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  • Eleonora Voltolina

Why Aren't We Having More Children? Here's the Honest Truth

A joint project by the Italian newspaper Domani and The Why Wait Agenda has been launched to examine why people are having fewer children, and why they are waiting to do so, particularly in Italy. This is the first instalment, written by the founder of The Why Wait Agenda, Eleonora Voltolina, and published in Italian in Domani on Monday 1 May 2023

We are having fewer and fewer children. All over Europe, and especially so in Italy. Alarms sounding over empty cots; over the pension balance; over demographics. ‘Oh well, having children is a personal choice!’ someone might say: if we don’t have kids, it means we don’t want them.

People have different priorities, different desires: you can’t make them want to have children. Very true. The freedom to choose is fundamental. Though statistics show us that for the most part in developed nations, individuals want to have two children, but end up having fewer. The disparity in Italy is immense: compared to the two desired children, the actual number of children per woman is now only 1.25. This has been dubbed the fertility gap. It’s the difference between the amount children we would like to have and the children we actually have, and it is a powerful statistical representation of how out of touch the interpretation ‘If we don’t have any children, it means we don’t want any children’ is.It goes without saying, some people make the conscious decision to be "child-free". But many people do not have children because they cannot have them, or because there are too many obstacles in their way; and they remain "child-less". In the first instance, there is a personal fulfilment that passes through the free and conscious choice not to have children; in the second, a sense of frustration, and absence, and suffering at not being able to make their own family plans become a reality. Infertility, an invisible epidemic One out of every six individuals on the planet faces infertility. The World Health Organisation (WHO) recently confirmed this, explaining in a report that «understanding the magnitude of infertility is critical for developing appropriate interventions, for monitoring access to quality fertility care, and for mitigating risk factors for and consequences of infertility». Discussing falling birth rates necessitates that we consider those people who would like to have children but are prevented due to health-related reasons. This is equivalent to 17% of the population that is of fertile age. We can look around us and count. Every sixth person. It might be a friend, a colleague. A family member. “No, don’t be silly, I would know, they would have told me!”. No. The prejudice persists, and many people are reticent to discuss it. They keep their tests, treatments, and attempts at assisted reproduction under wraps. The miscarriages. The physical pain, the psychological pain. “No, don’t be silly, they already have a child, they can’t be infertile...’. Again, no. There is primary infertility, when you are never able to conceive: the limit, in the scientific definition, is 12 months of full unprotected sexual intercourse without a pregnancy. But there is also secondary infertility, which is even more invisible: families with an only child not by their own will, but because of something that has prevented and continues to prevent further pregnancies. Or even those with multiple children - because secondary infertility is sneaky, it can come at any time, and prevent the arrival of that desired additional child. The causes of infertility and medical solutions


Let’s start by debunking a few myths. Just one-third of infertility cases can be attributed to the woman, while an approximately equal number of cases are attributable to the man, leaving approximately 25-30% of infertility cases for which the cause is unknown. In women, problems with the ovaries, uterus, tubes, endocrine system, or conditions such as early menopause, endometriosis, and so on, can cause infertility. In men, much of the causes are connected to seminal fluid: the amount he can produce and release, or the shape and speed of the spermatozoa. In most cases, specific tests are only carried out when the desired child is slow in arriving, so the diagnosis comes late. Thankfully, modern medicine can assist many people experiencing infertility. Artificial insemination and in vitro fertilisation are the most usual methods of assisted reproduction. But the average success rate is only 30%. A dream come true, for some. For many others, it presents a thwarted hope and a major dilemma: how far should we go? When should we stop? The WHO report makes mention of the fact that human rights include the right to decide how many children to have and when to have them, and highlights that infertility can prevent these rights from being fulfilled: «addressing infertility is therefore an important part of realising the right of individuals and couples to found a family». We are having children later in life, and this is part of the problem


Age-related fertility decline has been a factor in the rise of infertility over the last several decades. This affects especially (but not only) women. Leading medical organisations agree that the most fertile time for a woman is in her twenties to thirties, and that fertility declines sharply after 35-37. “But that’s not true. I’ve had two in a row with no problems in my early forties. And my cousin got pregnant by mistake at 44! And she only had one working ovary!”. Sure, it is possible. Statistics, however, say that it is less likely. Becoming pregnant, carrying a pregnancy to term, and delivering a healthy baby between the ages of 35 and 40, and especially after 40, is, according to the statistics, more challenging and rare.


No one says that you should rush to have children at 25. We should only have children when (and if) we feel the desire to do so and can take on that tremendous responsibility. But knowing the facts around fertility is essential to be able to weigh up the pros and cons and make your reproductive choices freely, at any age.


In terms of birth rate, Europe is in a bad stage, and Italy is even worse. The average recorded for 2022 by Eurostat, the European statistics institute, is 1.53 children per woman: the country with the most children is France with 1.84. Germany stands at 1.58, the United Kingdom at 1.61. Italy has one of the worst fertility rates on the entire continent, 1,25; worse still are Spain with 1.19 and Malta with 1.13. What's more, Italian women have the highest average age of first time motherhood in Europe at 31 and a half years. The European average is 29 years and seven months and in France, the country with the highest fertility figures as we have seen, it is just over 29. What's the big deal – someone might say – Italians are having children three years later than the French, so it’s not exactly what we'd call a tragedy. A future society with no more brothers, sisters, uncles, and aunts?


It may not be a tragedy, but having children later in life does have consequences. For example, if you wait longer, you have less time to anticipate and manage issues that may come up before, during and after pregnancy, as well as to plan for any more children. Or that the difference in age between parents and kids leads to less time spent together; that people become grandparents later and later, with less energy to enjoy time with their grandchildren; and that great-grandparents are becoming virtually extinct. Or that we are moving towards a society with no more siblings, no more aunts and uncles. A fertility rate below 2.1 – the so-called ‘replacement fertility rate’: for every two parents who die, two children replace them – would also lead to that scenario.


We need to think long and hard about it. If people in Italy would like to have two children on average. If the data says that they start (trying to) have children at an increasingly advanced age, despite it being well established that the older one gets, the greater the chance of facing infertility problems. If women in Italy end up, on average, having practically half the number of children they would like to have. It's clear that something is malfunctioning here.


But it is not just ‘something’, not really. It is a tangled knot of distinct, sometimes overlapping and intersecting factors that create an environment that is hostile to having children. Alongside the issue of infertility is that of fertility awareness, i.e., the extent to which people – especially younger people – know (or how little they know) about their own bodies and are actually (un)aware of how fertility works, its timing, what can put it at risk, and what can instead encourage it. Children pose a threat to mothers’ jobs (if the job market does not wake up and change course)


Then there is also the topic of work. How hospitable is the Italian job market for parents, particularly mothers? Not very. The percentage of women employed is already incredibly low, at nearly 50 per cent for those of working age, twenty points lower than the EU average. Roughly half of all women do not have a job and as a result have no money of their own, which has a damaging effect on their freedom to make choices and their ability to make decisions.


If we then examine the situation of working mothers, we learn they resign three times as often as working fathers (almost 38,000 out of the 52,000 resignations in 2021 of people with children according to the Italian National Labour Inspectorate), and that they very often cite as a reason for such resignations the impossibility of balancing motherhood and work because of a lack of services. This reasoning hardly ever applies to working fathers, who instead mostly leave their jobs to change companies. In other words: men with children leave their jobs to further their careers. Women with children leave their jobs to give up their careers.


There is a lot of data. Plenty, in fact. The gender pay gap: women earn less than men on average, even when doing the same job, so if one parent must stay at home, it is usually the one with the lower salary. Gender expectations continue to dissuade women from entering technical and scientific fields, which are better-paying jobs with more advancement possibilities. Women rarely break through the glass ceiling and become senior managers. Too many are still subjected to demotions, bullying, and job interruptions when they come back from maternity leave. And even though, fortunately, blank resignations were made illegal a few years ago, and can no longer be used to dismiss a worker who announces her pregnancy, the trajectory for those who want bread and roses, and are not resigned to a dichotomous life in which either you are a mother or you work, is still an uphill one.

Men, the patriarchy, care work


And in all this, there is the other half of the sky. Because children, at least in most cases, come from two people. Men, as a category, have benefited and still benefit from the patriarchal system of Italian society, from a job market wholly skewed in their favour, and from the stereotypical view of care work as ‘a woman’s thing’. Even today day, men spend a significantly smaller amount of time than women on household tasks, and offer far less assistance than their female counterparts when it comes to caring for children, elderly relatives and other dependents.


But we must also acknowledge that those men who instead believe in what is known as ‘shared parenting’, in being equal partners in parenthood, sharing burdens and rewards fifty-fifty, in becoming interchangeable for their children and building deep relationships with them based on everyday care, do not have it easy.


It starts early: the Italian government provides 5 months of maternity leave, with the option of extending it up to 12 months with a reduced salary. Campaigns, demonstrations, and petitions were used to ensure that the single, paltry day of paternity leave introduced in 2012 as an experimental measure was not abolished and instead expanded to the current ten days. But what are ten days compared to five months? Here the law reinforces the gender stereotype: you, the father, don’t count, you don’t have to take care of the baby – that’s the mother’s job. New fathers caught between patriarchal privileges and stereotypes (which are also damaging to them)


Besides, fathers – since the wait for a child is not as clear, in their bodies, as it is for mothers – all too often do not even ask for paternity leave, for which there has been so much campaigning (to the point of bringing, with Titti di Salvo, Riccarda Zezza and many others, a petition to the highest offices of state just before the pandemic broke out, asking for the measure to be re-funded). Maybe they think it's unimportant? Sometimes.


However, they usually don't take their leave because they are ashamed to ask for it, as the culture of the patriarchy ties them to the role of male breadwinner, which doesn't include changing nappies. They must stay focused and show that becoming fathers will not distract them – like what happens with mothers! – and will not make them less efficient at work – again, as with mothers! They must prove the paradox that many studies have called the “motherhood penalty vs fatherhood bonus”. Namely, how employers believe that men improve with fatherhood, becoming more reliable; and that women worsen, losing concentration and motivation – as if the role a mother devoured all the others in their brains. One gigantic stereotype that harms everyone. What can be done: it is not about incentivising births, but about allowing people to have the children they want to have


In addition, the lack of proper services, of places in nurseries (and with affordable fees), of school timetables and calendars that are compatible with work, the increasing difficulty in finding babysitting services, that grandparents sometimes do not live close by, and are not always in a position to take care of (or want to take care of) their grandchildren, are all factors that put off the decision to have a child, or another child.


The government can make a significant difference here. It can incentivise or discourage births; it can make parents’ lives easier or more complicated. It can make the cost per child more or less sustainable, it can help parents by creating a network of services that allows them to manage their families without having to give up work... or not.


We can learn from the French model: their fertility rate – the one that comes closest to the much sought after 2 in Europe – results from decades of birth rate incentive policies, of diversified and widespread childcare services (day nurseries, childminders, etc.) and of generous tax breaks for families with children. Go to a tourist area and listen to conversations of families with three children to test this out. It's not a coincidence that they almost always speak French.


In Italy, meanwhile, we have never had more than a few random ‘baby bonuses’, and plenty of broken promises. Those who choose to have children must make do. It is therefore no shock that more and more couples are deciding to defer their plans to have a family. The individual choice then becomes a collective trend if more and more people give up on having children or start trying to have them in their forties. And let's not forget that Italian law prohibits access to assisted reproduction for anyone who is not in a stable heterosexual couple, effectively excluding lesbian couples and single women from having any real choices.


We will explore this hidden world through a series of investigations that you, the readers, if you wish, can fund directly. To understand why people today, and especially women, when asked “When will you have children?” answer, “well, definitely not right now. Maybe, one day...”.

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This content, and the whole The Why Wait Agenda website, is produced by the Journalism for Social Change, a non-profit association carrying on an engaged kind of journalism, providing through information a secular and progressive point of view on the issues of fertility and parenting and pushing for cultural, societal and political change with respect to these issues. One of the association's means of financing is through its readers' donations: by donating even a small sum you will allow this project to grow and achieve its objectives.

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