When I taught Italian to college undergraduates, I would introduce the topic of “the Italian family” by analyzing stereotypes. According to my students, Italian mothers are to be found in the kitchen making scrumptious meals of lasagna and tortellini, or running the occasional errand on their Vespas. They are never stressed, never out of time, always ‘there,’ waiting for their children with open arms. American mothers, on the other hand, were supposedly always on the go in their minivans, rushing back and forth between school and home and their three jobs, always stressed, with no time to cook. Looking at the two ‘mothers’ on the board, I would smile at myself thinking that my very own Italian mother must have been American at heart, or had perhaps been secretly displaced at birth, for she couldn’t be further away from the stereotypical image that my students so vividly depicted.
My parents were high school sweethearts who married in their twenties and had their first, long-looked-forward-to child – me – after three endless years of trying. Three other siblings arrived in the following six years. Partly for financial reasons but mostly because of her own interests and ambitions, my mother never stopped working (granted, Italy allows for longer paid maternity leaves than the US). She drove what back in the day could have been considered a minivan, rarely cooked during the week, and entrusted us to the care of our loving grandmothers, at whose place we would eat lunch every day after school and spend our afternoons and early evenings. One of my most distinct childhood memories is that of my mom finally coming to pick us up after a long day of work, looking exhausted and smelling like the cold.
Fast forward a couple of decades, I was attending graduate school in the US and acquiring the critical language and conceptual tools around feminism and gender (in)equality issues. It is here that I first encountered the question as to whether women “can have it all.” As my mom came to epitomize that dilemma for me, she also represented a model I rejected. I admired the immense passion fueling her seemingly superhuman energy, but it had led her to a scary burnout when she was barely fifty. It was clear to me that I would do things differently... especially after, being my mother’s daughter, I had my very own scary burnout at twenty-seven. As a very sensitive child, I had unconsciously concluded that my need for my mom, and by extension all my other needs, were ‘wrong’: that I should be ‘strong’ and deal with it; that needs are signs of weakness. This led to rigid self-discipline and perfectionist tendencies, which in turn blossomed into eating disorders, anxiety, insomnia and, eventually, the mental and physical burnout that took me so long to recover from. As much as the path of my recovery has been one of self-acceptance and self-compassion, it has also been characterized by a want to be as different as possible from my mother.
Now, however, as I am pregnant with my first child and find myself shattered by emotions and inner conflicts that I’d thought long resolved, I must admit to myself that I am not that different after all. As I get ready for my son, my harsh inner critic comes in as strong as ever, telling me that catering to my baby’s needs and being there for him would be overindulgent, that he will have to be strong and to deal with “it,” that he should not get in the way of my job and professional gratifications. Will I give in to this voice? No! I yell inside. But it’s not a simple no; it’s one that requires me to step back and breathe every time I have to make a choice or, more likely, a compromise… even now that my baby is still in the womb and I enjoy the luxury of working from home on my own schedule. I imagine having four small children and a regular job and am overcome with waves of sympathy for how hard it must have been for my mother, especially since she did not have access to many of the resources that are available to me. She had never even thought of whether she could “have it all” – she did and has continued to simply do her best, always. Whether or not her best was enough is not a question anymore. Will I try to trust my instincts as well as my brain in mothering my child? I will. Will I try to do things differently? I will. Will I keep blaming my mom for making the choices she made? I will not. If there is but one thing that I have learned from the long journey of pregnancy, it is deeper compassion and newly found love for my mamma.
Originally from Italy, Anna Aresi has lived in the US for the past eight years. After receiving her Ph.D. from Brown University, she now works as a freelance translator and editor. She lives in Providence with her husband and dog, all eagerly waiting for baby Giobi to join them in June.