Published on February 28th, 2020 | by Lisa Wilde3
When I am Mothering in Italian: An Interview With Author Joanna Clapps Herman.
Mothering is bound by the personality of mother and child, economics, support systems, cultural expectations and our own experiences of being mothered. In her new book, Quando Sono Italiana/When I am Italian (SUNY press, 2019), Joanna Clapps Herman looks at what it means to be raised as an Italian in America—coming from a culture where, as she writes, “children are more central to life than even food.”
Herman grew up in an Italian extended family in Waterbury, Connecticut. Joanna’s mother, still living within walking distance of the farm where she was raised by her Italian immigrant parents, carried on the rich culture of her own upbringing: food preparation, love of children, hospitality, holiday traditions, and—perhaps most important—the primacy of family. But all of this was enmeshed in a hierarchical patriarchy that came with strict rules, which in some ways existed separately from modern America.
Joanna and I talked recently about her new book, Italian heritage and mothering.
MUTHA: Tell us a little about your childhood in your “ancestral Italian village in Waterbury, Connecticut.”
JOANNA CLAPPS HERMAN: We all grew up as a clan. The beating heart of our family was “up the farm,” which is where my grandparents’ farm was and we would go every Sunday. That’s what you’re supposed to do in Italian families—go up to the grandparents every Sunday, which we did for many, many years, but also everybody (aunts, uncles, cousins) lived near the farm and it was not uncommon for us to walk up weekdays.
When my mother and her sisters were younger, they would all go up there regularly to do the canning with their mother and their sister-in-law and help make sausage and cheese. If there were jobs to be done, the women showed up. And all this was integrated into child raising. Often, many of the babies were dropped off there during the day while the mother was working or she had to go do some shopping. I remember so profoundly that there was always at least one carriage in the kitchen, with my grandmother going, “Nina nona nina nona…” and rocking the baby to sleep.
MUTHA: What was your relationship with your mother like? What role do you think her Italian upbringing played?
My mother and I had a complicated relationship. There was no question that she loved me, but I was difficult for her because she had been brought up in a completely hierarchical culture where obedience was everything, and it went from father to mother, mother to children, but also oldest child to next oldest child and so forth and then, of course, the male over the female and that was it. Wherever your position was, that was your position and you listened to whoever had power over you—period. That is simply not who I was.
She liked to tell me the stories about how much trouble I had caused her, especially as we got more and more pitted against one another. She was hard on me. She was way too hard on me. I was very athletic. I was very energetic, and since I was being slapped a lot, I was very angry.
So I was obsessed with the idea that this was not going to happen to any children I had. That whoever came to me was going to be accepted for who they were. So let’s say the fates really beautifully, perfectly delivered what I had wished for. James (Herman’s son), who is delicious and very smart, was an insanely intense baby from literally the minute he was born. But I think I really wanted to bring him up like a good Italian mother. It was not in my brain to bring him up as an American mother. The minute he was born I wanted my mother to be with me, like every good mother should be with their daughter when they’ve just had a child, and certainly every good Italian mother. I had no ambivalence about that, and my mother came right down and cooked for us. I remember all my aunts and uncles, all of whom had big kitchen gardens, sent baskets of vegetables—beets and zucchini and basil and tomatoes—and she just cooked and cooked for Bill and me and she was the good mother and she was feeding us. The first time I had to bathe James, even though I had grown up with infants all my life, I said, “Mom, you bathe him.” She said, “Okay, honey. Don’t worry. I’ll show you.” Those weeks were very tender between us
MUTHA: You mentioned that, in some ways, you felt your mother wasn’t able to accept you for who you were. Does this connect to your Italian heritage?
JOANNA CLAPPS HERMAN: In the Italian family, you are supposed to be at one with the family, the family is the priority over any individual. Everyone surrenders their identity, according to their position within the family, to the group identity. Obviously, if you’re the patriarch, you get to be demanding and whatever else you want to be, and you are waited on, etc., but it is still a group identity and I didn’t want that for James because that had cost me a lot, and I had come to understand how much that had cost me. Wanting something for yourself as an individual was considered selfish. The way in which I didn’t want to be an Italian mother was that I wanted James to have his individuation comfortably. As a baby, James was a big, gorgeous, intense handful so then my life became surrendered to being his mother. He didn’t sleep through the night until he was four years old, so I was pretty tired those first few years. I was just exhausted all the time and I was very worried that I wasn’t being a good enough mother, that there was something that I was doing that wasn’t calming him enough. However, I eventually realized that was who he was. He was just really high spirited—a beautiful wild child—as I had probably been. Keeping up with him was very much a full-time job. But I was determined, even when I was worried that we weren’t doing it right—we had to rededicate ourselves, rededicate ourselves. Bill would say, “I don’t know what we should do.” I’d say, “We just hang in there. That’s what we do. We never stop. We never give up.”
MUTHA: Hospitality was clearly a big part of your Italian upbringing—inviting people into your home, feeding them, making them feel welcome. How did this make its way into your mothering of James?
JOANNA CLAPPS HERMAN: Hospitality is one of the essentials values of Italian life with children. In my other book, The Anarchist Bastard, I talk about how the hospitality rules are really Homeric in origin. The Homeric rules apply. The rule of Xenia is the stranger is welcome: to eat, to drink, to bathe, to sleep before he is asked his name.
When James was a teenager, I was thrilled to have his friends in and out of our house. I made sure there was always good food cooked for all of them. They would say, “You have real food in your house? What are you doing with real food?” Because they were used to ordering sushi or pizza. I loved his friends being around. I had started to write by then, and I loved that they would troop in at 11 o’clock at night ravenous and we would figure out some food together or there would be left-overs and four of them would sleep in his room and three in the living room and you’d wake up in the morning and the house would be full of noise and adolescent boy smells. I loved that. And that’s very much what my mother had done.
James recently went to see his beautiful closest friend Leore—Leore and his wife Eli just had a baby and her parents, who are Moroccan Jews, were in from Israel—and James told me, “The minute I arrived, they rushed into the kitchen to get some food and bring it to us and then they insisted that we eat this.” And we laughed and laughed, and I said, “See, it’s not just me.” He said, “It’s Mediterranean.” I’m always trying to tell him, this is not some personal quirk of mine. I’m not imposing this on you. There are millennia behind it. And the fact that he could recognize it, even though it came from this completely other place that had nothing to do with me, and he could laugh with me about it gave us both great pleasure. That makes me incredibly happy.
MUTHA: There’s a quote in your book, “If only had I understood him less, perhaps I would have mothered him better.” Explain.
I understand James viscerally and that made for this problem of me being obsessed with him. I could decode every gesture he made; every stupid thing he did I understood what had led him to being out of control. I knew exactly what impulse had overcome him. Bill, who adored him would say, “I can’t believe he lost another jacket.” I’d say, “Bill, you think he was careless, but it wasn’t carelessness. He literally got distracted and forgot he had put it down and didn’t pick it up.” So I was always overly defending him and I wouldn’t set any limits with him.
It’s not like James and I always had an easy road—by any stretch of the imagination. I was so grateful to have him. I wanted a second child and that didn’t happen and I think that made me even more obsessed with him, and we’ve both come to understand that I was wildly overinvolved. That was Italian. That was so Italian, and it took me many years of therapy with a brilliant therapist to understand that this was not good for him, that I was really interfering with him growing up. That all of my “worry” was really a form of trying to control him.
I’d say my therapist peeled my fingers off of him one by one. She’d say, “You’d have to let him fall on his face if that’s what’s going to happen.” “But I’m so worried.” “Jo, you’ve got to let go. I know how much you love him. Do you want him to own his life or not?”
I think the therapy was my being a more modern mother and incredibly helpful to me, and also, interestingly enough, allowed me to go back to my own life. I had been teaching all this time, but therapy allowed me to go back to my own writing, which was the piece I had given up while I was mothering and teaching. I couldn’t fit it in, but maybe I could have. I might have just been neurotic.
At a certain point James and I both recognized—I don’t think it was until he was in his 20s—that we had to work to have a good relationship; to be a good mother and son we had to put space between us. I think he appreciated that I realized that I had overdone it with him. It was a gift between us.
To become something of a modern secular mother, so I’m not in his hair all the time, I worked very hard not to drive him crazy in the enmeshed ways that I was brought up with that stop your maturity, stop your growth. You don’t become a full adult until you are yourself. Now, that can be within a traditional culture—my mother was her full self—but I didn’t want to be that kind of adult.
Yet, at this stage in my life, I feel my mother within me in her best, best qualities. She was incredibly warm, social and at ease in the world. She could talk to anyone about anything…when I’m talking to people and I’m really happy, I feel her and I see her in my face, I feel her in me.
Quando Sono Italiana/When I am Italian is newly released; order it at your favorite indie, read it, and please, report back in the comments!