Early Mothering Skills and How I Learned Them: Praise for Italian Nurses

In the corner of the store, an obviously distraught mother sat with her wailing newborn yelling into a phone and awkwardly cradling her screaming baby. She might have been easy to dismiss as a crazy person – unless you were ever a new mother. Then, you’ll recognize those challenging early days.

Premie

Molly was born 7 weeks early so we were not even in the right country – except, in my opinion, there’s nothing ‘wrong’ about Italy. Especially when it comes to babies. Even a scary looking thug is a natural baby expert and likely to coo over yours. The nurses at the hospital sang to our children and encouraged us moms to stay, kiss and cuddle our babies and – to nurse.  I’d just been working with UNICEF in Croatia and knew the importance of mother’s milk and the Italian nurses at Brindisi hospital never suggested any other option to me. They adjusted our babies and breasts as we attempted to nurse. While still in the hospital, we were mostly unsuccessful, our premies unable to adequately suck enough milk from our breasts. Eventually, bottles of our breast milk were brought out and feeling slightly defeated, we bottle-fed. Then we’d return to the hot and steamy mother’s room to pump away, filling bottles for the next session. Fresh mozzarella and pasta dished into big bowls from an enormous pot, sustained us. Not one baby formula sign anywhere. With this support, Molly was an only-breastfed baby.

Giving birth almost 2 months early and ending up in a Neonatology ward in Southern Italy felt an ordeal, but in retrospect I recognize those 3 weeks provided me with skills I needed to take care of my baby. I learned to hold the little mite, how to read her signals and most of all, how to trust myself. With no family or friends and not speaking the language, I relied on my instinct, books and what the Italian nurses taught me during those unexpected weeks in the hospital. I credit them with saving me from becoming a screaming mother in public places like this poor woman in the bookstore.

I approached the new mom and asked if I could help. She told me she couldn’t drive while the baby was crying and the problem was (she thought), the baby’s nose was stuffed. She swabbed at the tiny nostrils and the little thing screamed louder. The mom then reached for a half-full bottle and told me she was also concerned that the baby had not finished it. Even 2 decades later, my mother-muscle-memory kicked into gear. Channeling the loving Italian nurses, I suggested she not worry about trying to force milk down the baby – her infant knows what she needs – besides, the kid was clearly exhausted. I remembered the nurses shifting Molly in my arms so gravity could do the job when she had a stuffed nose. I suggested she hold her 5 week old daughter upright on her shoulder so her head was not tilting backward. She did and the baby quieted, collapsing in sleep.

The Doctors who saved Molly's life.
The Doctors who saved Molly’s life.

I walked away thinking — who is around to help this obviously struggling mom? Doulas, a great support for new mothers, standard in England and many other countries, are expensive here and not a service routinely provided as it should be. Mother and baby are ushered out of the hospital within only a day or so of giving birth. What if there is no supportive family waiting for you? Without the doctors and nurses of Brindisi hospital, I would have been up shit’s creek — obviously how this woman felt. My Italian stinks and the nurses spoke no English, but I recall no language barrier. Their love transcended all and of that, they had plenty. Oh, by the way, our hospital bill for 3 weeks of intensive, loving care? Niente. That’s right, Italy’s healthcare system is socialized and I was charged nothing.