Today is our final Motherhood Around the World post this summer, and our last stop is Italy, where Molly Gage moved a decade ago. “My then-fiancé and I were living in New York, but decided to get married and move to his native Rome,” she says. Now divorced, Molly lives with her eight-year-old daughter and six-year-old son. She teaches art therapy at an Italian university and volunteers at a refugee artisan group. Here are 15 things that have surprised her about parenting in Italy…
On speaking the language: I speak English with my kids, and their dad speaks Italian. Sabina’s words were all in Italian for the first couple years. Nowadays my kids have cute Italian inflection even when speaking English. This week, Sabina was like, “Can I have a sandwich with may-oh-NAY-zay?” “I’m like, it’s mayonnaise! It’s mayonnaise!” Even though I speak English with them, I sprinkle in some Italian words when they work best. I say “basta,” which means, stop or enough, if they’re doing something annoying; or I say “andiamo,” which means let’s go. Certain words just work so well in Italian. Sometimes Luca still mixes things up, he’ll say “I’m cold in my gambe,” which is “I’m cold in my legs.” Italian is such a beautiful language — I mean, how great is it to just add “ino” to the end of a word and make whatever the subject is, smaller?
On living with in-laws: I had a cross-cultural marriage experience, and now I have a cross-cultural divorce experience. I still live in an apartment in my in-laws’ building; now they’re my next-door neighbors. Also in the building are my ex-husband’s sister and her family, as well as one of his brothers and his family. It sounds kind of awkward, but everyone’s fine with it. It’s great for my kids; they have a bunch of aunts, uncles, cousins and grandparents nearby. Sometimes in the morning if my son decides he wants cereal for breakfast and I’m planning something else, he’ll knock on his grandmother’s door to get some, or she might call me in the evening and invite us over for a dish of gelato (she makes awesome gelato).
On a (secret) favorite thing: I would be remiss not to mention the bidet! It has genuinely improved the quality of my life, and now it’s hard to imagine life without it. My kids still like assistance in the bathroom, and it’s great for washing bottoms — also for the ladies, during your period, post-sex, washing feet in the summer after a day of walking in sandals… I feel sad when I go to expat friend’s houses and I see a plant or bath toys in their bidet, indicating that they don’t use it. Last year when we went to the States my kids went to the bathroom and were completely confused — “Where’s the bidet??” For them, it’s like having a kitchen with no sink.
On having babies: Sabina’s due date was Ferragosto, a holiday on August 15th [the day when Catholics believe Mary was received into heaven] and the biggest holiday in Italy after Christmas. Everyone escapes the city for the mountains or sea. I was one of very few women in the clinic when she finally arrived, and I’m convinced that Italian women do not have sex in November to avoid being left in the care of the disgruntled doctors who get the short end of the stick and remain in very hot Rome for the holiday. Luca was born in May, a perfectly reasonable month in which to be born in Italy.
On naming kids: We thought a lot about which names would work — with pronunciation, spelling, etc. — in both the U.S. and Italy. We loved the name Sabina, and it works perfectly in English. There actually aren’t that many Italian men’s names that work well in English, but Luca is a sweet, easy name. One Italian tradition is to name children, especially boys, after a grandparent — so that would have been Saverio, in our case. But I thought that would be too tricky for the U.S. Also, Italian women usually keep their maiden names, at least legally, and the kids take their father’s last name. I wish we could have hyphenated our kids’ last names, but it is just not done here.
On being sweet with children: One really good thing about raising a family here is that people are so into babies and children. Strangers on the street will go out of their way to be friendly and indulge them. When Sabina was a baby, one of the first times I pushed her in the stroller I walked past two soldiers very seriously standing at attention guarding some important embassy, and one of the soldiers glanced at her and gasped in a high-pitched voice, “O Dio (oh God)!”, overcome by her sweet, tiny figure. And no one blinks an eye at women breastfeeding — I always felt comfortable nursing my babies in public, including in front of the Pantheon and wherever else! The catch is that there aren’t a lot of great facilities. So, it works kind of like this: If you go out to eat with kids, there won’t be a changing table, but the staff will happily invite you to change a diaper on a back table. My kids, and kids in general, are often given free pieces of pizza bianca (white pizza) at bakeries.
On a passion for food: Needless to say, food here is so kid-friendly. When we first arrived, I was completely enchanted with the food, in particular with mozzarella di bufala. I was actually did an illustration project called, “The Cheese that Made Me Cry” because there was a time when I bit into mozzarella and cried from how good it was. We were having a picnic in a piazza in Rome, and we had bought mozzarella and pizza bianca and lardo di colannata, which is basically delicious fat. It was so good, tears sprung from my eyes. When I tell this story, Americans laugh, but Italians become grave and speak about the beauty of mozzarella. There’s a real emphasis on local, seasonal, quality ingredients. Food is so regional in Italy, too. In Rome, you have cacio e pepe, fried artichoke hearts and pizza bianca. You’ll get pesto in Liguria, steak in Tuscany, polenta in the north, marzipan from Sicily. Olive oil also has different flavors from different regions, which I didn’t know before I lived here — Puglia’s is spicier, Liguria’s is more mild; Tuscany is in between.
On a national identity: I remember a day early on, however, when I was craving something else. I went to several different bars to find a sandwich with hummus, and I suddenly realized that every bar had the same kinds of sandwiches, and I wasn’t going to find anything else. Italian food is not about innovation or fusion. There was actually a big controversy in the city of Lucca because they wanted only Italian food and no other restaurants. That illustrates the crux of where Italy is right now — so many people who live here are from elsewhere, and Italy is struggling with a national identity about how you can be Italian and have other influences, as well. It’s hard because the U.S. is such a multicultural society; it’s such a different way of thinking about life. One thing I appreciate about my life here is Artisans Together, the refugee program where I volunteer. I lived in Niger, West Africa, for two years as a Peace Corps volunteer, and when I went to the refugee center I found people who spoke the language I spoke in my village and got to re-connect with that community. I’m happy that my kids get to experience this, as well.
The opera Turandot.
A school lunch.
On public school: Our kids go to public school in Rome. One cool thing is that everyone gets a school lunch; there’s no option to bring a brown-bag lunch. They serve all the kids a primo (pasta), secondo (meat or fritatta), contorno (vegetable) and dolce (fruit or gelato). That’s the Italian way! I also liked that Sabina’s first-grade class learned all about Turandot, the opera, and were actually part of a production, sitting in the audience but using special props (fireflies made from lights inside plastic bottles, constructed in class) and singing little pieces at the appropriate times. Art is considered to be for everyone here, not tied to money and class — it’s everywhere, and valued and claimed by everyone. Sabina’s teachers also took a big class of seven-year-olds on a two-night trip to see the sculptures at Park of the Monsters.
On late bedtimes: Since Italian families tend to eat late, kids end up going to bed even later. This year, Sabina went to a birthday party that ended at midnight, which is late even for me! My kids go to bed around 8:30, but sometimes that interferes with playdates – I once picked Sabina up from a playdate at 6:30 p.m. (on a school night) and the mother was shocked and confused – they eat at 8 or so and the kids go to bed around 10 p.m. Most of the moms in her class know by now my kids are on the quirky American evening system, fortunately.
Older men in Rome.
On getting dressed: Kids dress casually, but adults generally dress much more formally. I remember going to my in-laws’ and my father-in-law was watching TV wearing a suit. I thought, what’s the big occasion? But he was just hanging at home. In a suit. Then he actually puts on full pajamas to take an afternoon nap. I realized recently that I don’t wear T-shirts or shorts anymore; I wear dresses even when taking my kids to the playground. And now that I’ve lived in Italy for more than 10 years, I’m like, flip flops aren’t shoes! They’re for the shower!
On swimsuits: At the beach, little girls, like Sabina, just wear the bottoms. There are also lots of completely naked kids. Italy is much more relaxed in that way. It feels nice to swim without a suit! Every woman will wear a bikini — even women in their sixties, seventies, eighties. It’s nice to see all these different bodies. And it’s way easier. I mean, who wants to shimmy their arms through a one-piece when they need to go to the bathroom?
On mama’s boys: One thing that’s tricky as a parent is that gender roles feel much stricter here. Mama’s boys are not just a myth but a real phenomenon! Italians often stay in the place — city, town or even apartment — where they grew up; and I would say that women also rely on their mothers to some degree, but men are more dependent for sure. “E’ maschio” (he’s male) is something I’ve heard more than I would like to recall; it’s an umbrella excuse for male behavior that’s irresponsible or rude, etc. There seems to be the idea that somehow the male human is only capable of a certain degree of responsibility. When we lived next door to my ex-husband’s mom, he would say, let’s just give her this laundry to iron, and I was like, well, I feel a little funny, but I’d also love to have someone iron this! He would ask his mom, will you cook for us? I read a statistic that said 95% of Italian men had never operated a washing machine, and I was like, wow, that is intense. I haven’t talked about this phenomenon much yet with my son Luca, but I think it’s important to address. He has a very assertive big sister, so maybe it feels less urgent? I am also conscious about not shaming him for crying or expressing feelings other than anger.
The Villa Borghese gardens.
Gelato at Come il Latte.
On family pastimes: Since we live in northern Rome, the Villa Borghese feels like our backyard. My kids’ favorite thing to do is to rent one of the surrey-style bikes and cruise around the park. Then we’ll walk to our favorite gelato place, Come il Latte, where they put melted chocolate in the bottom of the cone. I’d like to develop more family rituals; I wonder if other single parents struggle with this. For socializing, soccer is very big for boys. Luca hasn’t always been socially savvy, but since he’s been playing soccer it’s like he figured out the social in-road. Birthday party? Kick the ball around. Hanging in park? Kick the ball around.
The Galleria Borghese.
On returning home: In the U.S., I always feel like I have superpowers. Even after all these years, I’m still not able to communicate in Italian as well as I’d like, so in the U.S. I find myself wanting to chat with everyone, from the official who checks our passports to the cashier at the bookstore, because it’s so fun and easy. Overall, I think there’s also a conundrum in being an expat in general. You get used to the place where you are, but perhaps never quite fully fit in, and then you realize that you feel slightly odd in your home country, as well. After our divorce, we agreed I won’t leave Italy until Luca finishes elementary school, and maybe we’ll move back at that point. But the other day I visited the Galleria Borghese, and I walked out and was like, this is just an amazing place. Italy is an incredibly beautiful country, full of art and history. Getting to live in another country is such a rich experience, a really special thing to be able to do.
Thank you so much, Molly!
P.S. Our full Motherhood Around the World series (including Sweden and Congo), and and 24 surprising things about parenting in the United States.
(Family portraits by Lena Corwin for Cup of Jo. Colosseum and Piazza Navona photos by Mel. Trevi Fountain photo by Ashlee Moyo. Bidet photo via Ergife Palace Hotel. Soccer photo by Kathryn Ream Cook. Pizza bianca photo by Street Food 42. Artichoke photo by Vicky Wasik for Serious Eats. School lunch photo via Huffington Post. Older men photo via Italy Magazine. Trieste photo by Pauline Boldt for Airbnb. Borghese gardens by Eduardo. Gelato photo by Susa Mathews. Galleria Borghese photo by CDN.)