When in Rome
In Italy, having children is increasingly countercultural
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It’s 7 a.m., and Linda and Liberato Vitale are scrambling to wake up their kids and get them ready for school. As usual, 1-year-old Francesco is crying because of the nasal rinses he needs after yet another seasonal cold. Aurora, 4, runs from room to room, excited for a new day. Before Linda has time to calm the chaos, she hears the usual banging noise coming from the other side of the wall. It’s the next-door neighbor, making known his usual annoyance with the children. Linda feels humiliated once again.
Telling young children to make as little noise as possible is almost useless. Linda and her husband repeat the request often, hoping they will learn quickly. But for now, they’re often a noisier family than they would like.
The neighbor bangs again. It would seem the stereotypical gesture of a grumpy old man. But he’s in his mid-30s, living alone in an apartment near his job in Italy’s capital.
Ironically, he’s not the one out of place. In Rome, as in other big cities, especially in their centers, the number of singles has already exceeded the number of couples. By 2045, demographers estimate there will be more childless couples than couples with children. And situations like Linda’s—where neighbors see children more as a nuisance than a blessing—will be the norm.
Italy has been suffering a “demographic winter” for many years, but 2022 marked a record: New births did not even reach the 400,000 mark, the lowest number since the unification of Italy in 1861.
It’s a trend across Europe, where birthrates are in free-fall, especially in southern countries like Malta and Spain. France is the outlier. Its fertility rate is the highest, and the government has invested heavily in pro-parenthood policies. Nevertheless, Eurostat predicts 190,000 fewer births across the European Union by 2030. Italy has the third-worst decline among the 27 EU countries. The average number of children per woman of child-bearing age has been below 1.5 for more than 35 years. In 2022, it reached a low of 1.24, far below the average of 2.1 needed for adequate generational replacement. In 2022, 393,000 more people died than were born.
“Due to record low birthrates, Italy is less and less a country for children,” says Luca Cifoni, a journalist for Messaggero, a daily newspaper in Rome. “Their presence is less and less accepted in restaurants, hotels, trains, etcetera, where the presence of pets is increasing instead. We need to bring childhood back to the center of public attention.” Cifoni specializes in economics and social policies, with a particular focus on the causes and consequences of declining fertility in Italy. He recently published a book called La trappola delle culle—“The cradle trap: Why not having children is a problem for Italy and how to get out of it.”
What Cifoni describes in his book, Linda Vitale lives every day. She would like to explain to her wall-banging neighbor all the difficulties of getting two kids out of the house by 8:30 to get them to two different schools and herself to work on time. But she has no time to dwell on the problem with him. She’s already late, and traffic in Rome will soon come to a standstill.
She collects the children, their bags, and her camera and lugs it all half a kilometer to where she parked the car the day before.
As she arrives at the school to drop off the kids, it is obvious she is one of the younger mothers. At 32, Linda is now a rarity. Her husband is even rarer still. Few Italian men get married and have children by age 30. The other school fathers are closer to 40.
At least in the big cities like Rome and Milan, the schools are still full. In the rural areas of the country, made up of small towns and villages, some schools have closed due to depopulation. So the few young people who live in these places are often forced to move when they want to start a family because of the lack of services.
DURING HIS FASCIST REGIME, Mussolini argued Italians had a duty to produce as many children as possible, and he introduced laws to penalize citizens who proved “less productive.”
Mothers then were central and honored figures in society, but they were defined almost exclusively by their role in the home and as caregiver to others. In the 1970s, feminist movements fought for access to birth control, abortion, divorce, and deconstruction of the idea of the traditional family.
Births began to decline that same decade, leaving fewer potential parents now. Cifoni estimates that compounding lack of children accounts for up to two-thirds of the decline in the birthrate between 2008 and 2022. “This means that in reality the phenomenon is even more serious than people think and very difficult to counteract,” he said.
If these figures are not reversed, by 2050 the average age of the Italian population will be 75. This is unsustainable for a state. Cifoni says the effects of the demographic imbalance have begun to be felt already: “In the labor market it’s difficult to find qualified personnel, so at least part of the country has realized that the problem is not about the distant future, but about the present.” He believes the problem will only get worse in the next few years. Italy will likely struggle to finance spending on pensions and healthcare—which will increase as the population ages—and large areas of the country will go empty. “And beyond these ‘quantitative’ consequences, a country with fewer young people will be a less innovative, less dynamic, and perhaps even a sadder country,” Cifoni said.
The government of former Prime Minister Mario Draghi established the Assegno Unico Universale, a “Universal Family Allowance,” in March 2022. It provides economic support for all families, valid from the seventh month of pregnancy until each child turns 21. The amount of the stipend varies according to the parents’ income.
Cifoni says the stipend helps, but policymakers need to address one of the biggest obstacles to motherhood: women’s conditions at work.
Women in Italy make up 58.7 percent of university graduates and 50.5 percent of Ph.D.s. But research shows that five years after graduation, the employment rate for women is lower than for men, and men earn 20 percent more. Many companies prefer not to hire women because of potential motherhood and the costs associated with it. Companies are required to provide a five-month maternity leave. The National Social Security Institute pays 80 percent of the new mother’s salary, but companies must pay the rest plus the full salary for a temporary replacement.
Even when they do have jobs, women often do not advance professionally if they also have children. Working mothers account for 77.2 percent of all voluntary resignations. The reason is nearly always the difficulty of balancing professional life with caring for children.
MEANWHILE, Italy’s dominant Roman Catholic culture seems to have failed to make a positive case for the family. This May, Pope Francis spoke in favor of larger families at the Congress of the States General on Natality, but he focused his comments on politics, not cultural attitudes. He suggested politicians intervene with more economic aid.
More and more women now choose not to marry and not to have children so that they do not have to live the same life as their mothers and grandmothers, which they no longer see as valued. Honoring motherhood is a thing of the past, and young Italian women see having families as a failure of women’s liberation.
Most who do decide to have children wait until their late 30s. That has led to other problems: Rates of difficulty conceiving have risen, and while births are decreasing, a large percentage of children are born through IVF.
As an evangelical Christian, Linda’s faith and God’s promises that children are a blessing convinced her to embrace motherhood. But living out that faith as a city-dwelling professional is a constant countercultural balancing act. Rome’s ancient streets and monuments attract tourists from around the world, but they weren’t designed for modern families with children. Strollers don’t fit in most building elevators, multiroom apartments are beyond the economic reach of average families, green spaces and parks are not maintained for children’s safety, and public transportation is inaccessible with strollers.
Despite the particular challenges of being a mother in Italy, Linda recognizes its benefits: “It has completely changed my perception of reality, of time, of home, of my body. Thinking of our experience as a little story that fits into an even bigger story completely changes every perception of my humble daily life as a mother.”
Reflections like that give her assurance and courage for the next time the neighbor bangs on the wall.
—Chiara Lamberti is a graduate of WJI Europe and lives in Rome, Italy
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