This is part of an on-going interview series that shares the experiences of expat moms who have given birth in Florence. The aim is not only to tell their stories but also to provide pregnant foreign moms with an informational resource on the different birthing options in Florence and what to expect, from natural home birth to fully medicalized hospital birth and everything in between.
Lisa is from Australia. She first came to Florence ten years ago to learn Italian and ended up staying for two years. Then she came back to visit many times after her twin sister moved here. During one of those visits she met her current boss, a fashion importer, who found out she worked in the same industry in Australia and invited her to work for him here. She met her now-husband through work. Lisa also blogs about her life in Florence at My Tuscan Journal.
When you were pregnant, how did you prepare for childbirth?
I read a lot, but I read my books. [Laughs]
I.e. not Italian books?
Yeah. I travel a lot for work, so each time I went to the States I’d buy books there. I bought a great book called You: Having a Baby and I was really fit so I continued swimming throughout my pregnancy—you know, a lot of Italians are shocked and ask, Are you supposed to do that? I stopped riding a scooter so, you know, that was good of me.
How early on did you stop riding the scooter?
I actually still rode it when I knew I was pregnant in the early days. I mean I didn’t have a tummy or anything. But I stopped running because being 40 I couldn’t. I suddenly felt really fragile. I was scared. It took me eight months to get pregnant and I started thinking maybe I couldn’t. It was just psychological. My girlfriend said, You can still run! My girlfriend ran until the 7th month!
Your girlfriend back home, I take it?
She’s American and wrote me on Facebook, but yeah. I was like, that’s fine, but it’s just not my choice.
So how did you choose to go to Torre Galli?
I like the idea of the Margherita [birthing centre] but I had my heart set on an epidural. They had an information session at Torre Galli and it was fantastic. They had the anaesthetist, the midwife, the nurse, the obstetrician, each one doing a talk. It went on for over two hours. I didn’t expect to be so informative. It was great talking about what we needed to bring, they explained the epidural, how it’s inserted and all the rest of it.
Can they guarantee it?
No. And this is the whole thing too. When I was there and the contractions started to get really painful when they induced me, I asked for the epidural and they said, Oh we just have to call the anaesthetist because there’s only one on duty and we don’t know if he’s around. And I was like, What?! So, no, they can’t.
And you didn’t realize that that could happen beforehand?
No, I just assumed that it was a given. You reach this certain stage and …
Well, if you think about where we come from, it is that way.
Well, it’s really funny because I went home for Christmas and I have a friend who’s a doctor and she said, There’s no way—the fact that you were one week overdue, you’re forty, and your waters have broken—there’s no way they would have waited that long before deciding to give you a cesar. They waited till the very last, till basically he was at risk. I mean, I would go back there. I really found the obstetricians so lovely and fantastic. But, one of the obstetricians who was with me for the last twelve hours, she said to me, Well, we see it as a bit of a sconfitta, like we’ve failed when someone comes in for a natural birth and then they end up having a cesar, so we try everything we can. But I’m like, Yeah, but there’s got to be a time, a line where you say, well, no, what’s more important here, the health of … and it had been going on …
And also to give the choice to the mother…
I kept saying, Look I’m not against a cesar, I want you to know that. Because at that stage I was exhausted. It had been going on for so long. And physically I just thought I can’t, I don’t even know if I can push anymore. And the pain was just … and they’d given me, this was like three epidurals. So I had gone nine hours and then they said we can’t give you another epidural dose after this. I was also toxic. In Australia, they said, That’s a lot of drugs, they wouldn’t do that here.
Let’s go backwards.
Right, so I went there for the information thing, and I had to sign a release saying that I wanted the epidural, which I didn’t know either. I thought, Imagine if you hadn’t signed that and then you get there and you suddenly say, I want the drugs!
Oh my goodness, right! Can you sign it at the last minute?
I think you can.
So that was a coincidence that you found out about it, they didn’t make that clear?
I didn’t know that when we went to this information thing that we would be signing this form as well.
Interesting. So someone could decide to go to Torre Galli and think they don’t need to go to the information session and then …
Well, it’s every Wednesday. But even if you didn’t go, you can tell them this is what I want and they’ll give you the release form to sign. Because when I went in there [to give birth] the first thing they did was go through my folder and look for that and the last blood test you had. Or was it …
Like the tampone or something?
Yeah. Well, I nearly didn’t do that either, so lucky I did because it was the first thing they asked for, and if you don’t have it then they just put you on antibiotics, though they put me on antibiotics anyway because my waters had broken.
But I was happy to go there. The other reason I chose to go there was because, at first, when I found out, they had the nursery still—they don’t anymore, they were just changing that while I was there—at first, I said to my sister, Oh, I don’t know about the nursery. And she goes, I know you think you want that baby next to you straight away twenty-four-seven, but she said, Appreciate the time that they’re there to help you and use that time to rest. And in hindsight I’m so glad, because having had the caesarean, I had no idea how debilitating it would be, how I wouldn’t be able to move or how painful it was, so I was pleased. Another reason, I had been to Careggi to visit a girlfriend who’d had a baby at Christmas and I was really unimpressed, it just looked—I know they’ve just re-done the whole maternity ward and it looks amazing—but [at the time] it looked old, it looked dirty … So in the end I weighed everything up and chose Torre Galli.
And so your waters broke …
Yeah, at like two a.m. … I said [to her husband], I think my waters have broken, call the hospital. See if I should go in or if I should wait. And they said, No, no, you need to come in. It was funny because it was two a.m. and we were driving up the viale past all the nightclubs and everyone’s out and I have this towel wrapped around my legs. So I’m sitting on this towel in the car, saying, Wow, this is it! And I was a week overdue too. And then I get to the hospital and they do the internal and they said, You’re not dilated at all. And I wasn’t having contractions and I said, Do I go back home? And they were like, No, no, you have to stay here overnight. So of course that night I didn’t sleep, because I’m thinking any minute now I’m going to start to feel contractions. You know, that’s what I was expecting. And nothing the next day. I kept doing the tracciato, the foetal monitor thing, and … nothing. They said, Look, we have a protocol here where we wait for twenty-four hours before we induce you. And in the meantime there was a girl opposite me who they induced with the gel. We went for dinner and suddenly we hear these screams. I mean in a matter of two hours. She was taken out. The contractions came on, they took her to the labour room, and within seven minutes, she’d given birth.
Oh my god!
I was like, God, that’s going to happen to me! I thought, I don’t know if I can handle it. So that next night, still nothing. And I’m hearing another woman in labour screaming and I thought, Oh, she’s exaggerating isn’t she? [We both laugh]. I feel like such a bitch now. So then they induced me, first with the gel …
What is the gel?
It’s like a strip of fabric—gauze—with obviously this drug on it which is a gel and they just insert it inside you. And then they say be careful because it’s going to hang out, and of course I had to go to the loo didn’t I, and of course it just came out. I was like, What do you mean, be careful? How can I stop it from…? So I had to go back and they put another one in. And then a few minutes later I started to feel the contractions and I’m going, Mmm, ok. And then they got more and more painful and I started to say, Oh my god. My comfortable position was standing up leaning over [her husband]. I just couldn’t find anywhere that was comfortable. Then it started getting really painful and I started howling and going, Oh my god …
I take it you asked for the epidural then?
No, at that stage I didn’t. But I kept saying to Emiliano, When do they give it? And then I said I feel like pushing, and they said, No, no, you don’t do that yet. But that’s what I felt like doing.
Yeah, I said, When this contraction happens I feel like I have to bear down. So they kept measuring and saying, No, you’re not dilated—I was like two centimetres, nothing. And then it got to one a.m. and I was three or four centimetres dilated and they said, Ok, we’re going to take you to the labour room, which is next to the delivery room, and I’m thinking, Ok, this is it now. There it was great actually, it was a private room and the [obstetricians] were good, they had a big inflatable ball, they had a beanbag which I lay over, they just kept encouraging me to change positions all the time. They said, It’s really important that you trust us and what we tell you to do, that when we tell you to change positions that it really helps you. I found the obstetricians there—which is another thing that’s different for us, for us it would be nurses—I found them all so lovely. At one stage I lost it, I started to cry because I was just exhausted and this obstetrician, she was going off duty and she said, I’m going to come back and see you tomorrow and meet your baby.
It was really lovely. And she came back!
So we got to the stage where I asked for the epidural. I said, I can’t handle this pain. So they said, We just have to call the anaesthetist because there’s only one on duty and he might not be available. And I said, You’ve got to be joking. And then I heard them say, Grazie! And they hung up the phone said, He’ll be here in five minutes. And that was … amazing. It didn’t hurt at all going in, I thought that would hurt, but there was this feeling of a cold liquid running down my back and then just pain free. It was amazing to see my tummy and the contractions and not feel anything. So then I said to [the anaesthetist], Oh, you’re the angel of the hospital [laughing]. But then the epidural made my contractions slow down.
So they gave me the drip to induce me with a pretty strong drug, I forget what it’s called…
That’s it. In the meantime, I’m texting a girlfriend of mine who’s a paediatrician in Australia …
You’re texting in the middle of your … ?! Oh that’s right, because you’d had an epidural.
And she’s like, For god sakes, tell them to give you the drip and give you a cesar! And it was funny because I had texted that my waters had broken when I was on the way to the hospital, so everyone was saying, Has it happened yet? And at one stage I just said, Enough! And you know good old Facebook. Well, a sister of my friend wrote on the wall, When’s the baby coming? And I thought, I don’t want people starting to write on the Facebook wall before…This was before the epidural. And I wrote, My waters have broken, I’m in the hospital. You know, in Australia, they woke up and still nothing! So it was Saturday morning 2 a.m. that I went to the hospital and this was Sunday night that they gave me the epidural and it lasted two and a half hours. Then they gave me another one, another two and a half hours. Then a third one and they said, We can’t give you another one after this, and I thought, What am I going to do? I spoke to a woman who had two babies, one induced, one not induced, and she said the induced was so much more painful. I don’t have a high tolerance for pain. I said, I can’t handle this. But I think at that point too I was just exhausted. And then they did another internal …
So what time are we at? Because, my goodness …
I think it was 9 o’clock Monday morning when they gave me the last epidural, which lasted till 11:30. So the surgeon came in to give me the internal and said—and at this stage too there was no more fluid—and he said, I’m sorry to break it to you signora but things aren’t progressing as much as we’d like, so we’re going to have to give you a cesar. And the obstetrician goes, No, no the signora’s very happy! And then of course the cesar was so quick and while I’m there they’re all discussing their melanzana alla parmigiana recipes while they’re operating on me.
And the anaesthetist was gorgeous, he stayed up at my head and talked me through it all. He was really lovely. And then when they cut me open, they said he wouldn’t have come out naturally anyway because his head was all twisted. After all that! Now I know why so many women in the Middle Ages died at childbirth. So he was born at 1:05 p.m. on Monday afternoon on the 12th of September. I had such a trouble-free pregnancy, I assumed I’d have a really easy birth. I did not expect that at all. I remember my sister said, Be prepared they’re going to get you to stand up the next day. You might feel like you can’t … [we get interrupted by my kid].
Did you plan on breastfeeding?
Yes I did, and I had no milk. So that was another thing that surprised me. Oh and I was only there for three days, it used to be five. I was called up to the nursery at one point and they said he’s lost too much weight, we need to give him a bottle of formula.
What kind of support did you get for it?
They were really good. I had to go back in the day after I went home and I had a special room with a lactating assistant where they weighed him and said Yeah, he’s fine, and I had to stay there and attach him. And they said he was attached correctly. Yeah, they were lovely. They said You can come back here whenever you want. Even at the start after he was born and they brought him in to me, they would make sure he was attached properly. And he had no problem attaching at all, but I just did not have enough milk. So I was told to give him formula every three hours and then go back the next day. But what I found really conflicting is that when I went back the doctor said don’t give him any more formula, just keep him attached. And other people said that too, You have to attach him because that will encourage your milk flow. I remember my dad was here and one day he asked me, How you going? And I burst into tears and I said, [in a small voice] I’m fine. But I said, He’s not satisfied after he feeds, I can tell, he’s still hungry. And dad said, You just go with what you feel is best. So I did. I’d detach him and give him formula. So I was doing both.
So at the hospital, the breastfeeding experts were telling you…?
Well, one nurse was telling me to use the formula, but the doctor that was there when we weighed him told me not to anymore.
Was he part of the place where you go for breastfeeding support or did he just happen to be there?
Yeah, he was the doctor weighing the babies who had problems, who they sent home but had to come back the next day. He was that doctor on duty there. So that was the thing too, wanting to do the right thing but getting so much conflicting advice and thinking, Is it wrong? And it took a good two weeks for my milk to really come in. It took a while, longer than I expected. And it was much harder. I was expressing as well. I was so excited when I expressed 20 ml.
Oh I know, I remember!
I had no idea it was such hard work. I just assumed it was a natural thing.
Well, congratulations for making it through that!
And I think it’s hard when you’re in another country.
Speaking of that, did you ever feel particular challenges because you’re a foreigner?
I was impressed with the hospital care. It was better than I had anticipated. I have to say that. They were renovating it too, changing it from the nursery to rooming-in. So on my last night, they said, We need your bed (because it was in the new part, with the electric bed). So they moved me to the downstairs part with the old fashioned bed that to move the head up you had to get out and crank it. And I’d just had a cesar! And they didn’t even have one of those things to pull … So for the first two nights I was in heaven, loving my room, and I had a beautiful view looking out to beautiful cypress trees, and the last night was in this awful room. When Emiliano left for the night I said, Ok, can you just help me with the bed? Because you think so much about every movement … So I wasn’t very happy about that and I was actually happy to go home after that.
So if you were to have another child, would you go back to Torre Galli?
Yes, I would. I know now that they don’t have the nursery. And I know it will be a caesarean as well, but yeah, I would go back there.
Michelle Tarnopolsky is a Toronto, Canada native who’s lived in Florence for over ten years. In addition to raising her son with her Florentine husband and working full-time, she blogs about navigating motherhood in Italy from a feminist perspective at Maple Leaf Mamma (www.mapleleafmamma.com). Cross-posted at Made in Italy.
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