The Role of Italian Grandparents

“Quando niente sta andando bene, chiama la Nonna”
Italian Proverb

When it comes to Italian culture, there is something truly special about the role that grandparents, or Nonni, play. The Nonni are looked to for anything and everything. As the quote translates above, “When nothing is going well, call Nonna,” is the mentality of many kids today in Italian society.   Unlike many cultures, where a grandparent’s involvement in both their child’s and grandchildren’s lives decreases as they age, the presence of Italian grandparents in a family tends to be seemingly limitless.  In fact, in many cases, grandparents provide significant aid to their own children when it comes time to raise the newest generation of the family.  This aid often comes in many forms, whether it be contribution of time and experience, financial support, or a sense of emotional support and love, it seems as though Italian grandparents are constantly working to better their families.

One may wonder how it is that Italian grandparents are capable of being so involved in the lives of their children and grandchildren.  That being said, in most Western cultures, it is uncommon for three generations to live under one roof, however it is considered a cultural norm amongst Italians.  More often than not a grandparent will either live with their son, daughter, or grandchild. This “extended family,” as anyone with parents can imagine, this sense of constant “togetherness” can be seen as both a blessing and a burden. When it comes to the constant influx of help with child rearing, housework, and general familial connection, live in grandparents are certainly a blessing.  That being said, when an adult feels as though they cannot escape their own parents or embrace a sense of independence, the feeling of burden can begin to weigh heavy on the adults shoulders.  Nonetheless, the positives generally outweigh the negatives, especially when it comes to the ways in which the grandchildren benefit.

In the last forty years, dynamics of Italian families and the roles that different individuals play within them, have changed drastically. Many attribute this to the ever-changing gender roles within Italian society.  Up until the second half of the 1900s, Italian women, as well as the majority of women from other cultures, were seen through a purely domestic lens.  Their responsibilities revolved around their children and the importance of maintaining a well-functioning home and marriage.  While these are still highly important aspects of an Italian woman’s life, the past few decades have shown a drastic broadening of options when it comes to the complex role that women play.  The recent evolution of the female gender role in Italian culture has allowed for an increased acceptance of women in the workforce; whereas prior to this, women were forced to choose only one path.  This exciting shift often forces women to split their focus between the importance of motherhood and a successful career. While this is a highly difficult task for any parent, the ability to find a positive balance becomes possible with the help of grandparents and other familial outlets.  Due to the change and advancement in roles in Italian society, the emphasis on grandparents being highly involved in family life has increased dramatically.

With 40% of Italians between the ages of 18 and 28 unemployed, Italy is facing one of the worst economic job climates in its history.  That being said, as the job market continues to deteriorate, having a family with only one source of income is quickly becoming a disappearing luxury in Italy.  There is no doubt that as a result of the economic crisis and the change in the traditional role of women as the faithful housewife, the average Italian family is experiencing a cultural reshaping.  Furthermore, grandparents are quickly becoming the cornerstone of the family.  It is the involvement of grandparents that allows both halves of couples to simultaneous work and raise their children in a comfortable manner. According to a study cited by Cecilia Tomassini and Karen Glaser, “In Italy, as in other Southern European countries, around 40 percent of grandparents provide regular childcare for their grandchildren compared with less than 20 per cent in the Nord European countries” (Tomassini, Glaser). These numbers demonstrate that Italy is not alone in the rising trend that shows an enormous percentage of grandparents regularly providing childcare.  By not having to pay for childcare, Italian families witness intense financial benefits. While these saving are helpful for individual families, grandparent provided child care also factors into the struggling economic situation. A 2009 study conducted by the Milan Chamber of Commerce calculated, “ savings of 50 billion euros, supposedly based on how much it would cost Italian families to find babysitters and/or housekeepers for all Italian children under the age of 14” (Gilbert, Stranitalia). The benefits that families experience with grandparents living in an extended family, only bolsters this growing trend.

Due to these factors, Italian grandparents have had to take on a much more active role in their families. This role sometimes forces the grandparents to take care of their grandchildren more than their actual parents.  In some cases as well, the grandparents are sometimes seen as a haven from the parents due to their more patient and “spoiling’ nature typical Italian grandparents have. Another rising trend to keep in mind is the slowly rising number of divorces in the once catholically fortified Italy. In a 2003 national survey conducted by the Italian Statistical Office found that, “new generations of grandparents are more likely to experience divorce,” indicating that now more than ever, grandparents are faced with the fact that their children are divorcing, with and without children, thus leaving both their children and their grandchildren in their hands (Tomassini, Glaser). This survey was called the “Indagine Multiscopo sulle Famiglie e Soggetti Sociali,” which is explained by Tomassini and Glaser to be a survey of “over 60,000 people with the response rate well above 90%, though is lower for very old people. A section of the questionnaire is devoted to analysis of the structure and the exchanges within family members. Information on presence, proximity, and contact with grandchildren are included” (Tomassini, Glaser). Therefore, with splitting households, grandparents are exponentially becoming more of a refuge for the children experiencing the divorce of their parents. Having a stabile home or another source of parenting becomes more familiar and comforting than that of their parents. As King also reinforced in his article Consequences for ties between Grandparents and Grandchildren, “Grandparents step in children’s family breakdowns. They are often seen as the next level of parenting or nurturing that the child identifies with.” Italian children today are not only raised by their mother and father. Every child either has their mother’s or father’s parents as well that act as parents in their everyday lives. It will be an interesting phenomenon, how these children today will grow up to be due to these circumstances.

The Nonni of today’s Italy have taken a gigantic role in today’s Italian family. Without many of the grandparents of today, many families would not be able to survive the economic climate. In addition, the empowerment of women and the progress women’s rights have experienced in the last 40 years would also be at risk if it were not for the willing grandparents in Italian society. Without someone to take care of the kids, whether it is while going to work or during divorce, the Italian woman would be seriously disadvantaged without the convenience of someone to take care of their children. Without i Nonni, it would also be extremely difficult for single mothers and mothers in general to pursue careers. In the Italian culture there truly is something different about grandparents. The roles of Italian grandparents go far beyond the expected. From essentially raising their grandchildren, to being the last minute babysitter to even providing financial help. Italian grandparents live for their grandchildren, have been the glue of Italian families for the last 40 years and very well may become more and more needed as time continues.

Works Cited

King, V. (2003) The legacy of a grandparent’s divorce: Consequences for ties         between Grandparents and Grandchildren, Journal of Marriage and Family,       65, 170-183. Print.

DC Reitzes, EJ Mutran (2004) Grandparenthood: Factors influencing frequency of            grandparent–grandchildren contact and grandparent role satisfaction,       Journals of Gerontology. Print.

Glaser, Karen, Dr. “Grandparenting in Europe Project.” Grandparents Plus.            Krystal, 28 June 2012. Web. 11 Nov. 2013.      <http://www.grandparentsplus.org.uk/grandparenting-in-europe-project&gt;.

 

Gilbert, Sari. “Grandparents Supposedly Saving Italian Families      Millions.” Stranitalia. Petar.org, 20 Aug. 2009. Web. 12 Nov. 2013.    <http://www.stranitalia.com/home/index.php?option=com_content&task=vi            ew&id=237&Itemid=1>.

“Report – Italian Families – FCE Preparation.” Lang-8. Lang-8.com, 9 Apr. 2012.   Web. 11 Nov. 2013.

<http://lang-8.com/371812/journals/1412789&gt;.
Tomassini, Cecilia, and Karen Glaser. “Unmarried Grandparents Providing Child   Care in Italy and England: A Life – Course Approach.” EPC 2012.         Princeton.edu, n.d. Web. 12 Nov. 2013.

<http://epc2012.princeton.edu/papers/120948&gt;.

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