• As a girl growing up in Italy, I was taught from a young age that a woman’s worth is determined by the satisfaction of her husband. (Supplied)Source: Supplied
“There was a long silence after my one-sided eruption. Then I realised something about my husband I should’ve known.”
By
Julia Mawande

27 Aug 2020 - 9:21 AM  UPDATED 23 Jun 2021 - 9:51 AM

The day before my wedding, sipping espresso while listening to Italian radio, my Nonna gave me some marriage advice.

“When he comes home from work, make sure your lasagna is beautiful.” she said “That way he won’t want to have anyone else’s lasagna except for yours. That’s how you keep him.”

While my Nonna’s unsolicited tips may have been a euphemism - it was also an all too familiar refrain.

Cook well, keep the house clean, raise the children, make him happy, keep him from leaving you.

We were both sitting outside in her courtyard of endless cement, hours before I was due to walk down the aisle, when I realised that despite recently graduating with a Business degree (the first female in my family), landing a decent job and cultivating a healthy long-term relationship with my soon-to-be husband — it still came down to my lasagna.

As a girl growing up in Italy, I was taught from a young age that a woman’s worth is determined by the satisfaction of her husband. You could be the woman responsible for finding the cure to cancer but if it meant that your husband did anything resembling ‘home duties’ during the process, you better believe your name would be the first on the old aunties’ gossip list during bingo at the Italian club.

As a girl growing up in Italy, I was taught from a young age that a woman’s worth is determined by the satisfaction of her husband.

Ironically, I come from a line of strong, fiercely resilient and hard-working single Italian mothers.  My nonna was a widow in her early 30s, having only made the journey to Australia with her husband years earlier. She was now in a country where she didn’t know the language, yet managed to send all her three children to private schools while working multiple jobs as a kitchen hand. My mother, after her divorce from my father in Italy, moved back to Australia with me, her non-English speaking nine-year-old, and started a new life making sacrifices along the way to ensure I had access to a better life. Despite the absence of father figures, these women worked to the bone to provide for their children, and yet believed that a woman's marital status and her ability to keep it from being anything other than ‘married’ was life-affirming and had to be pursued at all costs.

My husband was also raised by a single mother. ‘Mhama’ also became a widow with three young children, yet she instilled feminist values that couldn’t have been further from my own upbringing. She worked incredibly hard, fought for what she believed in (was even arrested by her own father who was a policeman patrolling an anti-apartheid protest which she proudly participated in) and she never took no for an answer - especially when it pertained to her gender or race. 

As the first black headmistress of an all-girls high school in newly independent Zimbabwe, she had an immense amount of pressure to lead and educate hundreds of young women. Yet she managed to succeed not only in her own career but also sent all three of her children to international universities, all of whom are now successful in their own right.

But it wasn’t until a pasta incident that I realised how mine and my husband’s views on gender equality were born from opposite ends of the spectrum.

But it wasn’t until a pasta incident that I realised how mine and my husband’s views on gender equality were born from opposite ends of the spectrum.

One night, after making a risotto with imported Porcini mushrooms, topped by pricey, freshly grated Romano cheese, my husband thanked me and then casually proceeded to add a swirl of ketchup to the dish ‘for flavour’.

It may as well have been the equivalent of your boomer relative finding the GIF feature in the family group chat because what followed was one of the most intense outpouring of frustration - and it had nothing to do with the risotto.  I had been bottling up years of damaging generational and cultural expectations and the ticking time bomb finally exploded. Am I not enough? Why the HELL do you need to add to an already slogged out attempt at perfection?

In that moment, my husband told me for the first time he never expected anything of me other than to be his equal. He never saw domestic duties as ‘women’s work’. That he’d be more than happy to stay at home and raise our future children. This whole time he had assumed that cooking brought me joy and not because I viewed it as a litmus test for the success of our marriage. There was no mention of ravioli in our wedding vows, after all.

Perhaps it was a conversation that we should have had before we got married, but when you are crippled by your own fear of failure, and the intense pressures of being raised in an immigrant family, speaking up is possibly one of the hardest things to do.

There was a long silence after my one-sided eruption. Then I realised something about my husband I should’ve known.

“I think you might be - a feminist?” I said.

‘Yeah, I guess I am.’

And just like that it all made sense. He was and I wasn’t.

I called my mother-in-law the next day, feeling like I needed help to unpack my own idea of what it meant to be a feminist. Expecting a lecture and an in-depth history lesson, her answer took me by surprise.

“We burned our bras in the 60s thinking we were at the forefront but so many had gone before us and many more will continue to come after you. Terms and labels will come and go, but what matters most is the work. Wherever you are, make your work speak for itself.”

I called my mother-in-law the next day, feeling like I needed help to unpack my own idea of what it meant to be a feminist. Expecting a lecture and an in-depth history lesson, her answer took me by surprise.

She then advised me that the ‘work’ which was assigned to me, was one of internal self-reflection and to establish what it means to be a woman first and foremost. Not a wife, not a mother none of those things can come unless you understand your worth and value untied to roles which society, culture and family place on us.

It’s been almost 10 years since ‘the pasta incident’ and while both my husband and I are continuing to learn - my biggest lesson was the understanding that there’s no need to carry guilt which was never mine to begin with. The pressures which a patriarchal society have placed on the women before me - despite them holding their own anyway - have no place in my house.

I’m working full time now while my husband takes our children to and from school. Household duties are shared and interestingly, my lasagna remains beautiful.

While I now don’t give it credit to keeping my marriage intact, a potential ketchup drizzle may very well be the ultimate vow breaker.

Julia Mawande is a writer and presenter, she can be found on Instagram @juliamawande

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