Eight years ago this week my first child was born. Abroad. Over the years, I have been asked what the experience was like for me.
And this is what I say. It was beautiful. And it was maddening. It was amazing. But at times we felt alone and confused. It was incredibly special and an adventure. I realize now how very lucky we were to experience having a baby abroad. It’s these life changing and growing experiences that build the memories that form our unique family history.
So, in honor of my born-on-foreign-soil daughter’s 8th birthday, I’ll share some of the things that I will never forget about having my first baby in Italy.
In dolce attesa. “In dolce attesa” in Italian translates to “in sweet anticipation” and it sums up how Madonna-like I felt when I was pregnant in Italy. In the country where la mamma rules, I was about to become one, and men were swooning, cars were skidding to a stop to let me cross the street (unheard of), and I couldn’t get enough of people telling me “che bella pancia!” (what a beautiful belly!) I was served wine at parties, where I actually could take a few sips without a dirty look or being reported to the local police.
The hospital, the equipment, the medical staff were top-notch. Italy’s not a third world country. I think there is an assumption among some Americans that I gave birth in a country lacking the stellar U.S. healthcare (get over it) because it’s (gasp!) socialized medicine. Perhaps an Italian hospital invokes memories of visiting an Italian post office on vacation (well, I’d be nervous too). Or they have images of the doctor spinning a pizza with one hand, while checking how far along the baby is with the other. The hospital in Northern Italy where I gave birth was much nicer, more technologically advanced, and cleaner than the one I experienced stateside the second time around. With even the Pope’s portrait staring down at me from the hospital walls, I felt well taken care of. And I was having a girl, hallelujah, so I didn’t have to search for a Jewish rabbi to perform a circumcision (should I have chosen that), as American friends did in other parts of Europe!
Here I am just hours away from my planned c-section, in front of my hospital in Italy.
Other than the general anxiety of having my first child, pregnancy was quite peaceful and positive, thanks to my wonderful OB Gyn. He treated pregnancy as if it were…. natural. I didn’t need to fill out loads of insurance paperwork. I didn’t have to check my deductible to see if I could “afford” to have this kid. My doctor didn’t feel the need to go over the hundreds of “what ifs” or perform unwarranted tests. And he was a saint in dealing with an anxious American soon-to-be-mom. (but, c’mon, Europeans, where’s the gown?)
Here we are with our wonderful doctor who delivered our baby girl.
The Nuns. If you can get past the Pope’s portrait on the hospital wall, you will see that my hospital was staffed with volunteer nuns. And not the sweet Sound of Music kind. Being American, taught to self-educate and question authority, I took a tip from one of my parenting books and prepared a little sign to hang over my new baby’s wheeled bed. Written in Italian (cutely in first person, or so I thought), it asked staff not to offer a bottle or pacifier to her as she was learning to nurse. The doctors and staff looked at me suspiciously. And after being hounded by the nuns for 5 days (yes, a 5 day stay!), when it was time to be released from hospital, there was nothing to “check-out.” No paperwork. No infant car seat check. No wheelchair. So I limped out post-surgical thinking my baby could be strapped on top of the car for all they knew. (Not that it’s more sane in California. With my second child, I couldn’t carry my own baby until I was out the door of the hospital for liability reasons.)
You may smoke at the 2nd floor Cafeteria (near the “no smoking” signs, and the ashtrays spread out on the tables), but you may not open the window. Heard of the European Heat Wave of 2003? You know, the one where hundreds of French and other Europeans were dying? Yup, we were in it. Unfortunately, there is a thing in Italy about open windows and air conditioning “attacking” the newborn, so we, new moms, sweated profusely in our hospital beds. Ironically, smoking was allowed a few floors down inside the frickin’ hospital. Adding to the heat wave, my daughter was born during the week of la luna dei lupi, a legend about a full moon that the nurses were convinced made women go into labor (in reality, I kid you not, broom closets were used as rooms that week because the hospital was so full with laboring mothers).
When we finally got home, we immediately placed our new baby girl on a blanket under the umbrella shade in our backyard, to survive the heat wave since we had no air conditioning. Can you tell she was already enjoying “la dolce vita”?
Language. I spoke Italian pretty well. I no longer envisioned a female floozy when seeing the Italian “bimbo a bordo” (“baby on board”) signs tacked to the car windows (just as I was able to eventually see European brand “Wudy” hot dog ads on trucks without cracking up…) I learned all the Italian that had to do with pregnancy including baby-related words like diapers and nursing. But anxiety and a second language didn’t mix well for me, so I became very good at searching for cues through body language. A smile from the ultrasound technician meant baby organs were good to go or all 10 fingers were there. When I attended weekly birthing preparation classes, I missed out on a lot due to a very sweet but fast-talking teacher, but I’ll never forget her description of the placenta: a piece of foccacia.
The Great Parent Education Mystery. But other than my birthing classes (which consisted of answering questions like “do I need to wear a seat belt when pregnant? or “I don’t like water. Does sparkling water count?”) what I couldn’t find were parent education resources, support groups – all the things that we Americans are so good at. Breastfeeding support? Forget it. The lobbies were bare of literature, other than photos of smiling babies I assumed had been delivered by the hospital. I do remember my doctor making it very clear not to wear high heels while pregnant (fashion is never far from thought in Italy, is it?). I imagine there is so much guidance passed down with the big family support systems there, they leave it to the grandparents. But, in the hospital, it became almost a challenge. Someone knew where the new parents meeting was, but who? And where was it? And when? So I walked up and down the hospital halls like a crazed woman (and I looked the part as well), crashing any group sessions I discovered.
So at the end, there were things that were wonderful and others that were frustrating. Not that I had a choice. I was in their culture, their country, and I had to play by their rules. David wasn’t allowed in the OR with me to witness the birth – no matter how many strings we tried to pull – and my baby was whisked away for a bath and clothing so we had little immediate skin-to-skin (she’s okay, I assure you). But during the most important moments of delivery, it was in Italian – not English – that I heard my doctor announce the appearance of my first child. It was in Italian that I heard the nurses weighing her and handling her with joy and exclaiming how beautiful she was. Italy was the soil she was born on. At that moment, I needed to trust this country I found myself living in. This country was bigger now, part of my daughter’s life story, and our family history.
Several months later, reporting to the American Embassy in Milan among high post 9/11 security, my husband and I claimed her as our own, we swore in as her parents and she got her Official Certificate of Birth Abroad.
At the end, I had my “bimbo a bordo”, a beautiful baby girl. 48 centimeters. 3190 grams. 19 inches. 7 pounds. And I was a Mamma, in Italy, in America, and in any place in the world.
(Michela, 3 weeks old, and proud parents on the Arno River, Florence. This week she turns 8 years old.)