This is a journey into the world of the "non-parents." A world of people who do not want to have children or become parents. How can this be, you may ask. Our children embody our yearning for happiness, for belonging, the desire to recapture the innocence and purity that seems to have vanished from our world, the adult world. It is through our children that we and our society guarantee continuity; they enable us to cope with the fear of loneliness, aging and death. So much is riding on our children's scrawny shoulders: What does this say about us?
Welcome to the lives of Noa Dekel and Noam Sharon, 30-somethings both, who really do not want children; of Orna Donath, a doctoral student in sociology and anthropology at Tel Aviv University, who knew from a young age that she didn't want children and devoted her thesis to this issue; of Orna Cohen, who is allowing her spouse of 11 years to have a child with another woman because she doesn't want to be a mother; of "Gertrude," who four years ago started a Hebrew forum for women who don't want children, sparking a mini-revolution on the Web; and of Michal and Danny, Tel Avivians with demanding careers, who were enjoying the freedom that goes along with not having children until Michal learned she could not get pregnant naturally.
"I'd like to find out that I can't have children," Noa Dekel says in all seriousness.
You really mean that?
Dekel: "Yes. I don't want children. I'm always having to deal with birth control pills. It would be easier if I just couldn't get pregnant."
"Maybe you'll have an operation?" suggests her partner, Noam Sharon, also in total earnestness. But Dekel rejects the idea: "I'd have to go through a special committee," she says. "And besides, it will make me start menopause. You want a woman with osteoporosis at age 35?"
And if you later regret your decision not to have kids?
"There are lot worse decisions in life to regret than not having children. I don't see any reason for me to regret it later, and if at age 50 I get up one morning and say, 'I want a child,' there are ways to do so without getting pregnant."
It's Friday afternoon, a few weeks ago. The Carmel forest fire is raging. Like most Israelis, Dekel, 33, and Sharon, 38, are watching the live broadcasts. The sunlight streaming through the window warms the room. Next to them on the sofa sprawl their dog Shifra and their three cats: Shilgia (Snow White ), Shamgar and Mitzi, whom they found on the street two months ago.
The couple lives in a modest apartment in Hadera, they work hard at a bicycle-importing company, and in their free time they cycle, get together with friends and family, and look after their pets. Dekel also manages the dog-lovers' forum on the Tapuz portal. They have been living together for five years. This evening they are invited to a Hanukkah gathering with three other couples that are good friends - and all parents of toddlers.
"Yes," says Dekel, "they all talk about the kids and I talk about Shifra." Shifra was "planned," she adds jokingly.
Dekel grew up on Kibbutz Ein Shemer, the youngest of five siblings. At age 13 she was sent to work in the children's house with younger kids and that's when she knew that it wasn't for her; that she didn't want to be a mother. "It's something that's very deep," she says. "I've never thought that a baby is cute."
A lot of people don't like other people's children, but love their own.
"A lot of people have told me 'with your kid it will be different,' and I say: And what if it's not? What will I do? Send him back?"
Sharon describes himself as "not as extreme as Noa." He likes kids and even coached a kids' basketball team and led kids' hiking groups. But he still prefers life this way.
"I'm happy with where I am," he says. "I'm happy to have my independence, not to be tied down. Not that we fly abroad for the weekend every other minute. We still have our work obligations, we have animals that need to be cared for. Yes, it's not the same as a child, but there are similarities."
Are you at peace with yourself?
Sharon: "Yes. A lot of people say to me: 'You can see that it's not as clear cut with you.' And it's true it's not built-in with me the way it is with Noa. But I also can't say I miss not having a child. I look at our friends who have kids, and see the difficulties. I'm not ignoring the good things that it brings either. But making the cold calculation, I'm happy where I am."
"According to that cold calculation," declares Dekel, "it's just not worth it."
Do you two think about what will be in your old age?
Dekel: "Old age worries me, but from what I've seen there is no connection between having children and a secure or pleasant old age. In the end, it'll be the Filipino home aide who takes us out for a stroll in the wheelchair. We joke that we're already saving money now for the Filipino."
Why think just about the hard times? Why not think about the golden years, the time when the grandchildren fill an important social role and also bring great happiness?
"There are parents whose children lived with them until age 30. And then the children went out and came back with three grandchildren, whom the grandparents must take care of. And all they wanted is a little peace and quiet! So the way I see it, children or grandchildren are no guarantee of a happy or unhappy old age."
Dekel's friends who have kids have a little bet going as to when she will break down and decide to have a child.
"Her girlfriends push their kids into her arms, thinking maybe it might affect her," says Sharon.
"I was fortunate to grow up in a very supportive environment," Dekel says. "But I read online about women who talk about the terrible pressure that they're subjected to. Anyone who asks me why I don't have children receives an answer. A little while ago a friend found out that we don't want kids and she was horrified. It's her problem. In Israel there's this mad campaign to have children."
The couple enjoys having their evenings free and is always available to meet for coffee if their friends have been lucky enough to find a babysitter.
"Our situation doesn't need to be anybody's business," insists Dekel. "But in Israeli society it's still a curiosity. Our choice is rational, sensible and permissible. There's nothing wrong with us; we're not asocial or messed up. I want women in Israel to know that they don't have to have children just because Mom wants grandchildren, because we need more soldiers or because there's a demographic struggle going on. It's okay not to have children."
Self-fulfillment and pastimes
Data from the Central Bureau of Statistics show that, in 2009, 23 percent of families in Israel were childless. Some were couples who want but hadn't yet had children, others were struggling with infertility, and others were childless by choice. There is no data regarding the breakdown among these groups.
Studies conducted abroad indicate that people who choose not to have children tend to be college-educated and middle or upper middle class. In Israel, too, says Orna Donath, these non-parents are educated.
"Contrary to the stereotype, the career isn't necessarily so important to them," Donath explains. "Almost the opposite: People who don't want children care more about studying, about self-fulfillment, about pursuing certain pastimes."
At 16, in the middle of a dance class where all the girls were chatting about love and crushes on boys, Donath announced that she never wanted to get married or have children. Some of her friends from then still remember her extraordinary declaration. Donath, now 34, does have a partner but is not married. Her lack of desire for children became the topic of an intriguing thesis, which she wrote and turned into a book that is just being published now: "Mimeni Vehal'a: Habehira Behayim Bli Yeladim Be'Yisrael" ("Taking a Choice: Being Childfree in Israel," Yedioth Ahronoth Books, in Hebrew ).
In our society the idea of remaining childless verges on taboo. While in other Western countries the subject is a lively topic of research, Donath's study is the first of its kind in Israel; it is based on research conducted from 2004-2007. She originally found her subjects - heterosexual men and women who were at least in their thirties, most with a college education - by word of mouth.
A few months after she began her research, the Hebrew "Women who don't want children" forum was launched on the Internet. Here Donath found a plethora of postings by men and women who don't want children, are still undecided or can't have kids, etc. For three years, she monitored the discussions on the forum, and took an active part in them, raising certain issues to further the research.
The initially anonymous discussions online gradually led to social encounters among the participants. "We keep multiplying" was one of the humorous phrases tossed around at these meetings. Donath says that the research was a revolution for her: both a personal revolution, because she discovered she was not alone in her chosen way of life, and a more political revolution, because she realized she was touching on philosophical and cultural questions, issues concerning life and death, old age, happiness, family and, above all, freedom of choice.
Donath grew up in Ramat Hasharon. She divides her time between the university, where she teaches, and her volunteer work as chairwoman of the Center for Victims of Sexual Assault in the Sharon area. She lives with Amir, who also does not want children. In the living room of their home, in central Tel Aviv, stands an easel holding an unfinished painting by Amir. "When you don't have kids, you have time to paint," she says with a wink. In a way the book is her political statement, a shattering of the taboos that surround her. Donath says she will never forget one of the responses she received following an interview on a television program on the topic of happiness, where she spoke about her choice not to have children. "Orna Donath doesn't know how to love," someone wrote in a talkback after the program. It really hurt, she says.
"There's a large gap between the stereotypes of people who don't want children and reality. People who don't want kids are perceived as hedonistic, as egoists focused only on themselves. But research shows that for the most part, people who don't want kids are actively working for social and political causes. Many of them are active on behalf of animal rights. The forum is overflowing with caring people. I personally devote hours of volunteering at the center."
In her study, Donath found two main reasons why people choose a life without children: One was that they simply don't feel a need to be parents, and the other had to do with a desire to avoid the costs (financial and other ) of parenting. In her book she writes that some people perceive parenthood as a job with obligations and demands that would destroy their lifestyle.
Asked why she herself doesn't want children, she says: "There's something about the freedom to do things 'from the gut' that feels right. Like doing research, volunteering, reading books, enjoying music, and other things. And a child - particularly with reality as it is here and the way kids are being raised today - has no place in it. And underlying the whole thing is the fact that I just don't have the desire."
Coming out of the closet
Donath also writes that many non-parents she spoke to knew from a very young age that they didn't want to have children. "For me it happened a bit later, at 16. I couldn't say exactly why I don't want children. I just had a feeling that it's not my dream. It's just not me."
She compares the experience non-parents go through socially to coming out of the closet. Personally, she adds, she hasn't felt rejection because she has supportive family and friends. But for others, contending with Israeli society and its "sanctification" of the decision to have children has been very difficult.
Donath: "Many people in the study are very, very careful about what they tell people ... In the early years, the forum was full of postings like: 'You're not human' and 'I've never encountered such selfishness in my life.' One of the harshest responses was 'Do us all a favor and kill yourselves.' Our choice not to have children arouses very strong emotions. Within Israeli society we are often viewed as being emotionally crippled."
On the subject of local reactions to the phenomenon as opposed to Western countries where the childless lifestyle is more common, she says: "The reasons why people don't have children here are very similar to those in Western countries. The difference is the social pressure that exists here for people to have children, the harsh responses, the intensity of the whole issue."
In her book, Donath cites sociologist Jean Veevers, who argued that people who chose to be childless were influenced by their parents: The lack of satisfaction the parents projected about their role may have conveyed a message about making a different choice.
We tend to search for psychological explanations for people's lack of desire for children. A traumatic childhood? A divorce?
"There are people who've been through a traumatic childhood who don't want children. By the same token, there are people who had a traumatic childhood and became parents. And those who had a wonderful childhood, with wonderful parents, who don't want to be parents. The idea that something in our childhood must have gone wrong, that went through something traumatic, is part of the stereotype. My sister is the mother of two girls. In other words, from the same parents you have one daughter who became a mother and another who doesn't want kids, so there goes the whole theory."
In Israel, parenthood is perceived of as a national missionand in this there is no difference between Jews and Arabs. "Pro-fertility politics" is manifested in the assistance offered to new mothers - from National Insurance Institute stipends, to subsidized day care, to legislation benefiting large families. Israel has become a leading fertility superpower.
"In a survey of 48 countries," confirms Dr. Sigal Gooldin, who teaches in the sociology and anthropology department of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, "based on data provided by health authorities on the number of in-vitro fertility treatments, Israel is at the top of the chart. The number of fertility treatments done annually here, in proportion to population, is eight times higher than the world average. The bottom line is that there is a lot of medical knowledge ... and especially a lot of customers and a desire to have children."
Gooldin's research reveals how Israel's status in this area is promoted: "The findings show years-long cooperation and consensus among various players in the political system in regard to regulating new fertility procedures," she says. "Whenever there are new technologies, Israel tends to accept and adopt them at a much higher rate than anywhere else in the world."
And in this reality, which sanctifies fertility, there are people who have the nerve to stand up and say, "We don't want children."
Gooldin: "Most people don't ask themselves why they want children. The [message according to their] cultural and social conditioning is to just do it. People who make a choice not to have children are rejecting the Israeli consensus ... [They] are perceived as a minority of weirdos. But they are not seen as a group that threatens the mainstream."
Still, something about them disturbs us.
"I think that they're holding up a mirror to us and we're asking ourselves why we had children."
'The only one'
Four years after founding the Hebrew forum for women who don't want children, "Gertrude" still doesn't want to make her real name known. The conversation with her takes place at her workplace, a shelter for abandoned animals that she runs. She is in her mid-30s and lives with her husband in the center of the country. The forum was born of loneliness, she says.
"I didn't know anyone else like me, but I couldn't believe I was really the only one. This whole thing about the lack of desire to have children was a really burning issue for me then, but I had no social or political group with which to examine the subject. I wanted girlfriends like myself. I searched for a forum on the Internet and didn't find one, so I decided to start one."
Her own decision not to have kids does not come, she explains, "from hatred for children, a lack of time, an inability to give, or selfishness, anxiety or trauma. Not because of the population explosion, or because I think I'd be a lousy mother. And not because of personal well-being or financial savings or any other reason people try to find for people who aren't interested in children."
Gertrude has received some hurtful reactions to her choice, from everyone from cab drivers to well-meaning friends. "That may be why my circle of friends became very limited," she adds.
Today she is surrounded by people like herself or those who understand her choice: "It's not easy to be parents who have to explain to others something that they themselves don't understand. It's definitely hard for [my parents], especially when their friends have happy gatherings with their grandchildren. Still, although it's not easy, I want to believe that my family and friends have come to understand that my husband and I are okay, we're happy. That it's possible to live this way too."
Gertrude is no longer an active participant in the forum. Once a year, on the anniversary of its founding, she goes into it.
"It has taken on a life of its own," she says. "And my life, which was helped by the forum, has turned in other directions. To many people it's just another esoteric forum, but for the members it's made a significant difference in terms of their self-perception, the difference between being odd and lonely, and being able to accept yourself happily - even if you don't want children."
The loneliness of the non-parent also comes to the fore, naturally, when one seeks a like-minded partner. Sociologist Jean Veevers, who conducted a study in Canada, calls this "the waiting game": Some participants in her research said they postponed the decision about whether to have children, putting it off each time until the future - a future that for some reason made having kids impossible in any case.
Sociologist Elaine Campbell, author of "The Childless Marriage: An Exploratory Study of Couples Who Do Not Want Children" (Tavistock, 1986 ), writes that the more set a person's routine is, the more resistant he or she will be to change. A childless couple that maintains a regular life of socializing, working and relaxing and puts off the decision is liable to discover that the comfortable routine has distanced the possibility of having offspring.
"Often there is loneliness," researcher/author Donath admits. "In one of the interviews for the study I was asked if I could set people up ... It can be very difficult, especially here, to find a mate who doesn't want a child. And as it is, finding a mate is not such an easy thing."
Nonetheless, all the women interviewed for this article said that their lack of desire for children is so strong that they would even give up a relationship with a man who made their shared life contingent upon having kids. Orna Cohen, 38, from Hod Hasharon, faced one of the toughest dilemmas of her life when her partner of 11 years informed her that he wanted children. The couple found a solution, which Cohen herself proposed: He could have children with another woman, who would be their mother and raise them.
An intelligent, sensitive and warm woman, Cohen is an art and humor therapist, and works as a medical clown and also with the elderly and with the mentally disabled. "I know the stigma that we're emotionally barren," she says. "But I love children."
She loves children but doesn't want to be a mother. "I just don't have the desire," she explains. "When people don't get it, I ask them, 'And why don't you go have a sex change operation?' And they say: 'Because this is who I am.' And I say that that is my answer too: 'This is me. I don't want to be a parent.'"
At 27 Cohen met her future spouse, who works in computers and also in alternative medicine, and did not wish to be interviewed. A decade ago the matter of having children didn't concern them. He thought her feelings about it would pass and she also never came out with any unequivocal declarations. But her feelings became stronger.
"As the years passed, our bond deepened," she says. "I thought that if he wants a child, he should have one. A child is such a major thing in life that any side that gives in will be very frustrated. At first he ruled out all kinds of alternative solutions that I proposed. He wanted me to be the mother. I told him that I appreciated that, but said it wasn't a reason for me to go through with it. Now we've come to an understanding and found a solution. Our idea is for him to make a parenthood contract with a woman who wants to be a single mother, or with a lesbian couple that wants an involved father. The woman will be the mother in every way. I am not going to take her place, I don't want to compete with her. I will be 'Daddy's wife.'"
It's still a huge sacrifice for both of you. He'll still have to share the child with a woman who's practically a stranger. And you'll have to share your life with a child you don't want.
Cohen: "We know it will be complicated. But I want my husband to fulfill himself as a person. He wants children. Just as I won't have children for him, I don't think he should have to give up on parenthood for me. It's not healthy for either side. I also think he will be a good parent and I'd be happy to be the child's 'cool aunt.' I'm the less important element in this trio. We'll have to live near the mother and there will be a custody arrangement, like with divorced parents."
After approaching a few women, the couple hasn't yet found a suitable candidate, says Cohen: "At the moment we're not looking quite as hard, but we've always got our ears open."
What about what's best for the child?
"A child born to parents who really want him or her, and don't have the baggage you find with divorced parents, but have a technical arrangement in place - while that child won't grow up in a normative family, he or she can still enjoy the maximal benefits of the situation. We're trying to create an alternative family, in which the relationships are based on camaraderie and friendship, and similar views about education and what's good for the child."
The issue of continuity
In a national survey conducted in the 1980s in the U.S., in which interviewees were asked about the advantages of having children, the main answers concerned the need for love and affection. Orna Donath notes that in a 2003 study in Israel, 90 percent of the Jewish respondents agreed that the greatest joy in life is "to see your children grow up"; 57 percent agreed that the lives of people who don't have children are empty.
Our children carry a heavy burden on their shoulders - the continuation of "dynasties," the perpetuation of family memories and values, and the ability to help us cope better with aging and death. Studies show that following the Yom Kippur War there was a drastic increase in the number of births in Israel. Indeed, in this culture, children are perceived as the means by which society's very survival is ensured.
Donath: "Many people on the forum write that having children does not guarantee that someone will enjoy old age. Children may, and rightly so, go live abroad and are not here when their parents get old. This is a frequent argument ... and sometimes comes from genuine concern."
Are you afraid of old age?
Donath: "No. I keep myself busy, I have an interesting life. I have nieces who may have children. People who don't want children feel there aren't enough hours in the day to do all the things they love. There's the certainty that as long as our health is okay, we'll continue to engage ourselves. What's scary is sickness or the death of the partner, if there is one."
Donath adds that most of the interviewees in her study did not view perpetuation of the family line as an important factor. In one of the discussions on the forum - about finding a Hebrew term for the concept of "childfree" that is used in the United States - among the many suggestions offered were "prat katzeh," referring to an individual who is at the end of a family dynasty, and sof-genim - i.e., people who end the process of passing genes onward.
The Hebrew title of your book translates literally as "From Me Onward." Where is your "onward"?
"There is a lot of 'onward,' but it's a sort of horizontal onward, in the sense that I do other things that affect people [during my lifetime]. Continuity doesn't only mean a biological child."
Getting it over with
It's a Saturday afternoon. Michal Halevy and Danny Pirogovsky are at home in Tel Aviv. Pirogovsky, 43, is taking a nap, Halevy, 40, is making coffee and little Shira is watching a video. He is an accountant, she is the human resources director of the Ynet online news site, and they live in a carefully designed, attractive home. Until five years ago, and after living together for 15 years, the couple had no plans to have kids. They worked hard, pursued careers and enjoyed pleasures such as traveling abroad and going away for weekends.
"My girlfriends who started having kids around age 28-29 didn't seem to be all that happy to me," recalls Halevy. "I had the feeling that people were always trying to be rid of their children. They were constantly running around trying to find an 'arrangement' for the kids. It didn't seem like something that was very enjoyable. I stopped for a moment and asked myself: 'Why do I need to do this?'"
From the bookshelf in the living room she takes out the book "The Childless Revolution" by Madelyn Cain. "Society reacted very badly," she continues. "It seems odd, I felt a lack of support. On one visit to the gynecologist, he said to me, 'And what about children?' and I told him: 'I don't want children.' Then he immediately asked: 'So why did you get married?' I didn't understand the connection at all. You can be married and decide not to have children, and you can also be unmarried and decide to have children. Everybody felt they had the right to ask: 'So why don't you have children? You're over 30, you're married, so what's wrong?' I found that out society has very little tolerance for people who don't think like the mainstream."
Halevy's feelings didn't bother her spouse - on the contrary. "At first, when Michal put things out on the table, I wasn't sure that I heard her right," Pirogovsky says with a smile. "I thought it would pass. But as life went on, Michal's desire not to have children only grew and for me it actually became very comfortable. We lived intensively with a lot of good things in life. I got used to it and adopted the attitude of: It's okay, we don't need children." The change came from an unexpected direction. At 35, Michal learned that she had a gynecological problem that would prevent her from giving birth naturally. "Suddenly I found out that there was something wrong with my body, something flawed in my femininity and it was very tough to deal with. I wanted the choice not to have children to be mine alone, but suddenly someone else had decided it. It just turned everything upside down. All of a sudden I had this powerful, almost childish impulse to prove that I could do it."
Her husband had trouble accepting the radical change at first. "Danny never made an ideology out of remaining childless, but I had really done that," says Halevy. "And then this hit him. He didn't understand what had changed and, not only that, that we had to go straight to fertility treatments."
"It certainly took me by surprise," he confirms. "Giving up the position of being childless was not simple. It was suddenly throwing life into a very different place from where I saw it going."
The couple is today, naturally, very happy about the decision to have a child and are also happy that they waited as long as they did, which enabled them to slip into the role of parents as more mature people, better prepared, and also more financially stable.
"Following the change in our lives, I didn't become one of those people who goes around preaching to people to have kids," says Halevy. "I still don't think that people have to have children. I find it a shame that in Israel people don't devote any thought to the question of whether they want children. I know a lot of young women who marry and right away have a child and then another child and they don't stop for a moment to think: Is this what I really want? Are they ready for the financial burden? People get themselves into a tough spot."
Halevy adds that she is still grappling with social pressures, however. "After Shira was born, right away people were asking me, 'Nu, what about the second one?' I still get asked that. And I don't understand it. There's this notion of 'Have three children quickly and get it over with.' Get what over with? What, is it a chore? A punishment? I'm very much enjoying my daughter now, I spend the whole afternoon with her, no trivial matter for working mothers. I know some strong women, who earn good money, who hold senior positions, and at the same time are convinced that they must have three children. It drives me mad."
Today, as mother, can you think of other reasons not to have a child?
Halevy: "Today I can think of one reason not to have kids and that's the overwhelming, tremendous love you have for your child. This is a kind of love that is very frightening. I remember a situation in my childhood when I was at my aunt's house, sitting in her kitchen, and she was sitting between her husband and her son, and she said: 'If I had to choose between them, it's clear what my choice would be' - and of course she meant the son. For years, I didn't get this. I thought that the love between spouses is the most amazing thing in the world. Now I see that the moment your child is born it opens up other things, it opens up a love that nothing else can compare to.
"Shira was born by Caesarean section in the 31st week. A few hours after the operation I came to the neonatal unit in a wheelchair, I was a wreck, in an awful state. She was just as big as your palm, connected to countless machines. And the second I saw her, I knew that this was the most beautiful thing there is."
One out of five
The 21st century has been dubbed humanitys demographic winter. Less and less people are having children, explains Prof. David Passig, a scholar of future studies at Bar-Ilan University. In most countries the birth rate is crashing below the level of what is called natural replacement, which is an average of 2.1 children per couple. The reason can be found in the 20th century, when the human species grew at an extraordinary rate because of the high level of fertility. Now nature is balancing itself out.
Futurist Passig predicts that the decline will come to a halt mid-century, about the year 2050, when in most Western countries, but not only there, the birth rate will be a very low 1.5-1.6 children per family. One of the most striking examples he gives of the dwindling population is Russia, the superpower that is shrinking by 750,000 people per year as a result of a declining birth rate. According to forecasts, the population there will shrink by one-third within a matter of decades.
However, this worldwide trend hasnt been hindering us Israelis from reproducing, he explains. The fertility rate here is still the highest among the Western industrialized countries: 2.9 children per couple.
The difference between us and the other countries of the industrialized Western world is that we are experiencing a period of recovery from a terrible Holocaust, Passig notes. The State of Israel lives in fear and with a survival impulse and therefore we have more children.
However, he expects this trend to change and balance out. In the coming decades, he believes that the fertility rate in Israel will fall to 2.2 children per family.
The demographic winter has both positive and negative implications. On the one hand, the consumption of natural resources will be slowed and it will be possible to invest more in education for a smaller number of children. On the other hand, the human population is getting proportionately older.
[At some point in this century] about 17 percent of the worlds population will be 65 and over, and only about 5 percent will be children who are 5 years old and under. We will become a world without children.
Indeed, according to a United Nations study, in the year 2050 there will be 248 million fewer children in the world than there are today. Passig says that the dramatic aging of the population will also have unsettling effects on social and economic institutions, with fateful consequences. Today, 20 percent of people living in developed countries do not have children, out of choice or because they did not have another option (due to fertility problems, for example). In the United States and England, one out of five women has never given birth.
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