Wednesday, 9 November 2011

Participant observation

Participant observation in Ghana (Photo: Ricochet Dreamer)

Last saturday afternoon I went to my first kids' birthday party in Italy. It was a small affair, with about 10 kids in total and 5 moms besides me. All other children and their moms had known each other for years because they attend kindergarden together. I was thus the outsider, and I was so curious about this situation that I felt a bit like a participant observer anthropologist who is studying another culture. Here are my observations:

OBSERVATION #1: The setting. Kids had been brought to the party by their moms, and the only dad in sight was the father of the birthday boy. Surprisingly, especially for an Italian man, he took the initiative of leaving us moms to chat in the living room, while he went to attend to the kids!

OBSERVATION #2: The demographics. Because of my profession, this was obviously the first aspect that caught my attention. I fit within the same age range of the other moms, and we all had had our kids around the age of thirty. (The only one who had had her first kid at 27 was almost apologetic about it.) All other moms had at least an undergraduate degree (half also a master's degree, and one a doctorate obtained abroad), and were working full time. Most surprisingly to me considering Italy's low fertility (in the North, the average number of children per woman is less then 1.5), I was the only one with one child: three moms had two children each, and two had three children. In all cases, children were spaced no more than two and half years.

OBSERVATION #3: Work-family balance. I am sure you are now wondering: full-time job + at least two kids = who is helping these moms? The answer is: definitely not the husbands. Let me rephrase: probably the husbands do help, but the helpers who are much talked about are, rather, the grandparents. To give just one example: the mother-in-law who takes the train every morning at 6 am to make sure she can arrive in Milan to take care of the kids before the parents go to work. A nanny is a second-best solution that is chosen only if grandparents are unavailable, which was the case only for one of the moms at the party. Interestingly, nobody counts on friends or other relatives.

OBSERVATION #4: "Work is easy." All moms agreed that going to work is the easy part of the day, because you deal with adults and with situations that you have generally been trained to master. The difficult part is to stay at home with the kids, especially during the weekends. Yet there are no regrets, and nobody complains about it. It is how the world works for us contemporary thirty-something moms.

OBSERVATION #5: Style and fashion. I was impressed by the fact that all moms had a definite sense of style, and took obviously good care of themselves. You can say that only one was "fashionable", sporting over-the-knee black suede boots with skinny jeans. But none of them had messy hair or smudged makeup, and impeccable clothing. I gotta remember this next time I am about to slip into the sweatpants-to-get-groceries trap...

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