Part II Fevers, Food and Clothing
As an American living in Italy, I have learned that Italian mammas spend their days measuring their child’s fevers. When a child has the flu, the mamma has to measure the temperature at least four or five times a day to report the specific number — 38.3, 39.1, 37.9 — back to the mother-in-law, husband and pediatrician. An Italian pediatrician under the National Health Service is obliged to visit your child at home if he or she has a fever.
When I was growing up we didn’t even have a thermometer in the house. Once in a while if one of her kids was really burning up with a fever, my mother would put her hand on our forehead before giving us some medicine. And while an American mom might give a child baby Tylenol, and drag a sick child with her to the supermarket, an Italian mamma would not dare.
I’ve learned to invent the appropriate fever figures to satisfy my needs — down a few notches for the husband and mother-in-law, up a few if I want the pediatrician to come. The mother’s obsession with her child’s temperature helps him grow and develop into a true Italian hypochondriac, taking full advantage of the national health-care system with frequent blood and urine tests and regular analyses to see if he is suffering from a deadly ailment.
Sometimes I play a little game with Italian male friends. If they say to me they are sick and have a fever, I say “Oh really, how high?” Then I count how many temperatures they give me. For example, a typical response would be, “Now it is 37.5, but last night it was 38 and the night before it went up to 39.” The winner of this game is always Pietro, a 32-year-old who works in my office and is finishing his engineering degree. He lives at home with his mother and frequently is afflicted with fevers. He admits he is little obsessive, but says he measures at least ten times a day and is always ready with the numbers. In between measuring his fever his mother fills him with liquids. She gives him liters of tea with fennel, liters of Rosehips tea, and liters of chicken broth. Then, he says, once he is over his fever and ready to leave the house, she makes him ‘dress like an astronaut’, every inch covered, to resist the severe Roman cold.
In addition, Italians believe that, if you have a fever, you must stay home in bed. It is the favorite excuse for getting out of work, dinners and any sort of unpleasant meetings. No one questions a fever. I’ve noticed whenever a male colleague calls in sick with a fever, he always has 38.9. I’ve heard the same number from friends bowing out of dinner parties, “My husband is in bed with 38.9.” For me, it is enough to know that a colleague is not coming to work or a couple is not coming to dinner. I do not need to know the number, but Italians do.
My experience being a Mamma in Italy is in sharp contrast to my experience of having an American Mom. It is an Italian Mamma’s life-long duty to constantly fret about her children’s health. My mother’s attitude was quite the opposite. She told me once, “the best pediatricians are the ones who tell you your child is “just fine’” In fact, that was her attitude to most of her own three children’s ailments. Scraped knees, bloody noses, stitches, broken bones….the response was mostly the same, “you’re just fine.”
Food and fevers are at the top of any good Italian mamma’s to-do list, but clothing is not far behind. Italian mammas are obsessive about how their children dress and Italian children are often perfectly dressed. First, they have to have a canottiera, undershirt. They actually call it the ‘maglia della salute’, the health shirt. It keeps them warm, even on steaming hot Rome summer days, and helps them keep from getting fevers, they believe. If a mamma dares to skip the canottiera she will send shock waves through all friends, aunts and mothers-in-law, not to mention husbands.
On top of the canottiera go all sorts of difficult-to-care-for clothing. My first child was a boy –I was appalled when all our Italian friends started giving me frilly-collared, button-down blouses and little wool sweaters as gifts. So much for machine washable. My third child was born in June when Rome is brutally hot. In a few weeks she was covered with an ugly heat rash. Much to the dismay of all, I let her spend her days in her diapers. A month later we left for vacation in the US. I dressed my two daughters in pretty pink Italian hand-wash sweaters for the flight. When we arrived Caterina had tomato sauce all over her sweater, and Chiara had managed to spit-up all over hers. “Did you ever think of cotton, machine-washable sweat-shirts?” my father asked.
Around the corner from our apartment in the Parioli neighborhood of Rome is a tiny clothing store for children called “Mini Divi”. How is that name best translated? ‘Mini Divas’? or ‘Little Stars’? I am not sure, but in Italian it perfectly sums up how Italians view their children. The store is filled from floor to ceiling with beautiful clothing in mini sizes — lovely delicate wool sweaters for new-borns, little linen dresses with embroidered tops for toddlers. I realized that I was becoming a real Italian mamma when I caught myself looking through the clothes with a friend and saying in a saccharin voice, “Oh isn’t this one an amore?”, “Oh look how bellino this dress is.” Any normal American mother would walk in that shop, glance around and walk right back out. If she decided to stay she might ask, “Is there anything here that can be put in the washing machine?” And the clerk would answer, “No, Signora, everything must be washed by hand.”
When my son Nico began school, we were very excited about the first birthday party invitation. Aware that Italians dress children elegantly, I dressed Nico in a nice pair of corduroys, a button-down Oxford shirt, and (God forbid!) sneakers. I went with what I had on — jeans and comfortable shoes. We arrived at the party and almost every little boy was in little grey wool shorts with thin white bobby socks, girlish-looking buckle-up shoes, and a white blouse with a frilly collar, with a little wool sweater on top. Bleck! Nico did not care that he was dressed differently and neither did I.
I did care about the mothers though. Each one was more elegant than the next. I saw one mamma come in with two children dressed in matching frilly collars and buckle shoes. Their tall, thin elegant mamma had a beautiful, grey cashmere sweater-suit with a long top and short skirt. Her long, thin legs were covered with sheer grey stockings, and she wore perfectly matching grey high-heeled shoes. I stared at her enviously. Ah, to have long thin legs and spend the day in sheer grey stockings and a mini-skirt. I would not even be able to get out of my house with the children without getting a long run in those stockings. Slowly, I worked my way over to the corner where the baby-sitters had gathered and found a chair with them. As I sat there contemplating the stunningly dressed Italian Mammas, I found myself hoping that the little boy with the grey-suited mamma would drink a ton of punch, loads of popcorn, and piles of chocolate cake. I was secretly hoping he would upchuck in the car on the ride home all over his little frilly shirt, and wool shorts, but I was especially hoping he would get that cashmere suit and sheer stockings of his Mamma.
Italian parenting does have some valuable things in common with French parenting as noted in Pamela Druckerman’s article “Why French Parents Are Superior.” Like the French, Italians are conscientious about proper greetings and formalities, hello, goodbye and thank you and using the formal Italian with grown-ups.
Food is a national obsession in Italy and so children learn food habits very young. Picky eating is not allowed. My younger daughter hates artichokes but they are one of the favourite dishes of my mother-in-law so Chiara has learned to eat them without a peep. My husband works hard at teaching his children proper manners, sitting up straight at the table, no talking with your mouth full and using all silverware properly. There are some habits which seem absurd to me, like cutting the skin off an apple on a plate with a knife and a fork. He had to work on his wife on that one too. The first time I tried the fruit routine, I sent a juicy peach flying across his parents’ dining room table. I believe his mother was horrified by my American gaucheness. On the other hand, my mother was amazed on a visit to Tuscany when my Italian husband booked an elegant restaurant for dinner. My mother gasped when she saw the linen table clothes, multiple crystal wine glasses and porcelain plates. “Not a restaurant for children,” she whispered to me. But the kids came through with flying colors, thanks to the training by their Italian father.
In Italy meals are eaten as much as possible sitting down at the table with the family and like the French, they do not have all day snacking. Snack-time is “merenda” which comes around 4 o’clock.
Italian children are also taught at a young age that sometimes they have to sit patiently through things that bore them, like Catholic Mass. I once noticed an American mother at a Catholic Mass in Rome with three children. The young American children started to get antsy and the mother pulled out several plastic baggies full of cereal (fruit loops, I believe) and the Italians sitting nearby looked on in horror as these American kids crunched loudly on their fluorescent pink, yellow and green fruit loops, dropping them under the pew, getting down on the floor to pick them up and generally making a mess. Italians would never do that. The children must sit patiently through Mass and eat the Sunday meal with the family afterwards.