Culture /

A Family Affair the Italian Way

“For as much as I love Sundays and holidays around a table with large groups, food and noise, I also love leaving alone, to have some time to myself.”

Whether small, large, extended, affectionate, noisy, overbearing or just a little annoying, family is the most important thing to Italians. It shapes us, for better or worse and we never let it go. There is a reason why the world calls us “mammoni”! This well-known cultural phenomenon refers to Italian men’s attachment to their mothers. In today’s economic challenges however, Italy’s rate of adult children still living at home, both male and female, is over 50%.

A show of hands from those who expect a daily call from within their circle – mom, dad, siblings, spouse, child, friend – calls often taking place at a specific time, part of deep-rooted practices. And who among us doesn’t dream of and seek out the flavors of tomato sauce or baked pasta like our mothers and grandmothers made? Because let’s face it, nobody cooks like your own family. We keep and pass down unique recipes from our best home cooks, dishes that can never be replicated by anyone else… “Do you remember the meatballs dad used to make? And nonna’s roasted potatoes?” Memories of flavors and ancestral aromas that mark us for life.

From North to South, we are linked by familiar customs and expressions. “Respect us! We are your parents!” “You are the eldest child, try to lead by example!” “Don’t forget aunts, uncles and grandparents, call them and drop by to say hello, even if they don’t give you money.” “As long as you’re in our home, you’ll do what we say.” These are just some of the things that all Italian children have heard at least once.

The family is the spindle which spins us round and round, at the mercy of “grown-ups” from an early age.

We love our families, but at the same time we endure them. It’s not all sunshine and rainbows. Because we don’t choose our families; they happen to us. There are no exchanges or returns. What should I do, go to the stork to complain because he threw me into a modest and strict working-class family in Milan, instead of a palace of blue blooded nobles, perhaps with a house overlooking the sea? No. I make the best of it and over time I learn to accept, love, support and tolerate those around me.

To grow with them and in spite of them. In spite of everything.

It is not a given that when a child is born, great parents are also born. Some do not have a sense of family. They didn’t live it; never knew it or developed it. Depending on how each of us grows and takes shape, the familial bonds and affections can take divergent paths. There are those who want to escape their complicated families, while some find it hard to take flight and distance themselves. Those who come back as soon as possible and those who burn bridges for a thousand reasons.

Often our family members, who we think should know us better than anyone, in reality can know very little about us. Who we really are. Our dreams and desires, concealed behind smiles and apparent happiness.

Families can be made up of just two people, with only men, or women, with many children, biological or adopted, or none at all. Families with animals, in very large or very small houses. Rich or poor. Families full of love, and sometimes unfortunately, full of hatred and grudges. We can also consider families those single people who surround themselves with kindred and beloved friends. Some people find family in their colleagues or childhood friends. There are no steadfast rules.

With any luck, the family we decide to create as adults will reflect our aspirations. Hopefully without pre-established rules, impositions or expectations.

I love mine, in all its innumerable and unspeakable flaws. I also love the family that I found in adulthood, made up of friends and extended relatives. I am a Cancer, the sign most associated with home, family, and loved ones. I have a strong maternal sense and feel like everyone’s mother, even to my parents, friends and sisters. That doesn’t pair well with my desire for freedom. I have always dreamed of traveling, and not being a career woman. Just travel, learn, and discover. And if you are a mother, it becomes difficult to do so, at least without guilt.

Today, as we near the end of 2021, the pandemic has yet to completely disappear. We stay home more, sometimes in pajamas all day. Many of those hours shared with spouses and children, tense faces buried in our electronics.

Do I see some good in all this? I do. By forcing us together, the pandemic allowed us to get to know each other more. We’ve had more time to enjoy our families, which in modern society we do less and less. The imposed closeness made us fight with each other, to then discover, most of the time, the beauty of making up.

Is there anything bad in this situation? Absolutely and unquestionably yes. We stopped gathering for celebrations, holidays spent in forced solitude. Forget about lavish dinners! We experienced our entire families via Zoom. And this, a blessing for some, was something I didn’t endure well. 

For as much as I love Sundays and holidays around a table with large groups, food and noise, I also love leaving alone, to have some time to myself.

As I said, it’s not all sunshine and rainbows.

But if there is one thing we all should give to those we consider family, is love and attention. And in recent years, doing so meant staying away from those we love, forced by the ongoing covid restrictions.

Ultimately we must learn to cultivate love within us. And hopefully we’ll soon be able to hug and hold each other again.