Behind My Strong Italian Father, Is My Strong Italian Grandmother.
I am a crockpot of white European countries, but I was predominantly raised in the Italian culture. I have love and pride for this culture, but I also have a lot of problems with it. This piece is half an apology to my Italian grandmother for all the strain I’ve put on our relationship in the past. But I’m also using my experience to hopefully push the Italian culture to be better.
Let me start by saying, my father is half-Italian. He doesn’t look stereotypical Italian because he’s a tall, freckled, red in the cheeks, strawberry-blond/light brown haired man (though, now he’s balding so what does hair color matter? lol). But everything my father is; loving, caring, empathic, methodical, family-oriented, and self-sacrificial, is because he was raised by a woman who was all of those things.
When we’re kids, we’re all idealistically taught that we’re all equal. Boys and girls have all the same opportunities. So you can imagine why I started protesting and speaking out around 12 or 13 against having to help clean up during the holidays because the boys weren’t expected to do so. During these protests I was met with reasonings of “that’s just the way it is.” That was never good enough of a reason for me. We all ate. We all made a mess. Why is my female cousin and I the only ones helping to clean up when there’s 6 capable hands to help clean up? That’s because in Italian culture, the women are expected to show their love by cooking, cleaning, and waiting on hand and foot. I protested. I clashed. Now, you can find a mix of men and women helping clean up after a holiday in my family. But here’s the thing, I had the privilege to protest, my Nona did not.
My great grandmother passed away when she was 39. She left behind 6 daughters (1 was old enough to live on her own when my great grandmother passed) and a husband. So of the remaining 5, my Nona (the proper spelling for the Italian word “grandmother” is “nonna”, but mine signs all of her cards with 1 “n” and that’s how I’ll address her) and her older sister stepped up to help take care of their younger sisters, as a sister got older they eventually helped out. My Nona has told me stories of my great grandfather’s second wife, an “evil stepmother”, who would dictate to these little girls to cook and clean, and then when my great grandfather got home, this woman would tell him that SHE did all the work. How infuriating. My Nona and great aunts sacrificed a lot of their youth to help provide for others. So you can imagine you’re now a grandmother to a 12/13 year old girl, the same age you were when you lost your mother, and this girl is protesting something you didn’t have a choice. I’m sorry to ignorantly speak out and clash with my Nona on this, but I’m also not sorry for starting a dialogue within my family to then make it more of a fair system.
I’m gonna talk about my dad again before I dive into the issues of Italian men because my dad broke the mold of the Italian male stereotype. I’m also going to touch upon my dad’s brother, my uncle, because he breaks the mold as well. The family home I was raised in, where my parents still live, is directly across the street from where my great aunt now lives and where my Nona lived as a kid. I could not tell you the amount of times I’ve seen my great aunt’s name come on the caller ID and know my father was going to go over and help her. My mother is a homemaker in her own right (lol), but my father is a better cleaner and great at looking at something and saying “get rid of it”, so you can see that when they’re having company over they both work to clean the house. My father is a natural cook. During the holidays, my father gets a list from my Nona and great aunt of what they need him to take care of in regards to what meats to roast and what side dishes to cook. They’ve only just recently in the past few years started to allow me to help cook something for the holidays, I’m 26 (lol). My uncle became a father at 23 and by 27, he was a single father. I could not imagine any man around my age to take on the task of raising two young boys by himself, but my uncle did it. He had the help of my Nona and eventually his second wife, my Aunt Adriana. But this is me giving a shout out to single fathers, because they exist, and it’s not always due to the fact that the mother of their children died, and we should appreciate them just as much. Why am I saying all this? Because these two men took on roles that society would expect of a woman to take on. To cook, to clean, to raise kids, to be a true partner in a relationship, my Nona instilled these values in her sons.
We’ve all seen it in movies, the stereotype where the Italian women are usually found in the kitchen, or around a table feeding the family a meal they were just in the kitchen cooking, or cleaning, or yelling from a window “Anthony! Where are you going?!” Usually on the other end is a man barking orders for something, whether it be a drink or to ask a question. A weird and interesting twist to this, you do not let anyone else disrespect the mother. The “ya motha” insult can be found in movies/tv used by stereotypical Italians and a gesture. This is very similar to the use of “yo mama” in black culture, another culture that doesn’t appreciate their women, but fear the wrath of the mother and don’t you dare insult anyone’s. I only say this to point out that this behavior isn’t totally exclusive to Italian culture.
Why do I bring this up? Well for a culture that is primarily ran by women, Italian men have a lot of ignorant misogyny. I’ve dated Italian men and I’ve befriended Italian men. I’m almost at my wits end with these dudes. I’ve got into fights with Italian men who have made a mess and I refuse to clean up after them. I’ve been in relationships where they don’t understand why I didn’t make dinner for them, when I didn’t even know when they would be home. I’ve sat there and listened to their problems, but once I begin to share mine, they start to ignore everything I say. There is so much expected from the woman in Italian culture, but there is nothing to be expected in return. You’re constantly compared to their Italian mother who has given them everything. And this isn’t a shame on those mothers, they’re amazing. Because of how I was raised, if I love someone, I would do anything and everything to provide for them. So who knows, I’ll probably grow up to be a stereotypical Italian mother someday. But it’s not love when you expect a human to do it for you, you should just appreciate it when they do.
Imagine having a partner that wants to be your equal? To take equal parts in raising a family, in making a home a home, and providing. Imagine being with someone who wants to talk about your passions than ask whether or not you can cook just like their mother? I’ve struggled with this dynamic because on one hand I want my partner to know I can provide, that’s how my family is. On the other hand, I want to be so much more. I know that’s what my Nona would want. The woman was constantly taking on any task she sought out. She had her own pizza place with her sisters, she sold gold fish, she helped run a ceramic shop, and she had her own clothing store. I know for a fact she would have done more. A lot of these millennial Italian dudes still have that old school thinking that the woman’s place is to provide for the family at home while the man’s only job is to have a job. Ladies, if this is what you’re looking for, then by all means go and get it. I just refuse to think that at some point I will have to put my passions and interests at bay because “that’s just how it is.” My mother worked part time when we were kids and she still managed to partake in her music (she’s an amazing violinist and singer), the idea if I were to marry a man and then when it comes to having children I’m the one who has to give up her passion for comedy… I don’t think I would have married him in the first place.
Though there is a complexity to all this. Men are definitely favored in Italian culture. My brother was definitely the most favored in my Nona’s eyes (up until 2007 when her last grandchild was born). He was her first grandchild. When it came to my parents to discipline us, my parents would threaten me with the idea of calling my Nona. I was terrified of her. My brother? My brother used to threaten my parents with calling my Nona. He knew exactly how to butter her up, how to get her on his side, and then all of a sudden the phone is being passed to my parents and my brother is no longer in trouble. I never understood it. Why was it that everything I did, got me in deep shit with this woman? Yet, my brother could live his life without consequence? Italian men are babied by their mothers and especially by their grandmothers. I’ve heard my father and his brother get into playful arguments of who got babied more. I never knew why I was never babied by my Nona. I know I had favor with my father, but I never could break my Nona. This used to put me at odds with her a lot. I’ve even joked with people that some girls have “daddy issues”, well, I have “Nona issues.” I remember a few years back, I think I was 23/24, my Nona was going on about my brother and my cousins and I asked, “well, what about me?” She replied, “I don’t have to worry about you. I know you can handle yourself.” Those words resonated. I’m her oldest granddaughter and her second grandchild. I constantly tried to wish the favor of this woman. And I come to find, that this woman used tough love, kinda like the tough love of life that was dealt on her involuntarily, and she made me capable and independent. For the most part, I moved out of my house when I was 18 when I went off to college. I moved back for a year after a breakup, then I moved to NYC. I constantly credit my father to making me independent, because he’s always taught me how to take care of myself. I credit my mother because she was single and independent until she was 28. I’ve credited my Aunt Adriana, late night phone calls to help guide me (side note: get yourself an Aunt Adriana). But now, I have to credit my grandmother, my Nona. The tough love, the expecting more from me, and her brash honesty. She created a strong independent Italian woman.
Now comes the disclaimer of “not all Italian men/men are bad” and if you got butt hurt at all from anything I’ve said, then maybe think if you’re expecting women you date to take care of you, what are you bringing to the table? Will you be her partner or just another child she’ll have to manage? I’d love to have the kind of partnership that my father and mother have or my aunt and uncle have for each other. Maybe it’s because these two men had a strong independent Italian female as a mother that it led them to be with strong independent women. I just want Italian men to be better. I want them to want to be my partner and my equal, not waiting on them hand and foot.
I’ve always struggled with Italian culture. Gender roles play such a huge part in the dynamic. Our society has put being a “caretaker” in a “weak” or “lesser than” position, but in Italian culture the providers are so strong. And I struggled with that, because I didn’t want to just be a caretaker. I wanted to have as many possibilities as the boys do. Why can’t we make it more fair for everyone? Why can’t we all know how to cook? To clean? To provide? Why can’t we all take care of one another? I was taught how to take care of others, but also myself. These dudes need to learn this too. My brother has already signed up for “official holiday planner” in our family once the torch needs to be passed, bend your roles! I take pride in being Italian, having Italian ideals. I also expect more from millennial Italian men, times are changing. Get with the times.
This is for my Nona, Diana. Sorry for giving you a such a hard time, Mom says it’s because we’re so alike. But truly, thank you for being a strong Italian woman who provided and raised her sons to be strong partners, who then went on to grow an even stronger family. You are the foundation and rock of this family, and I’ve never fully appreciated everything you do. ❤