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/ Source: TODAY
By Ree Hines

Hoda Kotb is back!

The TODAY co-anchor returned to Studio 1A Tuesday from maternity leave, and after enjoying a TODAY family reunion at the top of the show, she sat down with fourth hour guest co-host Maria Shriver for even more festivities.

There was a marching band, sand from her favorite beach, a platter overflowing with muffins and more. But those fun treats weren't what made Hoda's big day special.

She is! And she reminded us of that when she opened up to Maria about her very last night of maternity leave and her brand new sense of calm.

The 55-year-old was away from work for almost five months after welcoming her second child, Hope, to her family, but it was her 2-year-old daughter, Haley, who shared a particularly poignant moment with mom Monday night.

"I was putting Haley to bed, and it was kind of like the beginning of this new (transition) coming back to work," Hoda recalled. "Every night I read to her — and I lay in the bed with her — and she puts her arm around my neck and says, 'Are you cozy?' But she never lays on me. That's not her thing."

At least it wasn't until last night.

"And last night, she did for the first time. She said, 'I'm going to put my head here,'" Hoda said, gesturing toward her heart. "And she put her head there, and I was reading her the book and I couldn't believe it. I thought, 'I wonder if she knows how calm I feel, like how at ease I feel about ... my time off and my time back to work.' Like I feel calm right now, weirdly."

She said "weirdly" because, despite that calm and peaceful feeling, she found herself in tears just talking about it.

Who could blame her for letting those emotions flow? She's just come back from what she now calls "the greatest summer of (her) life," one in which she spent every day soaking up those precious moments with her girls.

It hasn't simply been fun; it's been life-changing.

"I think I was defined before by what I did, and I liked that, too," she said. "But all the sudden it just hit me, I was like, 'Yes! I get it now. I get it. You're defined by what you carry.'"

And she carries her girls in her heart.

"I feel very clear about life suddenly,” Hoda added. "I'm going to work as hard as I've ever worked — and I can't tell you how happy I am to be back — but I also know I have my world in check probably for the first time ever."

She credits much of that to her extended maternity leave, something she wishes all women had the option of taking.

"You come back better," she smiled. "You come back more whole. You come back ready! There's nothing I want to do more now than come here and do this."