Friday, March 23, 2012

A new baby in the Old World

Even before I was pregnant with Naomi, Paolo would regale me with stories of how the nonnas and zias (grandmothers and aunts) in his family all pull together to help care for new babies. I was a bit skeptical at first. Why would Zia Marilena want to take care of her niece’s baby? Wasn’t Nonna Zita too old and tired to care for Cecilia when she was a baby? Besides, why were these women so anxious to help raise their great-nieces and nephews, grandchildren and second cousins once-removed? Surely they resented, just a little, having to care for someone else’s newborn?
When the time was neigh for Naomi to make her debut, I still wasn’t too convinced of the availability of all this free day care. And I definitely wasn’t prepared to ask for help. When one of the women of the family would show up at the house, I was happy to hand off the baby for a few minutes, but asking them to babysit seemed like asking too much.

This is what my workday looks like without babysitters.

Yet within months of Naomi’s arrival, I was working again, and working a lot. I write, edit and teach a distance-learning university course, all of which I can do from anywhere in the world, as long as I have a working computer and reliable internet service. And with financially fortuitous timing, a LOT of work dropped into my lap after the first of the year, and I soon figured out that caring for a newborn and writing original blog and website content were not activities I could do simultaneously.
Circumstances dictated that I call on the Babysitting Brigade.
“Franca,” I asked tentatively of my mother-in-law, “would it be okay if we ate lunch with you, and I left Naomi for a few hours?”
“Si, per piacere!” (my pleasure!) she responded, then, and each time I’ve asked since. And I have asked, a LOT.
The arrangement is as close to ideal as I could hope. I bring Naomi and her diaper bag to Franca’s a little before 1 pm, and Paolo meets me there. We lunch together with Franca and Nonno Gino, then we both leave to go to work—he at whatever job he’s at and me back to our house, to work for a few uninterrupted hours. I go pick her up around 5:30 or 6, after I’ve gotten some work done and Paolo is home to help with Naomi while I finish up and prepare dinner.

He's either calling her Little Pisser or Boss of the House.

Our arrival, or, I should say, Naomi’s arrival (no one really cares about us anymore) at Franca’s is met with a chorus of coos and baby talk, and garbled greetings reserved only for Naomi. I believe they go something like this: Here is the boss of the house! Here is the little sparrow of Nonna! Here is the big baby doll! Here is the little pisser! Here is the chubby-cheeked baby of Nonna!
We barely rate a greeting when we enter. I often think I could walk into Franca’s house, bleeding from several open wounds, and as long as I was bearing Naomi, she would snatch the baby from my hands and step over me after I fell to the floor, my life’s blood slowly trickling away, to fix Naomi’s bottle or change her diaper.
With Cousin Serena, who cannot let a sleeping baby lie.
Paolo’s sister Anarita is even worse. She no longer acknowledges our existence. When she arrives from work at lunch time and sees my car in the driveway, she makes a beeline for Franca’s house, walks in, says “Dove la figlia?” and swipes the baby from whoever happens to be holding her. There are no formalities, no “Can I hold her now?”, nothing. Anarita takes her, cradles her under her neck, and spends as much time as she has available holding Naomi, who usually falls asleep this way. She practically snarls at me when I ask to hold my own baby.
Here, he's either calling her Big Stinky or Big Ugly.
For the rest of the afternoon, Franca, Anarita, and later, when she arrives from school, Paolo’s niece Serena, argue over who gets to hold Naomi next, who’s held her for more than her fair share, what the baby wants, needs or likes, whether she’s too cold or too hot, who’s holding her head right or wrong, who's better at giving her a bottle or changing a diaper. Often, Paolo’s Zia Graziella, Zia Marilena, cousins Antonella and Diana or even a neighbor will join in what nearly becomes a tug of war (or tug of baby) over who gets to hold her next. When she is in one person’s arms, another person is in her face, stroking her cheek, kissing her head or trying to get her to smile. They are incapable of letting a sleeping baby lie. They call her a chorus of silly little terms of endearment, like pulcina (little flea), bruttina (little ugly), guanciatina (little chubby cheeks), puzzona (little stinky), and my least favorite, poverina. It means “poor little one,” and I have to say, Naomi is the least pitiful baby on earth. This kid’s got it made, and she knows it.
With my mother-in-law, Franca. It's all her fault.
In fact, as much as these babysitters have saved my neck, they have ruined my child in the process. Before I started working so much, Naomi was quite content to spend a few hours at a time in her bouncy seat, chattering, dozing or just quietly watching me work on the laptop, wash dishes or fix lunch. Now, she is so accustomed to being held by her legion of babysitters that she has complete and utter disdain for the bouncy seat, or any other spot that’s not in someone’s arms. She conveys this disdain by screaming her little lungs out any time I try to put her down, even after she’s fallen asleep.
No time to pee! There's a baby needs held!
And while I am willing to be Mean Mommy and let her sit in her seat and cry, at least for a few minutes, while I complete some task for which I need both hands, Paolo is not so hard-hearted. The other evening, I took Daisy (the real poverina of the house; she no longer gets nearly the attention she was used to pre-baby) for a longish walk. When we arrived back home, Paolo was holding Naomi and practically hopping from one foot to the other. “Hurry,” he implored,” I have to pee!” I took the baby and reminded him that he could, in fact, put her in her bouncy seat or crib long enough to use the bathroom. “But she’ll cry,” he said. “Oy vey,” I thought.
But my laments are more tongue-in-cheek than anything. The Babysitting Brigade is spoiling my daughter, but better that she suffers from too much attention than too little. That I have built-in, free daycare in the homes of people I love and trust, and more importantly, in the arms of people who love Naomi, is a gift indeed, and just one more reason why I’m glad I’m raising my new baby in the Old World. Now if they would just stop playing tug-of-war with her…

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