First Person Global

There is perhaps no better place in the world to have a baby than Italy--at least so it would seem. The icons of motherhood, the Madonna and child, hang on every street corner and piazza in the form of carved shrines laden with roses and candles. We real mothers, too, are generally flowered with adoration. Complete strangers walk up and rub my swollen belly for luck. I haven't waited in a line for months, since Italians are happy to let a vision of fertility go first. And forget about standing in a bus--it just doesn't happen.

But these favors don't make me feel particularly comfortable as a pregnant woman in Rome. The idea of fertility might still be honored in Italy, but the old idea of the Italian mamma is outdated. After generations of watching their mothers work for free as maids and cooks, modern Italian women want to be something else. As a result, an undercurrent of hostility is brewing among women of childbearing age. They turn away as I pass--especially when I have my toddler in tow. Or they look at me like I'm a traitor: messing up the national average (1.2 children per woman) and pressuring them to procreate. Mothers of only children ask how I can possibly have another. They explain that their house is too small for more children, their own mother lives too far away, or that the responsibility of even one child is almost too much to bear.

Some say Italy's low birthrate is a backlash against decades of fascism, which pushed women into motherhood. Others blame high unemployment and uncertainty about the future. I suspect there's another reason too. In Italy, women are still struggling with equality issues that many countries have already addressed. Just try to buy hardware, for instance. "Why don't you send your husband in," I'm told as I ask for a specific piece for which I know the exact name and use. A mole wrench, in fact. But more importantly, Italian women are paid the second lowest salaries in Europe. Clearly, these issues have to be addressed before women feel they can fulfill womanly roles, like motherhood, and still be taken seriously. (I always want to explain that I'm American and we've come to terms with women's dual roles.)

Until then, the subtle rebuke of us traitors will grow. In the pediatrician's waiting room, one mother explains to me that she simply cannot afford a second child. Her 3-year-old daughter, looking lovely in a tiny pink Baby Gucci sweater, agrees. "I don't want a little sister," she says, sounding somewhat rehearsed. "How could we ever disappoint her?" asks the mother. "It just wouldn't be fair." My son, clad in sale items I picked up on my last trip to the United States, looks confused. "We didn't consult him," I explain.