Sister Elizabeth’s project for Mother’s Day was a carnation made out of Kleenex. Following her instructions, my first-grade classmates and I folded and crimped the tissue and glued it to the construction paper.
At the end of the process, no doubt inspired by some late-60s notion of creativity as unfettered self-expression, I covered my green blossom with dark blue streaks of Magic Marker.
Then I ran up to claim the teacher’s approval. “Sister, will my mother like it?”
“No, she won’t,” the nun said, “because you did it the wrong way.”
Sister meant well, but with a classroom full of 6-year-olds, she was harried — more often than not by me.
Her rebuke didn’t hurt too badly anyway. I knew that my mother would make a fuss over whatever I brought her, and display it on her dresser or on the mantelpiece in the living room.
A dozen years later, as a freshman in college, I read Erich Fromm’s The Art of Loving, and learned that mother’s role is to provide us with unconditional love, whereas father’s is to love us only if we meet certain standards.
Of course the division is not so neat. Mothers have ways of showing their disappointment, and for most children — most sons, anyway — that’s a more dreadful prospect than letting down dad.
Be honest: If you had to forget the second Sunday in May or the third in June, which would it be? Or put it another way: How often have you wired a vase of spring flowers for the first occasion, then marked the second with a message on the answering machine?
The power of mothers is even more obvious to me now that I live in Italy, where everything you’ve heard about the cult of “Mamma” turns out to be true.
No Italian boy or man washes his own socks or irons his shirts, not even after he moves out — because he doesn’t move out till it’s time to marry, and by then he’s found another woman to do those chores. The rare single man with his own apartment takes his laundry with him on his frequent visits home for a Mamma-cooked meal.
This may sound like maternal servility, not domination, but the son pays a price for such coddling. Except when he’s at work, all the women in his life treat him like a boy of approximately six, so that’s how he behaves. Who can blame him? I’d do the same, if I weren’t married to one of the few Italian women who doesn’t stand for it. My wife insists that I act at least 12.
Women also pay a price in this arrangement, especially now that the social order it’s based on is falling apart. Thralldom to the Mamma ideal means not just putting in a double shift (of paying job followed by housework and childrearing); it means taking the blame when the arrangement breaks down.
I know of more than one divorced woman who’s renounced claims to alimony even though she was the wronged party. No doubt such women learned from their mothers that men will be men, and that saving the family is the wife’s job.
These are terribly archaic stereotypes. Nobody is supposed to think this way anymore, not even here. And plenty of men now pitch in with diaper-changing and dish-washing. But mere decades of exposure to individualism (Italy legalized divorce only in 1970) can’t wipe away age-old customs and attitudes. Doing that ought to take a few decades more.
Even once that happens, Italian mothers don’t need to fear a loss of prestige. Aside from gratitude and affection, which under normal circumstances are bound to be strong, sons and daughters feel a primal awe for their immediate source of life. Fathers — and now that I am one, I can say this — are not in the same league.
What a relief.
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