Italian women are eschewing motherhood as Italy’s birth rate plunges to one of Europe’s lowest

People walk past a jewelry shop located on the Ponte Vecchio medieval arch bridge
The low birthrate is showing up in the rising burden of national debt, which has in the past few years ballooned close to 140% of output.

Italy is known for its devoted mammas. Emperor Nero’s maneuvered him into the line of succession. Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi brought his on the campaign trail. Footballer Christian Vieri called his five times a day.

Yet refusing to buy into the cult of maternity are Italian women themselves, who are having fewer children — with some eschewing motherhood altogether.

It’s not just about the cost of childcare, or the country’s anemic economy — though women say both these issues come into play. What’s turning them off may be precisely the burden of the myth: “Mothers are required to give these children their absolute and total attention,” said Valeria Merlini, a restorer of Renaissance paintings in her late 50s who lives in Rome. “If you think too hard about having kids you may simply give up.”

Many now are doing just that. Merlini was one of four. She had two children of her own. And those children, both in their 30s, don’t yet have any children themselves. That generational pattern maps onto a wider demographic trend, with the country’s fertility rate in decline since the mid-1960s.

As of the most recent data, Italy was one of the nations with the lowest birth rates in the world at 1.24 per woman — well below the level needed, in economists’ terms, for the population to sustain itself without immigration. That compares with a fertility rate of 1.8 in neighboring France where President Emmanuel Macron recently fretted that the country needs to take action against a demographic time bomb.

The low birthrate has consequences beyond undermining Italy’s most venerated institution. It’s showing up in the rising burden of national debt, which has in the past few years ballooned close to 140% of output. In terms of the OECD’s so-called “old-age dependency ratio,” which measures the number of people of working age sustaining those aged 65 and over, only Japan is in a worse position.

To counter the outdated popular lore about big families, new cultural touchstones that reflect Italy’s demographic realities are starting to emerge. One example is the 2020 movie “Figli” or “Children” in which a couple with an an only child gets pregnant with their second. Tears and terror ensue, with horrified friends and family doing their best to discourage the couple.

While “Figli” is a comedy — and things work out by the end — its humor depends on the wide currency of the notion that a second child is unmanageable even if the couple seems stable, has a home and is already parenting one child. The country’s statistics institute shows that perception in practice.

Against that backdrop, Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni — herself the single mother of a single child — is agitating for her compatriots to give parenting a second chance, and in December brought Elon Musk to Rome to beat that drum. She’s earmarked €1 billion ($1.1 billion) in incentives, which consist of tax breaks of up to €3,000 a year for mothers of two children that will in future be restricted to mothers of three or more.

That’s a number most young couples aren’t willing to even consider. Anna Ferrini, a 28-year-old hairdresser working in Rome, says she’s working too hard to have children and won’t plan for them until she’s achieved her career ambitions of opening her own salon back home in Naples.

“If we had more economic help from the government, if I knew I could leave them in a state nursery, it might incentivize me to have kids sooner and keep working,” she said. “As it is though, I can’t plan like that.”

In Southern Italy fewer than one in six children under three years old have a place in a state-funded preschool, while in the more affluent North it’s one in three, according to Italy’s statistics institute. That puts a childcare burden on mothers that’s turning many off. Still others are having children, but giving up work, as evidenced by Italy’s female employment rate, which is the lowest in the European Union.

To compound the problem, Italy’s government has taken a hard-line stance against the immigration that in places like the UK helps compensate for the societal and economic problems caused by low birthrates.

Although immigrants form a quick fix to labor shortages, they don’t tend to bring with them a whole new attitude to childrearing that has an effect over generations. That’s because when immigrants arrive in Italy they are accustoming themselves to Italian family patterns, and not the other way round, according to Maria Rita Testa, a professor of demography at Rome’s LUISS University.

“Women are coming to see maternity as one of many options available, something they can chose to do or not, and immigrants tend to also adopt the local model once they’re here.”

Oksana Shmyr, who is 55 and from Ukraine, moved to Italy almost 20 years ago and has made a living working in restaurants and caring for other people’s children. She has one daughter in her 20s and took an active decision not have any more.

“I was working very hard when I arrived and it would just have been too complicated to have more kids,” she said. She contrasted her choices with those of friends back home. “They don’t have that much support and yet they have kids, whereas here you see well off couples with maybe one child.”

Spending more than twice what Italy does as a share of its economic output, neighboring France offers more ways for women to remain in the job market after kids. But some say there is a limit to what policy changes will achieve in Italy, when the impediments to big families have attained the intractable level of culture.

“There is this idea of motherhood in Italy that can be unrealistic and charged with too much weight, whereas perhaps in some other countries it is not so all-encompassing,” said Paola Marion, director of Italy’s Psychoanalysis Review whose own patients are mainly women between the ages of 20 and 50. “If that becomes the reference model for young women, then it’s hard to change with just policy actions.”

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