Tag Archives: natural birth

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 (www.mapleleafmamma.com).  Cross-posted at Made in Italy

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

Florence Birth Story #3: At home Delivery

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. 

This Mom was from Oregon and first came to Florence as a student in 1994. She came back often for long stints, teaching English in one case. After she started translating (from the U.S.) in 2000 she went back and forth until 2004, when she moved to Florence full time.

Why did you decide to have a home birth?

I wanted to be with a midwife. After my miscarriage [a traumatic experience with an incompetent doctor at Torre Galli], I didn’t trust the standard system. I also come from Oregon where it’s much more the norm. I started out with doctors—and not that they were bad doctors, I just felt treated like a cow. They tell you all the things that can go wrong. It’s too mechanical. I went to a doctor that my friend suggested at seven weeks. I had miscarried two years earlier. I said, I don’t know if I want to see an ultrasound—because it makes it harder if you miscarry later. She basically insisted and when I saw the printout I started crying because it reminded me of the printout from after the miscarriage (of my empty womb). She was totally freaked out and tried to prescribe me all these random things. I was thinking, You’re a gynecologist and you’ve never seen a woman cry?

Oh dear.

It just felt out of synch with what I wanted and what I thought was best for the pregnancy. So I decided I needed the midwife approach, because the point was not home birth vs. hospital birth but this approach to the whole person. I interviewed two midwives and liked Gabriella better. The first interview was for having her as a midwife, not necessarily for a home birth, because she can accompany you during the hospital birth.

How did you find these midwives?

Word of mouth.

Gabriella asked me about my medical history but also about my fears, what I’d been dreaming since I’d been pregnant. So it’s much more holistic and thorough than through a mechanized system.

So your original plan was to have her help you labour at home and then go to the hospital with her. Were you planning to go to Ponte a Niccheri?

Yeah, I’d heard good things about it. But then I gradually changed my mind. I took a pre-natal course with her, which was really helpful. It was with different women, some of whom weren’t going to use her at all.

Where does she hold this class?

Near Piazza Savonarola. People either like her or they don’t. She has a really strong personality. I think you have to. She has thirty years of experience and she’s a very strong believer, very impatient with doctors. She’s on a mission to protect everyone. All my friends here in Florence who had children after me made me feel like her feelings were justified. Everything home birth advocates say they do too much of, they did to almost everyone (vacuum suction, ungentle treatment, fetal monitoring, screaming that the baby is in crisis and has to come out NOW, high C-section rate, not listening to mothers). When I was reading your description, there are parts of it where she would get really upset. They should know better. There are studies in the medical system, without being at all alternative. But instead they establish facts by doing old-fashioned techniques.

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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 (www.mapleleafmamma.com).  Cross-posted at Made in Italy.

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