‘Expat mothers expect Italy to be like home’

Moving countries can be a daunting process, especially with a young family. The Local talks to mother-of-two Kimberly Vanzi, the American founder of the Firenze Moms 4 Moms Network, about expat parenting in Italy.

'Expat mothers expect Italy to be like home'
Vanzi moved to Florence with her Italian husband and one-year-old son in 2002. Photo: Kimberly Vanzi

How did your expat mums’ group come about?

It all started when I moved to Florence with my Italian husband in 2002. I was lost! But I had a one-year-old son and was determined to find some friends for him.

An Italian friend told me that there was a playgroup at an Episcopal Church. So, despite the fact that I’m not Episcopalian and didn’t speak Italian at the time, I turned up there one Wednesday morning.

The church turned out to be a great meeting place – but the authorities there eventually decided to close the playgroup. At that point, I created the Monday Morning Moms and Tots Playgroup website, just so we could all keep track of various temporary venues.

Then, in 2004, when I was pregnant with my second child, I started listing useful information for the other expat mothers – such as how to find a doctor, how to fill in various Italian forms, and so on. That was the real start of Firenze Moms 4 Moms Network.

Would you describe Italy as family-friendly? How does it compare with your hometown in the US?

When I first came here, I thought it wasn’t very family-friendly at all. The streets were impossible for a stroller, the playgrounds were run down, and there were no high chairs in restaurants.

Things have changed, however, over the years: the playgrounds are improving and some restaurants now have high chairs, children’s menus and changing areas.

What are the most common problems for expat mothers?

It all depends on the person. The mothers who are hesitant to speak Italian or go out have the hardest time adapting to life here. Another issue is that some mothers come here expecting it to be like home – which it’s not.

Other issues are just simple things, like missing certain foods or other products from home. Sometimes, with a little searching, you can find a similar thing but with a different name.

But the biggest and most important issue is getting a job. Right now, the economy is so bad that it’s hard for Italians to find a job – let alone expat mothers. Lately, I’ve seen more and more families moving back to their home countries.

Is it better to put your child in a local or an international school?

We often talk about this – and it can get heated – in our discussion group. Some mothers prefer international, some private and others are fine with state schools.

My own view is that it’s not difficult to find a good school; it’s more about making a decision that you and your child are comfortable with.

Both my boys go to state school. Yes, there are issues at times but they’re not that different from those in other schools round the world. There’s a lot of homework in middle school – certainly more than I had when I was a schoolgirl, but probably not as much as in US schools today.

How would you compare your experience of having a baby in Italy with having one in the US?

My experience here in Italy was wonderful and I wish had had the same experience with my first child

I had my first child in a US teaching hospital. For the most part, I had confidence in my doctors, but there was one I didn’t like – and, sure enough, my baby decided to come into this world when he was on call. I ended up having a C-section because my baby was very big and was not going to come out naturally. 

But the doctor decided to wait on the C-section when both my baby and I were under stress because he was changing shifts for the day and leaving. Then the nurse was too swamped to take care of my low-glucose baby so she moved him to the neonatal intensive care unit where he was the healthiest baby there and only really needed regular feedings.

When I had my second son here in Italy, I had all my routine ante-natal care in the public health system but I also opted for a private doctor. It was great to have one doctor to follow me through my pregnancy – and there were no complications.

I went into hospital for my second C-section (here, the husband isn’t allowed in the room with you while it’s done). Then I stayed in a room with three other mothers and their babies.

I find most mothers have a good experience at hospitals here. If they want to – and have the money – they can even give birth in a pool in a private room.

Does your family feel integrated?

Yes, we are now. Or maybe I should say I am now. As a friend once told me, the first five years are the toughest. But after living here for 11 years, I can honestly say it does feel like home. Going back to the US doesn’t even cross my mind.

Are your children bilingual?

Yes, my children are. Ever since they were born, I’ve always spoke English and my husband has always spoken Italian with them. Because they go to a local school, Italian is now becoming their main language, but for the most part they watch TV in English.

Is the Italian workplace family-friendly?

It’s very much like the workplace in other Western countries. As a salaried employee, you’re entitled to vacations and some ‘sick’ days – but you’re expected to be at work when your child is ill. If you want to be with your child, you have to take one or two of your own allotted ‘sick’ days.

What advice would you offer to other expat mums moving to Italy?

Do your research, start learning the language before you arrive, and find out if there’s a local community in your area for expatriate mothers.

Don’t expect living in Italy to be like living in your home country. Finally: if you haven’t got work lined up, then start saving as much as you can – because getting a job right now is really hard.

Kimberly Vanzi runs the Firenze Moms 4 Moms Network.

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