Meet the Mammoni
When I was 20 years old and living in Milan, I started to suspect my new boyfriend was cheating on me. Michele and I had been dating for several months; he was eight years my senior, mature, well-educated, and attractive. But every Friday night, he would drive 90 minutes home to the town of Brescia, ostensibly to spend the weekend with his parents. I became convinced he had another woman back home.
He did, but not the sort you might think. The other woman in our relationship was his mother, who called him micino—Italian for “kitten”—and did his laundry each week. After leaving for Brescia each Friday, Michele would reemerge the following Monday with freshly ironed shirts hanging in the back seat of his BMW.
Michele was a mammone, the word for an adult Italian man who remains emotionally and physically dependent on his mother. According to a December 2018 Eurostat report, 72.7 percent of adult Italian males between the ages of 18 to 34 still live with mothers who take care of them—for women, the number is slightly lower, 59.8 percent, as more Italian women have embraced living alone or with roommates.
“He has limits when it comes to working hard, in that he never lasts long: he has little mental stamina.”
The reason for men staying at home may be as much economic as it is cultural: the Italian workforce suffers from a lack of upward mobility, which has caused the job market to stagnate as older generations stay in their jobs well beyond 60, the typical age of retirement. As a result, Italian millennials are both overeducated and underemployed. As of 2019, youth unemployment in the country of 60 million is at 31.9 percent. While Milan has more work opportunities for young people than other Italian cities, the average cost of renting a one-bedroom apartment is around $1,100, making staying at home a practical solution for young men saving money for their future.
For Topic’s Mothers issue, we spoke with several mother-son pairs living in Milan about what it takes to cohabitate with a parent. Many still live in their childhood bedrooms, surrounded by sports trophies, toys, and movie posters. They keep their mothers apprised of where they go each night, and they let them know if they are dating anyone. Some of these men are in their 20s and just starting out, others have part-time jobs, and a few in their mid-30s have ambitious and busy careers. They say they are happy to help around the house, put the dishes in the dishwasher (sometimes), and are even willing to pay the bills (eventually).
ALESSANDRO & ANTONELLA
Antonella Conte, 50, is an entrepreneur selling LED displays. She has three children: Alessandro, 20, Riccardo, 18, and Vittoria, 11, all living at home with her, her husband, and three dogs. Alessandro is a first-year university student studying communications at the University of Insubria.
Alessandro: It’s a good relationship, but sometimes we bicker.
Antonella: There’s conflict at times.
Alessandro: I do a little bit of everything around the house: I look after my little sister, and if I have to eat by myself, I tidy up afterward and clean up after myself. When it’s just me, I am perfect.
Antonella: He is good, but he should be more assertive. He has limits when it comes to working hard, in that he never lasts long: he has little mental stamina. In life, hard work is as important as natural disposition.
Alessandro: I think that Italians are more mammoni than foreigners.
Antonella: I see that as a positive thing. We always need limits, one way or another. Parents should neither be too apprehensive, nor should the children be too subservient to parents. However, the current economic landscape is not simple enough to allow everyone to find their own place.
Alessandro: Americans don’t like mammoni. They might leave home young, but they live under a bridge. If you’re under 25 and you study and make too little money to comfortably live alone, what’s so wrong about being a mammone? It’s not even about being a mammone but about cohabitating with your parents.
Antonella: By 30, I would ask him to help with bills if he makes his own money. I’d rather ask him up front and then actually help him save the money. First paycheck you get, we will detract your part from the utilities.
Alessandro: Worry not. By age 30, I will have a home that’s three times as big as this one.
LUCA & FIORENZA
Fiorenza Furlotti, 60, is a partner at a small trading company. She lives with her son, Luca Anchisi, 32, who works as an agent for Allianz, one of Europe’s largest insurance companies. Luca’s parents separated when he was around ten; his father died of a heart attack in 2007.
Luca: There isn’t one specific reason as to why I am still here, living with my mother. Economically, it would not have been possible for me to get my own place up until fairly recently, when I got a full-time position.
Fiorenza: I think it’s possible to have an adult, peer-like, non-codependent relationship between mothers and adult sons living under the same roof. Perhaps this is one of the reasons why Luca hasn’t felt such an urge to find his own nest yet.
Let me clarify: it’s not a proper “peer” relationship. A peer relationship would come with household responsibilities that are shared equally. Luca isn’t there yet, and that’s fine. I remember even when I was married, visiting my parents meant absolute relaxation, because my mother would take care of everything. Somehow this is what goes on here, with differences.
Luca: A significant difference. Having been raised almost entirely by my mom, I always helped out. I always let my mother know where I went or, at least, who I was with.
Fiorenza: He communicates! I am not here tomorrow because I am going out. And it’s mutual.
Luca: You might correct me, mom, but I don’t think I treat this house like a free hotel, as little as I might do to actually help out.
Fiorenza: He does fairly little, especially lately, because he’s studying for a career-related test. So right now my demands on him decreased, because I realize how busy he is. He used to be much more household-oriented when he was at university than now. He would load and unload the dishwasher, he would do laundry. I gave him rudimentary knowledge of kitchen and ironing. He can’t iron a shirt, but he can iron a rag, a towel, or a tablecloth. I tried to teach him the basic skills that would make him autonomous. Regardless of gender, it’s fundamental to be self-sufficient.
Luca: I think that had my dad stayed with us, I would be even less skillful. The fact that it was just me and my mother helped me in the long run.
STEFANO & PAOLA
Paola Cattaneo, 53, owns a smoke shop. Her older son Stefano Maestri (above left), 23, is a consultant working in human resources, and her younger son, Simone Maestri, 21, studies engineering.
Paola: I think we’re actually pretty similar. I see a lot of my younger self in him, and I want him to avoid making the mistakes that I made.
Stefano: I am averse to formality. I just brought you coffee using a small plate and some sugar, but it’s against my own nature. I would not get offended if you had just brought me a cup.
Paola: I am not that focused on formality; it’s a matter of generations. If you’re a guest of mine, I try to do my best without overdoing it.
Stefano: My mother is way too good-natured.
Paola: I expect my sons to do nothing at home, apart from walking the dog. Stefano works and has a paycheck, so he has to pay for his own stuff. He does not have to do groceries, nor pay the bills. He does not have any fixed chores to perform. A bunch of girls have walked through this door. They stay the night.
Stefano: Just the important ones: it was just three!
Paola: Yes, your girlfriends. Flings, I don’t know, I don’t care. All the girls he brought home were nice. Nothing to complain about! And I get attached to them.
Stefano: She wanted a daughter!
Paola: Yes, with two sons!
Stefano: I started working last year. I am saving something. I am not going to live in a shared apartment, because I have this one. As soon as I am able to, I will leave.
Paola: I wish for you to leave when you can comfortably afford to do so: decent place, a girl you like. But you have to be self-sufficient. I don’t want you to move out just to have you bring your laundry here the whole time.
FEDERICO & ROSSELLA
Federico Caligaris, 30, is a financial adviser. When he is not working, he enjoys spending time at the family’s beach house and listens to classical and pop music. Rossella Bargiggia, 64, previously worked in advertising but stopped working when Federico was young. Federico is Rossella and her husband, Alberto’s, only child, and the three of them live together in Milan.
Federico: I am someone who works really hard. If there’s something my mother takes care of, and it is compatible with my schedule, I am happy to volunteer by preparing dinner, setting the table, and tidying up afterward. I love cooking. But if I get home at 9, of course my mom will have taken care of the cooking.
Rossella: I try to make sure that dinner is ready for him when he gets back from work. And when I know he comes home, I try to make sure to prepare something that I know he will like. I mean, why not? I can just eat an apple, but when he’s home I want him to have a nice meal.
Federico: I am maniacally tidy. I never leave underwear on the floor. When I am at home, I tidy up my own things as a measure of privacy: I touch my own things, I take care of my own things. My mother and I are very similar, but we have a lot of conflict. My mother is a neurotic and quite a control freak. She always wants things to go a certain way, for people to behave a certain way, and as a kid, I would put up with it without much effort.
Rossella: I get up before him. He gets up sometime after me, but he starts working from his own bed: perhaps he has some calls with people in different time zones, or he starts drafting documents. When he gets up, he eats the breakfast I make for him, he dashes to work. I won’t see him until dinnertime. The only thing I ask him is to let me know whether he will have dinner at home, just to know whether we can have that span of time where we’re all gathered at the table and talk.
Federico: If I have a work dinner or emergency, she can get mad at me as much as she wants for my failing to let her know, but it’s not actually my fault nor my decision. Of course, if I am hanging out with my friends, the first time is OK, but if fail to let her know in advance on a consistent basis, of course she gets mad: it shows a lack of respect.
“I find that Americans and Italians could not be more different in their relationship with money. American society relies on debt, while Italian society is based on saving.”
Rossella: We have to take advantage of those 15 minutes when he is really present. Young men who live at home by age 30 are there because they work hard and are unable to manage a home of their own: they might have ambitious goals, so they are working toward those. Managing a house would burden them, so relying on the mother can help them carry out their own long-term projects.
Federico: I never realized what things were really like until I spent a period of my university years abroad. Coming back home was tough, almost traumatic, because someone gets independent and has their own daily-life standards. Coming home means mitigating some of your choices and behaviors for the sake of a metaphorical “return to order.” Your parents own the house, it’s their rules. It’s like saying, “I live on Italian soil, I have to abide by Italian laws.” If you’re not happy with it, you can choose another country.
I find that Americans and Italians could not be more different in their relationship with money. American society relies on debt, while Italian society is based on saving. [Americans] easily accumulate debt. They judge a societal convention such as living at the parents’ home until later in life with a different set of values.
The American economy has, historically speaking, and with two exceptions, been on a steady rise, so each generation is thought of as being or becoming better off than the one before. Tomorrow is always better than today. In Europe, our mindset is completely different.
LORENZO & ELISABETH
Lorenzo Malerba, 26, works in the luxury lifestyle industry and has a background in journalism. Elisabeth Minvielle, 57, is a French-Italian pharmacist who stopped working after her second child, Luca, was born.
Elisabeth: We both attended the French school of Milan as children, and I did realize I was a typical Italian mother, because French mothers are much more agile than Italians. They give children much more independence. You don’t insert your three-year-old into their kindergarten class gradually. You get there and leave them there. They all cling to the gate, with tears in their eyes. They will cry for the first week, but whatever.
I cook dinner, so I demand to know if Lorenzo is coming home that night. I have an 8 p.m. limit, and after that we eat with or without Lorenzo. This house is not a hotel. If you come by that time, we eat together. If not, you can heat up the leftovers while I watch TV. At that time, I don’t want to have any of it. The moment I “clock out” is when I start the dishwasher.
When he or his brother stay out till 5 or 6 in the morning, they must let me know, even at 3 a.m., so that I can go to sleep. I did go to bed once only to wake up in the middle of the night to an empty house, and I worried a lot.
Lorenzo: I am very messy with my house keys.
Elisabeth: He often forgets them, and so he just rings the doorbell. Next time he forgets them, he can just sleep outside.
Lorenzo: House keys are a big issue we fight about. Recently, I had to ring the bell. It was 2:30 a.m. and the night guard was not there. I was not my best self.
Elisabeth: Foreigners don’t know about the Italian situation. If a 26-year-old has a €1,100 monthly paycheck, what is he supposed to do? Where is he supposed to go?
Lorenzo: Some people go live with roommates, but frankly I’m better off at home.
Elisabeth: There’s honestly nothing I want my son to do at home. It’s on me! I stopped working after my second was born. By not working, I want nothing from them. Caring for them is what I do during the day. I demand nothing.
Lorenzo: My boss told me it would be good for me to live on my own.
Elisabeth: What for, though? My brother, a well-adjusted man, stayed at home till the age of 33, and he left his home when he got married. Lorenzo’s dad stayed home till the age of 29, and then he met me. We just have a different upbringing. In France, you’re on your own after the bac [or baccalauréat]. Fine, if I have a deadbeat at home, I might get mad. But he works full-time, and I am very happy to have him at home with me. And I am happy to enjoy time with my sons. They’re grown men now!
STEFANO & ROMANA
Romana Prostamo, 57, is a therapist, naturopath, and practitioner of Chinese medicine. Stefano Virgili, 27, has just obtained his master’s degree in engineering,
Romana: I was a Buddhist monk for 25 years. What I always tried to do with my two sons was to start a dialogue early on, right after they were born. I made him touch things, and I would explain things to him. Of course, he thinks with his own head. We both have strong personalities, but Stefano is more practical. I try to see the connections, looking at the deepest aspects of a person or of a behavior.
Stefano: We do argue, but it’s more of a confrontation than a straight-up argument. We’re pretty similar, so we butt heads in a similar way. My mother is more metaphysical, while I am more grounded, but my mother influenced me greatly: I love art, I study Japanese. But I am more rational than her.
“The truth is, now I realize my need to leave is not motivated by wanting to do my own thing, but rather by the need to grow.”
Romana: Stefano cleans, he takes care of our pets, he irons, he cooks. Sometimes he sews. He’s always been very involved. That’s the way he was raised. As a family, we always needed to pull ourselves up by the bootstraps; we all helped each other out however we could. My son does a lot. He’s been working since he was young. He paid his university tuition by working.
Stefano: I understood the importance of sacrifice, especially when I would have to work on weekends while my peers were studying or going out. It was a way for me to both help out and to get some money. It taught me the importance of money and of hard work, without which you are bound to be left behind. This work ethic, I think, is what helped me land a job the day after I graduated.
Romana: The problem in Italy is that the cost of life is steep compared to the paychecks. Sometimes some choices are forced upon young people. They don’t have enough cash flow to be independent. In Italy, you invest a lot in education, which is not rewarded in the workforce, especially in entry-level roles.
Stefano: I want to get my own place as a sense of responsibility. When you’re young, you want to escape, just so you can do whatever you want. The truth is, now I realize my need to leave is not motivated by wanting to do my own thing, but rather by the need to grow. When you’re alone, you grow in a different way, and not necessarily faster.
Romana: On a recent trip to the US, I noticed a lack of affection in child rearing. Many parents have a detached style. On one hand, they get tossed into the real world without much ado, but this does have some drawbacks. I saw teenagers left to their own devices, at least from an affection-related perspective, and this can prompt them to find gratification elsewhere.
Stefano: A lot of people my age in Italy, without a family able to support them financially, live in a situation just like mine: they wait to move out until they have a good job. I don’t want to leave because I want to escape.