Breast is Best for Bambino

By Elisabeth Wilkins Lombardo
Issue 139, November/December 2006

“Andava latte, Elisabetta? Non andava latte, pe qui…”

The words, in Italian dialect, mean “Do you have any milk? I don’t think there’s any milk in there.” They’re spoken by my mother-in-law, her face hovering inches from my breast, asking this question for the hundredth time as I nurse my son, her first and only grandchild. It is time to take a stand. I calmly look up, remove the nipple from Alessandro’s mouth with a wet spluck, and squirt milk into the middle of the room. “OK, Elisabetta, OK!” She hurries away, her hands in the air.

My friend Brooke, who has eaten in my mother-in-law’s kitchen, says, “It’s because you don’t have little lines on your breast like baby bottles do, telling her how many ounces Alessandro has drunk.”

Brooke has a point. Maria Gracia Lombardo’s life revolves around the quantities consumed at her table. I think she keeps in her bedroom, in the little drawer that houses her rosaries and prayer cards, a score sheet of who ate what.

Exasperated, I ask my husband, Joe, “Aren’t Italians supposed to be all about feeding?” Adding to my confusion is the image my mother-in-law projects. The epitome of the Italian grandmother, she is a tiny, adorable powerhouse who leaves in her wake delectable pasta dishes, melt-in-your-mouth meatballs, fennel-infused eggplant, and crunchy pignoli cookies. How is the most elemental way to feed a child even an issue for her?

When Joe questions his mother on my insistent behalf, she cannot give us a straight answer. Even with my lack of understanding of the nuances of Calabrese, I can tell by her wrung hands and averted eyes that she is avoiding the issue. Finally, she asks a few nervous questions of her own.

“What if Elisabetta doesn’t have enough milk? Doesn’t she get tired, breastfeeding all the time? It’s not good for her.” And my favorite: “Maybe it’s not good for the baby.”

Joe and I actually laugh at that one, and even my mother-in-law knows she is stretching reason like homemade pasta. She eventually stops making comments, but my lactating state is considered open season for the rest of the family. They ask me so often why I breastfeed that I begin to realize it isn’t really a question.

I don’t bow to their pressure to switch to the bottle but instead begin an informal survey of the matriarchs of Joe’s family. I hear stories about southern Italy in the 1920s and 1930s, stories that always begin with how their mothers breastfed one child after another, and how they died in childbirth after the fifth baby (or the seventh or twelfth), from overwork, from viruses that today are considered minor annoyances. I am told about the squalid conditions in the village back then, the constant struggle against germs, the lack of sustaining food. Breastfeeding somehow became associated with that time: with uncleanliness, with poverty, with shame—something women were forced to do because they had no choice.

Not surprisingly, not one of the older generation who emigrated from Calabria to the US in the early 1970s chose to breastfeed, save one aunt who now is nearly 80. When they had their own babies, the Lombardo women bought formula—mixed, measured, and warmed in bottles in their sparkling American kitchens—and fed their babies without baring their breasts. My choice to feed my child in ?a different way is not in keeping with what the rest of the women in the family have chosen, and I think it frightens them a little—that because I’m not like them, maybe Alessandro won’t be like them, either. I ask Joe, “Do you think this makes them afraid that we’ll do everything differently, that maybe I’m too American?” My hunch proves correct when I over-hear my incredulous mother-in-law, flanked by a bevy of aunts, ask Joe,

“She’s going to put shoes on the baby, right?” And, in a nervous whisper, “She will feed him food at some point, si?”

But hearing their stories has enabled me to laugh more, to not take offense. They carry with them their own truth, their own histories. Their American-born daughters, who are of my generation, still confuse me.

“Oh, I never had the patience to do that,” says Joe’s 30-something cousin with a dismissive wave when she sees me nursing. When she “catches” me breastfeeding, another female relative says, half joking, “Put those away when you’re around me. That’s disgusting.” I try not to let their opinions affect the way I see myself or the way I feed my child. I remain determined, however, to get my mother-in-law, at least, to see my side of things. In the end, I win her over with sheer determination—and with well-selected quotes from the almighty doctor, revered by the family almost as much as the priest.

“Dr. DiGiovanni says that breastmilk is the best thing you can give your child,” I say. “Don’t you think we should give Alessandro the best thing that we possibly can?”

Maria Gracia, who cried “Come Gesy Bambino!” (He is the image of the Christ Child!) on seeing her grandson for the first time, has to agree with me at last.

Then, for months, she bides her time. Watching out of the corner of her eye as I nurse her grandson, she bastes braciole, kneads dough, ladles sauce from homegrown tomatoes over pasta, and waits. At the next family get-together, she calmly Velcros a bib around Alessandro’s neck and places a heaping bowlful of her signature meatballs on the table. Beaming, she holds her grandson on her lap and picks up a spoon. With the confidence of a military commander going into battle, she digs in. In the corner, Zio Peppino whispers, “Mangia, mangia!” and is shushed.

My in-laws—aunts, uncles, cousins, nieces, nephews—gather in the kitchen as Alessandro, seven-months-old, takes his first bite of Maria Gracia’s food. My father-in-law is actually holding his breath. My son smiles, a look of wonder and surprise on his face. Then he claps his hands, smearing red sauce from his chin to his forehead.

“Ah! Italiano!” my husband’s family—my family—exclaims as one, laughing, relieved. “Alessandro, this boy—he’s Italian!”

I discover that how we feed our children—surrounded by family, from our bodies, with love—is what makes us who we are.

Elisabeth Wilkins Lombardo hails from Cape Elizabeth, Maine, where she lives with her husband, Joe, and their son, Alessandro (3). Before moving to Maine, she spent ten years in Japan, working as a radio and TV announcer. Her stories have been published in the Japan Times, The Daily Yomiuri, Motherhood, and Osaka (Kansai) Timeout. Her prize-winning essay “After the Quake” was published in Japanese in a book about the great Kobe earthquake. Elisabeth is now working on a novel.