July 26, 2022
Mission impossible: being a parent in Italy
Insight by Michela Grasso, SPAGHETTIPOLITICS
Birth rates in Italy have reached such a low point that they are worrying, even for multi-billionaire Elon Musk. «If Italy stops having children, it will become extinct», he said in a Tweet on the 24h of May 2022. After Musk's statement, natality was at the center of Italian media's attention, to then disappear just as fast as it became popular. In 2021, births in Italy have decreased by 1.3% compared to 2020. For the first time in Italian History, ISTAT recorded a total amount of births below 400,000, a decrease of 31% compared to 2008, the last "golden year" of demographic increase. Low natality rates are a direct consequence of economical and especially gender inequality.
Föräldrapenning in Swedish means "Parental leave", a term that Swedes know very well, as they have one of the highest natality rates in Europe (even though it is decreasing), with 1.7 children per woman. After childbirth in Sweden, parents have the right to 480 days of parental leave to share between them. 90 of these days are also "reserved" for each parent, to encourage both of them to spend time with the child. 80% of salary is paid during the first 390 days, with a decrease for the remaining time to 180 Swedish Crowns per day (17 euro). In Italy, parental leave is divided between mandatory and optional. For the mother, mandatory leave can carry up to months, being paid at 80%. For the father, this goes up to 10 days paid at 100%. Optional leave extends up to 11 months, paid at 30%, to share between the parents. Looking at the two nations, it is interesting to notice that in Sweden 44% of dads take parental leave, and in Italy, only 10%.
Francesca Pertile is 40 years old, she lives in Italy on Lago Maggiore, but she works in Switzerland as a therapist. In the past 7 years she has had three children: Rachele (6), Pietro (4) and Marco (1). In Switzerland the situation with parental leave might even be worse than in Italy, as Francesca only had the right to 14 weeks of maternity leave. «If you want to take additional weeks, they are counted as sick leave. It is ironic how the child is perceived as an injury», she says. Despite working in Switzerland, Francesca brings with her an interesting perspective, considering that her husband lives and works in Italy. «In Switzerland, you can decide, together with your employers how many hours you can work in percentage. For example, I now work 30% of my standard hours.» She explains, «I admit, I feel left out of my workplace, I chose to spend time with my children, and this means I work less. For example, I come back home earlier from work, to be together, cook, and so on. This means that sometimes I miss some meetings, and as a consequence, my career advancement is limited».
Davide Grasso, 42, is employed in a transport company and married to Francesca. In July, Davide will take three weeks of optional parental leave to spend some time at the sea with the children, «At work, it is not well perceived to take parental leave, mostly because spending time with your children means limiting productivity in the workplace», he tells Voice Over Foundation, «For example, when I come back home in the evening and I have to spend some time with the children, I am too busy to reply to work messages or emails, and this means being less present, even though I should not even be working in these hours». By talking to Francesca and Davide, one can understand how their careers have been impacted by being parents. Both of them want to confirm that this was their choice and that, without the economical safety of a good job, they would have never been able to raise 3 children.
Since parental leave is perceived as a brake for a woman's career, it is not surprising that Italy is last in Europe for mothers' employment (and second to last for employment of women without children). It is interesting to notice how, in all European countries, fathers suffer the least from unemployment. This creates opposing realities, where two parents find themselves living completely different struggles. There are different dynamics at play here. The most superficial one is that since mothers work less, fathers have to work more, therefore they are less likely to be unemployed. Going deeper, the question has to be «why is the mother the person that has to work less»? At stake, there is the Italian culture of motherhood, where women are seen as complete only once they are mothers. It follows a traditional family model, where the man is the breadwinner.
Going even deeper means finding the level where gender inequality is intertwined with the economical system in which we are living. A perfect example is the one of Elisabetta Franchi (Italian entrepreneur), who in May became popular on the internet due to a couple of statements on working women : «I only hire women over 40, so they can work 24h». Statements like this reveal a clear sexist mindset, and put people in front of the reality of facts: in Italy, it is still thought that children must be an exclusive responsibility of the mother. And not only, it also shows an obsession with productivity. If Francesca says that she feels excluded from her workplace, since working part-time is not seen in a good light, at the same time she does not have a choice if she wants to spend time with her children. And in this way, Davide, who said parental leave is seen as bad in his workplace, is less willing to take it in its entirety.
The key is in the concept of productivity: we live in a society where people are valued based on their job, on the hours they spend "producing" something. Women and men undergo this mentality's impact in different ways. The woman, pregnant or with children, is seen negatively because she will have to take time to be home, time that will be subtracted from social productivity, and therefore from society. Better then, to leave space for the childless ones, who can always be available. «When you are a woman with children, you are always belittled in the workplace. If you try to say something that treats you as "the one with children", the weight of family falls on us», says Francesca. On the contrary, Italian men, when they have children, work more, because society awards them with this role. By working more, men have better possibilities to go further in their careers and increase their earnings, widening the "gender pay gap". In Italy, at five years from any degree, men earn 20% more than women and are in managerial positions more often.
«Last year, a colleague came to the office to say goodbye to us, crying. It was her last day at work, and she had no other choice than to hand in her resignation, she wanted to work but she had no one to leave her newborn child to», says Davide, «Moreover, if a woman resigns in the first year after the birth of her child, she can receive unemployment benefits. My colleague wanted more time to find a solution, but the clock was ticking and she risked finding herself unemployed, without an income, and with a child to take care of».
The issues tied to being parents in Italy are numerous and it is shocking to see how the "weight" of the family falls almost exclusively on women's shoulders. In Italy, a woman carries out 5 hours of unpaid work every day, the so-called "invisible work": taking care of children, cleaning the house, caring for elderly relatives, and so on. This number drops to 1 hour and 48 minutes a day for men. In Italy, 21% of women of working age do not work or do not look for work due to the "invisible work" that they must perform within the family. In a world, where to emancipate yourself you need money, women stay behind, looking at the gap between them and men getting bigger and bigger. Childbirth should be a moment of joy, but it becomes too often a cause for concern.
Taking a new approach toward families is not impossible. The first essential step is to not take for granted that everyone can work for free at home, mothers, fathers, or even grandparents. Kindergartens and daycares should become accessible for all, in terms of costs and places. Then, it is necessary to give economical incentives to those who want to start a family, reforming that same system that still does not recognize LGBTQ+ couples as deserving to have a family. Another possibility is also to start paying the unpaid care work, considering that at the moment, thousands of Italian couples are forced to compromise between working and staying at home with children. Part-time work has to be de-stigmatized and it should not be a reason to exclude people from their workplace.
There are many possibilities, and besides these, the entire Italian society should be reformed, starting from the vision of family up to the vision of work. Who knows if one day in Italy people will stop calling "mammo" any man that takes care of his children, and will just say "papà".