Giada, a 30-year-old writer, lives in central Italy with her boyfriend, a shop assistant also in his thirties.
After several unpaid internships, she finally secured a more reliable position this year.
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As a writer specialising in science, she earns about 800 euros ($876) a month on a one-year part-time contract.
“They said they are going to renew it, but it’s a small company and everything is very unstable,” Giada told Al Jazeera.
For this reason, she is postponing motherhood.
“Having kids has never been a question for me, and my boyfriend and I discuss it as he would also like to have them. But then we think about our precarious situation and realise that becoming parents now would not be sustainable. We barely make ends meet – imagine with a child.”
Working in Italy as a woman is fraught with challenges.
The country is home to the lowest female employment rate in the European Union and a steep gender pay gap. Women are also often more likely to be employed in “non-standard” arrangements, such as part-time and temporary jobs. And it is mothers and young women who are the most affected.
“We are lucky in other ways,” Giada said. “Our families support us so we know that if we need help we can ask them.
“[But] what if I get pregnant and my company decides to not renew my contract? It is not so unrealistic that this could happen.”
Chiara, a 26-year-old social media strategist living in Padua with her boyfriend, said given their salaries, they cannot plan for a family yet.
“I left my parents’ home when I was 19 and almost immediately became financially independent by working while studying,” she said.
“All my wages have always been used for daily living, not allowing me to save any money.”
Chiara is working on an apprenticeship contract, earning about 1,200 euros ($1,314) per month.
Looking ahead, she does not expect her salary to rise by much.
“Our desire to become parents is strong, but it is never stronger than knowing that a kid deserves to live comfortably,” she said. “With groceries, rent and bills going up, while our salary remains the same, it is basically impossible to do so.
“Of course, this is not something that makes me happy: not knowing whether our financial situation will ever allow us to have children scares me, because this day may never come”.
According to a recent Department of Health report, Italian women are, on average, older than 31 when they have their first child.
About 62 percent of babies in 2022 were born to mothers aged between 30 and 39. Those aged between 20 and 29 accounted for 26 percent of births, compared with 30 percent in 2012.
The average number of children per woman is now 1.24, one of the lowest rates in Europe. To compare, France’s rate, which is considered high, was 1.8 in 2021 while Greece’s was 1.4, according to the World Bank.
The Department of Health said the trends are partly down to a “decrease in the propensity to have children”.
While women are under less societal pressure to have children, in Italy, the biggest obstacle to motherhood for some is being able to afford it.
Official figures show that 72 percent of resignations in 2021 were submitted by women. Most of those who quit cited the difficulties associated with juggling work and childcare duties.
“Care work is still all on women’s shoulders, even for couples where both have jobs,” Chiara Daniela Pronzato, professor of demography at the University of Turin, told Al Jazeera.
While women get five months’ maternity leave, fathers are entitled to just 10 days.
Good quality and affordable childcare is in short supply. There are not enough state-run nursery places and private preschools are very expensive. Plans to use 4.6 billion euros of the EU’s COVID-19 recovery funds to build new nurseries are lagging.
“The most expensive aspect of parenthood is children’s time. Caring for them costs money,” Pronzato said. “When a woman has kids and a low salary, it is likely she would resign to take care of the family, setting her up in a state of poverty that certainly does not help the country to grow.
“Increasing the fertility rate is not important because ‘we are shrinking as a population’, but rather to maintain economic prosperity,” Pronzato explained.
“If women worked more, they could have more children, as shown by France, Sweden and Norway, where fertility and female employment rates are both high.”
Presenting the government’s 2024 budget, Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, who has made clear her desire to increase the birth rate, announced measures for families with children, including free nursery care for a second child, the temporary exemption of women with two or more children from social security contributions, and benefits for companies that hire mothers on permanent contracts.
“A woman who gives birth to at least two children … has already made an important contribution to society,” Meloni said in October.
But Pronzato warned that while incentives could be helpful, “there should be more focus on services instead of money, as it is hard for people to trust that these bonuses will remain for a long time”.
“Building new kindergartens and offering full-time education and after-school activities in schools would rather be a more forward-looking step,” she explained.
“We should begin to consider children as precious and important to everyone, because the future depends on them, and it should be the community, the public – not the individual household – that take care of them.”