Kiersten Pilar Miller is founder of The Milk Bar and Bellies Abroad based in Rome. The Milk Bar, created in 2009 was a store and meeting place dedicated to pregnancy, breastfeeding and motherhood. Today the Milk Bar has evolved into a portal for families called Bellies Abroad, offering online and in person consultations with culturally sensitive health care and legal professionals who speak a common language and adhere to the WHO Guidelines. The aim is to arm women with the confidence, information and support to have the birth and motherhood experiences they are looking for instead of what is easiest for the medical professionals.
In Italian, a doctor says “io l’ho fatta partorire” which loosely translated is, “I made her give birth”; the active verb goes to the doctor, not the mother. In Italy most women accept what is “given” to them and do not question medical professionals. It is considered offensive to even bring up the subject of a second opinion.
A lot of work needs to be done on women’s rights during birth the world over, but for now I am “thinking globally and acting locally”. Italy is a complex place on many levels. When it comes to birth, the further south you go the more of a disaster it becomes. Italy had the second highest rate of Caesarian sections in the world up until last year when we dropped to number three. This is not a nod to Julius Caesar or due to the fact that Italian women are made differently; the cause of this is manifold and marries a very high level of medicalization to a somewhat corrupt system inside of a culture that does not do much for gender equality.
Along with the high rate of Caesarian sections, women are often told that they do not have enough milk to feed their babies and are immediately given formula in the hospital. This has the effect of telling women that they are broken, that they are incapable of the two most basic requirements of motherhood: the ability to birth their children and then feeding them. It was in response to these conditions that I opened The Milk Bar in Rome in 2009.
The path that lead me to The Milk Bar was not a linear one. When I graduated from Wesleyan University in 1995 I realized, much to my parents’ $100,000-tuition-paid chagrin, my most marketable skill was my ability to think on my feet. But what to do with that? No one was offering a job deconstructing 19th century feminist literature. I had truly enjoyed my film courses at Wesleyan, so when I was presented with the opportunity to interview for a Barry Levinson movie called “Sleepers”, I took it. I got hired as an office Production Assistant and was lucky enough to have a wonderful boss who encouraged me to explore and help out in each department. I soon learned that being on set during shooting was where I wanted to be.
My first day on set found me on a rooftop in Greenpoint, Brooklyn with a huge crane and three city blocks dressed in 1960’s set dressing and antique cars. Hundreds of people were bustling about with intense purpose, moving equipment, working out the crane move, the hair and make up teams with flailing brushes; it was a pure adrenaline rush and I was hooked. Within a few years of many 7-day workweeks, I finally got my Directors Guild of America card and, due to another incredible female mentor, I became the youngest DGA 2nd Assistant Director in New York. I had reached my goal.
I had experiences that were truly unique, even for a born and raised New Yorker. I walked up the on ramp of the 59th street bridge before dawn to stage a traffic jam, I cued the shutting off of the lights at Yankee stadium, had Jack Nicholson call me a “Sport” and spent a Christmas party adoringly listening to Christian Bale speak in depth about the incredible impact his stepmother had had on his life, only to later realize I had spent the better part of my evening hearing stories about the great Gloria Steinem. My life was chaotic, never boring, and it fit perfectly with being a young woman in New York City.
After a particularly long job, I was in Greece with a college roommate going to meet friends in Thailand when I got an email, “Phone Home. You are Going to Rome”. A bit confused, as I was leaving Europe for Asia and this was NOT on my itinerary, I called home and found out my dear friend, boss and mentor had gotten us a job in Rome and wanted to know if I could be there in four days. I received the scripts for the HBO series “Rome” and quickly tried to brush up on my ancient Roman history, so as to sort the differences between Scipio and Cicero, Calpurnia and Livia. Did Pompey come before Julius Caesar or after? The only Italian I knew was “pizza & cappuccino”, but being young and blond I found the grips and electricians were more than keen on helping me learn the language.
As the Italians say, “I began a story” with our Production Manager and at the end of the second season of “Rome”, which HBO announced would be their last, we announced my pregnancy. At this point I spoke Italian, but no matter your mother tongue, pregnancy gives you a whole new vocabulary.
I gave birth to my daughter Millie (short for Miller) in June of 2007 after 9 months of learning how to defend myself from an unnecessary C-section, and there began the greatest adventure of my life.
Living in Rome, I soon realized how few resources there were for mothers. The only English support I had were La Leche League meetings, so I had begun going early on in my pregnancy before I had even thought about breastfeeding. The community it created was priceless, and allowed me to hear other mother’s stories and the problems and indignities they had encountered on their path to motherhood. While Italy is wonderfully child friendly it is definitely not “Mamma Friendly”.
When Millie was 6 months old my dear friend and boss called again and asked me to do a movie back in New York. I returned to the rhythm of working 14-hour days. I was panicked that Millie was going to take her first steps while I was on set. True to her nature, she awaited the day of her first birthday party and took her first steps into my arms. I burst into tears and I knew: my love affair with film production was over.
I decided I was going to start a new chapter by trying to make Rome a more hospitable place for new mothers. I wanted other women to be able to profit from all that I had learned since the birth of Millie. I wished for women to be able to make their own informed decisions instead of having others’ foisted upon them, and I wanted to empower them to take back the active verb of giving birth.
I returned to Rome and began the daunting process of opening a business in Italy. The circuitous labyrinth was absolutely mind-blowing. As I went through this I realized that when Dante wrote about the rings of Purgatory, it was not science fiction, it was daily Italian bureaucracy.
Despite all of the obstacles, I opened The Milk Bar in Rome in May 2009; it was a store, a meeting place and information point for pregnancy, breastfeeding and motherhood. We started the first ongoing English language birth course in Rome. The course educates about the physiology of birth and also culturally translates how things work here. I started the course because, even with all of the UN organizations and embassies we have in Rome, there was not much in terms of support and information for us “straniere” in English.
In 2017 The Milk Bar evolved into Bellies Abroad, an online platform whose aim is to arm women with the confidence, information and support to have the birth and motherhood experiences they are looking for instead of what is easiest for the medical professionals. When women become mothers, we are full of fears and doubts; we do not need the medical community exacerbating this for profit or indolence. At Bellies Abroad we do not judge; whatever is going to make a woman feel safe and capable is what she should be given access to, whether that is an epidural or a birthing ball. We work to give women and families information so that they are able to make these informed choices for themselves, and, to be there as shoulders to lean on when it doesn’t all go as planned.
Information in Italy is so difficult to come by and is often manipulated so that straight answers are oblique, and seem to undermine a woman’s confidence in her own abilities. Helping women go through this incredibly transformative process without the support of friends and family from home is a wonderfully fulfilling part of my job. We have seen women use the information we have given them to take control of their birthing experiences by refusing to acquiesce to the bullying of the hospital staff; they have come through the experience empowered, knowing that their voices have made a difference in their own birth experience, and hopefully for those who come after them. The obstetrician who teaches the course and I like to say, we are changing Italy, one birth at time.
It has been a beautiful but tough journey, and I know there are more chapters to be written. I am lucky to love what I do. I have received quite a few thank you notes, and even a thank you scrapbook from a group of “my” moms which reminds me that although Italy can be infinitely frustrating, I am doing something worthwhile. It is also something that Millie can be proud of, as she said to me when she was five years old: “Mamma, I am proud of you, not because you are my mamma but because you help mammas learn how to birth, feed and take care of their babies, and that is really important.” No amount of cocktails with Christian Bale could ever top that.
Watch an interview with Kiersten where she discusses how “foreign mums” are more able to question the status quo and the changes she has seen in the maternal health space in Italy over the past ten years.