'It was important to my family that I be a breadwinner not a stay-at-home-dad'

New to the Parish: Italian Jacopo Villani was happy to look after their infant when his partner got a job in NUIG

Jacopo Villani at Tudor Lawn in Newcastle, Galway: “Caring for a child should be a mutual endeavour between men and women.” Photograph: Joe O’Shaughnessy

Jacopo Villani at Tudor Lawn in Newcastle, Galway: “Caring for a child should be a mutual endeavour between men and women.” Photograph: Joe O’Shaughnessy

 

Jacopo Villani has always felt like the black sheep of his family. While his relations are based in the small Italian city of Pesaro on the Adriatic coast, Villani has spent the past two decades moving around the world with homes as far apart as rural Ethiopia and bustling London. It all began aged 17 when Villani decided to spend a year of high school in Minnesota.

“I was so young and no one in my family had done anything like that. I had friends who had been exchange students before so I thought it would be an interesting experience to see another way of life. That year paved the way to my later experiences,” he says.

“Let’s just say sometimes my family can’t understand what I’m doing or why I’m doing it. They’re all settled in Pesaro and think I’m a little bit strange.”

Villani’s family was equally surprised when in 2015 the aid worker announced that he, his partner and their baby daughter were moving to the west of Ireland. Villani’s Italian partner had recently completed her PhD and was offered a lecturing position at NUI Galway. After years of moving from country to country, the couple felt “it was time to be in our own continent, closer to our family and to have a more down to Earth type of life”.

“When you’re an expat overseas you live in a bit of a bubble because you are privileged,” Villani says. “I understand it’s for security and you’re living in a stressful environment but you’re not living a real life. We wanted to get that back, and Ireland was a place where we thought we could fulfil our own personal and professional dreams.”

Villani first developed an interest in overseas development work during his Erasmus year studying in Lisbon. He became friends with a group from Cape Verde and learned about African communities living in Portugal. After university he began working for an Italian NGO in Ethiopia before later moving to a job with Médecins Sans Frontières.

Development sector

Working in the development sector can be extremely gratifying in the short term but becomes increasingly frustrating in the longer term, according to Villani.

“Sometimes you feel you’re really supporting people as you can see the direct effects of your work. For example, vaccinating kids, there’s a direct impact on the family. Or feeding centres where you can see malnourished children recovering,” he says.

“But if you think about the long-term effects of your work I have mixed emotions. Sometimes you feel rewarded but other times you think things are not changing. The development and humanitarian sector have been implementing projects for 30-50 years but nothing has really changed.”

Villani met his partner Anita while studying a master’s in development in London. The couple stayed in touch when Villani moved to Honduras and then Colombia for work. In 2013 they both moved to Rome and their daughter Vera was born. After a short stint working with Christian Aid in London, Anita was offered a job at NUIG. The couple agreed that Villani would leave his job so that she could pursue this opportunity and the family arrived in Ireland in August 2015.

“My family were like, ‘Wow, why are you going there? What are you going to do, babysit?’, says Villani. “I said, ‘No, I’m going to Ireland to be a father’.”

Mutual endeavour

While Anita had taken care of Vera in London, Villani was in charge of minding their 18-month-old daughter when they moved to Galway. Villani believes the care of children should be equally distributed between both mother and father but admits that being a stay-at-home dad was often difficult.

“I had been working full-time in London and then we swapped positions when she started working here. I thought it was the right thing to do and I was happy to do it, although it was challenging at times.

“Caring for a child should be a mutual endeavour between men and women and it shouldn’t be stigmatised if a woman wants to take some time for work and the father has to step in and care for the children.”

While Villani’s family never explicitly told him he should work outside the home, he says their opinion was “implicit in their words and behaviour”.

“They were concerned for me, saying, ‘What are you going to do?’ It was very important for them that I should be the breadwinner and be active and not staying at home.”

Having lived and worked in Latin America, Africa and across Europe, Villani says the male “machismo” culture is far less evident among Irish men than abroad. “I feel it’s less evident here, but everywhere I’ve lived women have taken more of a burden than men and I’m sure it’s the same in Ireland.”

In June of this year, nearly 10 months after arriving in Ireland, Villani was offered a job with Kildare Traveller Action. While he had plenty of experience working with disadvantaged communities abroad, Villani had never heard of the Irish Traveller community.

“I knew about the Gypsies and Romas because we have them in Italy and elsewhere in Europe but I didn’t know there was a specific indigenous group in Ireland.”

Traveller community

Villani now commutes to Newbridge three days a week where he works on a primary healthcare project for the Traveller community. “It’s interesting to see how an indigenous group that lives so differently wants to preserve its way of life and good to see how they’re so proud of it. I was amazed that in every county in Ireland there’s an organisation working with Travellers.”

Villani says his young family love living in Galway after the frantic pace of life in London. “In London we lived in a very expensive, small apartment. It’s not a life for a family in London. When we arrived in Galway we were amazed by the environment, it’s closer to nature,” he says.

Living far away from family can be difficult when raising a child, Villani says, but he’s excited to see his daughter growing up bilingual.

“I’d like her to experience both countries: we’re from Italy so I would like her to live in that environment but I’m happy for her to be here too. We are lucky to be able to experience these differences and she’s already speaking two languages,” he says.

How to be a Man is a series exploring masculinity and the challenges face men in Ireland today. If you would like to add your voice to this series email howtobeaman@irishtimes.com

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