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La Bella Figura: Why Italian Moms Once Made This American Mom Feel Insecure
Carolyn Rathjen

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.
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Carolyn Rathjen

The bags of most Italian moms I know are bottomless.

I remember that afternoon when I took my two-month-old for a walk to see my Italian friend, Marta and her 6-month-old baby. We met at a café with a courtyard garden just around the corner from the Vatican on an unseasonably warm March afternoon in Rome. As we chatted and bonded over our recent induction into motherhood, a vague feeling of incompetence crept up as she switched her baby’s wool hat to a sun hat when the sunlight shifted position onto her daughter’s face, causing her to cry. I repositioned my daughter’s stroller and pulled the shade down to block her eyes from the sun, but somehow, I felt inadequate due to the simple fact that I’d forgotten to bring any hat at all.

“Would you like to borrow hers?” she asked kindly, holding out the hand-knit hat to me, unintentionally heightening my insecurities. Marta was just as new a mom as I, and somehow she had everything her young daughter could possibly need in that giant bag: snacks, toys, wipes, tissues, cream, organic baby oil, and diapers. She’d even brought an extra sweater neatly pressed and folded and a pair of socks and scarf—just in case.  I, on the other hand, hastily shoved a diaper in my purse with a pack of wipes and a baby rattle and rushed out the door.

When the American Mom begins to Seriously Question her Disorganization

Italian mom bags

Photo Courtesy: Carolyn Rathjen

I’d blame my lack of preparedness back then on my status as a new, inexperienced mom, but the same feeling came to me again last month at a rented farmhouse in Tuscany where we stayed for the weekend with some close friends when I caught a peek inside the packed luggage of my Italian friend, Ludovica. Neatly pressed and folded clothing belonging to all three of her children ages five months to four years filled the luggage in perfectly lined rows. When we entered the room in which they would stay that weekend, my daughters immediately spotted the snacks Ludovica had packed for their four-hour car ride and began begging for them like famished puppies because I’d only thought to bring a small package of cookies that they’d devoured hours earlier.

I was glad my friends hadn’t seen the contents of my messy duffel bag slumped on the desk in my room. My girls’ clothes were sloppily loaded inside with a few of their toys and some questionably clean clothes for myself. My daughter spent the weekend using the same sweatshirt she’d stained with grease from a tractor at the farm we’d visited earlier that day. It was cold and humid, so I had no choice but to put it on her when we all went out to the pizzeria that night where the other Italian children chatted and played in neatly pressed corduroys and polished, patent leather shoes.



As we double cheek kissed goodnight, my friend’s empty stroller tipped over after she rested her overstuffed tote on its handles. Her Italian husband scoffed: “but how much stuff do you have in there?” I laughed to myself thinking about how earlier in the night he’d asked his wife for a wet wipe to clean his lunging child’s tomato-stained hands, and later for a toy to calm his crying daughter in the restaurant. The wipes and the baby rattle were both items he hadn’t needed to consider before the occasion arose, because his wife already had.   

And Dad’s Role?

I know how much effort it takes to fill a family travel bag and a baby tote to boot. I used to have arguments about being solely responsible for this task with my husband whenever we took a trip together as a family. He would pack for himself and I would pack for myself, and the two girls. Children under five require a lot of extra gear: special beds, crib sheets, hygiene and medicinal products, hair accessories, hats and gloves in the winter, changes of clothes, socks and underwear. That kind of preparedness takes time, but also a lot of mental planning.

Inevitably, I always forget something in the chaotic bustle to get out; last time it was socks. My daughters had to tiptoe on the cold tile floors of the farmhouse when they woke up during the night to use the bathroom. Their only socks were hanging up to air out, as they’d have to use the same ones the next day. When I worried aloud that his Italian mother would be in shock if she saw them walking barefoot on the icy tiles, my husband assured me: they’d survive.  

I'm always left with the sense around my Italian mom friends that they are somehow deftly more organized than me. Click To Tweet

La Bella Figura: Do Italian Moms do it Better?

Try as I might to be an organized mother, I’m always left with the sense around my Italian friends who are also moms, that they are somehow deftly more organized than me. I’ve considered that this is simply an issue of personality and not culture; maybe I’m just a disorganized person, but I’ve never thought of myself as such in other areas of my life. Last summer, I spent some time in the U.S. with my daughters and watched other American moms from similar demographic backgrounds parent their kids. When I compared what I saw of the Italian and American moms I know, there wasn’t much difference between how much warmth I saw projected toward their respective kids. I couldn’t help but think, though, that the Italian moms often seem just a bit more organized and prepared in their parenting responsibilities while looking almost flawless at the same time.  

Italian moms often seem just a bit more organized and prepared in their parenting responsibilities while looking almost flawless at the same time. Click To Tweet

I marvel at the seemingly superhuman abilities of Italian moms to both look great and have anticipated the appetites, body temperatures, weather changes, and hygiene needs of all their kids—and the friends of their kids on top of that. In the summer: need sun cream or mosquito spray? They have it in two versions, regular and organic. Need a snack? They’ve picked up the most amazing freshly baked pizza or bread and they’ve brought enough to feed everyone on the playground. Need a piñata for your child’s birthday party? They’ll teach you how you can make one yourself.



How do they do it? I consider that it might be related to a concept called la bella figura, which is hard to grasp for most Americans but is loosely translated as making the best impression in all possible areas in life no matter the cost.  While American moms no doubt carry their own “mental loads” a concept popularized by the French cartoonist Emma in which she eloquently describes the unrecognized mental energy that women typically take on in managing an entire family household, it appears to my outsider, expatriate eyes that Italian moms are stoically managing their juggling acts in overdrive.

It seems American culture is more forgiving of exhausted moms who just want to walk around in jeans and flip flops with messy hair. Click To Tweet

Will Innovations of Convenience Save the American Mom from the Mental Load?

I marvel at the seemingly superhuman abilities of Italian moms to both look great and have anticipated the appetites, body temperatures, weather changes, and hygiene needs of all their kids—and the friends of their kids on top of that.

Whenever I see the daily habits of my American friends who are moms, it seems American culture is more forgiving of exhausted moms who just want to walk around in jeans and flip flops with messy hair as we problem-solve on the fly with some convenient solution when we didn’t prepare for every potential child necessity. There doesn’t seem to be much blowback for ill-advised American innovations that attempt to solve the problem of not having enough time.

I see myself and many other American moms as being influenced by a culture of innovation that seeks convenient solutions to make life simpler.

For example, those ubiquitous food pouches that toddlers seem to always be sucking on in the U.S. don’t exist in Italy. They save American moms time from cooking but what are they doing to their kids’ health? Most Italian families I know who are deeply influenced by tradition and culture wouldn’t allow such a shortcut. While Italian moms are the upholders of family tradition, I see myself and many other American moms as being influenced by a culture of innovation that seeks convenient solutions to make life simpler. Somehow, I’m left feeling like neither the American mom’s corner-cutting strategies nor the Italian mom’s stoic upholding of family tradition seem like adequate solutions to coping with the problem of the mental load.  




Transforming Parental Insecurity into Feminist Resistance

While I’m sure the overloaded bags of my Italian friends who are wonderful moms are intended as expressions of their love and concern for their kids, I want to propose that the cultural pressure of la bella figura (or making a good impression) might be increasing the weight of their own mental loads, so to speak. At least this is how I’ve come to make meaning of my reactions as I continue to adapt to raising children in a foreign culture. Maybe now I can regard my disorganization and all those items I’ve forgotten to put in my bag– something I once considered a weakness around my Italian counterparts – as a resistance to being complicit in further perpetuating the mental load of women. Instead of feeling inadequate as a mother because of all of the tasks I haven’t completed for my family’s wellbeing, I’ll view my disorganization as an opportunity for my husband to carry the balance of the burden.

The cultural pressure of la bella figura (or making a good impression) might be increasing the weight of Italian moms' own mental loads, so to speak. Click To Tweet

Carolyn Rathjen is a Contributing Writer at theParentVoice, Magazine. Read more of her profile above and follow her on Facebook.

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[…] new essay about my own experience with this issue as and American raising two daughters in Italy. Here is my essay recently published by The Parent Voice, Magazine where I’ve become a regular […]

Séverine Perronnet
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Séverine Perronnet

That’s very interesting! Are Italian women “prisoners” of la bella figura? Are you challenging gender stereotypes by not being the one who should remember to take this or that for the well being of the whole family? It seems that women become de facto like that since they have longer maternity leave that the paternity leave in most countries… I, on the other side, am the mom with everything in my backpack! coloring book? yes. Wipes? Yes. Water, milk? yes. Blanket? Yes. Fruit? yes. Change of clothes? yes. But it certainly isn’t pressed, and not organised at all! I once… Read more »

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