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.


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.


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?


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