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  • Measuring Mamma’s Milk: Fascism and the Medicalization of Maternity in Italy.
  • Rudolph M. Bell
Measuring Mamma’s Milk: Fascism and the Medicalization of Maternity in Italy. By Elizabeth Dixon Whitaker (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2000. 358pp. $49.50).

An American (or any non-Italian) scholar who spends some time in the home of an Italian mamma as she tends to a new baby will be struck by two seemingly compulsive behavior patterns. One is taking the bambino’s temperature daily, maybe even morning and night, always at exactly the same hour, although nothing seems to be amiss. The other is weighing the baby before and after each poppata. And if the scholar stays for a day or two, she will notice mother and child adhering to a rigid schedule: at the breast with military precision when the clock strikes 6:00, 10:00, 14:00, 18:00 and 22:00, or perhaps one hour later, but always five feedings and therefore as many as ten scale-tippings daily, followed by a good night’s sleep for both. Once the amount of milk hidden in each breast has been thoroughly established, some of these weigh-ins may be skipped, although one would still want to check at least every morning or evening at the same hour to see that everything is working properly.

Surely most visiting professors (along with some native scholars) know all about these practices, or as in my case assisted marginally in performing them for my own infant daughter, and yet only Whitaker stopped long enough to ask in a thorough way why the Italian mamma does what she does and then to publish her findings in a substantial scholarly monograph. The answers she provides shed light in fascinating ways on the penetration of science and politics into intimate, changing relations between mother and child, adding richly to the “hand that rocks the cradle” genre of recent socio-historical interest.

Determining how much the baby should gain during each poppata is a complicated matter that depends on sex, age, and prior weight but for this calculation the qualified midwife of the Fascist era, or the pediatrician today, provides a chart, usually including a range of tolerable variations. The mother needs a very accurate (and rather expensive) scale for this, since as little as five grams (less than one-fifth of an ounce) in excess can mean dangerous overfeeding, leading to obesity and ultimately to soft-headedness. Underfeeding, although less harmful if it happens only occasionally, also threatens good development of mind and body. Therefore, the weighing must be done scientifically, with the baby in identical clothing or else naked, and quickly, before soiling the diaper changes the elements of the equation. Indeed, rough approximation of intake by checking the quantity and quality of poop is the way poorer women have been struggling toward the same childrearing objectives for centuries. [End Page 211]

With artificial feeding of sterilized animal’s milk, which theoretically might have appealed to Fascism’s futurist instinct, much of this fuss would have been unnecessary since the liquid might have been measured in a clear glass bottle or standardized can and then dispensed in a totally sanitary way. But according to the day’s leading scientists, babies nourished from any source other than their mother’s breasts ran great risks, including the likelihood that they would grow up to be homosexuals, an outcome that would have undermined the reproductive cycle completely. Although the Fascists, supported by the Catholic Church, restricted their efforts to the shaming of mothers who refused to breastfeed, legislation to criminalize such behavior would have followed rationally from their ideology. Children were the State’s responsibility, indeed, at critical times belonged to the State, and regulating the women who provided for them served a legitimate, in modern legalese we might say a “compelling,” national interest. The same logic that supported compulsory military service, required youngsters to attend years of schooling, and regulated who might marry, certainly allowed for the requirement that mothers take proper care in raising their children. And if objective scientists had determined that the breast was best, anything else might constitute child endangerment, at...

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pp. 211-213
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