Viva la Mamma? Motherhood, Menopause & Culture

I’m a US citizen, but I lived and raised my daughter Rossella (now 22) in Italy for 17 years. I left Italy in 2008 while Ross was at boarding school in India, and subsequently separated from my Italian husband (we were already geographically apart – he did not follow me to the US). My daughter is hurt and angry about all this; I’m told that’s normal for children of any age whose parents divorce. But Ross is further angered that I am not behaving like the mammas of her Italian friends.

During my years with Enrico, I was of course aware that I was in a cross-cultural marriage, and thought I was dealing with that well enough (maybe not). But I now realize that I had not accounted adequately for the weight of Italian cultural norms regarding la mamma.

I had worked hard to be a good wife and mother, while still trying to maintain other things I care about: work, friendships, travel. In early 2006, we were living in Lecco, I was working in Milan, and my life had settled into a steady, if hectic, groove. But I found myself pondering the many foreigners who had moved to Italy in pursuit of a dream, who were willing to sacrifice far more than I to live there.

I also began to re-examine the old wounds of a very messy childhood. I felt waves of anger – perfectly legitimate anger, but why was it coming up now? I thought I’d resolved all that, with years of therapy, and didn’t particularly want to revisit it. But I couldn’t seem to help myself.*

In the autumn of 2006, Rossella and I began discussing her desire to go to Woodstock School, and in early 2007 we began the process of getting her there. I foresaw that her going would profoundly change our family life, but the scale of those changes soon grew beyond anything I’d anticipated.

It became clear that a year at Woodstock would not be just one year away for Ross. Her school in Lecco let us know that, upon returning from her senior year at Woodstock, Ross might have to do the Italian fourth year as well, before going on to do the usual fifth year and then the maturita’ (school leaving exam). Having already repeated a year (common in Italy), she’d be in high school til age 21 – an absurdity none of us was willing to contemplate. Without the maturita’ , Ross couldn’t attend Italian university. She would have to go to college in the US. Ready or not, she was likely leaving home for good.

This was financially difficult: we had not anticipated nor saved for college in the US (university in Italy is nearly cost-free, if the student lives at home). Enrico’s salary covered our normal expenses, but would not extend to such an extravagance; I would have to find a way to pay for that, as well as the year at Woodstock. I was earning 17,000 euros (yes, that’s per YEAR) in Milan. Something would have to change.

Rescue arrived: I began working for Sun as a contractor in March of 2007, which met the immediate need to get Ross to Woodstock. But the money would have to keep coming in, so I was delighted and relieved when, after a year as a contractor, Sun offered me a full-time job. Though that offer was contingent on my moving to the US, I did not hesitate a moment in accepting it; I moved back to the US in March, 2008.

All this change occurred so quickly that I’m still processing what happened and why (while enduring still more upheavals). In retrospect, I’m more surprised that I put up with so much for so long; the sequence of events now seems almost inevitable.

And yet, for most of the time I was living in Italy, I didn’t feel that I was “putting up with” my life there. I was generally content with my home, my family, cooking, gardening, etc. Until Sun asked me to move to the US, I had no idea that I was so ready to leave Italy.

How was that possible? Was I that good at concealing inconvenient emotions, even from myself?

Louann Brizendine’s The Female Brain shed light on what kept me in that state of contentment. Her chapter on “The Mommy Brain” states: “physical cues from the infant forge new neurochemical pathways in the brain that create and reinforce maternal brain circuits aided by chemical imprinting and huge increases of oxytocin. These changes result in a motivated, highly attentive, and aggressively protective brain that forces the new mother to alter her responses and priorities in life… As long as you’re in continuous physical contact with the child, your brain will release oxytocin and form the circuits needed to make and maintain the mommy brain.”

This “mommy brain” tells you that your child’s welfare is the most important thing in the universe, with your own needs and desires coming a distant second (or third, or fourth…). As long as my child was safe and well – and those hormones kept flowing – I was content.

It now seems clear that Ross’ departure for boarding school coincided with my early menopause, when “There’s a new reality brewing in [a woman’s] brain, and it’s a take-no-prisoners view.” I’ll let Dr. Brizendine explain the details (I strongly recommend that you read the book, if you are a woman or have any women in your life), but, simply stated: the connecting and nurturing hormones (estrogen and oxytocin) are diminishing. “What had been important to women – connection, approval, children, and making sure the family stayed together – is no longer the first thing on their minds. And the changing chemistry of women’s brains is responsible for the shifting reality of their lives.”

It’s not surprising that my family were taken off guard by the changes in me – I was shocked and bewildered myself. It felt as if I had woken up from a long dream. Overnight (or so it felt at the time), I found myself wondering: “What the hell am I doing here?”

Ross’s absence probably accelerated the change: “The normal contact of living in the same house [with one’s children] provides enough sensation to maintain a woman’s tending and caretaking behaviors toward her kids – even grown-up kids. Once the kids leave the house, however… if a mother is menopausal at the same time, the hormones that built, primed, and maintained those brain circuits are also gone.”

It’s not that a mother no longer cares about her grown children, but, in American culture, she is likely to be ready to get on with her own life. Dr. Brizendine says of a patient: “she felt as though a haze had been lifted recently, and she could see in a way she hadn’t been able to before. The tugs she used to feel at her heartstrings to rescue and care for others had all but vanished. She was ready to take some risks and start walking in the direction of her dreams.”

From Brizendine’s anecdotes, and observing friends my own age, it’s very common for American women to suddenly make big changes in their lives around menopause (“65% of divorces after the age of 50 are initiated by women”). This does not happen as much in Italy, where many mothers continue their legendary nurturing as long as they are physically able. It may be that la mamma does not experience the empty-nest oxytocin shutdown because her children don’t actually leave the nest: Italian offspring may live at home til age 30 or beyond. When they finally leave, they may move no further than an apartment in the same building or immediate neighborhood, and continue to have daily contact with their parents.

Just as it is economically difficult for Italian children to leave the nest, Italian women may have no choice but to stay in a marriage, however unhappy. Many Italian women of my generation were raised by their own traditional parents to be wives and mothers. Having spent most of their lives in that role, they have few skills to offer the job market, even if there were any jobs. For this and other reasons, “fewer than half of Italian women work outside the home.”

Italy even has an informal institution which would be considered bizarre by most Americans (though I know of at least one American example): separazione in casa – separated at home. When a couple realize that their marriage is effectively over, but they cannot afford to live apart, and/or feel they should stay together for the kids, they move into separate bedrooms in the family home, and begin seeing other people. I am not close enough to any examples to know how this works out for all concerned. If amicable, I imagine it could be good for the kids, but it must be a difficult line to walk.

All in all, it’s not surprising that the mothers of Ross’ Italian friends continue to dedicate their lives to their families, contentedly or otherwise. But it also should surprise no one that I am not behaving like – nor ever claimed to be – the typical Italian mamma.


* Another book, “The Wisdom of Menopause” by Christiane Northrup mentioned in passing that renewed anger at one’s parents can be a common effect of menopause.

The title of this piece comes from a song.


One thought on “Viva la Mamma? Motherhood, Menopause & Culture

  1. Davide Baroncelli

    Interesting article. I mostly associate the expression “separati in casa” with either a temporary condition or a permanent one where both parties involved were so old or otherwise won by life that the prospect of “seeing someone else” would be out of the question anyway. I’m not surprised you decided to left Italy, it’s not been a good period, the one you ended up living there. When I decided to leave (4 years ago, to the UK) I thought that everything was smelling of social and cultural decline, and seriously doubted about the possibility of an inversion in the trend: I’m a bit more hopeful, now, for obvious political reasons, but still very skeptical. I believe Italy will need a generation, to recover the social damages of the last 25 years, and I’m not sure it’s ready to accept the price.

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