We Are Family Podcast, Episode 10: Let's Get Real About IVF and Surrogacy

Hosts Shaun T and Julia Dennison talk to Real Housewives of Atlanta star Kandi Burruss, bioethicist Dr. Robert Klitzman, and Meredith president and chief digital officer Catherine Levene about building families through in vitro fertilization and surrogacy.

Kandi Burruss, Ace Tucker, and Todd Tucker
Photo: Paras Griffin/Getty Images

We Are Family is all about celebrating the diversity of families today and that's why, in Episode 10, hosts Shaun T and Julia Dennison explore two different ways to create a family: in vitro fertilization (IVF) and surrogacy. Shaun opened up about his journey to use a surrogate with his husband back in Episode 3, but this week bioethicist Robert Klitzman, Real Housewives of Atlanta star Kandi Burruss, M.D., and Meredith president and chief digital officer Catherine Levene share their own experiences.

To start, Dr. Klitzman, professor at Columbia University and author of Designing Babies: How Technology is Changing the Ways We Create Children, explains that "more than 20 percent of the U.S. population is having infertility problems." And though families may opt for IVF or surrogacy for reasons other than infertility, Dr. Klitzman says that medical intervention is simply necessary in some cases.

And that's where Kandi comes in. Already a mom of two—one through IVF—she and her husband used a surrogate for their youngest, Blaze. Originally on the fence about the entire process, which felt scary and intimidating, Kandi says that it was meant to be. "How can you trust somebody with your most precious possession, your most precious gift, you know, as somebody that you barely know," she said. "But, now that it's all said and done, I wouldn't change a thing. It was the best decision that we could have made."

For Catherine Levene, Meredith president and chief digital officer, the surrogacy journey is still going on. Married at 40, Catherine and her husband decided to have a baby through a surrogate in Missouri. As stressful as the process can be, COVID-19 threw a wrench into the pregnancy as Catherine has had to rely on FaceTime and text to get updates since she can't visit in person. Despite all that, she's found a way to ease her anxiety and is eagerly awaiting her baby girl this September.

There's a lot we don't get into this episode—everything from finances to legal agreements, and more—but you can find more resources on IVF here and surrogacy here. As Shaun T puts it: "If you're going through IVF or surrogacy right now, we are here for you and we're rooting for you."

Upcoming episodes and topics this season include:

  • Parenting with disabilities
  • Multicultural parenting
  • The family you didn't know you had

Listen to We Are Family on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, iHeart, TuneIn, Stitcher, Google and everywhere podcasts are available.

Listen to episode 10 right now: Parents.com/FamilyPod-Ep10

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Kandi Burruss: We didn't really have a lot of friends who had done it, and we were, you know, is this the move?Like how can you trust somebody with your most precious possession, your most precious gift, you know, as somebody that you barely know. But, now that it's all said and done, I wouldn't change a thing. It was the best decision that we could have made.

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Julia: Hi, I'm Julia Dennison

Shaun: And I'm Shaun T.

Julia: And this is We Are Family, a podcast from Parents magazine. In this show we celebrate all the different ways there are to build and be a family.

Shaun: Today we're going to talk about something that's close to me: IVF and surrogacy. If you listened to our earlier episode about how my husband Scott and I built our family, you know that we used an egg donor and a surrogate to bring our twins into the world. And it wasn't easy—it took a lot of trying, a lot of difficult emotions, and a lot of money to make it happen.

Julia: If you missed it, you can go back to Episode 3 to hear Shaun and Scott's story and meet their surrogate, Ashley. You can also hear my colleague Adrienne share her story of using IVF to become a single mom by choice in Episode 8.

Shaun: But we wanted to bring you some more stories about IVF and surrogacy. When you're going through the process, it may feel scary, intimidating, or isolating. And it shouldn't be, because you are definitely not alone.

Julia: We have three great guests for you today: Kandi Burruss, who stars on the Real Housewives of Atlanta, Dr. Robert Klitzman, a bioethicist who's studied reproductive technology, and Catherine Levene, the president and chief digital officer at Meredith, which is Parents' parent company, who is expecting a baby via surrogate right now.

They each bring a different perspective to the conversation about IVF and surrogacy.

Shaun: Julia, I may be dating myself here but when we do Kandi's bio, you can't forget her days in the '90s R&B group Xscape.

Julia: Oh, for sure! She's also a Grammy-winning singer-songwriter who wrote hits for TLC and Destiny's Child, like "No Scrubs" and "Bills, Bills, Bills."

Shaun: Kandi is part of a big blended family—she's a bio mom to three kids, including an infant, a toddler, and a teenager, and stepmom to another daughter who's in her 20s. She met her husband Todd Tucker on the set of Real Housewives, where he was a producer. They conceived Ace, who's now 3, via IVF, and welcomed new baby Blaze through a surrogate.

Julia: Shaun, have you seen Blaze on Instagram? She is SO CUTE. Ace is too.

Shaun: Oh my God, I have! I saw this video where they're holding hands, it's absolutely adorable.But before we talk to Kandi about bringing those two kids into the world, we want to set the stage a little about infertility in general. So we asked Dr. Klitzman, who's a professor at Columbia University and the author of a book called Designing Babies, to give us some background.

Designing Babies Book Cover

Dr. Robert Klitzman: So 10 percent of women, for biological reasons, cannot get pregnant. There is something wrong with the ovaries or the uterus. About 10 percent of men are infertile. They don't produce enough sperm.

Shaun: I do want to clarify, especially because we're a show that focuses on diverse families, that not everyone who produces eggs is a woman, and not everyone who produces sperm is a man.

Julia: Right, so while he's using these gendered terms, let's remember that a transgender man can get pregnant, for example, and a transgender woman can get someone pregnant. Anyway, Dr. Klitzman says there are more people who are infertile today than there were in the past.

Dr. Robert Klitzman: And this is probably due to something in the environment, toxins. Various things out there, pollution, we don't really know. In addition, you have women who, when they were in their twenties or thirties or early thirties could have children, but a lot of women today are delaying having children in order to first pursue their career or education, and they're waiting until they're in their late thirties. And it's harder to get pregnant. More than 20 percent of the U.S. population is having infertility problems. And of course I should tell you also have gay and lesbian individuals and couples. You have single mothers by choice, single fathers by choice. So a lot of people would like to get pregnant or have children, but need some medical intervention.

Julia: Twenty percent! Given that statistic, it seems crazy that as a society, we don't talk more openly about infertility.

Shaun: Exactly. So we asked Dr. Klitzman to walk us through some of the options to treat it.

Dr. Robert Klitzman: We have different medicines that could help a woman produce more eggs. Maybe that will help her get pregnant. And that helps a number of women, but not everyone.

And so we've also developed techniques of, in vitro fertilization or IVF. We take sperm from a man. We take eggs from a woman, we stick a little pipette up and extract eggs. And then basically in a Petri dish, we mix the eggs and the sperm to produce embryos, that are one big cell. And that embryo then splits and becomes two cells and four then eight and 16 and 32 and eventually becomes a human being.

And all of us started out as an embryo of one cell. And what we do is when the embryo is a bunch of cells—maybe 32, 64 cells, something like that—we then can implant and transfer into the womb. And, hopefully the woman, the pregnancy will take, and she'll deliver a child.

Julia: Right. Dr. Klitzman says this process works about 40 percent of the time — but the success rate drops as the person with the uterus gets into their late 30s and older.

Shaun: Those aren't the only options—because, of course, not every couple or individual who wants to have a baby has a uterus. Or if they do, they might be unable to carry a pregnancy.

Which brings us back to Kandi's experience with surrogacy. We caught up with her recently to hear her story.

Shaun T: I will admittedly say that I'm fanboying while I'm recording this.

Kandi Burruss: Thank you. Thank you so much.

Shaun T: Yeah. We are so, so happy to have you here.

Kandi Burruss: Well, that's dope. Thank you very much. I appreciate it. ]

Shaun T: You've shared your fertility struggles on Real Housewives—from conceiving your son Ace through IVF and your difficult pregnancy with him. So your recent surrogacy journey to bring your beautiful daughter Blaze into the world, can you tell us more about that journey?

Kandi Burruss: That was a really tough decision for us in the beginning because we were just trying to figure out like, OK, should we do this? Like how can you trust somebody with your most precious possession, your most precious gift, you know, as somebody that you barely know. But, now that it's all said and done, I wouldn't change a thing. It was the best decision that we could have made.

Shadina, who is our surrogate, had been a surrogate for a family before. So she was really kind of teaching us a lot of things, where we were kind of unsure of. Are we supposed to talk to her on a regular basis? Do we not talk to her? You know, some people say, "Oh, you're never supposed to talk to your surrogate. Oh, you shouldn't invite them to your baby shower. Oh, you don't do this, you don't do that." So we were like, so confused on how, you know, this process should go. And she really was so, so helpful. And we had a beautiful, healthy baby as a result of all of it. So we're super happy.

Shaun T: We early on decided that we wanted to have a really strong relationship with whomever was carrying our child or children because we just feel like the less stressed they were, the more at ease they were in their emotional connections to us, the more they would, you know, care about the process. What were some of the things that you were nervous about and what are some of the things that she actually eased your nervousness about?

Kandi Burruss: In the beginning we just didn't really know about how much communication we should have. I mean, we had to do counseling prior to, you know, actually doing the process of putting the embryo in her. So we had that talk, but it just kinda like, you know, once you're in it, it's just kinda like, "OK, do we call her?"

I don't want to seem annoying, you know? But she always made us feel at ease. She always, let us know that we never called too much. She never seemed annoyed. She never was bothered by us reaching out. She always volunteered information, you know, she's like, "Oh, I'm feeling a bump today, or oh, this, you know, this happened."

Julia Dennison: [00:11:31] As somebody who has not used a surrogate here, I would love to hear what are some of the comments that people made along the way?

I know Kandi, you've talked about feeling judged for choosing to have Blaze through a surrogate. What are things that people can do better when it comes to supporting people who are having children through surrogacy?

Kandi Burruss: In the very beginning, I had a family member who I love dearly, and I don't think she was trying to purposely hurt me, but when she found out that we were going to have a baby with a surrogate, she texted me and was like, I mean, why would you want to do that? You know, you're not concerned if you're going to have a bond with your child? Because that's the time when you're really supposed to bond with your baby. I think she might've asked like, why did we choose somebody who wasn't a family member or something like that. You know, it really hurt my feelings because it's just kind of like, you already know it's a hard decision to make to go through a surrogate. But then, you know, you're making me feel bad because you're saying that I'm not even going to have a bond with my baby because, being a woman who has birthed my, you know, previous children, automatically was a concern of mine. Like, will me and Blaze have the same connection? So I didn't need somebody else chiming in saying that, you know? Surrogacy is still very new to a lot of people. And so those are the first thoughts they come to people's minds is, was like, "Ooh, you're going to have a baby. You're not physically going to carry a baby. Like, how are you gonna bond?"

But what I will say is when Blaze got here, I didn't feel any less of a connection than I have, you know, with my previous children. I still feel super bonded when I come in the room. Blaze lights up, like her smile is so huge when I walk in there, and so it's still this same love, the same connection.

Shaun T: We're happy Blaze is here and we're happy your connection is really strong with her.

Kandi pointed out that being public about surrogacy was different for her than for same-sex couples like me and Scott. In our case, there's no other way we could have biological children. But Kandi and Todd made their decision based on her pregnancy with Ace, which was already high risk. She had uterine fibroids that could affect her ability to carry another baby.

Kandi Burruss: If you are, you know, a woman who is having physical issues, you may or may not share those with everyone. People don't really know what you're going through. So they automatically think, "Oh, she just doesn't want to have it for vain reasons." "Oh, she just doesn't want to carry it because she's, you know, she doesn't want to lose her shape, or she doesn't want to stop working or she doesn't..." you know, they come up with all these things to say why you needed a surrogate. You get what I'm saying?

Julia: Totally.

Kandi Burruss: It's a difference.

Julia: I feel like as women, it's like you're an open target for anybody to comment about your body, especially during pregnancy, and anything to do with having children. And then I can only imagine on top of that going through having a surrogate and having to listen to people talk about it. Having already gone through pregnancy, and, you know, you talk about the stages, like waiting for the baby to kick, how did the two processes compare to each other? What were things that you liked about having a surrogate versus actually being pregnant, and what are things that you liked about being pregnant versus having a surrogate?

Kandi Burruss: Oh my goodness. OK. So I think at the beginning of the pregnancy I was dealing with a lot more guilt. You know what I mean? But then as we got into, really got into the pregnancy I'd say like, yeah, a good six months and you know, five to six months when physically the woman starts to show that she's pregnant. You know what I mean? Six months in, seven months, and that's when I was really starting to appreciate my surrogate, because I'm like all this stuff that she's going to be like, woo. She can't breathe.


Oh, this is the one thing that I really appreciated not having to do it. Well, I had heartburn, horrible heartburn when I was pregnant with Ace. And I told her, I was like, I don't know. You know, because you know, obviously, you know, they're from the same batch of embryos, Ace and Blaze. I don't know if you're going to experience this, but with Ace, I experienced some really, really bad heartburn.

And so she was like, "Oh, I'm OK," and I swear to you, it was like the next day or two, she's like, "Oh my God. It's starting, you're right." And then from that point on, she had horrible heartburn for the rest of the pregnancy

Julia: Oh my God, you're like, I know. I know.

Kandi Burruss: Right. But the things that I did miss was like, you know, you do miss seeing the baby move for the first time, you know, in your belly or, you know, doing the pregnancy photoshoots, simple things, simple things like that, you know, that you miss out on. But, I think because I have experienced that already, it wasn't as bad. Once I got comfortable, then I started really appreciating the fact that she was doing the heavy lifting.

Julia: Fair enough.

Shaun: Finding the right person to do that heavy lifting can be challenging. We'll hear more from Kandi on how Shadina came into her life after a quick break.

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Shaun: Welcome back to We Are Family. We're talking to Kandi Burruss, from the Real Housewives of Atlanta, about her experience having children through IVF and surrogacy. She and her husband Todd used IVF to conceive their son Ace. After Kandi gave birth to him, they wanted to have another baby, but continued to have issues trying to get pregnant. Ultimately they decided to use the remaining embryos from their IVF process and a surrogate named Shadina to have their daughter Blaze.

Shaun T: I love how you talk about Shadina and you can tell you're smiling. It shows the appreciation, which is so incredibly amazing. I want to kind of step back a little bit. What was the process like to find this surrogate? 'Cause I remember going on all of these different websites and trying to figure out, it was kind of like Match.com. It was like the craziest thing. How did you and Todd find Shadina?

Kandi Burruss: Well, we had been talking about it, but then I reached out to Dr. Jackie who's on Married to Medicine. She's also my gynecologist. And she said that she had actually delivered a baby via surrogate I guess a year prior, two years prior, and she was like, I can introduce you to her and you can ask her questions.

So when we had our first meeting, it was on camera and she was so nice, so cool, and I just asked her, would you be open to doing it again? And she was like, well, I wasn't really planning to do it again, but possibly. And so from there, you know, we just, you know, continue to talk to her and then we started the process. But, I feel like it was like really such a blessing because a lot of people don't even get to have a surrogate that could live in the same state with them. A lot of times people end up having to get a surrogate that lives elsewhere, I guess, like you did.

Shaun T: Yeah.

Kandi Burruss: It takes a long time to meet the right person. So, yeah, that's why I always tell people now, if you are even considering it in the least bit, start doing your research on agencies and different things.

Julia: So Shaun and I have talked a lot about the strain on relationships when you're going through infertility and surrogacy and everything else. How did your relationship with Todd, how did you kind of navigate that, and what advice would you have for people in relationships?

Kandi Burruss: Well, when we first started out dating or whatever, you know, we were having, making love, or whatever you want to say. After a while, obviously we weren't really using protection. I'm just going to be honest. And nothing was happening. I mean, I wasn't getting pregnant or anything, so I was just like, OK, just not supposed to happen right now.

And then we got married and it still hadn't happened. So I was just kind of curious like, well, how is it that, you know, some years have passed now and nothing, not even a scare? And so my doctor Jackie, once again, she suggested that we go get the tests when they shoot the little fluid up in you to see if anything is blocked or anything like that. Now, I assumed that he was going to be the problem because, you know, I'm like, "OK, well, I have a daughter. You know, I'm good."

Julia: That's Riley, Kandi's teenage daughter from a previous relationship.

Kandi Burruss: Little did I realize, like, I did have a serious fibroid surgery like some years prior, and I guess it left scar tissue.

Julia: Kandi's doctor referred her to a fertility clinic in Atlanta. Todd was supportive, but things got a little rocky when Kandi had to give herself hormone shots to produce more eggs.

Kandi Burruss: That is a painful process to have to give yourself, you know, injections every day. You know what I mean? And I didn't feel like he was being as supportive as he should. So there were times during that period of time—cause they want you to do it like at the same time every day or whatever—and I felt like, you know, he wasn't making sure he was at home at the time that he was supposed to be every day. And I started getting a little pissed. But that was just minor in the whole journey of it. You know after that, he was great during the first pregnancy with Ace. He was always massaging my feet, doing all those things.

Shaun T: What advice would you have for anyone out there considering IVF or surrogacy?

Kandi Burruss: I would definitely say go forward. The research is the main thing. And then you just gotta trust and believe and just go for it.

Shaun T: Oh, do you know that trust and believe are the tattoos on my arm?

Kandi Burruss: Oh, no.

Julia: I love that.

Shaun T: Yes and I'm so happy you said that. My doctor said, "The human or humans that are supposed to come into this world are going to be the ones that come into this world. They were meant to be here." And during that time, you know, we had had a miscarriage and Julia obviously has experienced that. And so it makes you feel better in a sense of just opening up your mind to like, what is really happening here is you're bringing a human into the world. And it was really tough. But after our kids were born, you know, you sit back and you say, wow, like, I can't see them being anyone else. So if anyone out there is going through these journeys and it's tough, just know that, you know, some people say, God, people say in the universe, there's a plan out there and the human that is supposed to come into this world, you know, will be coming into this world.

Kandi Burruss: Yup. Yup.

Shaun T: Thank you, Kandi. So nice to meet you.

Kandi Burruss: Thanks.

Julia: So great to talk to you.

Kandi Burruss: That was really nice. You too. It was great talking to y'all and I guess, hope to see you soon.

Julia: I love Kandi. She's so open about what she's been through, and I think showing that on a major TV show is really important. Because when we see someone go through a process like IVF or surrogacy in the public eye, it normalizes it.

Shaun: Exactly. That's one reason that I share my story—to normalize being a dad through surrogacy, being a dad in a same-sex relationship and an interracial relationship. To show people, hey your family might look different than the families you grew up around, but it's no less beautiful or worthy in any way.

Julia: Right, and of course that's the whole point of this podcast. So next we're going to check in with someone who's going through the surrogacy process right now, who also happens to be in the Parents family. Catherine Levene is the president and chief digital officer at Meredith, our parent company.

Catherine Levene

Shaun: Catherine, we wanted to get you on the podcast, obviously because you are a part of the Parents family, but also because we recently heard you were expecting a baby via surrogacy. Congratulations.

Catherine: Thank you.

Shaun: So I'll tell you this, having gone through the surrogacy process with my husband—we got our twins via surrogacy—I'm really curious to hear how the journey has gone for you so far.

And if you could tell Julia and I a little bit about your experience.

Catherine: Wow, well, you said the word, which is journey. Um, and for us, it's been a long journey. So I got, I got married late, I was 40. Um, and of course my husband has two kids and we always thought we were going to have a child together, but being, being 40, um, it [00:15:00] was very, you know, very difficult.

And I have to say, I had even frozen my eggs years earlier. So even, um, going through the thawing process and trying to do IVF. Yeah. Um. My frozen eggs were very difficult. And that, that actually, ultimately, um, didn't work. And we tried a number of different facilities and finally decided to go the surrogacy route.

And I will tell you, I have a number of friends who, like you, have gone through the process of surrogacy. And they always said to me, once you're there psychologically, it's a really beautiful process. But getting there psychologically is, uh, a personal journey. For me, I'd always thought that I would be carrying the child.

And, you know, I kept trying and kept trying, but it just didn't work. And so we were just ultimately forced to say, OK, either we're not going to have a child or we're going to go the surrogacy route. Um, and of course there's always adoption too. And that's also another amazing option. Um, we decided to go the surrogacy route.

We found, uh, a, an agent or a, a service that helps match you with the surrogate. Our surrogate is in Missouri and she is wonderful. It's just a beautiful gift that our surrogate is giving us, and she is so positive and so excited for us and so connected to us. It's just, um, it's a really beautiful thing.

Shaun: I love to hear that. My husband and I had multiple surrogates because we had to try a few times.

Catherine: Yeah.

Shaun: So it was a journey, but, um, there's something really great about connecting with each of them, even though we've only, we only had one successful pregnancy. It was something really great about connecting with the surrogates because like you said, they are giving you this incredible gift and it's so selfless.

Catherine: Right.

Shaun: So do you, you, your husband and your surrogate or their family, do you, how do you communicate? What is your daily, you know, connection, process to stay, you know, so you and your husband can stay connected to the journey as well?

Catherine: Sure. So we ended up doing the transfer in December. So we were lucky in that we did it prior to this whole COVID situation.

So we were able to meet with her multiple times and meet her husband in person and get to know them, which was amazing. And then we were with her during the transfer, and then very quickly, you know, COVID became um, you know, an impediment to our being able to see each other, at least in person. Um, so we text almost every day.

We FaceTime all the time. I go to her appointments with her via FaceTime. Um, normally I would have just gone on a plane and gotten there, you know, gone from New York to Missouri to, to see her and be her, be with her, but it's just not possible given the COVID restrictions.

She sends us these beautiful little cards that she and her kids make. She's got three young kids, um, all below the age of 6. And uh, the little ones kind of draw on a little card for us and she sticks the images in there, and she tells us what week it is. And she's just a beautiful, lovely, lovely, generous person and so positive and so full of energy.

I just wish I could be there with her in person, at least for part of this. But we're waiting for the time when that can happen.

Julia: And, uh, when are you due? And do you know if you're having a boy or a girl?

Catherine: September 1, more or less. And it's a girl. I love Virgos.

Shaun: Utilizing the surrogacy process can create lots of anxieties. And you know, a lot of people go into it looking like it's a barrier because maybe they couldn't have the child on their own, or for me and my husband, Scott, it was, you know, battling between adoption and surrogacy.

And what would you say to anyone out there who is considering surrogacy and they are having some sort of anxiety or struggles or trying to decide if it's a route that they should go?

Catherine: I would say, take long, deep breaths and continue continually do it until that momentary anxiety subsides. And then the other thing I would say is that, at least I find in life, anxiety is always worse leading up to the actual event, whatever that event could be. Right? Once you're doing that thing, the anxiety typically fades away. And I'm using that almost as a metaphor for the surrogacy process because the anxiety that we had was all leading up to the process.

Who are we going to find? What's it going to be like? Are we going to feel connected to this person? Are we going to feel connected to the baby afterwards? All of that anxiety is about the unknown and as you move through it, more and more uh, becomes known to you. It sort of reveals itself through the process.

And through that process, at least I found my anxiety has subsided. And it's become more excitement. It took us a long time to get there. So don't be hard on yourself. Everybody has their own process for going through the journey and for getting to the point of surrogacy. But what can I say is that I wish I'd done it years ago.

Julia: Catherine, thank you so much for talking to us.

Catherine: Thank you so much.

Shaun: Julia, I feel like I could have talked to each of our guests for hours, because the topic of IVF and surrogacy is personal for me, and I always want to hear everyone's story and all the details.

Julia: Yes, and of course there's a lot that goes into these processes that we didn't get into, in terms of finances, legal agreements, and more. If you're considering IVF or surrogacy, head to parents.com/podcast for some good resources in our show notes.

Shaun: As Dr. Klitzman says, it's important to go into IVF or surrogacy with an understanding of what your success rate may be like, and to find a reputable clinic and a doctor that makes you feel comfortable and supported. And as Kandi mentioned, do your research. And I have to say: If you're going through IVF or surrogacy right now, we are here for you and we're rooting for you.

Julia: That's all for this episode. You can find Kandi @kandi on Instagram and see pictures of her beautiful family there. Dr. Klitzman's book is called Designing Babies: How Technology is Changing the Ways We Create Children. And thanks again to Catherine Levene at Meredith for supporting our podcast and joining us today. Thanks for listening, and we'll catch you next time on We Are Family.

Thanks to our production team at Pod People: Rachael King, Eliza Lambert, Susie Armitage, and Lene Bech Sillisen. This show was recorded in New York and Arizona, edited in New York City, and can be found wherever you get your podcasts. You can find out more at parents.com/podcast. You can find Parents on Instagram at @Parents. And you can follow Shaun at @ShaunT, and Julia at @juliadennison.

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