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How the Italian Police Instigated an American Mom’s Parenting Struggle

Carolyn Rathjen

Contributing Writer at theParentVoice, Magazine
Carolyn Rathjen is an American clinical social worker currently living in Rome, Italy, with her Italian husband and two bilingual daughters. She works as a psychotherapist and leads workshops for expat parents and college students studying abroad. She holds a BFA in Writing from Emerson College and a Master of Social Work from Simmons College in Boston.
Read more under 'Contributors'.
Carolyn Rathjen

On the night I decided to let my daughter cry herself to sleep, someone called the police. 

We had just returned to our apartment in Rome after visiting my parents in Connecticut. My two toddlers and I struggled to cool down in the sweltering August heat. We were all equally jet-lagged, only our rebounds were wildly out of sync: by midnight, I struggled to keep my eyes open while the girls vibrated like fireflies through our darkened apartment, too nimble to grasp. My youngest squealed each time I managed to set her down in her crib. I felt the frustration and self-pity that arises sometimes while managing parenting responsibilities and a job in a foreign country while my husband traveled, as he often does, for work.  

Before we left the US, a friend wisely reminded me that during my difficult week back in Rome, when the girls suffered jet lag and I felt frazzled, I could also feel gratitude that my entry into Italy as a non-citizen (although legal, permanent resident) would not include the threat of being separated from my children at the border as has been happening to immigrants recently in the US.

My friend was right. I had a lot to be grateful for and in everyone’s interest that evening, I truly wanted to focus on that rather than indulge my banal frustrations, but I was caught in one of those reactive moments where self-awareness eluded me. Finally after multiple failed attempts at soothing both my toddler and myself, I plopped her down in one corner of her crib like an irritable opponent in a wrestling ring. I felt the shame of a mama turned monster heel, unable to defend my title as patient caregiver through what felt like, in that moment, the unsustainable theatrics of parenting.

I felt the shame of a mama turned monster heel, unable to defend my title as patient caregiver through what felt like, in that moment, the unsustainable theatrics of parenting.

“Ugh, let her cry!” I growled, burying my head in my pillows. 

After almost 20 minutes of bearing the anguish of her incessant cries, I noticed voices bickering just below our apartment window and jumped to my feet. 

A stone thudded against the wooden shutters latched shut over our open windows. 

I froze, feeling vulnerable in my pajamas and socks, wishing my husband were home to help me understand what was happening. Click To Tweet

I froze, feeling vulnerable in my pajamas and socks, wishing my husband were home to help me understand what was happening. As a foreigner, I often look to my husband, a native Italian – even too much – to help me understand all the new things an immigrant must learn in a new country.  

“Did the baby calm down?” a man’s voice called out in Italian.

Another pebble pinged against the closed shutter.

“Are you there?” he asked

I moved slowly toward the window, keeping the lights off, determined to remain unseen. I stretched up onto my toes and squinted, peering down between the shutter slats. I could just make out the figure of a man in a dark jacket with a patch on his chest pocket that read: POLIZIA

Police.

The only interactions I’d ever had with police since arriving in Italy, were at the Questura (or police headquarters) when applying for my resident permit of stay. In those numerous, long and confusing conversations, I had always responded carefully and respectfully, knowing that my future in Italy depended upon their approval.  

So it surprised me that my normally careful, self-conscious Italian speaking voice suddenly morphed into aggressive, indignant syllables that ricocheted almost involuntarily from my tongue.  

“Are you police?” I shouted from the window, in Italian. 

“Yes, police.” he confirmed.

“Why are you here?” I called down to the officer. “Why are you throwing rocks at my window?” 

“Let me come in and I’ll explain.”

My older daughter clung to my leg while I inched the door open, holding the baby close.  

“Sorry to disturb you m’am,” apologized the police officer. 

“A woman called us to complain about the crying baby,” he explained, his eyes darting beyond me, into our apartment as if searching for something, or someone. 

“The crying baby?” I repeated, eyeing the officer in disbelief. 

In that moment, all the loneliness, self-pity, and insecurity I’d ever felt since becoming a parent burst from my mouth in a barrage of angry excuses.

“I’m a mother, all by myself, taking care of my two kids, doing the best I can,” I cried. “My husband is away! My baby’s sleep schedule is off because we just came back from America and she can’t sleep! I’m so tired! And someone calls the police on me? Why would someone do that?” I shouted through gushing tears, wiping snot on my pajama sleeve.

“I’m sorry, m’am,” he said, appearing remorseful.  “Don’t worry. It’s okay,” he assured me. “I think the woman who complained is a bit crazy,” he said, shrugging his shoulders as he coaxed a smile from my now silent daughter.  

Relieved that he apologized rather than arrest me, I shut the door and leaned my back against it, letting it support my weight. Sliding down to the floor, I began to sob uncontrollably. 

When I called my husband the next day to tell him what had happened, we marveled over how many times in the past, drunken skirmishes had startled us in the night and the police were nowhere to be found. How unfair, we complained, that instead, when our baby cries, the police show up at our front door.  

I didn’t leave my house for days after that episode, uncertain which neighbors, if any, heard the drama and made a judgment about what they believed happened that night. 

It took me weeks to admit to myself that it was possible that the woman who called the police had not done so out of irritation but because she heard a baby calling desperately for her mother and processed that as abuse or neglect. Maybe my daughter’s cries wereactually concerning enough to merit some kind of outside attention. If I pushed aside my automatic defenses, I could see a rational explanation for how the situation devolved that night. 

My friends often tell me how lucky I am to have left the US in this current political climate.  Click To Tweet

 I could see now too, my defensiveness for simply being questioned by police about my daughter’s crying, in stark contrast with the experience, for example, of the Guatemalan motherwho was impaled in front of her kids last November on a U.S. border fence as she tried to escape the turmoil in her country only to be publicly shamed by a US border patrol agent when he called her actions “very foolish.” 

My friends often tell me how lucky I am to have left the US in this current political climate. 

“I’m ashamed to live here,” they say. 

When I left 10 years ago, I felt a quiet guilt about leaving my social work job where I frequently witnessed racial tension and discrimination on the frontlines of American life. At the time, my friends simply wished me well, not noticing or commenting on what they thought I should be happy to leave behind but instead on all to which I could look forward. 

I think many Americans, especially those who are wealthy enough to travel, imagine Italy primarily as a scenic, sun-drenched tourist destination where compatriots break bread, enjoy poetic vistas, and stroll arm in arm down historic boulevards calling out “ciao, bella, ciao” without needing to occupy themselves with thoughts of racial discrimination. 

Yes, Italy is beautiful. Yes, Italians can be warm people. The culture and food and views are unparalleled. What many of my American friends struggle to see, though, is the immigrant emergency happening here that is only exacerbated by Italian leaders promoting the same fear-based, populist, racist rhetoric currently pervading the US. 

The application process for political asylum in Italy (for which only a fraction of migrants are eligible) takes at least 18 months as opposed to the current process of about 6 months in the US.  In the meantime, migrants are forced to beg for money and squat in abandoned buildings. 

Just last year, a raid was conducted in Rome to drive migrants out of a neighborhood squat. When the homeless set up camps near the building from which they were removed, they were then attacked with water cannons as police attempted to evacuate the square. 

Last June, Matteo Salvini, the deputy prime minister of Italy and leader of the right, blocked Italian ports from receiving a migrant rescue ship. This past September, migrant school children in a northern Italian city lost their lunch subsidies due to a new anti-immigrant requirement introduced by the right requesting that immigrants prove they don’t possess assets in their home countries.

Equally disturbing to me as an American, is that it is not uncommon to hear children in my daughter's class refer to a Filipino mother as 'the babysitter.' Click To Tweet

Equally disturbing to me as an American, is that it is not uncommon to hear children in my daughter’s class refer to a Filipino mother as “the babysitter” because the only exposure most Italians in our neighborhood have to non-Italians is through the Filipino immigrants upon which they rely to clean their houses and care for their children.  My own children shamefully confuse the identities of our Filipino cleaning person and our Filipino doorman because of their own lack of exposure to individuals from diverse cultures in Italy. 

Just recently, an Italian journalist witnessed a bystander on the Rome metro physically attack a Roma mother as her frightened daughter watched, after police apprehended the mother for pickpocketing. Roma, not to be confused with Roman, describes the historically persecuted and unsettled multiethnic group in Europe that encompasses individuals that identify as travelers, gypsies, manouches, ashkali and sinti among other groups. When the journalist confronted the attacker, he responded that the Roma woman deserved to be beaten. Even more shockingly, numerous passenger voices on the train spoke up in support of the attacker. 

As I go about my daily life in my new, adopted home, famous abroad for its Bernini and Michelangelo which I come across regularly with little fanfare just like anything of which we lose awareness after viewing routinely, I realize a change of environment – even this beautiful – can’t provide an escape from nativism or discrimination as my American friends like to imagine. Believing that one can simply escape these social constructs implies that we as individuals bear no responsibility for their persistence. 

Believing that one can simply escape these social constructs implies that we as individuals bear no responsibility for their persistence. 

I’ve spent a lot of time trying to understand my reaction to that Italian police officer that startled me when he threw those stones, alerting me to my occupancy in my metaphoric glass house. My defense came so naturally, so aggressively. I was outraged at being questioned and judged during a moment in which I felt vulnerable and alone. I had convinced myself it was my right to be outraged, understanding somehow, that I was immune to consequence—something I’m aware that a Roma or African mother in Italy wouldn’t dream of doing for fear of repercussion. Only now, as I write this, I consider how I might transform my rage from that night into a more worthy cause. 

As I write this, I consider how I might transform my rage from that night into a more worthy cause.  Click To Tweet

And still, my reaction burst forth from a quivering, little-known place within – primordial and overgrown – which now, as a role model to two young daughters on the precipice of civic engagement, demands increasingly urgent and honest exploration. 

My white privilege.

the author

Carolyn Rathjen is an American clinical social worker currently living in Rome, Italy, with her Italian husband and two bilingual daughters. She works as a psychotherapist and leads workshops for expat parents and college students studying abroad. She holds a BFA in Writing from Emerson College and a Master of Social Work from Simmons College in Boston. Read more under 'Contributors'.

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