Author Archives: Michelle

About Michelle

Author of the blog Malafemmin(ist)a - - out Fall 2016

Florence Birth Story 5: Kate and Livia at Ponte a Niccheri

This on-going interview series 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.


Originally from Philadelphia, Kate Hash first came to Florence in 2005 to study at AIFS on Via Maggio. Her now-husband Rob came to visit her and they fell in love with the city. They decided then that they wanted one day to live together in Italy or somewhere else abroad. A few years later they were living in Louisville, Kentucky. Kate was working for herself, getting really busy and asking Rob to come work with her, and they realized there was no better time to move abroad. What made it so easy was that Kate qualified for Italian dual citizenship through her great-grandfather. This has also made everything with their daughter Livia a cinch because she was born Italian. Kate and Rob run their own internet consulting firm and write the popular La Vita e Bella blog.

M: When you got pregnant, what kinds of things did you do to prepare for the birth?

K: I’m a type A and I knew that if I read too much I would really overwhelm myself. So I decided I was going to read a few books in the first three months and then I was just going to be comfortable with it. So I read Ina May’s book

M: Oh, so you read that early on? I didn’t read it till the end of my pregnancy.

K: I read it really, really early on. I read another one called Preparing for Your Childbirth. I stayed away from What to Expect When You’re Expecting. I really wanted the facts, and all the gory details. I wanted to just process it all. I loved the stories in Ina May’s book of women actually sharing their birth stories because they were all so different, and I felt like it prepared me for what I might expect in the process and challenges I might face, disappointments I might have. I just read those books and I actually made Rob read one…

R:  I read the Ina May book. It was really good.

K: (Laughing) He would be like, Oh my god! Oh my god!

M: I read passages to Andrea while I was reading it. That’s great. It’s really key, so helpful.

R: She was in the state of mind to articulate what I wouldn’t have known had I not read this book.

K: So I read those books and a friend actually gave me hypno birthing CDs. I didn’t use them in labor. But for the month and a half before Livia was born, anytime I found myself thinking about pain, or if I was uncomfortable, I would listen to the CDs just for relaxation purposes, leading up to labor. So I found them very relaxing during that month or two before, when the pregnancy really takes over your whole being.

M: How about physically, did you do anything to prepare yourself?

K: I actually thought I would do more yoga. I was so excited to do yoga, but it was so dreadfully hot, and we don’t have air conditioning…We took walks. I also took really good care of my body with what I ate and I think that helped because I didn’t gain all that much weight and most of it came off really fast.

M: Did you go to any classes?

K: No. We thought about going to the classes offered by the comune [the city government], but it was summer and they didn’t offer them for a certain period when we probably would have gone. And I actually felt so confident…it was probably totally naïve confidence. I almost didn’t want to ruin it by going to a class! And I’m kind of glad we didn’t now because…I don’t know, I didn’t want to be scared. I was just in such a good spot that I didn’t want to ruin it.

R: Tell me if this incorrect but Kate’s personality is very much like, Let me figure it out for myself the first time.

K: Yeah.

R: And I think that was true with the pregnancy. (Turning to Kate) you probably didn’t want someone telling you how to give birth.

K: (Laughing) Maybe. I think it was also just a hot summer, the thought of going places…It sounds so simple, but it was also just a logistical thing for me.

M: Sure. And how about the care? What kind of care did you receive, and how did you go about finding it?

K: I immediately went to my primary-care doctor and she was really excited. She was like OK, now you have to go to the ASL and get the official pregnancy test. But the lab was closed at the time, for two weeks. So we were like, OK, let’s find an English speaking OB-GYN and just get the pregnancy confirmed that way. It ended up being a really great choice because he is an awesome doctor—actually one of your previous birth story subjects went to him: Dr. Scuderi.

M: Oh yeah!

K: He is fantastic. So we went to him, and he confirmed the pregnancy. We actually got to hear the heartbeat at like seven weeks. It was really neat. We kept seeing him about every six to eight weeks. It made us feel comfortable because we did everything in the public health system, which is all in Italian. And our Italian is beginner-to-intermediate, at best. So it was nice to know we were doing everything properly and to have him explain things that maybe we didn’t 100% understand. We got that amazing libretto, which as a first-time parent I found to be the most amazing thing in the whole wide world. One thing that really stresses women out in the U.S. is you talk to a friend and, well, she’s had four ultrasounds, [and you wonder] why has she had these tests and you haven’t…You start thinking My doctor’s not doing a good job…The libretto just standardizes everything so there’s no fear that you’re not taking care of your baby. Of course, if there are any additional tests that you need, you can get them. But I had pretty much a textbook pregnancy. To know when to do the next test, when to get the next ultrasound…We call it the idiot’s guide to pregnancy.

M: (Laughs) I know, it’s really helpful!

K: And for us, not being fluent in Italian, we could see what was coming next, read about it in both English and Italian, and prepare, maybe learn vocabulary if we needed it…It allowed us to be the type of people we are, which is to research everything before we do it. I think it helped our interactions in Italian with the doctors and nurses to be prepared.

M: Sure. Alright, tell me about the big day.

K: Well, labor started over a weekend. I was six days overdue. That’s also a really interesting difference between the U.S. and Italian systems. They will induce at forty weeks exactly in the U.S.; induction is really common. In fact, I’ve had lots of friends who were induced on their due date. You can almost schedule it. Here they made it very clear that unless you have problems they are not inducing you unless you get to be two weeks overdue.

M: Was that hard, to go over your due date?

K: No. I had a very good pregnancy, Livia was very good to me. I more just wanted to meet her. I would say to Rob, I just want to see our baby! I had really intense Braxton-Hicks–you know, those early contractions–for weeks. But there was a Saturday when it started getting clear these were real contractions. They were coming really frequently but they weren’t hurting, so we just went into the hospital and they were like, OK, you’re a centimeter dilated

M: Oh, I forgot, we should probably back up a minute to talk about how you chose the hospital.

K: Well, one thing that was really helpful were these birth stories. I read them over and over because…I mean, you should never choose based on one story, but it definitely gave me some perspective because I think that…each of the hospitals [in Florence] have almost like a personality, and you really have to figure out what you actually want and then find one that matches. So I just did a lot of research, I talked to a lot of people, and I kept coming back to Ponte a Niccheri. I thought about the natural birth center at Careggi [the Margherita]. But I was hearing so many mixed things about the actual Careggi that…I think it was you that said, If you go to Ponte a Niccheri and you like it, don’t even go visit the one at Careggi because it will look so perfect that you’ll want to go there. But I never actually had the urge to go check it out because we went to Ponte a Niccheri and we loved it. It’s actually where Dr. Scuderi does his normal job.

M: Oh cool, I didn’t know that!

K: Yeah. So we visited and everyone was so nice. I went there and I just felt comfortable.

R: Scuderi even said, When you go, tell them you’re a patient of mine, and they’ll at least know if something crazy happened they can contact him.

M: That’s great. Did they have an information session?

K: They do, but of course it was, again, in that summer session when they didn’t offer it! We showed up and it was literally the first Tuesday when they didn’t offer it. We got a little tour though. We went up to the obstetrics department and they showed us around, which is really all you need. You just want to make sure there’s not something crazy that turns you off. I liked that they were really into natural birth. I never had a birth plan; I never wanted to get attached to anything, but my hope was to have a totally natural birth, and I like that this is something they really support in trying to make happen. That was really, really important.

M: Cool. OK, so back to you feeling that your contractions are the real thing. It’s Saturday. Did you call the hospital?

K: We decided to just go to the hospital because, again, not being totally fluent in Italian makes talking on the phone extremely difficult for us.

M: Oh, of course.

K: So we were like, Let’s just go in. And they checked and I was one centimeter dilated. They were so nice about it. I think it was probably late afternoon at that point, and they were like, Look, you can stay here, see how you progress. And we did. But then it was three or four a.m. and it was clear that it wasn’t going to happen anytime soon. They said, You can still stay here or you can go home, and I was like, Well, I’m going to go home. I’d much rather do this at home…So we come home at like four a.m. Sunday morning and we just spent most of the day here. Then around two o’clock in the afternoon it became clear that OK, this is what actual contractions feel like! So we called our pet sitter, she came and got Winston, and then I just sat in the tub for (turning to Rob) what, like two or three hours?

R: Yeah, you sat there for a long time.

M: Sorry, we’re talking here [at their home]?

K: Yes, just having the contractions…the tub was one of the most comfortable places for me.

M: Wait, so that’s interesting. You had the scary bad contractions and you decided to still wait it out here?

R: Well, what happened was—oh, you start (to Kate).

K: (laughing) Well, you probably have a better memory of some things than I do! They weren’t super bad, but I could tell they were the real deal. I just knew. I had a sense that I was going to progress very slowly, so we just stayed here until they got closer together. I assumed I would have back labor because that’s where I always have my menstrual cramps, and I prepared myself for a certain type of pain. What I did not prepare myself for was to feel the majority of my pain in my thighs. It was so bizarre. It felt like…I was a runner in high school, and after you would run certain races, the cramping in your legs would be terrible, and that’s what it felt like. Every three to five minutes. And you could actually see my muscles tensing up.

M: Wow!

R: We stayed here and put her in the tub because the first time we went in they told her, Get so that it’s so terrible you can’t stand it, then get in the tub and it will relax you, and when you can’t stand it in the tub, come. So that’s when we left. And we waited here as long as we did because she was having so much trouble standing.

K: So we got to the hospital and they checked and I was still only two centimeters dilated. But this pain in my thighs was just terrible. They have these shower rooms at the hospital in the maternity ward. So I just sat under a shower with a hand held thing and Rob was just spraying it on my thighs and my back. But it was funny, the pain in the back. Comparatively…In my head I wonder what the pain would have been like without the pain in my thighs. Because it was so bad, I can’t even express how terrible it was.

M: Oh gosh. That is just wild. I’ve never heard of anything like that.

K: Yeah, it’s funny, I came home and googled it, and there were enough women saying, Oh my god, this happened to me…My thighs were sore for a couple days afterward. So I was laboring and laboring till about two or three a.m. when they checked me again and said, OK, you’re about three centimeters dilated, so we can send you over to the actual delivery side.

R: Well, you’re moving really fast here. (Kate laughs). When we first got to the hospital it was only like ten p.m. First of all—

K: Oh, this is the best part…

R: The nurse that we met there—

K: Yeah! The intake nurse who was checking us in, she says to me in this beautiful Canadian accent, Do you want to speak in English? And I was like, Yes please! (Michelle laughing) And it turned out she is half-Canadian and half-Italian, her mom’s Canadian.

M: Wow!

K: I just felt like it was meant to be, because it could have been anyone else. And she was fantastic.

M: I’ve got to look her up!

K: She was amazing. She was there on that night shift so she was the one who eventually sent me over to the delivery wing and then she came and checked on us the next day with Livia. Yeah, that was fantastic.

R: She was the one who suggested the shower, she gave us hot water bottles to put on your thighs. They gave you a bed…

K: Yeah. Most of the rooms there have three beds. So they gave us a bed so we could lie down. And then in every room there’s kind of this second area that’s closed off behind glass. It’s got changing facilities, a scale, chairs for women to sit in. So I went in there because there was another girl in my room and I did not want to keep her up all night with her baby with my early labor.

M: I know, that’s so tricky.

K: We were in there for most of the time, or I was in the shower with Rob spraying my thighs. But then once I hit three centimeters they sent me over to the delivery area and it was fantastic. There was a king-size bed—

R: Or bigger.

K: Yeah, it was huge. So he was able to just lie down in the bed with me.

M: That’s so cool. You just picture in the delivery room this thin bed…

K: Yeah. That was really nice to be able to lie down and relax. And they were like, Look, you can get up and go into any position you want. But I was so tired that it just felt good to lie down, and I think that’s an important thing to point out of something I wish I had done differently. The early labor started on Saturday and at this point it’s already late Sunday into early Monday morning and I had barely eaten or slept. I really wish on Saturday I had just stuffed my face either with saltine crackers or something really basic. It’s funny what you prepare yourself for. I prepared myself for labor pain, but what caught me off-guard was the exhaustion, the absolute exhaustion of once you’re sixteen hours into it. Because it became that I was almost too tired to manage the pain. And my thighs were just killing me. One thing that I loved—we were on three different shifts of midwives and they were all so amazing. I kept waiting to get a new shift with someone that I didn’t like. And it never happened. I walked away from pregnancy and labor with so much respect for midwives. That job is just intense and amazing. But they were all so wonderful and so attentive to me. And making suggestions for things that might make it better. I was progressing, just very slowly. And I was so terribly exhausted by everything. One midwife came over and she basically said, You’re very, very tired. Are you having trouble managing pain? Have you thought about an epidural?

M: Wow, that’s so interesting.

K: Yeah, because the rumor on the street is that you can’t get an epidural at Ponte a Niccheri! And I was really upset. I cried and said I really wanted to try for a natural birth but I also knew that I was having a really tough time with my exhaustion. So I was like, Yeah, I would consider it. The way it works is that you can’t just ask for it and get it, they have to have a doctor come over and look at you and essentially prescribe itIt was probably at nine o’clock that they suggested it and I said yes.

M: Nine o’clock Monday morning?

K: Yeah. And then of course I got it into my head that I was going to get one! So an hour goes by, an hour and a half goes by, and no one’s come up to me. It turns out they just want to see if you’re actually going to need it. I don’t know if it’s partly psychological, that it helps you to relax a bit or something…

R: That was the one point in the whole process when I was like, Come on! You can’t just walk away and not come back!

K: So at eleven the doctor came by and said, Yes, she needs one. But then it was still 45 minutes until the anesthesiologist came up and I got one. But it also made me feel better because I was thinking, OK, it’s been two and a half hours since they asked me, and it’s still clear that it would help me. Because at that point it started to get really slow with the progression. The contractions were still coming normally, I just wasn’t dilating anymore. So they came and said to Rob, Go down to the cafeteria, get a coffee, get something to eat. And he was like, No, no, no, I want to stay. But the nurses were insistent, they were like, No. You need to get some nourishment. Because he also hadn’t eaten or slept much in the same time period.

R: The real work was on me.

K: (Laughing). He loves to make that joke and I always want to just [pretends to hit him]. Once they took me out of the room to give me the epidural, he did go down. I think it actually made a big difference in how he was able to help me, just to get a little nourishment. But I’ll never forget, they were giving the epidural and they were like, OK you have to sit really still. But of course I’m having contractions, so I’m trying to not move during a contraction!

M: Oh my god.

K: And then the epidural was like magic. As someone who so in my head wanted the natural birth, I can’t even express the elation of two hours without pain. Because they were very clear that they weren’t going to make it so it stayed for the pushing as well. They were like, We’re going to make sure we time it so that you can feel your pushing. Which again is different from the U.S. for sure.

R: They basically just treated it as a rest period for her. They encouraged her to sleep through as much of the contractions as possible.

M: Aw, yeah, it’s a great idea.

K: And they timed it really well, so I think it was maybe two and a half hours later that they were like, OK. And Dr. Scuderi actually came on at that point and he checked me. And the midwife was like, OK, we can start pushing! We can do this! In the beginning, as the epidural was wearing off, it was definitely just me trying to figure out when to push, but then as it completely wore off I could really feel when to push.

R: They started you pushing in that large bed and then they moved her—it was like a large suite with a bathroom in the middle—to another room. That was the delivery room.

K: The actual delivery room. I pushed for about 45 minutes in the big bed and then I thought they were joking when they said, OK get up, you have to move to the delivery room. I was like, No. I’m not moving. I’m in the middle of having a baby and you want me to walk to a different room?! But they did.

R: Well, two midwives took her arms—

K: They helped, it’s not like they just kicked me into the other room or anything–

M: Sorry to interrupt but were they telling you to push?

K: They were being very supportive. They were like, Look, where the baby is, you’re probably going to start getting the urge to push. And I said, Should I push? And the midwife was like, You need to listen to your body and really push when you feel it. In the beginning as the epidural was wearing off it was just me feeling ever-so-slightly the urge to push. But then as it started to really wear off I was like, Oh, this is kind of exciting. Honestly, I was smiling during some of it because it was so exciting. Because you labor for so freaking long, that to actually start pushing felt amazing, it felt productive.

R: In the beginning you said you were trying to pay attention to the pressure, not the pain.

K: Yeah, when you have an epidural, it’s more like feeling pressure not pain. But then it started to get painful and I went over to the actual delivery suite and that’s where of course there’s the old-fashioned bed with the stirrups…And that’s when it felt real, it was like, Holy shit, I’m going to have a baby. (Turning to Rob) And I think that’s when it started to hit you too.

R: Yeah, I mean, it’s pretty real! (Michelle and Kate laughing)

K: For your first baby, you’ve never held your own baby in your arms, so you just can’t wrap your head around it.

M: I know.

K: But it was when I got in that room I thought, Oh my god, in an hour I’m actually going to be the mother to a human being. It was this crazy feeling. But that’s also the point where any Italian was out the window for me.

R: Oh yeah.

K: It was funny because he would say, The nurses want you to do this and that, and I’m like, How do you know this? Are you making this up? (Michelle laughing). And he was like, No, they’re saying this in Italian and I’m telling you in English! I was just not there. Of course, most medical people here do speak a bit of English, so he would translate for me and I would be like Listen…And they’d be like, Sì sì! He’s telling you the right thing to do!

M: (Laughing) Oh my gosh, that’s cute.

K: Yeah, it was cute even in the moment because then I was like, OK… But one thing that is funny about this delivery room is that they have these bars for your arms so you can really bear down and push. I was using them and it was awesome. But for days—not even days—weeks [afterwards I was in pain]. I used muscles that I’ve never used. And I couldn’t even…I could pick Livia up for the first couple weeks but I couldn’t put her down!

M: Wow.

K: I did something terrible to my arms. I joke that if we get pregnant again I’m going to do bicep curls to prepare. But it was awesome in labor to be able to really bear down. Again: unexpected. You don’t think, Maybe I should do some bicep or tricep curls in preparation for labor. 

It was funny because initially Rob said he didn’t want to see the baby being born. It kind of weirded him out a little. But he had four Italian midwives saying, Robert! Vieni qui, vieni qui, you have to look! He was like, I couldn’t say no, these Italian women were yelling at me! So he actually did watch it. He said it was amazing. And I could see it in his face that I was actually progressing.

M: Right, that must have been helpful.

R: Well, she kept asking, Rob, am I really making progress? And I was like, Yeah! She didn’t believe it. But I could tell her.

M: Wow, that’s so cool. So you were talking about how you were really happy about the pushing. Does that mean that the pain of pushing was not as bad as the contractions for you?

K: Yes, absolutely. I mean, it sounds crazy but pushing was easier to me just because of how the pain was manifesting itself in my body. I’ll never forget those contractions. But one thing was, there were probably a few more people in my delivery room than usual because there had been meconium in my waters when they broke—

M: Wait, we didn’t talk about water breaking! When did your water break?

R: It broke in the hospital before we actually went to the sala parto [delivery room].

K: I didn’t even know! I mean, I was pretty sure when it happened, but I didn’t have the gush that a lot of women have.

M: And there was some meconium in there?

K: There was, so they wanted to make sure—they had one of the neonatologists come down just to make sure [Livia] hadn’t aspirated any of it. I was so prepared to have her on me immediately when she was born, but because they had to check this, they had to take her right over. It was funny though, the last few pushes happened really fast. And it was crazy because like, There’s a baby!

R: Yeah. But she came out face down, so we just kept seeing little bits of head…We knew once she got past the big head that it would go quickly, and that’s exactly what happened.

K: So they whisked Livia about four feet away to check everything. Then of course I delivered the placenta. Then they stitched me up just a little bit, and then they took me back to that big bed to relax. At this point I still hadn’t even seen Livia! So Rob was in there hanging out with her and he comes in to the room where I am—it’s just literally separated by a very small walkway—and I was like, Tell me about her! And he was like, She has really big feet. (Everyone laughs). (To Rob) This is the first thing you’re telling me about our daughter! So I said, Let me see a picture. And he runs back in to go and take a picture. It was really sweet because I think–in this day and age when 15 seconds after a baby is born there’s a photo on Facebook–that he was so busy just taking her in, he didn’t even think to take a picture till I said it.

R: There’s a little funny story though. Right after she was born, the doctors were checking her out and they said, What’s her name? And we said, Livia and they said, What a great name. Wait, who was Livia again? But they were saying this in Italian. And the doctors were having a little conversation trying to figure out who she is, and the woman who didn’t understand a word of Italian all through the delivery, responds! Literally three doctors turn around saying, She speaks Italian!

M: That’s hilarious.

K: It was this really funny moment where I was like, Oh wow, I understand Italian again! Like this split second where I was back in my right mind. So he hung out with her for a little bit, and then he brought her in to me and the three of us just lay in this bed for like an hour and a half, which was really nice. We were just sitting there mesmerized by this little person. They were also running a bunch of tests to make sure everything was OK. So I think we may have stayed there for a little longer than someone with a totally normal birth does. But everything was fine and they put me in the wheelchair with her in my lap and we went back over to the actual maternity ward. I had at that point two roommates, both of whom also had girls.

R: One of them was from the night before.

K: Yeah, I apologized to her for making so much noise. And she was like, Oh no, that was me two nights ago. But it was really fun, they were both really sweet, they both had really nice husbands. When I tell people in the U.S. that I didn’t have a private room, they’re like, Oh my god! You had to share your space? But I can’t imagine having had a private room, because it would have felt really lonely and isolating. I actually really enjoyed having other women around me who knew exactly what I was going through. None of us could sit down in chairs; we were all waddling around the room. It makes you feel like you’re not alone. Particularly at night when the husbands go home.

M: Well, sure.

R: Plus you had someone there that was two days ahead, and one day ahead of you. So she could literally see the progression.

K: Yeah, that helps out a lot.

M: Sure. How about the breastfeeding?

K: (Sighs) It was a challenge. She breastfed well in the hospital, but then I had a lot of trouble when we got home, just a ton of trouble, a lot of pain…So I started pumping a little bit because that helped, and then we just supplemented with formula and for the first three months we did a mix of the two, but I could never—breastfeeding just never worked for us. And it was so sad and I was really upset about it.

M: Oh, I’m sorry.

K: Then finally I made the decision. I can be really upset and be not a full mom to her because I’m so upset or I can just accept it and move on. And once I did that, it got a lot better.

M: Good for you.

K: Yeah. But it’s hard when you want it to work so badly and it just doesn’t. And of course, as soon as I stopped she got bronchitis, and I thought, Oh it’s because she doesn’t have my antibodies anymore! I just had a lot of nipple pain. Honestly, it was terrible. It got to the point where I was dreading the contact because it hurt so terribly. That’s when I knew I was going to do just the pumping.

M: Because the pumping didn’t hurt?

K: The pumping didn’t hurt as much. But it still hurt.

R: You had supply issues…

K: Yeah. And I tried everything! We actually started out with one pediatrician and then we switched. But the first pediatrician was like, If you drink three liters of water, your milk will come in. And I was thinking, If I drink any more water, I’m going to explode.

R: She literally had a glass of water with her all the time.

K: I was constantly drinking water. I literally tried everything.

R: There was one day I’ll never forget. It was just clear she wasn’t getting enough and you went down and bought a breast-pump…and literally cleared off the shelf. She bought everything…came back with all these bags…

K: I had no idea what I’d need…

R: Then we started researching formulas and went and bought Neolatte. Then they started supplementing.

M: Yeah, I supplemented from the start, for different issues. But I’m all about that, I think it’s ridiculous when people say you shouldn’t.

K: One thing that’s really hard for me, and I think that’s one of the fatal flaws of women, is that we like to pick on each other. There are some people who only formula-feed that think people who breastfeed are disgusting, and then there are breastfeeders who think that formula will kill your baby. And it just makes me sad because if women could just support each other, whatever happens, there wouldn’t be this…there would be the guilt that you feel as a mom that you couldn’t do it, but there wouldn’t be this idea that other women are going to judge me or hate me.

M: It all comes out of this defensive feeling, of I’m not good enough, so you know…it all comes from our own insecurities. Yeah, it’s tough.

K: I love our families and friends back in the U.S. but I actually felt really fortunate to be pregnant and to give birth so far away from all of it because I felt like I was in this very safe cocoon. From the moment you’re pregnant to the time you give birth, and even when you’re raising your child in the U.S., it seems like someone is constantly judging you, second guessing something. I mean, strangers will stop you and say you’re doing things wrong…And I’ve never felt that here. I just felt good. And maybe that’s why I had that blind confidence going into labor, because I just felt like we had done everything and made choices that made sense for us from the very beginning and that felt very empowering. I went out for lunch with girlfriends when I was a day or two overdue and my friend was like, Give it to me straight: Are you really scared of all the pain? And I actually said, No, I’m just really not. I feel like when you find out you’re pregnant, you can either be consumed by the thought of pain or you can come to terms with it. Yes, it’s going to hurt like hell, and then focus on other things. And that’s kind of what I did.

R: Yeah, you never let it distract you. You were never the type to plan a c-section or schedule any kind of designer delivery.

K: I don’t think you could even get that here if you wanted to.

M: Actually, I’m not so sure. Italy has one of the highest c-section rates in the world. It’s quite popular here.

R: Huh.

M: I think you had a rather exceptional experience because Ponte a Niccheri is one of only about 20 hospitals in Italy that conform to UNICEF standards.

K: I honestly cannot speak highly enough of that hospital. I’ll never forget Dr. Scuderi walking into the delivery room as I’m pushing. Livia’s like five or ten minutes away from being born, and he was like, The two Americans! You’re here! Are you excited? This is going to sound terrible, but in the U.S. I’ve encountered many doctors whom I’ve walked away asking myself, Do you even like your job? Do you like what you do? And here…

R: Like we said, we kept waiting for the bad one to come on, and it never happened.

K: Dr. Scuderi I think is still entranced by the magic of birth, and I think that’s amazing. He’s pretty late in his career. When we heard the heartbeat at seven weeks, he was like, This is amazing!

M: Wow. And you imagine this is what he does, how many times?

K: I know! The passion and the dedication…Even the midwives’ job blows my mind.

R: One thing we didn’t mention that I was impressed with was that when a shift change came, each midwife introduced the next one coming on to [Kate], and they wouldn’t leave until they were both in the same room at the same time. It made it really comfortable. It wasn’t like someone just left and someone new came on. We had one midwife who I know stayed 15 minutes after her shift changed because, I don’t know, she seemed to like us, like you.

K: Well, we were a bit of a novelty too because even though I have the dual citizenship, we are still very much two Americans.

M: Yeah, it’s usually an American woman with an Italian husband.

K: Exactly: we were a novelty. So I think that was part of our allure. But I was just so, so impressed with the hospital and the care. And then of course this idea of walking out with no bill. And, yes, I pay taxes here, so I know that it’s not free in every sense of the word.

R: It was nice to worry about what she needed rather than…

K: My sister gave birth two weeks after I did, and she stayed in the hospital for only one night because she would have had to pay so much to stay a second night. And she has insurance! I think her hospital stay cost her $600 or $800…

M: On top of the insurance?

R: Yeah.

K: And this is normal. It’s fascinating to us. And to have all those tests done, the libretto, and to never have to really worry…

R: You also liked the rooming-in…

K: Oh yeah, Ponte a Niccheri does the rooming-in, and to have her with me the whole time, even when I was in tons of pain and it was hard… I couldn’t imagine not having had her right there. I really liked that. I read a lot of nightmare birth stories too of expats in Italy, and I think…sometimes I think it’s—particularly American women—not recognizing the really important differences and deciding if that’s too much for you. If I had looked at all the hospitals and none of them were right for me, I probably would have gone to Villa Donatello, the private one. Because I think sometimes when you see Americans commenting on the Italian system, it’s all these things that… it’s just how it is here; things you can’t change. A lot of people are shocked—I hear American women say this all the time: They told me to bring my own sanitary napkins! (laughs) And I’m thinking, I’d much rather spend 20 euro on supplies, and not have a bill when I walk out of the hospital than go to a hospital in America and have everything provided but then have a huge monstrous bill when I walk out.

M: Seriously.

K: It’s funny, everything they told me I would need to bring to Ponte a Niccheri they actually provided anyway. The one thing we routinely forgot and I had no idea to bring was silverware. So we had to keep sneaking into the staff break room and ask [in a sheepish voice], Can we please have some cutlery?

R: I totally forgot to bring it every day. But actually we thought the food was great.

M: It really reminds you you’re in Italy, right?

K: And of course they know exactly what to serve women who’ve just had babies. You know, stuff that actually sat well in your stomach.

R: Just very bland, but in a good way.

K: But also, I had trouble with my bladder right afterwards, and I had a fabulous midwife who overnight found what the problem was and fixed it. And then the next morning, the next midwife came in and said, I read your file, I saw you had trouble last night and kept an eye on it all day. It just felt like you didn’t have to explain anything to them, they just communicated to each other. That could just be specific to a hospital where the staff like each other and try to make the next person’s job easier.

R: She was in a lot of pain and we had no idea what was going on…We were just thinking, you know, Is this a big issue or a small issue? And it was so nice to come back the next morning and they had figured it out. She was tired, but I could see this relief on her face.

K: Yeah, we almost had to stay an extra day and it wasn’t because of Livia, it was because of me. They wanted to make sure my system was OK. They wouldn’t let me leave till they did an ultrasound to make sure I was OK.

M: Is there anything else you’d like to add?

K: I think one thing that Americans do in particular is we assign quality of healthcare visually. So if I walk into an office and it has a flat-screen television, nice waiting-room chairs, beautiful art on the wall, maybe some plush carpeting, I’m thinking, This is a really good doctor’s office, I’m going to get excellent care here. And that’s not really true at all. Particularly in Louisville, I had serious stomach problems and I saw four great gastroenterologists with beautiful offices who provided terrible care. Until I finally found one who actually had an office that reminds me a lot of doctors’ offices here. You know, 1970s building…and I think that’s what a lot of American expat women have trouble getting past: the buildings aren’t glamorous, and when you walk into your doctor’s office, it’s probably not going to be fancy. Even my primary care doctor, her office is very, very simple. I was having stomach problems, and she was the first doctor who actually gave me a physical exam in years, who actually put their hands on me. For me, that was the moment I changed my opinion. You just have to get past the fact it’s not fancy, but it’s good quality care.

M: I think any American women that are fairly new here are going to appreciate that information.

R: Yeah, that and what you said earlier, that you just have to embrace what’s never going to change about the Italian system.

K: And decide what’s most important to you. Because, especially in Florence, we’re lucky that we have a lot of hospitals to choose from, and they have such different personalities, for lack of a better word. I just knew what was most important to me and I was willing, not to sacrifice the other things, but I was willing…

R: To prioritize.

K: Yeah. And we were lucky that we had a really good experience.

R: It was great.

M: That’s great. I’m so happy for you.

About Author:

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 (  Cross-posted at Made in Italy

If you want to share your birthing story with the moms contact us:


Florence Birth Story #4: Jonnel, Niccolo’ and Gabriel

This on-going interview series 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.

Jonnel-Niccolo-and-Gabriel1-300x300Jonnel is from the U.S. and has lived in Florence for fifteen years. She took Italian courses as a journalism major but never got around to studying abroad till some years later. Needing a career change, she decided to take a break and finally came to Florence. She studied at the Centro per Stranieri at the University of Florence for six months and visited extended family in southern Italy. When she realized she wasn’t ready to leave, she went home and got her TEFL certificate so she could return to Florence with a marketable skill. Though stubbornly determined not to be just another American girl who comes to Italy and marries an Italian, that’s exactly what she did. Nine years later she and her husband have two boys, seven-year-old Niccolò and four-year-old Gabriel. Jonnel started the company Inglese For You in 2008 and also works as a freelance travel consultant.

Were both your boys born at Villa Donatello?

Yes, they were both born there.

What made you choose to go there?

When I was pregnant with my first and thinking about what I wanted out of the experience, I was nervous about language. You know, you’re pregnant for the first time, you have no idea what it’s going to be like. Even though I’d been here at that point almost seven years, I felt like it was really important that my doctor spoke English. So I had a private gynecologist that followed me through the pregnancy. I also just wanted to know that that person would be with me [for the birth] and that I’d know the people there. That’s what led me to Villa Donatello. I had insurance that covered me, so it wasn’t as big of a financial issue or choice. What’s funny is that I never actually spoke English to any of these people [laughs] and didn’t find that I really needed it during the birth. I tell this story because then with the second that’s actually what happened to me. I found that I couldn’t express myself in Italian.


It was really interesting. For both of them I was pretty fortunate, things went pretty fast but I really remember having this realization during the labor for the second one: I just don’t think I can speak Italian! And I can’t explain it. I don’t know why. What’s funny is that later, after he was born, the midwife said to me, You only said two things the entire time and they were in English. You said ‘Oh my god’ and ‘Help me’. [laughs]

That’s hilarious.

For the second time around the choice was different. I wasn’t worried about [the language]; I just thought we’d had such a good experience the first time—I was happy with the place, the doctor, and the experience as a whole. So we just decided to go there again, and that’s when I had the language issue, so it’s kind of funny.

You hadn’t chosen people who speak English for the second one?

Well, for the second one I had the same doctor and midwife.

Oh, ok. Did you get insurance planning ahead of time, knowing that you wanted this sort of experience?

I had had insurance from when I first came over here. I don’t know if this is really part of your deal, but as an American it’s funny because we’re so tied to the insurance industry. And when I came here people actually made me scared about socialized medicine: ‘you’re not going to get the care you need’, ‘you need to have insurance’. The funny thing is that for all those years that I was here and working I never really used it because I was healthy and never had issues. When I got married and we knew we wanted kids I switched to a policy with maternity care. I still had some of that fear about the system. What’s interesting is, now having kids and going to the doctor a lot more, I actually am really fond of the Italian medical system and the public care. We have a public pediatrician we love. But yes, the insurance was definitely part of the planning for the birth. I knew that I wanted at least to have the option of having whatever I wanted covered and paid for.

And was Villa Donatello a clear choice? Is that the only private place you can give birth in Florence?

No. Well, now, yes, I think. At the time, there was Santa Chiara, but I heard from someone that they don’t do maternity anymore [that’s true]. I’ve also heard that you can do certain things like have private rooms in hospitals and pay more. You probably know more about this than I do.

No, it’s the same for me. I’ve heard of it, but never actually looked into it.

We don’t carry the insurance anymore because we don’t think we need it, but if I were to get pregnant again I’d probably have the baby in a public hospital but I’d probably still have my private doctor because his care was great and I really adored him. So I could see the use for the insurance even if it’s just for some of the private care and not necessarily for giving birth.

Did you choose [your doctor] because he’s connected to Villa Donatello or did he just come with it?

No, in fact, it was a bit the opposite. I chose him through recommendations from other people and also knowing that he spoke English.

What’s your doctor’s name?

Angelo Scuderi. He’s fantastic.

And did you have post-natal care?

With him?

With anyone.

Well, after the birth of my first son I did have some complications actually so I spent some extra time in the hospital. I hemorrhaged about three hours after the first one was born so I needed emergency surgery.

Wow, really?

Yeah. It’s funny because I think at the time it was happening I didn’t really understand what was going on. He probably elbowed me or something on the way out and caused some kind of tear or something along those lines. So I had emergency surgery and they kept me in the hospital for a week after he was born because I was on intravenous iron because I had lost so much blood.


So I had that kind of care. I also did follow-up care with him and he remains my doctor so I do annual visits with him.

Ok. Tell me a little bit about the experience of the actual births.

For the first one we didn’t know if it was a boy or a girl but the baby was always showing that it was quite large so I was pretty sure I was going to have him early. Or maybe I was hoping I was going to have him early [laughs]. My due date was March 21st and on the 17th – my parents were flying in that day – I went in for the tests you get like the tracciato [EKG], I don’t even know how to say that in English.

I know, me neither.

There were about three or four women in my birthing class all having a baby at Villa Donatello—I did a class there—and our due dates were within a week of each other. And the midwife said to me, You’re in pole position. And I was like, Oh no. Actually, it was before the 17th because I called my parents and they said, Should we try to come early? And I said, No you’re going to get here in a few days, it’s ok. So they arrived, and the 21st came and went. And then I was going crazy. As soon as it was the 22nd I was like, This baby has to come! Anyway, on the night between the 24th and the 25th I woke up in the middle of the night and said to my husband, I think my water broke but I don’t know. It’s like a hilarious sitcom episode. But there was … leakage. So I put a towel down on the bed and thought, Ok let’s see… and I lay down—it was very funny because it literally sounded like a champagne cork popped.


I’m like, Yeah, that is what it is. So we called the hospital, they called in the midwife and they said, Get your stuff and come on in. We got to the hospital probably around six o’clock. I was not really having any kind of labor contractions or anything but apparently was dilating but I wasn’t feeling much. So for the first couple hours not a lot was going on physically. I would say around 9 o’clock I started to really have contractions. I don’t really know the timing of anything because I then started vomiting.

Oh dear.

I was really, really sick. I tend to be a person who—I get this way sometimes with my cycle so I don’t know if it’s related, or if that’s how my body handles pain. That was probably the worst part of it because I was so weak as a result.

Aw, sure.

Anyway, one of my hopes had been to have a water birth.

Oh so they offer that at Villa Donatello?

They offer that. Then, although the language issue was the first driving factor of the choice, the other two things were this desire to have a water birth and a kind of completely opposite desire. I didn’t want an epidural, but I also wanted to have the option because I thought, I’ve never done this. I don’t know what I’m going to feel like. I don’t know what’s going to be going through my head. And I had talked a lot with the midwife telling her it’s really my desire to do this naturally but I don’t want to be … I’ve heard stories about the public hospital that they may offer the epidural but sometimes the reality is you don’t get it because there’s no one available to give it to you.

And sometimes even for other reasons they just don’t give it to you.

Yeah, I know there are philosophies against it. I personally didn’t come up against that but I’ve heard that, yes. Also, even though I was really sure about my desire for a natural childbirth, a lot of friends and people I know in the States were really shocked to hear that. A friend of mine who doesn’t have children said to me, Would you go to the dentist and not get Novocain?! and I was like, Well, no, I wouldn’t. So then I thought, Am I wrong? Am I crazy? I got a lot of conflicting information back and forth. But anyway the goal was to go for the water birth. Then at a certain point they said I could get into the water, so I did. And I think I labored in the water for about an hour, but apparently the effect that it had was to slow my labor down.

Wow, interesting.

Because I had also been vomiting—even though my labor had not gone on for very long—I was really exhausted. My husband and I have two versions of what happened. He thinks there were sort of panicky moments. I think I was too out of it to really understand. In any case, they told me the labor was slowing down and I was still in a fair amount of pain and weak. So that’s when I said, Ok, well, I’ll have the epidural then! [laughs] And they said to me, No, no, no. It’s too late. Get out but you’re going to have this baby soon.


This was about one o’clock in the afternoon and he was born at 1:36.

Oh my goodness!

All told, my water breaks at about five in the morning … so it was pretty quick.


I think for me the first time around—well, even the second time, but you’re a little more prepared the second time—the first time I think I was also getting a little flipped out because I was like, If I were running a marathon I would know when it ends, I’d know after 42 kilometers I’d be done.

Good point.

But it’s labor. It could be an hour, another two hours … If someone just told me, ‘for three more hours you have to do this’, I could focus on the passing and how much progress. But it’s very hard to tell.

Right, it’s so true.

So that was a bit difficult. Anyway, it’s true what everybody says: within seconds you forget. It’s all gone, it’s over.

Did you have tearing?

I had an episiotomy. I had not wanted one and had told them that. But then they asked me, and my midwife said, If we do the episiotomy he’s going to come out and it’s going to be two stitches. And my husband says he thinks he saw them—they never said the baby’s in distress but he felt like he saw in them a desire to speed things along. So I trusted her to tell me, even though she knew I didn’t want one, that it was the right moment to do that.

You talk about having a midwife; this was somebody that led a course?

Well, she heads up the maternity department at Villa Donatello.


How it works there is you can do a couple different things. You can choose one of the ostetriche on staff. My midwife, Gabriella Fallai, runs a staff of six or seven midwives who take shifts. You can either choose ahead of time to have one of them follow you and pay them separately or you can just go to Villa Donatello and get whoever’s on shift.


I decided with my first son to choose her and have her there, in part because, having heard other people’s stories, I didn’t want to be with somebody and then the shift is over and they switch. I just want the person I’m with to be there with me, who will have seen what’s happened with me and knows what’s going on. She also runs the prenatal course they do there. And because I got to know her I chose her and I was very happy. Another reason I ended up at Villa Donatello as opposed to looking into other private options was that my doctor knew her. They had known each other and worked together professionally for many years. And I saw later at the birth that it was good to have people who knew each other and worked well together. It created a nice environment I think, for me.

And how was the course?

I really liked the course, I found it informative, but one of the things I didn’t like—and I also took a course through the ASL for my first son—is that they don’t really involve the father as much. That would be my criticism. They don’t see the connectedness of it. I never went through a course in the States obviously but at least the images are that it’s a couple thing and the father’s involved.

We actually did one, you can find them but they’re rare.

There was one encounter with the father. And I have to say, I don’t know what other women’s experience was but my husband was really involved and interested and reading a lot. So I don’t think overall I missed out because he was so into it anyway, he didn’t have to be encouraged. But I could see with someone different it could have been harder. Although interestingly, I heard women say they didn’t really want their husbands involved and I was really shocked! I was like, Are you kidding me?! No, no. [laughs]. Otherwise I enjoyed the course a lot, especially with my first son there was the opportunity to meet other pregnant women. In fact, I met one of my closest friends. We were in the birthing class together so our oldest sons are the same age and we became very close friends as a result of it.

Does it tend to be foreigners that go to Villa Donatello?

In my first class, this woman I’m speaking about now is American but everybody else was Italian.

Oh, ok.

They’re small classes. In the first class I went to there were five or six of us. The class for my second son was a little bit bigger but still we’re talking maybe eight or nine. And in that class with my second son I was the only American.

Ok, that was my next question, you did the class again for your second one?

I did. I debated it, but I think it’s a good thing to get you into the preparation and the mental state for what’s happening and again just to meet other people who are doing what you’re doing in that moment.

I’m sure they also appreciated your being able to share your own experience.

It was interesting because in my first class we were all having our first children. In the second class, there were maybe half of us having a second child. I know for sure for the women who hadn’t had children it’s interesting to ask the questions. Although you start to realize there are completely no rules about childbirth. You can have one and then the next one can be totally different. It’s an event of nature that is totally unpredictable. I know most of us had experiences the second time that were different from what we expected.

Did you do any other kind of preparation besides the classes? Especially with this idea of wanting to go natural?

I had some videos and books on prenatal yoga that I did a lot at home with my first son. I was on maternity leave from when I was about five months pregnant with my older son so I was pretty free and I did a lot of stuff, I walked and I did yoga.


I did nothing for the second one! I mostly just begged my older son to take a nap with me on the couch. You’re in a totally different phase in life. My older son was two and a half when I got pregnant with the second one.

Yeah, wow, I can’t even imagine. But you did do the class and that’s basically the only thing you did to prepare for the second one?

Yeah, and at that point too I had a lot of mom friends so I had more of a built-in support group than I did for my older son.

Nice, that’s important. So tell me about the second birth.

The second birth is funnier. Like I said, you’re in a different phase, kind of ‘been there done that’. There’s still some nervousness about it I think. But I was sure because the first one was late that the second one would be too.

Did you know if it was going to be a boy or a girl?

We didn’t, we decided not to know again. My first son, who was born four days late, was almost four kilos, so he was a pretty good size kid. And it seemed like the second one was going to be big too. He was born in May and it happened to be a particularly hot spring so I was really ready to not be pregnant anymore. So the middle of the night again my little one—or, the older one—wakes up and calls for me. I go into the room and I’m sure it feels like he has a fever, so I go into the bathroom to get the thermometer, and my water breaks.


During the prenatal class with the same midwife we were talking about this phenomenon because all the women who hadn’t had kids yet were all really stressed—they had images of their water breaking in the aisle of the supermarket—and she says, You know, the water breaks in a very low percentage of births.

Exactly! That’s why I’m amazed it happened to you twice!

I know! And she said it never happens to the same woman twice. So she said to me in the class, You’ve already done it, so you’re done.

Oh my god! That’s wild.

I know. So I called to my husband from the bathroom: Ok, Niccolò has a fever and my water just broke [laughs]. So get up, let’s go!


Yeah, so it’s two in the morning and again like the first time I’m not really in labor, I don’t have any contractions. And I hadn’t even packed to go to the hospital!

Oh my gosh!

It was really funny because we were really calm about it. My husband is very calm by nature anyway. There’s the image of the frantic husband … but he’s just fine.

That’s nice.

But he starts asking me things like, Do you think I should wear this shirt? [I laugh] And I said, I don’t really care what you wear for the birth. And he said, Should we have some breakfast before we go? And I said, The last time I threw up, so I don’t think so. He had to go get his parents to come over and watch our older son, so he picked them up, brought them to our house and we went in. Labor really went fast. Or it seemed to anyway. It came on really quickly and was suddenly very strong. I’m not exactly sure of the timing involved. My water broke at two and he was born at nine-thirty.


Yeah, so again, really fast. When all is said and done I was pretty lucky and this one was pretty unremarkable. I think because I didn’t have the water birth the first time, I had an interest in trying it again but I wasn’t as tied to it, also maybe because it had slowed my labor down. I don’t think there was time though. It all went so quickly. Besides trying breathing and relaxation exercises I didn’t have anything else. But thankfully I didn’t throw up the second time.

Oh good. You haven’t talked about—and maybe you can do it for both—about the pain.

The funny thing is, for the first one it was almost like the vomiting masked the pain. In part because I was so weak—this is gross but when you talk about birth it is—at a certain point I was just vomiting out stomach fluids.


My water broke at five in the morning so obviously I hadn’t eaten, there was not a lot there to throw up. A lot of it’s just retching. So I don’t really have a memory of the pain. Was the pain worse for the second one? Because I really remember it. In fact, when I said ‘Help me’ I remember thinking, I can’t do this. I know I already did it once but I can’t do it. The pain seemed to go from nothing to a lot really quickly. I also started having that mental thing again: Ok, this could go on for an hour, two hours, ten hours—I don’t think I can do it for that long! But thankfully it wasn’t, it was pretty quick.

So it was too quick again for an epidural?

You know what, I didn’t even ask. I think at that point, having had the experience the first time—I mean I hemorrhaged so I had to have surgery—I was a little worried that would also affect me mentally but I didn’t think about it during his birth. I had talked with my doctor about it for a long time and he assured me it wasn’t something physical about me, that it was just an anomaly that can happen, and actually isn’t that infrequent necessarily.

I certainly have heard that’s an issue that can happen.

Later the midwife told me that women used to die in childbirth from this. Because they were in their house or … In fact, my husband’s grandmother died giving birth to his mother because she hemorrhaged.

Oh my god!

Right after I gave birth to my older son, my mother and my mother-in-law were in the room with me—they’d taken the baby to go weigh him and do all this stuff and my husband was with him. So I’ve just given birth and I’m having to translate my mother-in-law telling the story to my mother about how her mother died. My mother-in-law is very anxious so she was like, Oh, I’m so glad you’re ok, I was so nervous because I always think about my mother when women are giving birth. And now I’m having to tell my mother. But at that moment I’m fine or we don’t know that I’m not. A few hours later, I’m hemorrhaging.

Holy cow. All these coincidences and interesting parallels…

Yeah, very funny. In fact, I’m sure it was a very similar type of thing that happened to the grandmother. But she was on a farm in the country, so by the time help arrived nothing could be done. Anyway, I don’t know if it was because I wasn’t vomiting and I could focus more on the pain the second time that it seemed so much worse or not. But I definitely remember thinking, I’m not going to be able to do this, even though I’d already done it.

And the pushing, how long did that last for both of them?

For both of them, not long at all. With my first son, just about a half an hour.

Wow, wonderful.

And I would say under an hour for the second one, for sure.

How was the pain of the pushing compared to the contractions?

Good question. I think the contractions were worse. Because I remember feeling like I was in a lot more pain and distress before I got to the very end.

Because women are different, right? Some say the pushing is worse.

Really? Because now, reflecting on it, I think that at least the pushing feels like you’re doing something. It’s painful but it’s a productive thing as opposed to … Ok, contractions are productive, they’re doing something too, but you’re not … it’s being done to you.

Yeah, you’re practically there, like, ‘Ok, I can see the finish line’.

Yeah, exactly. And you’re getting indications too, directly about the child. You’re pushing [and they say] Oh we see the head! You’re getting feedback.

Are you happy you waited to find out the sex for both? Was that a really cool experience to hear what the sex was, after?

Yeah, I’m really happy. We were both in agreement about it, which was good. We wanted to do it for two reasons. One is that there are so few true surprises in life. But I also watched what happened with my husband’s brother and his wife, I saw how people around you so want to create an identity for this child before they’re even alive. One way of keeping that at bay was not having a gender and not telling people what names we were considering. Part of it for the naming too was, Well, I know what name I like but I want to see this kid and be like, yeah, ok, that’s your name! I don’t know. I suppose there’s a lot of emotion in the ‘It’s a boy’ or ‘It’s a girl’. We didn’t have a desire for one or the other. That was sort of neutral. I think just the emotion of having that child for the first time is so, it’s so overwhelming, it’s like: boy, girl, whatever. I mean, he was really hairy…I said to my husband, He’s so beautiful … and hairy! [I laugh]. Black hair on his little body, on his ears—a little monkey!

Really? Wow.

Yeah, it was so funny. But just that emotion of having the child, and then the second one … it’s weird because I had a momentary—with the second one, there’s a huge emotion … your first child is the ideal for everything, for the experience of what a child is. There was this moment, not of non-attachment to the second child but, I don’t know, almost this feeling of being pulled in two directions.

Mm hmm. I think it’s important to share these emotions so that other people who feel them …

… know that they’re normal. Yeah. The other one also came out with dark hair, totally hairy, although now he’s a little blondie, well, blondie by Italian standards. It’s funny because my husband made a comment along the lines of, He may even be cuter than Niccolò! And I was like, He’s not cuter than my first child! There was this mother bear kind of thing … Now of course we’ve had two kids for four years so you make comparisons. But you see how it totally doesn’t change your affection for one or the other. But it’s funny in those first moments when you realize, I’m the mother of both these children!

People don’t talk about this a lot. I don’t hear about it much. It’s very interesting.

Yeah, I don’t think people do, really.

Well they should; I think it’s normal.

Yeah, it is normal. You’re not the same mother to them, either. Because you’re one person when you have your first child, and then that second kid is born into a completely different family, different parents; they have a sibling immediately… They’re going to have a different experience no matter what.

I do have one more question, about feeding. How did it go, what were you thinking about, how did it work out?

My feeling with the first one was that I wanted to try to nurse him for the first year, so nursing exclusively for six months. And I did, I breastfed him till he was about fourteen months. I probably would have continued but I needed to get some vaccinations—we discovered when I was pregnant with him that I wasn’t immune to rosolia [rubella]. We don’t know if my childhood vaccinations didn’t take or what. So I started to wean him but he weaned really quickly.

Cool, really?

Yeah, he was fine. He also had a pacifier and that might have played into it, but he was really cool with it. My second son—I was fortunate, I never really had huge problems breastfeeding, they latched well and everything. I did develop mastitis with both of them, but I think that happens a lot more than people talk about as well.

Exactly, it seems like it, just anecdotally.

Fortunately with the second I knew how to deal with it because I’d had it with the first. Again, no major problems. He would still be breastfeeding today if I allowed him. If I went home right now and said, Hey, let’s breastfeed!, he’d be all there. He probably asks me on average five or six times a day, Mom, when I was a baby I drank milk from you, right?

Oh cute.

And I say, Yes, you did, when you were a baby.

He’s four now?


Aw, sweetheart.

He calls them my boo-boos. Mommy, how are your boo-boos?, he asks me, as if they’re a separate entity.

[I laugh] Sure!

They have their own personality for him or something. Yeah, he’s pretty funny. And he generally still, if allowed, would like to fall asleep with his hand right here [gesturing to her breast].

How long did he end up breastfeeding?

He nursed till he was twenty-seven months old. It had gotten to the point where—I mean, I think there was a little mom stuff going on, admittedly, and he definitely just loved it. I think I was having a little ‘this is my last baby’, not wanting to detach. It had also become a good routine for us. It was a good way to get him to nap and to sleep at night. Again, something out of my control happened: I got a kidney infection.

Oh wow.

I had to take antibiotics, quite strong ones. I was in the emergency room and they came and the doctor said to me, I’m going to give you this antibiotic but, mi raccomando, don’t get pregnant. I said, We don’t have to worry about that, but I am nursing a baby. And she said, Oh, good thing you told me. You’re not going to be able to take this; we’re going to have to find something else for you to take. How old’s the baby? And I said, Well, a little over two. And everybody turned in the emergency room to look at me. And she said, Signora, è tempo di smettere (“Madam, it’s time to stop”).

[I sigh] I’m sorry, that really bothers me.

I know, I had the same personal reaction but I also was in a situation where I knew I needed to have…I’m very sensitive to the issue of antibiotic resistant germs and the importance of proper use of medicines. I tend to be a naturalist and lean toward not having medicines or medical intervention but I recognize that it is sometimes necessary. In addition, about four months before this incident my father-in-law died in the hospital after contracting an antibiotic resistant germ and so with that experience fresh in my mind it was important that the choice I made was a good one for my whole family and good from a broader medical perspective.

Right, ok.

And she said, Look. it’s your choice, but I can give you this weaker one that may or may not solve your problem, and then you’re going to find yourself on several weeks of antibiotic or you can take this other one that’s going to be more effective. So it was really my choice. And I had been making some attempts at weaning anyway. So I said, Alright, this is just going to be it. A lot of people who are, I don’t want to say anti-breastfeeding, but anti-breastfeeding-older-children would say, ‘If they can talk about it, they’re too old for it’. But I just said, Listen, mommy has to take some medicine so she’s not going to have any milk to give you anymore, but we’ll do it one more time. I nursed him for the last time and interestingly, he was great. He was fine. My husband went to the pharmacy to get the drugs and we didn’t nurse again. He was fine until close friends of ours had a baby and he saw that baby nurse. Then, from that point, he’s talked about it constantly! He talks about it all the time.

[I clear my throat] Sorry, it’s getting me a bit emotional because I’m still nursing and on the verge of that place where …

I think it’s such a hard question but it’s such an easy question because it’s really all about the mom and her child.

It would be nice if it were easy! Because we want to keep going but I feel like the world is just … I hate it.

Yeah, I know, there’s so much controversy. I really hate the fact that most people in the U.S. see it as something sexual.

Or that it’s only the mother forcing the kid because the mother wants to so badly, right?

Yeah. But then at the same time it is a really lovely moment for a family. My husband thankfully was very supportive of it. Obviously he can’t breastfeed but he was very involved. So it’s a very nice moment for families, I think, if it’s just left alone and everybody doesn’t have to make a big issue out of it. I think most of my stress had to do with when I went to the States because I feel like the criticism is worse there. I don’t know how you feel. Here I know more people who would breastfeed longer than I do in the States.

Oh, really?!

Yeah. In fact, I’m fortunate to have a pretty good group of friends here. But in the States I really feel like they’re hypercritical. I think part of it is a lot of people who work there don’t have that many options, unfortunately.

I know.

That’s what should change, not the opposite. I found it much easier to be a breastfeeding mother in Italy than in the U.S. although I do believe that this country has it’s own set of biases for breastfeeding toddlers which has more to do with concern over a child getting enough food or the right kind of food. Italians aren’t as squeamish about breasts as Americans are.

I agree. When you were hospitalized shortly after your first son was born, was that not a challenge to the breastfeeding?

He was there with me so we just spent the first week in the hospital together. And it was nice because of the way things are at Villa Donatello, my husband was there too. He had a bed in our room.

Oh so you stayed at Villa Donatello for your operation?

Yeah, I was there.

That’s great to know they have those kinds of facilities.

Yeah, yeah. It was actually my ob-gyn who operated on me.

Oh my goodness, ok.

He did that, so we never had to leave.

Talk about complete care.

Yeah, it was really nice. It was a great way to have … unfortunately to have this bad thing but to be taken care of by doctors I knew in a facility that could take care of everything.

So it sounds like if you were, even though you aren’t, planning to have another baby, you would go to the same place.

I would go back there without hesitation. I think my concern at this point is that I don’t carry the insurance so it’s fairly expensive. But I do think worth the money. Especially for the first one. There are so many unknowns. I felt more in control of it than I think I might have felt otherwise. Ok, I’m going to throw three things out at you right now. I don’t know if any of these things are interesting to you but one is that, between my two sons, I had three miscarriages.


It’s interesting because I didn’t have any problems getting pregnant the first time. I mean, we tried for a bit, but it wasn’t an outrageously long period of time. Then I had three miscarriages, and then my other son was born. My first miscarriage happened while I was in the hospital. I went there because I was bleeding, and I didn’t have a great experience at Ponte a Niccheri. The first doctor on duty was not very kind about it. The second doctor was wonderful. So even though I’d already had my first son and formed my opinion, it confirmed my feeling about wanting to know the people who were going to be with me [during the birth]. I didn’t want to find myself in the situation where the shifts change and someone else comes on and you don’t know what you’re getting. The doctor—interestingly enough a female doctor—who initially saw me upon my arrival for this miscarriage—I was at almost eleven weeks, so early, but far enough in advance that there’s more stuff in there to lose, it’s a more important process—she was just very gruff and matter-of-fact about it. The second ob-gyn who came in, who was a man, was kind and understanding. You could tell he understood. They may see it everyday, but it’s not something that happens to you everyday, right? So I developed a negative opinion where before my opinion had maybe been neutral.

You said three things.

Yeah, the other one is just an aside, it’s not really about birth, but with my second son we did bank his stem cells.

I’m totally interested in all of this!

With our first son, I was interested in it then, but when he was born you couldn’t do it privately in Italy. The laws were such that you couldn’t. And he was born on Good Friday. If babies are born on a holiday or a weekend you can’t do it through the public system because the bank is closed. Basically your kid has to be born during business hours, Monday through Thursday.

That’s hilarious.

I know, isn’t that funny? Isn’t it very Italy, though?

Oh my god, it’s so Italy. I just love it.

It’s like, ‘ok, if you give birth at this time … but if we’re out for coffee …’ [laughs].


But we didn’t have any choice. The second time around, it was a good thing we decided to do it privately because the laws had changed. You could do it, but there were still these restrictions on the Italian public deal and my son was born on Sunday, so he would have also been out. So we did bank [privately]. It’s not an inexpensive option, and I did it for two reasons. I feel like we don’t really know how technology is and it could be something really useful, if not for him or his brother then just in general. The second thing is, I’m adopted so I don’t have any blood relatives that I know. I figured my kids are going to get half of a family they’re blood related to, should they have any genetic issues that this kind of therapy can help with in the future.

Was it covered by insurance?

No. We did it through a company called Cryo-Save. It’s a one-time fee that covers the first eighteen years of their life. After that they can decide, or you as the parent can decide, to continue it, and then there’s some kind of annual fee for storage.

Very cool.

That was another thing, we wondered if this was worth the fairly hefty cost, but I’m happy we did it.
The last thing is related to the reaction as a parent in having the second kid. I think it’s so important to prepare the first kid but not overwhelm them with the fact that they have a sibling on the way. Something really interesting in this culture is that there’s such an expectation that there’s going to be jealousy amongst the siblings, I feel like they almost create the jealousy. And we’ve been really lucky, our sons are really good friends, they’re close in age but they’re not that close, they’re three years apart in school, but they’re great and I think it’s because there was no negativity about the other baby or about how it was going to take time and attention away from him. Here the first thing people would say to me when they’d see me with the little one, they’d walk up and—it’s not like they would even say Oh your baby’s cute—they always said, È geloso? about the first one. And I would say, Why should he be? My husband says that he even remembers it from when he was a child. He’s the younger child and he remembers people asking if his brother was jealous of him, and he remembers thinking, Why can’t I be jealous, why only him? It’s interesting the privilege of the older child in this society.

Really interesting, I hadn’t heard of that.

I just think that’s something too, it’s part of the whole process of becoming that bigger family. One quick last story then we probably both have to go. When the little one started to walk, I went to go get the bigger one at school and had the little one with me, and he was kind of toddling in the hallway and my son says to one of his classmate’s mothers, My little brother is starting to walk!  And she says to him, Oh but you’re so big, I bet you can run! And he says to her, Yes, but my little brother is starting to walk! And she says, Oh but I like you because you’re so big and fast and strong! And he says to her, Yes, but my little brother is starting to walk! It’s like there’s this …

… a disconnect.

Yeah, the disconnect. I finally just said to her, He’s just really proud of his little brother who’s starting to walk and he wants to tell you that. You know like …

… is it not obvious?

Yeah, he said it three times already! They just, I don’t know. It’s an interesting thing about the culture. I’m like, Really, it’s ok for him to be proud that somebody else is doing a good thing, you know? Especially if it’s his little brother, but really anybody. So it’s interesting, all the little cultural bits. I always feel like the longer I’m here the more I’m confounded on some level. You learn them, you know more about them, but they become more and more curious.

Totally. Jonnel, thank you so much.

Well, thank you!

About Author:

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 (  Cross-posted at Made in Italy

If you want to share your birthing story with the moms contact us:

Florence Birth Story #2: Lisa and Matteo at Torre Galli Hospital

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 Matteo birthstories

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.

Oh, wow!

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.

That’s hilarious.

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.

About Author:

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 (  Cross-posted at Made in Italy.

If you want to share your birthing story with the moms contact us:

Florence Birth Story #1: Kim and Ariel at the Centro Margherita

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. .

Kim is from Australia and has lived in Florence for six years. She first came here to visit a friend and met a yoga teacher with whom she wanted to continue studying. So she came back a year later, student visa in hand. It was during this second, longer stay that Kim met the future father of her child, and she’s been here (on and off) ever since.

When you got pregnant, did you take any prenatal classes?

Yeah, I did the one offered at Careggi, which I think is run by the Centro Margherita. And it was really good because it was a close-knit group of girls who stayed in contact even after the birth. So that was a really positive side of it. But it wasn’t really the kind of course I was looking for because it was mostly talking, which was nice, but I could have gotten that information from a book probably. It was good to meet other Italian mothers and have that bond, but I wanted a course I could do with my partner that would prepare us both.

Like with breathing…?

Yeah, and also just to begin spending some time [preparing together], because I was doing yoga every day, so it was easier for me to get ready for that moment—as much as you can. But I would have liked him to be more prepared. I think when we got to the actual birthing centre he was great but when we were [at home], without anyone else taking the lead, it was a bit more daunting for both of us. But once we got there and we had two midwives guiding the whole process, he really stepped up and I think felt more relaxed too. I was hoping that a course together might have given us both that confidence to feel ok at home as well.

Can you say for certain that all the yoga you did in preparation helped with the birth?

I think it did. Though I thought it would help more! But I don’t know if that’s an unrealistic expectation because in the end, I don’t know if there’s anything anyone or any course could have done to help with what made our birth long and difficult. He had a really short umbilical cord and he was just stuck. And because he couldn’t turn around he came out posterior [occiput posterior position].

I think the yoga helped the most with the first part of the labour, and relaxing into the dilation, and just letting that happen. Letting go and releasing, and trusting that your body knows how to do that, your body is made for the possibility of birthing a baby.

What made you choose to go to the Margherita?

I really, really wanted to have a natural birth. And I really liked the idea that Emilio could stay afterwards. And I wanted to try and have a water birth. Apart from Borgo San Lorenzo, I think it’s one of the only places where you can be sure. Because I know Ponte a Niccheri has a tub, but if that one’s taken…I didn’t think I was going to get into the Margherita because there’s the “checkpoint” [a strict evaluation to determine eligibility for admittance] and I was sure I wasn’t going to pass it. So I was starting to consider Borgo San Lorenzo. But I was thinking that’s so far and what if things happen fast, isn’t it better to be close… It just seemed like such a nice centre, and I really wanted to not have it medicalized as much as possible.

How was the experience overall?

Overall, good. Obviously things didn’t go perfectly but what birth does? It was hard and long, but in a way I wouldn’t change anything, because in the end we didn’t have to get any major medical intervention. I think the great thing about the midwives that I did have was they did really fight for my choices. I felt like they were really invested in the same outcome that I was. Even when it got to the point that things were going really long, I felt like they really wanted to see this baby be born as well. Obviously they have a lot of rules, as everyone knows. There are no gynecologists or obstetricians present so they need these rules for safety. If you need a doctor then you have to be transferred to Careggi. And they even said, Look, for our rules it’s going a bit long. But the one reason they said they could keep us was that Ariel never showed any signs of distress, throughout the whole process. They said, As soon as that happens, we’re going to have to send you across. But if his heartbeat stays strong you can stay here if that’s what you want. And that’s what I wanted.

So how long was it?

The first contraction started at six a.m. the day before my due date, but for the first six hours I was able to go ahead normally and walk the dog, have breakfast and then lunch etc. Then at about one p.m. things started to get serious, and the contractions were five minutes apart. At around two p.m. we went to the Margherita, but like a lot of first time mums by the time we got there things slowed down again, and they sent us home. As soon as we got back in the car the contractions were closer together again, but we went home anyway, and by six p.m. we were back in the car and this time they admitted me as things kept progressing. He was born at two-fifty in the morning.

Oh, that’s not so long.

Yeah, but the pushing went on for a long time. I was fully dilated by about a quarter to twelve. I remember looking at the clock, strangely enough, I don’t know why. We were in the tub and they said, Ok, everything’s going well, you’re fully dilated, you can start pushing. And they said he was fine and he could be born in water, that there was no problem. So I started pushing at quarter to twelve and he was born at ten to three so…it was the pushing that went on too long. After half an hour pushing in the water they told me to get out. They said, It’s not that anything’s wrong but maybe you need the help of gravity, maybe the water’s just not helping you in this case. In terms of safety everything was fine for the water but they said, Maybe things will go a bit quicker if you get on land at this point. And so we got on land and we tried every position [laughing]. Half an hour of this, half an hour of that—everything known to them and that I’ve ever read about, one after the other, and we just weren’t getting anywhere. So it started to get pretty hard. And my water still hadn’t broken so they said, We’re really sorry but we’re going to have to break your waters because maybe they’re getting in the way of him coming out. So they broke the waters in the end, to get him out.

You started pushing before your water broke?

Yeah, but they said this can happen…

[We get interrupted by our kids.]

[Several minutes later] So we were talking about the birth, and we were getting towards the end…

Yeah, so it was going long, but luckily he didn’t show any distress. They told me at the first sign of baby distress, we can’t keep trying this natural birth. But I think they did sort of whisper to Emilio that if I went over to Careggi that they would intervene pretty heavily, because I was starting to lose energy and the contractions were getting weaker. He was pretty stuck. So after we tried every single position that they could think of they said alright, we can try one last thing or we can go to Careggi. They said we could try this really old-fashioned gynecological position where you lay down on your back, which is really the worst position, as we all know, and they could try to push him out by pushing down on my belly. They said it was this or Careggi. At this point they could even see his head and they were saying, Come on, one last push, we can even see that he’s got black hair! So I couldn’t even imagine being transferred when he was right there. And part of me also knew that once we were there we would be intervened with medically pretty heavily…so I said, Yeah, I want to try it. So they laid me down on the gynecological bed and two midwives pushed and one was there waiting. A few pushes like that—and it was terrible—and he was half out and then they said, Ok, after this push we’re going to have to send you if he doesn’t come out, or we’re going to have to cut. And I was like, Ok! I just wanted him to come out. And I think the last thing I said to Emilio was, We’re not going to Careggi! I was going to give it this one last shot. At this point, we’d come so far, and he was still ok. So they cut and he came out in one go. I actually thought it was only the head and that we still had to do the shoulders. So I was getting ready for another push when they put him on my belly! And I have to say that one moment when they plopped him on top of me, that was worth all the craziness before.

Did you face any challenges at any point as a foreigner?

No, I honestly don’t think so. And that’s what I was really scared of, because I thought I would. The two midwives I had there were amazing. I did know someone I talked to afterward who had trained there as well as in other hospitals. And she told me that it’s a great place, but that in her mind Ponte a Niccheri was a better option. The risk at the Margherita is that, because there are so many rules, if there’s any baby distress [for example], the mother has to change environments halfway through the birth. And you’ve got to think about what that would be like for you. That’s the risk you run, that you’ll be transferred over to Careggi. Whereas at Ponte a Niccheri, you might not be guaranteed that the tub will be free to have a water birth, but you know you’re staying in the same environment. Anyway, she knew the two ostetriche that had been had my birth and she said, I think you’re really lucky you didn’t get transferred and that’s probably because of them, they’re two of the best and the nicest and they probably fought really hard for you. It’s hard because Ponte a Niccheri is great for promoting breastfeeding and natural birth…but I had this really strong feeling all along that I wanted to go to the Margherita, I don’t know why. I had this strong feeling that he would be born there, and somehow we managed to pull it off. But when they started saying, We’re going to have to send you over there, I was like, Oh god! Because Emilio had said to me, Think about that, because it can happen; you really have to think about it. We were so lucky.

Would you try to do it there again?

I don’t know! I think I would. I don’t know though…

What do you wish you’d known beforehand?

I suppose one thing is that I read a lot of the natural childbirth literature, and one thing that shocked me—though I guess it was the type of birth, because he was stuck—but [the literature] really uses different words, it’s all about opening… And it got to a certain point when what [the midwives] said got quite strong and it was the opposite of what I thought. They were saying I had to get really angry: You’re not pushing hard enough, stop being so soft and gentle about it. Get really incazzata! And I was like, Ok! But it was kind of against everything I had preconceived in my mind, and maybe that’s why I struggled. It ended up being quite strong. It was hilarious because they would say, You can do better! And I was like, I don’t think I can! Yeah, they got quite nasty, in a good way. They really pushed me. And I didn’t ever imagine it could go like that. I thought it was going to be all soft and gentle. They told me that I had to get angry and I was like, Wow. I never prepared myself for that kind of scenario.

I suppose the main thing I would do differently next time is try to claim more space to go with my own instincts more…But I started to feel the momentum of the threat to be moved to Careggi and I started going too much with their directions to push, rather than seeing that as a cue to dig deep inside myself and find the connection in my own body to push. So I suppose, as great as I thought my midwives were and the Margherita in general is, it’s the whole “threat” of being moved that also makes it a possible negative to the birth. You do take that pressure in there with you, and you can get lost in the heat of the moment. It was probably time for me to get serious about pushing, but that impetus had to come from me rather than from outside of me. I still can’t figure out whether I had such a hard time pushing him out because of his posterior position or because I wasn’t pushing in the right way. The midwife did say when he was born, Ecco perché, referring to his really short cord.

I also question if it was possible to know that Ariel had a short umbilical cord before the birth so we could prepare for that. I have since read up a bit on posterior position births and there seems to be some advice for exercises etc. on how to help the baby turn before the birth, but maybe his cord was too short to allow this. Who knows. But we do so many ultrasounds throughout the pregnancy, so I wonder if that is detectable. Anyway, maybe it’s better we didn’t know all this as it’s possible I would never have been “allowed” by the medical professionals to birth him naturally! And in the end he came through the labour healthy and with no signs of distress, and scored a ten on the APGAR test they do, so obviously babies can come out it in all positions, not just the most common one, and do just fine.

What about after the birth, did you consult with anyone?

Yeah, I had to go back to them, because I had stitches. And I had problems actually—they didn’t heal well. That’s a whole other story. It was a bit tough. That’s one reason I don’t know if I’d be able to go back to the Margherita. I almost had to have the stitching re-done and they wanted to put me in Careggi two weeks after the birth and put me under anesthetic, but I had fought so hard to have him naturally… So I chose the long painful option in which it just heals itself.

Did you get or need any support for breastfeeding?

Yeah, actually it hurt a lot in the beginning. And I got some advice from the midwives who were there at the birth when I ran into them when we went back. But I would have liked more. I know in Australia you have a maternal nurse assigned to you till the child is five years old. They come out to your house to check on you. So if you have questions about anything…Because we struggled in the beginning. For the first month, it was painful but I kept up with it and eventually it just stopped being painful. I wondered if his latch was right, and things like that. So a little more support would have been good. And maybe I would have had less issues with the stitches if there was someone coming out instead of having to go there myself in the August heat… I never knew there was anything really wrong with the stitches until it was too late. I just thought it was normal to be sore.

About Author:

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 (  Cross-posted at Made in Italy.

If you want to share your birthing story with the moms contact us: