When I was 15, my family moved from the center of Rome to the outskirts of Los Angeles, in Van Nuys, to work in show business. I lived in the United States for16years after that. At 33 I was back in Rome and the mother of a newborn baby. I had a contract to write a novel that was set in Los Angeles and inspired by my unusual experience as an immigrant and the places and things that happened to me when I’d first moved to the U.S. I knew that sooner or later I would have to go back to that city and reacquaint myself with its furious nature, magical canyons, and the complicated high school that had inspired the book. But there was a problem. I needed time to myself to do that and I had a baby in my hands, so I put that thought in the back of my mind for a while, and instead of doing field research I got myself a copy of a 1,000-page anthology called Writing Los Angeles and hung out with the ghosts of Nathanael West, Salka Viertel, and Christopher Isherwood instead.
Up until that moment nothing about the experience of maternity had been like I’d imagined. My natural birth plan (including my choice to give birth in the one and only hospital in Rome that allowed water births) evaporated. I recited my bill of rights to the nurse as she rushed me to the emergency room on a stretcher: only water, no epidural, no episiotomy, and the right to squat. With a heavy Roman accent the nurse took me by the shoulders and stared into my eyes: “You don’t get it, girl. You’re about to have an emergency caesarean.” The breastfeeding nirvana all my girlfriends spoke of turned into a nightmare. I had very little milk and everywhere I turned people were telling me to try harder. “There is no such thing as not having enough milk! Try pumping it,” my gynecologist insisted. So I pumped and, drop-by-drop, I was usually able to round up just enough milk for a quarter of a meal for a very hungry baby. I drank bitter Greek hay potions, the kettle was always boiling, cups were filled with fennel teas and seeds. I lit candles and consulted with Santa Agata, the patron saint of breastfeeding mothers. Nothing worked. One of my doctors was so appalled that I wasn’t producing milk that he personally came to my house and tied a strange tube around my breasts that suctioned both of my nipples simultaneously to provide double stimulation. Italian mothers must breastfeed Italian babies otherwise they are not allowed to be Italian mothers. Finally I gave up and started giving my son a bottle. I got a lot of deeply mournful and sympathetic looks: “Povera lei,” some said. “Then again those kind of women often don’t have enough milk.” What kind of women? I wondered. The word I heard the most in association with my mothering style was “Anglo-Saxon.”
At that point, a French couple I was working on a film with entered my life and gave me the first glimmer of a new possibility. They taught me how to sleep train my baby. What did that entail? Quite simply, letting him cry it out for some minutes before he fell asleep. Their approach was radical and went against everything I had heard in Italy. A book called Fate la Nanna by Eduard Estivill about sleep training infants, had been secretly circulating like a communist propaganda pamphlet from the Cold War. In Italy his teachings were considered more dangerous than the heretic writings of Giordano Bruno in the 500s. Forget sleep training, mothers were supposed to deprive themselves of rest for the first 10 years of their lives, immersed in a symbiotic relationship with their children and the WhatsApp chat groups that other moms set up to incessantly discuss play dates. This of course was true especially when the children were boys, “ i maschietti di casa”—the same maschietti many women sadly defend and side with throughout the #metoo movement despite layers of accusations. The French couple insisted: you’ll thank us later. And I did. The joy I felt when my son started to sleep 12-hour nights after a few days of training was overwhelming. There were just a handful of us in Rome who had used that radical sleep training method. We spoke in codes when we met each other at dinner parties or baby showers, always showing the public that we were more tired than we actually were. The return of sleep was one of the most adrenaline-fueled experiences of my life, which, as it turned out, wasn’t over.
Regaining my brain allowed me to return to the novel I had started working on during my pregnancy. This was great, except the time had come for me to put down the anthology and get on a plane instead. My partner, Luca, offered to take care of our son so I could go to Los Angeles and gather my research. So I did another thing Italian mothers frowned upon: I left an eight-month-old baby for two weeks and flew to the other side of the world to work. This meant relocating to Topanga Canyon and sleeping in a mice-infested cabin in a commune in the woods with no cell reception or wireless, partaking in dance therapy classes, getting naked, and letting a total stranger embrace me during a scream-themed energy healing session where I was encouraged to get in touch with my primordial feelings towards my mother. A rush of creative excitement took over. I was putting myself in thrilling, new circumstances and I felt happy.
My grandfather and great grandfather worked as international reporters so I probably inherited that kick for immersing myself in unpredictable surroundings, but it’s different when you are a woman and are not reporting about war. The men I encountered while doing research always had their own opinion about where I should have been rather than “on the field.” Even in America I received a lot of “I can’t believe you left your eight-month-old baby at home for this.” Doing research became like hanging out with a secret lover, taking me away from everything I was supposed to be. Yet I was hooked. Everything I was putting myself through would be useful down the line, it could be inherited, processed, and transformed into a powerful scene or an authentic detail in the book rather than a generic description. There was no such thing as too dangerous or absurd or depressing because it was all for the higher good. There was no wasted time or boredom.
My son is now five and I have a two-year-old daughter, too. This summer when my California book finally came out, I brought them and my husband on a pilgrimage to all the strange and magical places I visited when I was working on my research. We traveled for more than a month. They were all happy, cranky, mad, forgiving. My older son loved coming to readings, while my daughter usually decided to scream every time I started to read a passage in a bookstore. We took turns getting sick, visiting doctors without health insurance, and figuring out alternative medicine methods. There were car crashes and delayed flights and breakfast for dinner for a lot of dinners. I got no sleep, ever, and that was the closest I ever got to being a good Italian mother.
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
How Not to Be an Italian Mother