Warning: this mom may be hazardous to your child’s health

Adventures in raising bicultural children

Elizabeth Petrosian
March 15, 2012

I truly wasn't trying to harm her. It was early April-that cruel month when birthday invitations ramp up again, when kids who've gone stir-crazy all winter have learned with fiendish skill how to push all your buttons (and push them, with relish)-and my daughter had asked a little friend over to play. My Gemma is basically a caldaia with pigtails and was running around the house barefoot, as usual. Her impish friend followed suit, as children do, though honestly I hadn't even noticed (I tend to leave kids to their own devices during play dates-unless I hear screams or smell hair burning-and busy myself with dinner prep, Facebook and a glass of wine, not necessarily in that order) until the girl's mom came to pick her up. Together we went to root the girls out of Gemma's bedroom, but I wasn't prepared for what ensued.


‘Irene, why on earth are you barefoot? Are you crazy?'


‘But Gemma is scalza, too!'


‘Well don't come complaining to me when you get bronchitis, you intractable urchin!'


If this Italian mother had called the cops on me for child endangerment I could not have felt more like a piece of irresponsible dog-doo; my impulse was to bow my head and beg for forgiveness. But then I thought, rather defiantly, ‘Why, it's only 2 degrees shy of balmy outside, and I would think that 6-year-olds are capable of putting socks on if they feel cold, dammit!' So I just stood there, perversely, listening to the ongoing shouting match and watched as the frazzled mom shoved her daughter's feet into her socks and shoes and hustled her out of my house as if the Grim Reaper was doing the tarantella behind her back. I was sure I'd never see either of them again and that henceforth all the other moms at school would start referring to me in whispers as Typhoid Mary.


Any foreign mother living in Italy will tell you that there are cultural differences in child-rearing practices. Things like bedtimes, modes of discipline and attitudes toward clothing (I find so many Italian children impossibly tidy, as if being mussed were a cardinal sin) are often wildly divergent. And while ‘helicopter moms' do exist among Americans, Brits and Aussies, in this regard Italian mothers are the undisputed champions of the world: they're maternal Hindenburgs, casting colossal, oppressive shadows over every move their child makes. It's perplexing to me, but then again I come from a country where children are allowed to drink Coke for breakfast.


If we Anglo-American moms are somewhat lackadaisical when it comes to things like our children's grubby clothes, their runny noses and rambunctious play, then the opposite is usually true of Italian moms: their obsession with spotless grembiuli, their mortal fear of catching a chill, their constant admonishments to be careful and vai piano seem burdensome at best and tyrannical at worst.


But do I complain when it's August and 37 degrees out and an Italian mom sees fit to blow-dry my child's sweat-dampened hair so he doesn't catch cold after kicking a ball around with her son? Do I look askance when I go to pick up my kid and she's waddling around like a penguin wearing snowshoes with three pairs of thick socks forced on her by some overly anxious Italian mom?


No, I remain stoic in the face of such flamboyant manifestations of Italian hypochondria, though I'll say this: if I have to put up with their indigenous ways, then they certainly have to put up with mine.



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