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  • Eleonora Voltolina

The Struggle of Single Women, Motherhood Is the Right of All

Updated: Jul 26, 2023

The Italian newspaper Domani and The Why Wait Agenda are continuing their collaboration with a series of reports on the issue of choosing to have children. This third article was published in Italian in Domani on Monday 15 May 2023

Want to solve the declining birth rate issue? Support single women who want to become mothers. The unusual proposition presented by journalist Martha Gill in the British newspaper The Guardian stems from the fertility gap, the difference between the children we want and the children we have: «Women have more money and choices than ever, but are for some reason not able to have as many children as they would like».

Having reviewed the common hurdles – including service shortages, professional repercussions, and the abundance of personal fulfilment options beyond motherhood – Gill identifies what she sees as the core issue: the fact that women, thankfully, are becoming less willing to settle. As a result, finding Mr Right to start a family with is increasingly challenging.

The solution? Backing those who take the plunge and become a parent on their own: «yet single motherhood is still offputtingly tough and to some extent socially penalised» concludes the journalist: «Policymakers would do well to think about how they could better support single mothers. Target them and watch birthrates rise».

The obstacles to single motherhood

Women interested in becoming mothers without a partner – embarking on lengthy and complex paths of assisted reproduction, taking on the entire responsibility of raising a child, and choosing to bring them into the world without a father figure – are not very common. This is partially due to societal prejudices: «In Italy, in particular, there is a negative moral judgment on this kind of choice, and this can act as a barrier» highlights Manuela Naldini, Professor of Sociology of Cultural and Communicative Processes at the University of Turin and expert in changes in the family system.

Even if at the political level there were a decision to provide support for forms of parenthood different from the standard – «and with this government and in this political climate, I don’t believe there is any chance of that happening», observes the professor – «it will still be a minority taking this route», not least because having children «is particularly expensive and burdensome in the Italian context: it is already challenging to be parents as a couple; let alone as a single parent».

But the bomb launched by Martha Gill blasts open the debate on the need to help those who want to have children, rather than blaming those who don’t. Certainly, the self-righteous criticise the choice to have a child as a single parent as much as the choice not to have children at all. The most common accusation (curiously, in both cases)? “How selfish!” No fathers on the horizon

«But you hear no one saying they’re having a child for the sake of the planet, for demographic growth, or to bolster pensions for the elderly!» counters Giorgia Würth, who on Mother’s Day self-published the book Mamme single per scelta (“Single Mothers by Choice”), available in both print and digital formats – currently, only in Italian – on Amazon, gathering 13 stories (plus one) of a motherhood without fathers on the horizon: «The choice is always selfish, and in a couple, it’s the selfishness of two. But love for a child is the most selfless selfishness in the world».

Of course, it’s obvious that «almost all of them would prefer to do it with a partner», says Würth, who has been balancing her career as an actress with that of a writer for a few years now and is also a single mother of two children. But her personal story is not included in the book; partly out of modesty, partly to prevent the media attention from solely focusing on her own situation and overshadowing the book’s message: «to make the women who have made this choice alone feel less lonely. And there are many of us». A statistical black hole

The exact figure is impossible to determine because it is not tracked in Italy. The National Institute of Statistics (Istat) cannot provide data on the number of newborns registered solely under the mother’s name, or the number of women within the “single-parent households” group who are single mothers from the very beginning. “Single-parent households” is a segment of the population that actually exists in surveys – but it randomly combines teenage mothers, widowed individuals, separated or divorced individuals, and single mothers. It even encompasses cases of fifty-year-olds living with an elderly parent or instances of shared custody where children alternate between their mother’s and father’s homes.

In Italy, there were 615,000 single-parent households with at least one minor child and a parent below the age of 45 in 2021. However, as mentioned before, these are defined as “single-parent” households for several reasons. «Istat does not have disaggregated data» confirms Gisella Bassanini, founder of the association Smallfamilies, based in Milan, a watchdog for non-traditional families. «There is no way to determine if the other parent is there, whether they are present intermittently... or if they have never been there. However, having the other parent more or less present in terms of emotional, relational, and economic aspects makes a substantial difference compared to being a “sole parent”» which is the definition Bassanini uses to indicate those who raise a child completely independently «by choice, life path, or widowhood». Illegal insemination

The path to single motherhood is made challenging in Italy because of legal restrictions. Adoption and assisted reproduction are only allowed for heterosexual couples. It reflects «the choice of the Italian legal system, never questioned by the Constitutional Court, of an ideal model of family with dual parenthood of a man and a woman» explains lawyer Vincenzo Miri, president of Rete Lenford, an association committed to protecting the rights of LGBTQ+ individuals.

Regarding Italian Law 40/2004, which still regulates access to medically assisted reproduction (MAR), single women not only face the problem of not being in a couple but also the fact that they are (almost never) physically infertile: because the use of MAR techniques is only permitted in Italy in cases of diagnosed infertility. Rete Lenford has proposed a law to allow single women and lesbian couples to access MAR, as is already the case in many countries that recognise “social” infertility. But in reality, it would be enough to «put the choice entirely on the grounds of reproductive self-determination», says Miri, «and broaden the subjective requirements for access».

«If only my book had the power to spark a political battle!” reflects Giorgia Würth. «Italian law, in some ways, doesn’t make sense: what it prohibits can still be done anyway, by going abroad. With more difficulties, higher costs», and the absurdity of «handing over money to foreign clinics and then coming back here with the children. Because the law certainly can’t stop the desire for life». Moreover, almost all the protagonists of her book, if they could, would have adopted – so “why not make it easier to do so?». “It takes a village”

To understand the choice of becoming a single parent, besides the collection of real stories gathered by Würth, it may be helpful to read the novel by another familiar name from Italian TV and radio, Giorgia Surina. In her debut novel, In due sarà più facile restare svegli (Giunti), she imagines two close friends approaching their forties who both decide to try having a child through in vitro fertilisation and then raise them together, forming an expanded family.

Maybe that’s exactly what is needed, Professor Naldini concludes: returning to the ancient African proverb that says it takes a village to raise a child. «Being good parents is an immense challenge in this day and age: it means having enormous amounts of time to dedicate to one’s child – and for a single mother, there is no one to share it with. We need sisterhood. We need community».


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