Bring Home The Bacon, Fry It Up In A Pan

The Enjoli Woman from the 1980s advertisement
The Enjoli Woman from the 1980s advertisement

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 Mamma. By Chiara Piga
My Mamma. By Chiara Piga

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.


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)

Fevers Food and Clothing

Italian Mini Divas

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:

Leo in the Sandbox, Nico in the Tree

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:

Berlusconi’s Babes

Desperate Housewives in Italy

Sweatpants at the Supermarket

Walk on Cadavers and Sell Your Mother

The Italian Super-Mamma

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.

How I Ended Up In Italy

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.


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: and put in the subject line: ITALIAN WOMEN

Thank you!!

16 thoughts on “Bring Home The Bacon, Fry It Up In A Pan”

    1. I have not read “Lean In”, although I’ve heard a lot about it, and already have a lot of opinions about it. I hope someone will get it for me for Christmas. In my own life what I have done is “Hang In” meaning I’ve managed to keep my job in a highly competitive business (TV journalism), as it was changing dramatically– we’ve gone from using video-tapes and satellite feeds to diskettes, and editing and filing through our lap-tops– and give a lot to my family. I have sacrificed in terms of my role in the company and my salary. As I said, I have not read “Lean In”, and I must, but I think if I had leaned in instead of pulling back when I did, it would have been bad for my family. (I should also add that I have an Italian husband who is very helpful with the kids on weekends and vacations but leaves the house at 8am and comes back home at 830pm during the week so I juggle, sports, chorus, doctors, dentists, teacher meetings for all 3 kids etc).

  1. As you know, I have pretty strong feelings about this issue, and in general feel the US is pretty screwed up on gender roles. I think our family is a great case study with you being the career woman who as you say forged ahead trying to do it all and then had to make sacrifices to keep it all afloat. (BTW I look at you with GREAT admiration!) Me who imagined herself the have it all type, and for a variety of reasons stepping out of the work force and being an at-home parent struggling to make my decision seem valid and now fighting my way back into the workforce after too many years out. Then there is Stephen who chose a career path more conducive to being at home and ended up in the role as an at-home dad and at bit lost at times as there was little society support for fathers at home (we have often compared notes on our respective at home lives and I have had so much more support than he throughout), None of our decisions have worked the way we had planned or particularly wanted although that is not to say there has not been pleasure or happiness in the decisions. Anyhow, it leads me right back to my frustration with the US system where families are not a priority or valued. And this spins off into so many issues that are wrong with the system (education, health care…!!), it is hard to know where to begin.

    1. Thanks Gwen! I think we are an in-between generation. Our mothers were the first feminists, breaking out of the 1950s role of mother at home and working “Father Knows Best”. But although both men and women of our generation have had more options, we have often gotten lost and frustrated along the way. I think our family is a pretty good example. Also, I totally agree with you on the national and state-level systems not making it any easier — whether it is education, healthcare or daycare.

  2. Fascinating questions – and answers! I think the American muddle may be one result of the big increase in cultural diversity that has come in the last forty years, since Congress opened immigration to non-Europeans. And the resulting large amount of intermarriage, across religions, cultures, races, which means the Nonis and Tatas have quite different views. And we have embraced this as a good thing, so that even families who are not diverse are in the midst of this muddle. This will settle down in a decade or two a bit, but the sense of being alone in finding the right values may continue here, more than elsewhere. I have admired your family, Trisha, for the affirmation given to work and home, and the model you have given your children of a mamma who works. I hope that you and your American colleague will take note of the fact that it is critically important for all women to be able to earn a living. Even if they are lucky enough to have a husband who earns enough to give them the freedom to stay home, the economy or that job may shift and they have to be able to earn in order to be able to survive long-term. I cannot see, nor does anyone I read predict, that the world will return to one-wage households. That era has gone, forever. So it is a disservice to women to tell them they ‘should’ be able to stay home. And women who can need to see this as a great blessing, that may make other women envious, as riches do make people envious. America pays day care workers poorly, even though many have degrees in Early Child Care, and views them with suspicion, And nannies are seen as potentially evil here, though I knew some in Lincoln who came to church, liked being part of the community, and were loved by the families they worked for. Making room for widely differing choices is hard, but necessary work. And love, which is good parenting, is not predictable by life-style, which defeats our longing to have rules that always work.

    1. Gosh, I didn’t even think about the question about women needing to be able to earn a living. I guess I have always taken that for granted. My grandmother — who lost her husband when she was only 32, with two young children at home, drilled that lesson into my head from a very young age. She struggled to find a career path for herself and “bring home the bacon” for her little girls. In the end she was quite successful, but until the day she retired she always got up at 5am so that she would be the first person into the office. I am sure she was the last to leave too. She also taught me that “there is no work too humble for you…work is work and you bring your own dignity to it.”

  3. . . being a bloke, I realise that all that parenting/working stuff is not meant for the likes of me – but it certainly made interesting reading! What was stimulated by your opening about aspiring to some image of the perfect professional woman and mother was a vision of one of my heroes, the wonderful, what-you-see-is-what-get Dolly Parton. She grew up in the mining towns where booze and prostitution went hand in hand on pay day. One day, she saw an amazing sight of a group of professional sex workers dolled up in bright colours of clothing and make-up. Dolly was enchanted by the sight of them and asked her mother who they were – mother was dismayed and tried to hurry young Dolly away saying that they were wicked, sinful whores to which Dolly said ‘But Momma, that’s what I want to be, I want to dress like them!’ And so it turned out – she has a heart of gold and dresses like she means business.

    1. Yikes! I’ve never heard that story about Dolly Parton before! Well, I suppose I should be glad that my dream of becoming an Enjoli Woman didn’t turn me into a prostitute. Although I joke with my AP colleagues that I would probably make more money on Via Salaria (the main prostitute street in Rome) than with the AP! Although I shouldn’t joke about it, most of the prostitutes are on Via Salaria are young girls from Eastern Europe and their stories are very sad.

  4. Trisha, I saw a statistic last week that said ‘95% of Italian men have never turned on the washing machine in their household’ – yikes!
    My question is – what about the new generation of Italian men – the teenagers. Are they being educated in domestic responsibilities or are they being ‘enabled’ to follow in their papa’s footsteps?
    (N.B. I know this statistic does not apply to your family Nico is living away from home so clearly has to do laundry)
    Also, so interesting to read how Italian working families have no guilt about leaving their kids with grandparents. How nice. I had to leave my then two year old with my mum for care when he was little and felt guilty every day. We often hear about how grandparents have ‘their own lives’ and feel encumbered by the burden of their grandchildren and daycare. I think it’s great that family values and connections are as strong as ever in Italy.

    1. Guess what? I don’t think my very own husband has ever turned on our washing machine. Sigh. Yes, my son is living in Holland now, actually he is coming home on Sunday for the Christmas Break and I sure hope he isn’t bringing back one semester’s worth of dirty laundry! He will do it himself if he dares to bring it back. I do think things are changing for the better on that front. I have several female friends in their 30s married to Italian men who say their husbands are much better about participating in household duties. As far as the grandparents are concerned, I agree with you, it is so nice to see that. It is rare in the US for relatives to step in and help with the kids and that is indeed something very nice about Italy. Family also often care for the elderly as well. Elderly people who would probably be in nursing homes or some elderly living situation in the US are taken care of by family (often with the help of immigrant “badanti” elderly care assistants). I have heard women who are older than I am complaining of being trapped in the middle with 20 something children who aren’t getting jobs and moving out of the house and elderly parents and the mother in the middle trying to care for everyone. That sounds difficult to me.

  5. A couple of things…

    Firstly, I have to disagree with my sister on the point of grandparents helping out in the US. I think our family has moved around a lot and as such we all live far from family support. In 2003 when we moved from NY to AZ then to WI and now to TX I noticed how many young families do live near family and do rely on grandparents, aunts and uncles do help out regularly (for better or for worse). I think much of the US is not as mobile as we have been and live in the general area of extended family and they rely on support of their families to a greater extent than we realize.

    Secondly, after reading your post yesterday morning, I got in the car and National Public Radio was interviewing Stewart Friedman, the founding Director of The Wharton School’s Work/Life Integration Project and author or a recently published book “Baby Bust: New Choices for Men and Women in Work and Family.” It was a very interesting discussion on research he has done studying 2 generations of Wharton College students – Gen Xers (in 1992) and Millenials ((in 2012). What he found was that the rate of graduates who plan to have children has dropped by nearly half over the past 20 years. At the same time, he said that while men and women are now more aligned in their attitudes about dual-career relationships, they are opting out of parenthood in equal proportions across both generations. He said that there is greater freedom of choice now, but new constraints are limiting peoples options.

    One of these constraints he discussed at length was debt. Interestingly, a college educated, young 20 something woman, an immigrant from Somalia, called in completely worked up about work/ family decisions in almost a paralysis about what decisions to make. My first reaction, I am embarrassed to say, was “yup, get used to it, they never go away.” However Friedman was wonderful in his response. He gently asked her what would help make things easier for her to make decisions. While she had so many issues, the number one thing was crushing debt. He went on to discuss how young folks are moving into adulthood with so much debt that they don’t see parenthood as an option as they can’t afford it.

    Anyhow, I know I sound like an ad for Friedman, but his book I noticed is for sale on Amazon for $1.99 for kindles. Figured I could afford that one!

    1. Gwen — thanks for this. First, I will stand corrected on Americans and relatives helping out. Second, the question about debt and not having children is fascinating. Just yesterday, I was chatting with a woman who freelances with our office in Rome. She is 33, has been living with her companion for years now, and says she has no intention for the moment of having children. I asked her if it was for economic reasons and she said “absolutely not” it was for societal reasons. (Note: In Italy University is free, so students do not have to go into massive debt, healthcare is also free–although my economist husband would point out –but taxes are higher to pay for all that stuff) She said there is so much pressure on mothers (lots of it self-imposed) to stay at home with kids and give up any job they have, even part-time. She said she doesn’t want to have to deal with that kind of pressure so she is not going to bother having kids, and most of her friends feel the same way. Italy has if not the lowest, one of the lowest birthrates in the world.

  6. I absolutely remember that commercial, it was riveting & inspiring. I was one mamma that gave up and became a sahm pretty much from the beginning until they went to school anyway. I paid for it by not ever having a career of my own, social security & pension. So although I was a great mamma, it was a serious cost to me.

    1. Barbara — I am so glad to hear you fell for that ad too. It did somehow make one feel you could actually do it all. I think your experience of motherhood and work was quite common. The pressure was on you to take care of the kids (and probably run the household too), and I am guessing you did not have a lot of choice.

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