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Una Mamma Italiana
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by Tiffany Longo
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A Day in the Life of an Italian Mamma
Discover what it's like to raise a child, work full-time, and be a good wifey in the Boot
Last week, my son, who is 20 months old, screamed and cried for over an hour as though the Leaning Tower of Pisa was falling on him. We are staying in my husband's native Italy and living with his entire family (his sisters, their spouses and children, and his mother).
While I was bravely trying to let him cry it out as he squirmed and writhed on the floor, matted with foam tiles, my loving sister-in-law came into the room and started rubbing his belly and tried to pick him up and hug him. She wanted to help me. She meant well. But I wanted him to realize that acting like a lunatic is not going to get him any attention.
Once she had intervened, my son pushed her aside and wanted a hug from me. I didn't know what else to do, so I hugged him. That probably wasn't the best move, considering I was trying to teach him that tantrums won't garner rewards. When in Rome (almost literally), however, you have to do as the Romans, right? Here in Ischia, an island off the coast of Naples, the people treat you as though you are attempting murder if you let your kid cry. So, I didn't let him cry.
Being a mom is hard work, no matter where you are. And women of every color, creed, and culture tend to put far too much pressure on themselves to do the impossible, be perfect and raise perfect people. I am no exception, and my type-A tendencies aren't helping matters. But being a mamma in southern Italy, especially when you come from somewhere else, is even more of a challenge.
The obstacles seem insurmountable when you are trying to get used to parenthood in a different place at the same time that your baby, who is so confused by English and Italian that he barely speaks a word in either language, is completely out of sorts. He was just used to life in the States when we uprooted him, handed him over to a different nonna and zii, and took away everything he knew (from food to his original toys). The fact that he is allergic to something in Ischia doesn't help matters. While his rash keeps growing, he has more tantrums.
In the land where babies don't cry, mammas have long days and nights ahead of them. They are expected to breastfeed as long as they can, and some of the 20-month-olds here are still on the boob. I gave up when my son was 9 months old, right after we returned to the United States from Italy last year. But some of my Italian mamma friends are still at it with their two year olds.
Even if they have full-time jobs, the moms in Italy do all the household chores, including cooking and cleaning. The bulk of the child rearing lands on their shoulders. Although, I know a couple of fathers here who change diapers or lull their child to sleep now and then, most of the men I know, especially the older men, do little of this work. This might explain why Italian kids are so attached to their moms for so long.
Shortcuts don't exist for these women either. No one is relying on TV dinners or takeout. They're making elaborate meals that usually feature some sort of pasta, followed by a meat or fish dish with vegetables. Sometimes, they even offer up desserts, which they might buy, but they also often make themselves.
Women in the States might do laundry, but most of the ones I know gave up ironing years ago. Their counterparts in Italy, on the other hand, could make ironing an Olympic sport. They use professional-looking irons with giant boxes for holding water for all the steam they need.
Every dress shirt, every T-shirt looks as though it has never been wrinkled and was professionally folded by a Gap salesperson. As if that weren't enough, they iron underwear and sheets. That's where I draw the line. I've told my in-laws that it's un-American to iron those items and that I must refuse to do it for fear of being a traitor. Still, I have no choice but to hang my clothes outside to dry, which takes far longer than throwing them into the dryer I have grown to worship in my America.
Italian women clean the kitchen (usually, they wash dishes by hand because dishwashers are infrequently used in these here parts), vacuum, and wash the floors every single day. They also dust every other day. They sweep the terrace and work in the garden during the warmer months. They tend to pets (sometimes men participate in this work).
Those with older children help them with their homework after all this other stuff is done. Granted, they have about three hours off from work in the middle of the afternoon for the siesta, but most of them work at an actual job – not the one in the house – in the morning and again in the evening until they return home and cook dinner.
I'm still uncertain if they sleep ever. It's a mystery to me. What I know is that I can never live up to the moniker, Italian mamma. While I admire these women, who do it all and then some and never let baby whimper, I am also happy to be imperfect and a little less Italian in this instance. At least, I can get in some shut eye and will never have to treat ironer's elbow.
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