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.

An Unexpected Expat Birth

UNICEF’s mission is to protect children and their mothers so when bombs began falling on Zagreb in May 1995, my employers insisted I take an early maternity leave from my job as a Program Officer. I gladly exited the bitter Balkan war zone where I’d spent almost 4 years and joined my husband in Italy. He’d left a month earlier for a new job, renting an extravagant villa in the picturesque town of Ostuni – about 40 minutes away from his office in Brindisi.

me prego

Behind the villa, a narrow staircase led to a hidden lemon and lime grove. Cherry trees full of ripe fruit and a magnificent rose garden filled the grounds. I would while away the hot June days in this fantasy location before traveling to Oxford England where my friend Chloe, a breastfeeding specialist and midwife I’d worked with at UNICEF, would deliver our baby girl who was due August 1. That was our plan.

I spent my days waddling across the cool tile floors, napping in various rooms in the too-big house, picking fruit and deadheading flowers in the garden, reading Willa Cather, cooking delicious dinners — imagining that some how, all of this was practice for my imminent new life as mother. Those pregnant, sweaty days, strangely alone in Southern Italy, far from friends and family, I washed and folded the soft, tiny baby gear and imagined my baby, trying out different names aloud to no one but the cats.

On the roof, I wrestled our sheets over the laundry line where they dried within minutes in the hot wind whipping up the coast. Beyond the golden fields of sunflowers stretching out towards the horizon, shimmered a sliver of the Adriatic. Just across the sea from my little paradise, war still raged and I felt guilty about my own escape. Meanwhile my baby elbowed, shoved and squirmed within me, insisting I pay attention to her.

My maternal hankerings had survived 4 years of life in a war zone, even as I witnessed the worst in humans. There was nothing I wanted more than this baby although I had no idea how to care for an infant. Far from friends and my own mother, whose advice I might have disdained anyway, there were no baby showers, no chance for baby tips from my peers. I looked forward to traveling to England at the end of June where I could easily make friends in my own language with other new mothers-to-be in a birthing class I’d sign up for.

Instead, just after siesta time on June 13th, in a frantic fifteen minutes, my baby girl was delivered in a tiny hospital in Ostuni almost 2 months early. From there, they whisked her away by ambulance to Brindisi Hospital’s neonatology unit.

I woke from my drug induced sleep, in a dark hospital room that felt like a 1930’s movie set.  Other new mothers slept in the other 7 old fashioned, heavy metal framed beds.  A full moon shone in warped rays through the glass of the casement window, a weird spotlight on only my bed. I clutched the hospital gown closed behind me, while dodging balloons bobbing from the other beds, celebrating the babies safely swaddled just down the hall. Where was my baby? Hobbling barefoot past the life-size statue of Virgin Mary whose lightbulb halo lit the hall, my physical pain was indistinguishable from the psychic pain tearing through me. Was my daughter alive? With remembered prayers from my Catholic upbringing, I begged Mary for her intervention and continued down the hall where I was met by a nurse.

With a smattering of Italian words, I begged the sleepy woman to help me call my husband or the hospital to find out news of my baby. I knew no phone numbers, there were no cell phones. The nurse insisted everyone was asleep and I would need to wait until morning. She steered me back to the maternity ward where I sunk into my still moonlit mattress and wept.

premie 1

When morning finally arrived, my husband came barreling into an impossibly bright room, he was grinning. She was alive! He rushed to my bedside and told me his story of the day before: how he sped after the ambulance, about the sweet care and expertise of the doctors, of their assurance our baby would be fine, how he tried to call to tell me but the hospital insisted I was sleeping and was it okay that he had gone ahead and named our daughter, choosing our current favorite womb-name because they wanted a name at the hospital. Yes, yes, I said while trying, through tears to see my daughter in the photograph he’d brought. It was another 2 days until the hospital released me to go to her, and during that time I joyfully clutched that sad little image of my baby poked full of tubes, tiny limbs akimbo, and thought: she is perfect.

me at incubator

Vicarious Travel Pleasure Through Blogs

I’ve become a real armchair traveler and there are plenty of journeys to enjoy through  the blogosphere.

This adorable and adventurous Dutchwoman rides her bicycle around the world, pedaling  up and down mountaintops, camping on a whim in empty pagodas. She spent months in Japan and is now in Korea – eventually, she’s heading to China. When she feels like it. Lucky us, we get to sit at home and look at her incredible photos and read her quirky stories from the warmth and comfort of home. And to feel envious and maybe think, “I’d like to do that”. Although, I suspect I’d be lonely. I usually was when I traveled alone – secretly pining for some dreamboat traveling companion or a posse of girlfriends like when Paula, Jane and I drove across country from Kentucky to California. (That was a great trip.) The thoughtful attentiveness of solitude can be rich but that lonely ache that comes with it, well, it’s not my favorite anymore.

I love expat blogs – like this one by a funny woman in Italy who discovers all the crazy quirks of that great city and transforms her sometimes frustration into hilarious joy. She loves her Rome and we get to enjoy it with her without coughing up any airfare.

An American woman about my age, beautifully writes about upping and moving to France with her husband and teenage boys. Alice posts daily about their search to find a walk-able, live-able village for her family to settle in. This post made me think yesterday – her last line, “Birds fly because they have nothing to carry with them” sums it up beautifully. I looked around the house at all the stuff we cram into our tiny house.  Later that morning, after paying the mortgage we hit a few tag sales and my favorite church thrift shop. At a tag sale I found a beautiful cover for the sofa and an impossibly soft throw both for $24. At the thrift shop I bought the softest cashmere sweaters – one in orange the other, a red v-neck. $18.  Do I need these things? Well, it’s getting cold around here. But – no. I don’t. But they are lovely and what a bargain…

Tag Sale Finds
Tag Sale Finds

I do miss travel – the possibilities, the glimpses into other lives, the thought of creating a new one every day – out of a suitcase. It’s the first treat I imagine when we eventually win the lottery — planning the long trips. But, but, but… what about my garden? What will the groundhog eat if I don’t plant some Edamame next spring for him to gobble up? And our beloved dog, Tetley? We couldn’t possibly leave him behind.

Tetley!

Okay, maybe for a week. I guess, for now, with 3.5 years left of college tuition to pay, that’s about as free-spirited as I can get anyway. So meanwhile, I’ll enjoy the amazing exotic trips France captures in her astounding photos, and this blog by a couple who were lucky enough to discover each other and their shared dream-life early on and remarkably, they are still going strong – and to wonderful places. That sounds perfect to me – I hate eating alone. Where to next and what should I make for dinner?

Anniversary of a Premature Birth in Italy

ostuniEighteen years ago, my beautiful daughter was born in a white-washed little village located just above the heel of the boot of Italy. She emerged on a blazing hot and sunny Tuesday around 4:30 PM. Everyone in Ostuni was still siesta-groggy.

In retrospect, I understand that I’d probably been in labor at least since the night before, but until my doctor peered at the state of my cervix, smacked the side of his head and said ‘ba fungul’ like a cliche, Italian cartoon character, I was in utter denial that my baby might be born 7 weeks ahead of schedule.

We’d already decided that she would not be born in Italy. The plan was, I’d travel in a few weeks to the flat we’d rented in Oxford, England, not far from where my husband was from. I’d spend my long summer days taking a Lamaze class where I’d learn correct breathing technique, indulge in fish-and-chips, wander in bookstores and libraries in search of a perfect girl’s name. And I’d read – spoiled by the abundance of books in English. And I’d wait. In England.

While welcome (no: celebrated!) my pregnancy was not easy. For most of it, I was in Croatia fighting bouts of nausea brought on by the insidious smell of vinegar and cabbage. The war that brought me to the Balkans 4 years earlier with UN Peacekeeping, saw some definitive battles that year, (1995) eventually ending the conflict with a bang. In late spring of 1995, shells were lobbed at Zagreb city, and each time, I lumbered down the 17 flights of stairs from my office to take cover in the building’s garage. A month earlier, I’d been catapulted through the sky on a particularly rocky helicopter ride that rode the crest of the famous “Bora” wind. So I welcomed the early maternity leave offered to me by UNICEF and the chance to join my husband at his new, plum job in Brindisi, Italy.

The villa he’d found in Ostuni was lovely, surrounded by fruit trees and roses and I was tempted to revamp plans and just have my baby there – but Chloe, the Oxford based midwife I hoped would deliver my baby, suggested that I might as well return to Sarajevo if I was going to consider giving birth in Southern Italy – that it wasn’t much better. A visit to the teeny, run-down looking Ostuni hospital cemented our decision to stick with our plan for me to go to England. Flat was rented and plane tickets purchased. My due date was August 1. I’d leave Italy at the end of June to leave enough time to settle in.

At first I ignored the bouts of cramping on Monday evening. When they continued through the night, I called Chloe in the morning. She suggested the baby’s head might be settling into position but I should certainly call my doctor. I would – later. I hated feeling like a moron when making phone calls in baby Italian. It was awkward trying to make myself understood and painful to follow someone blathering on at the end of the phone. My husband went to work in the morning – but called me every hour and finally, hurried home around lunchtime. By this time, I could barely get out of bed. I remember I was reading a very bleak novel set in the Eritrean war and had to constantly flatten the splayed paperback on the bed as yet another pounding cramp ripped through me.

My husband, much more confident about faking his way through languages he didn’t really speak, called the doctor who instructed us to come to his office in a few hours – after siesta. Traveling the 5 minutes to his office by car was excruciating. I couldn’t sit, but rather crawled into the back seat, dizzy watching the clouds spin by through the back window as we sped through the narrow streets of the town. In the waiting room, I stretched across the pleather seats, not caring about the other patients stares as I moaned. Quickly, we jumped the queue and quicker, were told by the doctor to drive to the nearby hospital.

Brindisi Hospital 1995
Brindisi Hospital 1995

In a salmon pink room that reeked of antiseptic, the pretty Italian nurses undressed me while giving me a crash course in breathing (in Italian) then, wheeling me into the small surgery room. After a two few intense pushes, my daughter was born. That’s it. That was the birth. Within minutes, she was being tapped and prodded on a table to my right.

I craned my neck to see her. The doctors and nurses had unsuccessfully tried to shoo my husband into another room, but he would not budge beyond the doorway and now gave me a blow by blow – telling me she was gorgeous, her legs were so long, she has my eyes. Beyond the doctor’s back – I could only catch a glimpse of her weirdly-moving limbs and tiny rib cage. Wrapping her up, the doctors told me they’d need to take her to the larger hospital in Brindisi. My husband told me he’d follow the ambulance. I was left with the nurses who pattered on in Italian while they stitched me up. All of this happened within 30 minutes.

It was night when I woke in a room with big iron beds that seemed plucked from an old movie set. The other beds were festooned with either pink or blue balloons celebrating the births of healthy babies. My bed in the corner by the window, had none. Most of the women appeared to be asleep but the young mother in the bed next to mine spoke some English. Pulling myself upright, I told her I needed to find out about my baby and she insisted I borrow her slippers – feather adorned, heeled slippers that were at least 2 sizes too small for me. Clutching the back of my hospital gown closed behind me, bleeding and achy, I waddled down the hall to find a telephone.

In my sorry Italian, I tried to explain to the nurse on duty that I needed to call Brindisi Hospital or my husband to find out about my bambina. The nurse put her hands in prayer position and cocked her head to one side to mime sleep. “Domani,” she repeated, ushering me gently back towards my room. I spotted a pay phone but remembered I had no change nor did I know what numbers to call – not even my own. My head low, I clip-clopped back down the hall, past the life size statue of the Virgin Mary, her light-bulb halo casting a strange glow against the ceiling.

My premie - day 1
My premie – day 1

Mumbling thanks to my neighbor, I stepped out of her silly slippers and she cooed sleepy  reassurances. I stepped barefoot across the tiles to my bed by the window and crawled between the sheets, weeping silently, praying to the sky. A full moon emerging just over the tree tops sent a silver light shimmering through the warped glass windowpanes, bathing my face, my arms limp over the starched linens. As this mystical glow washed over me, so did peace. I knew my daughter would be fine.

Home from the Hospital  Six Weeks Later - July 1995
Home from the Hospital
Six Weeks Later – July 1995