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Panicked in Rome

Panicked in Rome
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Cary’s classic column from

Should I give up my career and live the life of an Italian housewife?


Dear Cary,

I graduated from college nearly two years ago and moved to Italy, where I have fallen in love with a wonderful man I have known since April and dated seriously since June. On all fronts the relationship is sound: communication is clear and honest; sex is good, frequent, joyful; we have similar levels of education and opportunity and are both fluent in the other person’s mother tongue. I am happier than I ever have been and entertain thoughts on the bus and the elevator of marrying this guy, having children, and becoming an Italian housewife. I do like to cook. While living in Rome, I have been editing publications for the U.N., which sounds like an interesting job but is actually very boring and unsatisfying. It is also unstable. I ignore my problematic work life because everything else is so pleasurable.

Before I met him, I wanted to accumulate designer degrees and pursue an ambitious career at the United Nations or some international agency. I was also anxious and prone to panic attacks. In order to pursue the old dream, I need to go back to school, but there are no schools in Italy that interest me. Since being with this man I have been noticeably calmer, more energetic, and I don’t panic when I’m in the house alone or while waiting for the train. I wonder if this means I am too dependent on him, but my friends and family enthusiastically affirm that he is a great influence on me. I feel secure. In addition, I like my life here irrespective of him. Nice weather, good food, a handful of people I care about.

I find that my desire to apply to school is dwindling, and the housewife option looks snuggly, warm and happy. I have always defined myself as an avid student, a liberated woman, someone with ambition. Now I’m just turning into a oozy cuddly dwarf rabbit. I have discussed this with my boyfriend. who says I should apply for the degree as if I have no love story and decide after the results come. All the same, I am blocked when I sit down to fill out the forms. I just can’t do it. Organizing my sock drawer looks more interesting.

Do I sound like a shriveled woman from the 1950s, instead of the college-educated, active women I believe myself to be, if I decide to stay with him instead of going back to school? Or does it perhaps take more strength to chose contentment and satisfaction with simple things? I can’t tell how much my thinking is clouded by being in love and the general complacency of my surroundings, but I know that I am more relaxed than I was when living in New York, city of perpetual self-dissatisfaction.

It would be an easier decision if he wasn’t such a good boyfriend. The problem is, if I leave next year I feel I would be nipping the relationship in the bud, meaning, we wouldn’t have had enough time to know if this could really work out. I hate the thought of a long-distance relationship. Do they ever work out? Should I risk losing him anyway?

You see, I’m panicking again.

Dear Panicking,

You know, I have become fairly good at analyzing a situation where one choice is clearly better. But in other situations, such as yours, it seems that one has been very lucky, that one is in paradise, facing two equally wonderful opportunities, and that one is suffering not because the choices are unpleasant but because the act of thinking about them is fraught with fear and anxiety. In such cases, one wants to say something trite like “Just enjoy yourself!” But one knows that the person asking the question is far too intelligent to take such trite advice, that, in fact, it is her intelligence that is contributing to the problem — a dumb person would just lie in the sun, screw the boyfriend, cook veal and lord it over all her friends back in New York, sending them postcards from Tuscany and little notes scribbled in the stern of a gondola, with a little water stain from where you dragged your fingers in the cool water and thought of your dear friends riding the subway at rush hour in July.

You’re too smart to do that. But I sometimes think intelligence is misused out of perversity, that it becomes not a route to ever more intense and refined pleasure in this magnificent world but instead, because of some unacknowledged slight or long-held resentment, because of some fear that we will never measure up or never accomplish anything, some belief in an image of who it is we must become, that because of these things intelligence becomes instead a knife with which we tear ourselves open and watch ourselves bleed. We humans love to suffer — in different ways, quietly or loudly, through intricate subterfuge or broad physicality — just the same, we humans love to suffer. And one of the ways we suffer is by pretending that there is some cultural ideal we must worship and dedicate our lives to achieving.

Well, it simply isn’t true. Our lives belong to us. There is no cultural ideal you have to live up to. And the paradoxical thing is, those very people who have now become cultural ideals that you think you have to live up to were the ones who achieved what they achieved by flouting the very idea of living up to some received cultural ideal. You feel me, sister? The feminists whom you think you’re supposed to emulate got where they got by saying fuck you to whatever the world said they were supposed to do. And now you’re cowering before some received notion of how you’re supposed to be, which is not what they would have wanted. So I suggest you truly do as they did and say fuck you to these warmed-over notions of female heroism: If anything, their gift to you is that you get to live your life any way you want; the last thing your feminist heroes would want is for you to feel obligated to strive for some powerful position in government when what you really want to do is perfect your veal piccata and count the thousand different shades of a Roman dusk.

You are here to enjoy your life. If you don’t want to be a highly placed U.N. official in a smart black suit and chestnut hair taking Concorde to a top-level negotiation with Zambian rebels in a villa outside Paris, you don’t have to be. You don’t owe anything to anybody. All you have to do is be happy. Try looking around you. Cook a nice meal. Just live this one day.

And, hey, at the same time, don’t sell yourself short. Fill out the application. It can’t hurt. Your boyfriend sounds like a smart guy. You don’t have to do it, but it’s nice to have the option. Have a good life. Don’t panic. It’ll work out.

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4 Comments

  1. I have been a housewife (stay at home mom, home-maker)for many years. People can say some really insensitive things to women who picked the home over a flashy career. I think what women fear is that if they choose the home, they will become invisible, dismissed. Nobody will see them. It does feel like that sometimes…especially 20 years in. But Cary, your advice is lovely here.

    • That fear is well-founded as social stock is determined by the dollars you bring in and by the status your money and work has earned you. Perversely, we don’t respect the most important people, those who serve and work with your family is part of that.

  2. I like the answer, especially the “fuck everybody.” I’m thinking about her saying the Italian schools didn’t interest her. She could have had it all with one little sacrifice, the perfect school.

  3. Oh, Cary, what a beautiful answer.

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