The Reality behind Italy’s “Figli per Sempre” (sons forever)
First Published in Psychology Today (2008)
Raeleen D’Agostino Mautner, Ph.D.
New Yorkgraphic designer Danielle Oteri looked up from her menu while in a Sicilian eatery overlooking the sea, to find a striking 28-year old Adonis waiting her table. By closing time, their mutual attraction led to lingering over a romantic glass of wine. But just when sweet poetry began to flow from his lips, Calogero’s cell phone erupted into song. “Ehm…just a minute,” he whispered “it’s Mamma. She wants to know when I’ll be home.” For Danielle, the widely-held Italian stereotype of mammismo –the exaggerated bond between Italian men and their mothers—was confirmed. But in response to outside criticism of too much dolce vita for Latin Lovers with an affinity for mamma’s home cooking and neatly ironed underwear, Italians say their “sons forever” syndrome goes beyond mere familial love.
Nevertheless, Italy’s Economics Minister Tommaso Padoa-Schioppa, is loosing patience with what appears to be a cultural oedipal complex. With 36.5% of Italian men aged 30-34 still living with their parents (and 18.1% of women) his plan is to lure them towards autonomy with a tax break incentive. “Let’s get those bamboccioni (big babies) out of the house” the Minister declared, causing outrage among Italians, who don’t see it as a simple inability to detach from Mom’s apron strings.
. “While it’s true Italy has a problem with sons never growing up in their mothers’ eyes,” says Dr. Giuliana Proietti, Ancona psychologist and director of www.psicolinea.it, “it is also true that never before have our young adults been faced with such serious economic difficulty. For many, it’s not a choice to live at home, but a necessity.” “Staying with family at least assures a roof over your head” says attorney Beppe Serelli. “Even in the outskirts ofSalerno, a modest home averages 300.000 Euro, and renting costs more than half of the average salary.”
To Italians with a history of strong family ties, there is nothing pathological about staying put until marriage, especially if one is unemployed. “The traditional family unit was historically the only guarantee of survival in uncertain times,” said Dr Roberto Vincenzi, professor of psychotherapy at the Scuola di Psicoterapia Istituzionale in Genoa. Vincenzi divides Italy’s “figli per sempre” into two categories: “There are those that remain home because they lack finances, and those with an unresolved Oedipal complex”. Proietti believes that the later category of mammismo has its roots in traditional role of the Italian woman, who often felt unfulfilled before the options of career and divorce were possible. “She thus poured her love into her children. Over time, the son took the place of his father, and hence became a sort of husband to his mother, without the sexual component.” She acknowledges a similarity to the case of Sigmund and his own mother, Amalie Freud.
A diagnosis of cultural pathology, however, gets tricky. Psychiatrist Martin Kantor, author of Distancing, says “The phenomenon of culture-specific neuroses, such as Histrionic in Latin countries, Obsessive in theUS and Avoidant inItaly is not unthinkable, but there is a complicated interplay between culture and individual neurosis. A cultural phenomenon can represent a shared neurosis, while an individual neurosis can represent an internalized cultural phenomenon.”
“The mother-son bond only becomes pathological”, adds Dr Vincenzi, “when it impedes the son from growing up; such as when an adult son has a job and is able to afford an apartment, but instead remains with his parents.”
Drs. Moretti and Manacorda say Italian parents are indeed trying to impede the autonomy of their offspring. According to their research, Italian parents bribe their children to remain home. Moretti, Associate Economics professor at UCLA Berkeley said, “They do this by transferring financial resources directly or indirectly.” The reason? “Italians, unlike parents from other countries”, said Moretti, like living with their grown children.”
Proietti and Vincenzi agree that the changing role of the Italian woman has put mammismo on the decline. A recent incident chronicled in La Repubblica may prove their point. An 81 year-old mother in Sicily called the police on her 61-year old live-in son for being disrespectful. In order to teach him a lesson, she decided to take back the house keys and stop his allowance. Junior claimed it wasn’t his fault. “She is the one that treats me badly. Her cooking is awful and she gives me way too little money each week, even though I’m unemployed.” That may soon be about to change.
A survey conducted by Eta Meta for the luxury lifestyle monthly Class, found that among the 100 most powerful men on earth in all career sectors, 7 out of 10 attributed their success to their mothers. Among the more popular international figures mentioned were George Bush, Prince Charles, and Michael J Fox.
Italians with an openly proud relationship with mamma included former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, journalist Paolo Brosio, art critic Vittorio Sgarbi, author Aldo Busi, comedian Gene Gnocchi, and TV host and showman Piero Chiambretti. Some of the characteristics that made mom so special to men of importance included being loving, determined, understanding, reliable, honest, and wise—in that order.