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abstracts of an article in the Time magazine EUROPE

AT HOME WITH MAMMA

FOR MANY YOUNG ITALIAN MEN, STAYING IN THE FAMILY NEST IS A MATTER OF GOOD SENSE AND GOOD COOKING

BY GREG BURKE/ROME

Gianluca Vinti has all the trappings of an Italian yuppie--a good job teaching math at the University of Perugia, a car, stylish clothes, and, of course, a cellular phone. But in reality, Vinti is a Mamma's Boy, still living at home at 33 and unashamed of it. "It's true that life at home is easier," he says. "I have fewer expenses and my mother still brings me coffee in bed each morning. But I chose to stay put because my relationship with my family is excellent. Until I see a valid reason for leaving, I'll stay."

Vinti's not home alone. According to figures recently released by ISTAT, the Italian National Statistics Institute, the number of Italian "boys" between the ages of 18 and 34 living with their parents has reached 58.5 percent, up from 51.8 percent seven years ago. That climbing trend is mirrored across Europe, but almost 30% of Italian men aged 30-34, uniquely, have yet to fly the nest. Sigmund Freud would find it fascinating..

While the phenomenon may have strong psychological and cultural roots, the main reason the boys are at home long after they've become men is economic. And, it's not just the boys, either. "In Italy, you move out of your parents' house when you start your own family," says Elena Labagnara, 35, of Rome. "If I hadn't married, I'd still be at home now." Leaving one's parents at an early age--that is, before marriage--gives rise to suspicions that something in the family is not working. Labagnara points out that in the Anglo-Saxon world, it's easier for 18-year-olds to make it on their own because they can get scholarships for school as well as part-time jobs. Many Italian parents discourage their children from working while at university because it may give the impression that they are needy. "The large number of mammoni," as the stay-at-homes are called, "is principally an economic thing," Labagnara says. "When you're dependent on someone, you stick around."

Linda Laura Sabbadini, director of research at ISTAT, traces the causes of mammismo to the fact that more Italians stay longer in school, and that when they get out, they're often looking at prolonged periods of unemployment. There's also a third dimension, which is the changing nature of the Italian family. "It's no longer the authoritarian family of the past," Sabbadini says. "So young people can now enjoy autonomy within their parents' home." Mamma's Boy Vinti concurs: "I don't feel the need to leave home just to have individual freedom; I can do what I want and come home when I want, living with my family."

The Italian family has indeed changed, with the birthrate plummeting to among the lowest in the world, but the mother-son relationship remains as strong as ever. Every Friday in Rome, marketing analyst Federico Rutigliano packs up his laundry and for $6 sends it by bus nearly 500 km to Bari, his hometown in southern Italy. There his mother washes and irons his Valentino shirts and on Sunday afternoon sends the package back to Rome in time for the next workweek. Says Rutigliano, "Sure it saves me money, but the real reason I do it is because my mother wouldn't have it any other way. It makes her happy to know that she's making my life easier."

The number of Italian homeboys would be even higher were it not that many young men are forced to leave the nest when there are no universities nearby. The University of Rome has thousands of students coming from small towns in the southern region of Calabria. Luca Rocca, like many of his classmates, memorizes the schedules of bus deliveries because every week his mother sends him a box of homemade lasagna along with fresh tomatoes, oranges, and a bottle of the family's wine. "I can't find anything close to her lasagna here in Rome, so she sends the best of Calabria to make sure I eat well," Rocca says, satisfied that he's making Mamma happy.

And Italian mothers are never happier than when they're coddling or cuddling their baby boys, aged 3 or 33. "The Italian mother is part of the problem," says Lidia Eggmann, 32, who works for an export consortium in the northern town of Cuneo. "They've got this obsessive love for their boys, and can't manage to cut the cord." Intrusive mothers-in-law wreak havoc on marriages worldwide, but Italians often live so close to their parents--frequently in the same building --that mom's presence can be suffocating. "A lot of marriages break up because his mother is around too much," Eggmann says. "There's a kind of contest to see who can baby him more, and the wife feels like she's in second place."

Second place is good enough for some women, but relationships have come asunder because of boyfriends who insist on bringing mommy along on vacations. There are plenty of Italians, male and female, who stand up for such obsessive affection. "It's better to be loved at an older age than abandoned at an early age," argues one Mamma's Boy, 33, who was embarrassed to give his name. "The kids who leave home at 13 or 14 in England are the ones who are missing something in terms of affection." Antonella Cappon, a mother of three in Rome, agrees: "The problems come more from a lack of affection than an excess of it. You don't find people who are psychologically unbalanced because they got too much love or protection at home." True. Now what's the Italian for Oedipus complex?

--With reporting by Saskia Reilly/Rome