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
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.