Armed with aprons, Italian 'househusbands' unite

Down a narrow lane in this sleepy Tuscan town there is one particularly clean and tidy home, with one particularly unlikely housekeeper: a man.

In this traditionally macho land, Fiorenzo Bresciani happily dons an apron, flutters his duster, and spends hours at the ironing board. When his wife, a doctor, comes home from a hard day's work, Mr. Bresciani has dinner on the table.

"Italy is changing," he says. "Economic changes mean Italian men are making beds, doing the ironing and the vacuum cleaning these days. We think it's time to change the way people think about housework - make it respectable."

To make his point, Mr Bresciani has insisted that authorities list his profession as "househusband" on his national ID card.

To recognize - and encourage - this change in Italian society, Bresciani has created the Association of Househusbands, which already has 4,000 like-minded males who darn socks, exchange recipes, and share tips on new "muscle loosening" ironing techniques.

The group is becoming more than just a gathering point for homebound hubbies. It draws single men who once relied on the stereotypical Italian "mamma," and divorcés who have never made a bed. It also reflects the broader demographic and gender-role shifts under way in Italy.

"I started doing the housework out of necessity," says Lino Bacci, a 62-year-old veteran househusband who first donned his apron in 1971 to share the load with his working wife, a nurse. "But then I found I actually enjoyed it. And, you can imagine, it means my wife is more relaxed. That makes everything better," he chuckled, "including our sex life."

Even the country's most powerful men are donning aprons ever more willingly. Romano Prodi, president of the European Commission, particularly likes shopping and comparing the prices of detergents, according to the newspaper Corriere della Sera. He also makes the bed. "First I strip it down completely, then I put the under sheet on, smoothing it carefully to get rid of those little crinkles that can be irritating at night," the paper quotes the former prime minister.

For those new to domestic realities, the first "Masters for Home Managers" is being held in Milan this Saturday. Classes include stirology (ironing), epistemology of laundry, applied domestic economics, domestic psychology, and home fitness. Hundreds of applicants, 70 percent of whom are men, have applied for the 30 available spots. Organizers say they may schedule more classes to meet demand.

In charge of ironing classes is Mr Bresciani. In his hometown, he proudly shows off a 20-page manual he has prepared for students, which includes the history of the iron and tips for avoiding back pains when ironing.

"Lots of men come to me in secret and admit they are househusbands," says Bresciani. "It's as if they have committed a sin, and with us they can confess. You should see how relieved they are."

Others are divorcés coping with housework for the first time.

Divorce was legalized in Italy only in 1970 and, until recently, divorce rates here have been among the lowest in Europe. But divorces increased by 48 percent between 1995 and 2001, according to the latest government figures. For every couple that divorces, another two are on the path toward divorce, formally registering their "separation." The growing threat to the traditional family model caused Pope John Paul II such concern that he called on Catholic lawyers in 2002 to boycott divorce, which he described as "evil."

In addition, economic pressures mean that Italians are marrying later and later. In the 1990s, single-person prepared meals took off in Italian supermarkets as half a million "single-person families" emerged.

"Women are interested in careers first, then babies," said Franco Ferrarotti, sociology professor at Rome's La Sapienza university. "That's causing a huge social shift."

"The traditional image of the Italian mamma, devoted but powerful, is fading. And men can no longer play the figure of authority," says psychiatrist Piero Rocchini.

The Association of Househusbands says it has twice as many members as last year, many of whom combine their new role with conventional day jobs. They have created their own range of branded accessories, including aprons and T-shirts.

Some of Italy's traditional homemakers are skeptical at the newfound male enthusiasm for domestic duties. "I guess it's good news if men are learning to do the things women have done for centuries," says Roman housewife Filomena Buratti. "But they are fooling themselves if they think this is a science. It's just hard work."

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