas. Once upon a time I thought what I did was the right thing or way, I love reading about new ideas now. As a foster mother with a variety of children, I’ve realized there are so many different ways to parent and we should encourage one another.

    • Thank you for this. I feel much better about having a baby in October when I come across women who feel that “we should encourage one another” and accept different ways of parenting. I mean it. Thank you.

  25. I agree with Mayim. Attachment parenting and feminism can definitely go together. I believe there is a new movement among mothers in America today where they are decided that it doesn’t have to be all or nothing. They don’t have to decide between being barefoot and pregnant with no personal identity of their own and being supermom who works 40+ hours a week and is stressed out. Just look at all of the mompreneurs out there today. These women, like myself, are saying that we can have it all! I practice attachment parenting and I am working hard to create a new career and lifestyle that allows this in my family’s life. And I am dedicating my new career to helping other mothers who are interested to do the same.

    • Let me just add that I think all mothers work hard regarless of whether or not they work at a career in addition to working on their family life. It is all work. And I do not think that mothers who do not work outside of their family work have no identities. Just that this is the perception for some of us women who feel too isolated at home without something of their own aside from family. I know that I shouldn’t have felt that way, but unfortunately I did. I personally feel much more balanced with a business that allows me to express my creative and giving nature that doesn’t take significant amounts of time from my time caring for my children. Not all women need something similar to feel balanced. We all have different needs based on our life circumstances. Being a strong and feminine woman comes from finding the balance that works for you. For those that feel out of balance, I am here to help.

  26. I think AP has allowed my partner and I to share more parenting responsibilities. For us, co-sleeping means it’s just as easy for dad to sooth baby back to sleep, with the exception of needing to nurse, and baby-wearing allows for greater mobility and closeness than what we get with the stroller. Don’t get me wrong, I still think AP needs feminism for a host of reasons, but I definitely think of it as a step in the right direction.

  27. Pingback: In Reflection: A Moment With Mayim Bialik (Bamboo Magazine) « Avital Norman Nathman

  28. Pingback: Helping Chidren With emotional Problems With Play | Parenting Special Needs

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