Tuesday, 6 November 2012

Little boy lost and the Italian Mammas

Last week-end Little Sis came to town with a bunch of female friends. Because they had mainly met at the school gates Mild Mannered Intellectual Husband, who thinks he is witty, dubbed them "the yummy mammas".

The group was a vivacious, gregarious bunch - much fun was had, drink taken, criticism and blame apportioned on the male half of the human species - you get the picture.

In between we also had some pretty sobering conversations about the state of Italian politics (dire), economy (appalling) and levels of gender equality (ghastly and getting worse, since you ask).

Here was a group of articulate, intelligent working women with their fair share of deadbeat husbands, appalling employers and so forth, shouldering the lion's share of childcare (although at the age of nine their children seem to need social secretaries rather than babysitters), sometimes counting on grandparents, rarely on the actual fathers, who after all, as they never tire of reminding them, go to work, (a protestation growing ever more poignant the less they actually fulfil the role of main breadwinners).

But I digress.

Initially the mammas seemed to me, a childless harridan, the living proof of how motherhood really does not pay : you get to do what they do but backwards and in high heels, so to speak. You get to slave at school for better grades and work hard at those first jobs for careers that melt or stall as the first sign of maternity leave, part time and so on.

Later when even the children start getting a life they still struggle to go back to the lives they once had as  autonomous individuals, say the ability to make plans for an evening out or a week-end away that do not involve gargantuan organisational efforts and  Faustian pacts with other halves, mothers, in-laws and so on.

Caring sucks, you say to yourself. It doesn't pay.

Then one afternoon a few of us were sitting in one of Harrods' 27 cafes/restaurants waiting for a couple of the others who were on a last-ditch souvenir shopping mission.

A little boy of 6 or 7 was sitting by himself at the table facing us, surrounded by jackets and bags, an untouched salad cast to one side, an iPad in front of him.

I saw the mammas clocking him.

A few minutes went by, we tucked into our hot chocolates, I tried to engage them on the important subject of dinner. But I could tell my sister was tense, she is the one I know best after all, and I realised they all were. They were watching the boy. The boy was still by himself.

All along the mammas had kept a discreet watch for the absent parent - but by now an innocent bathroom sortie was out of the question. The boy had been left alone while the adult(s) with him went shopping.

By now even I could see the little boy was bored and distressed. He was wriggling in his seat, looking up and around from his iPad and at one point he seemed to ask a waitress for directions to somewhere. My sister and her friends were white faced, thin lipped, fuming, ready to spring into action if the boy had started wondering off on his own.

The other two mammas arrive, sit a table nearby, blissfully unaware of the little drama. They order and settle in. My sister says: "How long till they notice?"
Two minutes later discreet but eloquent Italian gesticulation from their table: what is this boy doing on his own???  I shuttle between the two tables, as they both begin to simmer with indignation and palpitate with concern.

As I move about I lean towards the boy's table and make an important discovery: the writing on the Ipad is in Russian. The little boy probably doesn't speak English. The mammas are ready to burst.

At this point addressing the boy is out of the question: they don't want to alarm him further. But they are determined to stop him wandering off, routed to the spot till a parent appears and should some peadophile try his luck and attempt to lure him away I would not rate his chances of actual physical survival. These mammas are ready to kill.

Forty five minutes later ("Forty five!!!!" they will tell each other for the rest of the evening, still incredulous), Russian dad appears, muttering something apologetic, to the son's obvious relief. If looks could petrify and if men ever noticed any social signals the guy would be a sodding oligarch statue by now.

I look at my little sister and her friends and can feel my heart swelling. Women are great but mothers are special - they marry all the superior qualities women have ( aversion to conflict, ability to work as a team, reasonableness, desire of good outcomes, not just selfish ones, ability to spot the butter in the fridge without sat nav) with the ability to care - not just for their children but other people's, instinctively, reflexively, whether it pays or not, the hell if it doesn't pay.

That caring, it now seems to me, cannot be controlled, modulated, switched on and off as convenient - this is the end of my shift, this is your child, not mine. It's like the ability to hear an impossibly high note - a talent, a blessing and, yes,  a curse.

And it seems to me that this means women, the vast majority of whom are mothers, will never really have a shot at ruling the world, or even getting on in it, the way the world works now. It also sees to me that if they weren't there, or turned into tone-deaf men, the world would go to hell. Not at a glacial, global warming kind of pace. I mean tomorrow.

The abyss between these two extremes is our room for action.

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