I don’t know if any of you remember the Enjoli ad back in the 1980s where the beautiful blond wiggled around and sang:
“I can bring home the bacon,Fry it up in a pan,
And never let you forget you’re a man!
“I can work ’til five o’clock,Come home and read Tickety-Tock
And if its lovin’ you want
I can kiss you and give you the shivers…”
Now, dear blog readers, you may be astonished to learn that I actually believed that stuff. The woman is prancing around in a business suit and swinging a briefcase at the beginning, she then grabs a frying pan and appears in comfy-looking pants and a violet silk blouse (perfect for frying bacon) and then is in a sleeveless silk number for “never let you forget your man.”
It is remarkable that when I was in high-school and university I actually wanted to be that kind of woman and was convinced I could. My delusion continued in graduate school when I was studying international affairs and some professor asked us to write a brief essay on how we envisioned ourselves professionally and personally in the future. I wrote, what now seems to me a ridiculous essay, on how I was going to be a super-mother journalist and would go into Iraq and interview Saddam Hussein while carrying my baby in a baby-bjorn carrier. Yeah right.
My delusion continued when I decided while pregnant with my first child to go to war-torn Sarajevo to cover Pope John Paul II’s visit there. CBS Radio sent me a flak jacket, required attire for the plane ride over, and with great pride I modeled it in front of the mirror and got all puffed up thinking of myself as pregnant-woman-war-correspondent. Lucky for me, the Vatican cancelled the trip. I still didn’t want to give up on the idea and when my son was just five months old I travelled to Sierra Leone when it was in the midst of a brutal civil war just to prove I was as tough as all the other journalists. It was an incredible story, but not very smart of me to go. Two AP Television colleagues died there in that period and I realized it was not worth the risk.
The Mamma-war-correspondent idea got tossed pretty quickly after the birth of my first child, and after the birth of my second I had to give up my full-time job for a part-time position. So much for “bringing home the bacon and frying it up in the pan.”
Over the years, I have had to make many professional sacrifices as a mother and I don’t regret any of them. I have also learned that I have to keep work and kids separate. Forget the interview with Saddam Hussein, I cannot even bring my kids into the office on a day they don’t have school and expect to get much done. I cannot bring kids into the field with me on an interesting story, they inevitably get impatient and fed up.
My daughter Chiara drew this picture of me when she was in kindergarten and I was still trying to be an Enjoli Woman. I think the object in my right hand is a pen, the yellow square shape must be my usual gigantic bag– filled with all work and mamma necessities from newspapers to wet wipes. The object that appears to be smoking at my ear is not a cigarette (I don’t smoke) but I believe is my cell phone which was more or less smoking from all the use it got back in those days. The brown circle on the side of my neck must be one of the long, loopy earring I used to wear in my attempt to add a little glam to my working-mamma messiness, and the long pink thing that reaches down nearly to the hem of my dress is my tongue — I was so frenetic in those years I think my tongue must have hanging out all the time. All this is to say perhaps my kids figured out what it took me longer to realize: I cannot have it all and cannot be it all.
BREAKING NEWS! — THE ENJOLI WOMAN DOES NOT EXIST!!!
To be the Enjoli Woman, instead of an 8 hour perfume, one would need 8 hours of caffeine injections followed by a tranquilizer to get to sleep after all that hyper-activity.
All this brings me to an interesting written conversation I have been having with Cristina Higgins of Strategic Mama an organization that helps women find “Simple Strategies to Reinvent Modern Motherhood and Thrive.” Cristina, a Berkeley MBA grad, founded Strategic Mama after ten years working in learning and development and having 3 children in as many years. Through her work she encourages women to think strategically about the experience of motherhood and develop the practical managerial skills needed to thrive both as a mother and a person. You can subscribe to a free mini workshop on her site if you want to know more.
She is American and her partner is Italian. She contacted me with a series of questions about how Italians see motherhood, and the role of working mothers compared to Americans. Topics covered include: ‘Having It All’; Stay at Home Moms Stigma; Mother’s Guilt and the role of Parenting experts.
Here is some of our conversation:
Cristina Higgins: Having It All: The possibility of successfully managing motherhood and a career ie ‘Having it All’ is a hotly debated topic in the US. Over the last year the Lean-In work by Sheryl Sandberg and the watershed article by Anne-Marie Slaughter (See: WHY WOMEN STILL CAN’T HAVE IT ALL ) have re-energized this discussion. Is there a similar ‘Having it All’ debate going on in Italy?
Trisha Thomas: The article by Anne-Marie Slaughter is fascinating to me because I grew up in Boston with academic parents and was raised in the mentality that Anne-Marie Slaughter grew up with — women should be able to do it all — be successful professionals and mothers. I fully believed I could do that myself and was disappointed in myself when in 1998, after the birth of my second child I decided I had to go part-time.
There is no concept or ideal in Italy about “having it all”. There is the concept of being a “mamma snaturata” — a bad mother. I have bent over backwards in Italy to always pick up my kids at school, take them to water polo practice or scouts. I have felt a big cultural pressure to be a good mother here. There is zero pressure on fathers in Italy as far as I can tell.
Cristina Higgins: Stay at Home Mom Stigma. In the US, there can be stigma for a stay at home mother (SAHM) often expressed in the common question for SAHM’s of “What do you do all day?”. Is this the same for Italian stay-at-home mothers?
Trisha Thomas: There is no stigma for women in Italy who decide to stay at home. They are considered good mothers. Often stay at home mothers are considered lucky because it means they are rich enough to do so. I know a mother of three who was a high-powered lawyer and was complaining all the time. Instead of trying to work out a way to continue working and take care of her kids, she gave up completely, and is much happier.
Cristina Higgins: Good Mom/Bad Mom. In the US there is a sense that you are either good or bad. Women in my workshops talk about failing as a mother, not being good enough etc. The Good/Mom Bad Mom idea causes a lot of anxiety. Is there this same idea for the Italian Mamma?
Trisha Thomas: There is definitely a good/bad Mamma concept in Italy (the Mamma Snaturata). I feel that pressure a lot, but it is not connected at all to your work it is just connected to your mothering and, yes, it does create a lot of anxiety.
There is enormous pressure on women to be good “mammas”, to take proper care of their children (I have written a lot about this on my blog — clothing care, food preparation etc. –see links below)
Mothers in Italy worry about all sorts of things that American mothers wouldn’t bother with. For example, I had an Italian mother call me once with all sorts of questions about what her son would eat at a summer camp in the US. Mothers in Italy also seem a lot more fretful about hygiene and safety– whether clothes are cleaned properly or if a child touches something dirty or whether they might be in danger. Here is a post on that topic:
I feel there is also a lot of pressure on women in Italy to be beautiful, sexy and young looking– this became particularly bad (and degrading) during the years that Berlusconi was in power– I have also written about that on my blog:
There is not very much of an “ideal” of a “working mamma” — societal expectations and everything from TV shows to advertising (in my opinion) do not glamourize or even sympathize with the idea of being a working Mamma. However, given the current economy in Italy, women need to find work and earn money. The result is that women are waiting much longer to have children and having less children.
Cristina Higgins: Mother’s Guilt. Guilt is a big theme in American motherhood. Anything other than the mother is secondary care in the US – which leads to an awful equation of “if I am not with my child then they are suffering. ” Any time away from the kids – with husband, to take care of yourself, ANY time – is fodder for feelings of guilt and not doing enough.
From what I can tell, Italian moms seem comfortable with getting support in terms of daycare, Nonni (grandparents) and even Tatas (Nannies). For example, it doesn’t seem like there is a lot of guilt – in general of course – when kids are left with the Nonni. Or what about babysitters and day care?
Do Italian mothers struggle with guilt as well?
Trisha Thomas: Again, here, I have a tough time separating myself from Italian mothers. I live with lots and lots of guilt and my kids have learned how to manipulate me because of it. Italians I know do rely heavily on Nonni and Tata. I agree that there is ZERO guilt in Italian women when they leave their children with the grandparents. I think the feeling is that the grandparents are probably doing a better job than they are. As far as Tata’s are concerned, one thing I don’t like about many Italian mothers is their constant need to criticize on the Tata’s for not doing things properly. I think any woman who can afford to have a Tata should be grateful. Personally, I had two different live in Tata’s since 1998 until last year, I adored them both and was grateful for all they did for my kids. As far as day-care is concerned, I think Italian Moms do feel a little guilty about that. I know many pull their children out at the first sign of a sniffle or cold.
Cristina Higgins: Reliance on Experts. In the search to be a good mother and develop your kid to his/her fullest potential, there is a parallel industry of experts who instruct American parents on the best way to parent. On the surface this seems like it might be useful. But, I believe, it creates too much anxiety as parents can rarely implement the experts’ advice exactly and it leads many to feel that they have failed. When I ask Italian moms what books/websites/advice they follow, they seem to have a hard time thinking of any particular reference. Instead they seem to rely on advice and expertise of their friends, parents, and pediatricians.
Trisha Thomas: I totally agree with the above. I don’t know any Italian women who read books about parenting or how-to books. (In general, however, Italians don’t read books on parenting). Relatives (mothers, grand-mothers and aunts) and paediatricians are given God-like status when it comes to parenting. Everyone seems to follow the old traditional rule-book when it comes to parenting in Italy and if one tries to buck it, it is deeply frowned upon.
I got in trouble for trying to buck the “brodo vegetale” tradition. See my post on that.
Another example is the Italian idea that one cannot swim for two hours after you have eaten. This is the rule of all Italian grand-mothers, mothers, and pediatricians. It is ridiculous and you see Italian kids in the hot summer dying to go into the sea, lake or pool and parents counting out the two hours.
Cristina Higgins: I have to say that the good thing about this is that there is a way in Italy so each family does not have to reinvent it. I usually talk to people about the passegiata. There is a way to do the passegiata – nobody runs, people dress nicely, people stroll and talk quietly and go out about 9pm after dinner. It has been relatively easy to teach my kids how to do this because everyone around them is doing the same thing. I am in effect supported by all these people doing the same thing. And there are many examples of this, all of which I know you know too well. In the US you have to make everything up from scratch which gives you great room for having your own identity, but also a lot of pressure to define everything. There are pros and cons for both ways of course.
Trisha Thomas: I totally agree with you on this one. It is easier to make your kids conform to the “passeggiata” or the Italian eating habits or beach habits or dressing habits when everyone else is doing the same thing and believes that is the only way it should be done. I am happy, for example, that my kids basically conform to the Italian eating habits of thinking one should eat three meals a day compared to their American friends who want to snack constantly. But, of course, I’ve run into so many situations where I am in the American, bucking the system, unable or not willing to conform and creating problems. I think if you cited an expert/web-site or some self-help book to an Italian they would just laugh at you.
NOTE TO BLOG READERS:
I am looking for Italian women who are putting off having children, delaying or not having a second child because of the economic crisis who would be willing to be interviewed by the Associated Press. If anyone is willing to be interviewed and eventually quoted by the AP, please write to me on my AP email: email@example.com and put in the subject line: ITALIAN WOMEN