Why Aren't Italian Women Having Babies?

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What Women Really Think
April 22 2014 4:45 PM

Why Aren't Italian Women Having Babies?  

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By 2050, there will be 263 elders for every 100 young people in Italy.

Photo by abadesign/Shutterstock

The Wall Street Journal reports today that more women in Italy are foregoing children. This isn’t a problem on the individual level, but on a societal level, it’s dicey. By 2050, the statistical institute Istat projects that there will be 263 elders for every 100 young people, which means retirees are in big trouble. WSJ writer Manuela Mesco suggests a number of reasons why women are not having children: they’re spending more time getting educated, there aren’t enough jobs to go around, there’s a lack of day care options, and they are living with their parents well into adulthood.

But another big problem is Italian men and the country’s retrograde attitudes towards motherhood. Per Mesco:

Italian women often find it daunting to balance work against the traditionally demanding expectations for mothers in Italy. Surveys consistently find that Italian men help less at home than their counterparts in other countries do, and that Italian mothers are painstaking in their approach to child care, to the point of hand-washing and ironing baby clothes
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There is an association, and not just in Italy, between men’s egalitarian attitudes (or lack thereof) and fertility. A study published in the academic journal Demographic Research in 2008 showed that across eight European countries including Italy, men with more egalitarian attitudes about gender roles had more children.

The study’s authors measured egalitarian attitudes by asking men to agree or disagree with statements like, “It is not good if the man stays at home and cares for the children and the woman goes out to work.” The ones who strongly disagreed with statements like that not only desired more children, but also were more likely to realize those plans by their late 30s and early 40s than men with traditional views about gender roles.  

Another study, also from the journal Demographic Research but just about Italy, showed that working women who already had one kid and were doing the majority of second shift work in their households (i.e. the cooking, cleaning, the ironing of baby clothes) did not want more kids.

All of this is to say that perhaps hand wringing articles about declining fertility rates and women waiting too long to have children should no longer be directed at women. They should be directed at men who shirk the second shift and whose gender attitudes are stuck in the past. We don’t want to have too many kids with you guys.

Jessica Grose is a frequent Slate contributor and the author of the novel Sad Desk Salad. Follow her on Twitter.

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