My mother is the doyenne of Australian etiquette, June Dally-Watkins. My mother-in-law is an almost illiterate farmer from the mountains of eastern Tuscany. Both are formidable, wise women.
But their mothering styles are biting opposites. One is a successful Australian businesswoman whose life’s work has been her career, the other a humble Italian woman who has dedicated her life to her family. Trying to glean child-raising tips from both has pretty much done my head in.
It might even be time to give up trying to be a good mum – or as my kids would say, mom. Or maybe mamma. Now 18 and 16, my children are half-Australian and half-Italian. They speak English with American accents and Italian with Florentine accents, and they flow easily between one and the other depending on their company.
With such inherent cultural diversity, they don’t seem to suffer too much identity confusion. Whereas my maternal compass – born and raised in Australia, with one culture and one language – is frazzled. For 20 years I’ve been travelling between Sydney and my home in Florence, trying to work out which culture has the best parenting principles for my polyglots.
Striving to be a good mum, mom and mamma by reconciling my birth culture with my new culture, I’ve naturally looked to my mother as a role model. But while navigating the choppy waters of my children’s teenage years, I observed my mother-in-law, too.
Nonna Gemma on daily life: “Never let your husband see you idle. When the working males return home, the women must not be seen relaxing. Men must believe their women are constantly on the move, cleaning, cooking, washing, ironing, keeping house with rigour and determination. You are a signora. Ideally, you won’t have to work outside the home.”
My mother: “Work. Get a job. He might leave you so you must have a career to fall back on. Look fabulous at all times. When at home, wear casual clothes and look even more fabulous.”
Nonna Gemma on cooking: “Always make something the grandchildren love, something they’ve eaten many times so that your food will not fail to disappoint, a reliable, heart-warming dish using a well-worn recipe of lasagne, or roast chicken with roast potatoes. Pasta should be home-made, chicken hand-reared and potatoes home-grown.”
My mother: “Cook something no one has ever tasted or heard of. Use a new recipe adapted to what’s in the fridge.”
Nonna Gemma on raising children: “Never let the children do sleep-overs. One never knows what other families do when they’re in their own homes.”
My mother: “Let your children go. Trust them to make their own decisions, and the right decisions.”
Nonna Gemma on raising teenagers: “Give them lots of cash. Buy them clothes because they are the family’s mascot, our representatives when out and about. Repair their clothes with a fully kitted-out sewing box.”
My mother: “Make children get a job to learn the value of hard work and money. Clothes are birthday and Christmas presents. There might be a hotel sewing kit in my cabin luggage bag.”
Nonna Gemma on school lunches: “Nothing beats a container of pasta with a tomato sauce made from scratch with garlic, basil, olive oil and parmesan cheese. In a second container add chargrilled chicken with salad.”
My mother: “A sandwich made with white sliced bread and last night’s chicken and lettuce should do it.”
Nonna Gemma on university education for their grandchildren: “Why should they leave home for university? Why have babies if you’re only going to send them away? At 18, they’re still children.”
My mother: “The world is their oyster. Make them international people. Let them stand on their own two feet. Send them away.”
Nonna Gemma on table manners: “There are none.”
My mother: “Put your knife and fork together to show you’ve finished. No. Not like that, the blade must be facing inwards towards the fork. No. The plate is like a clock and the handles must be at six o’clock.”
The only way to tackle such opposing child-rearing advice is to try to mix and match their guidelines until the balance between Italian “smother love” and Australian “tough love” is just right, like one of my mother-in-law’s recipes.
Anglo-Saxons show their children they love them by teaching them how to do everything for themselves. Italians show they love their children by doing everything for them. Trying to be a good mum, for me, is about harmonising that while focusing on how I feel. Most people in bicultural families live in the present, look to our children’s future and try to honour the past. Finding the best child-rearing process in the middle of all that cultural identity can be hard, especially with such wildly different matriarchs.
Both women are contradictory in every way, but hearing their opinions opens up different worlds for me as a mother. Neither way is right, just as neither way is wrong. There are two lifetimes of insight in their approaches, and there is value in learning from both. If only I could fathom how.
Maybe it’s time to stop trying so hard, to stop judging, comparing, choosing and balancing. Perhaps if I keep my kids close, while trusting them to make the right decisions, I’ll succeed in being a good mum as well as bringing their grandmothers’ attitudes into alignment. There is only one thing I know for sure about motherhood, and it applies regardless of where you come from: children thrive on love, no matter what the language.
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