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The Heir and the Spare

Rebecca Winke

When your two and a half year old runs to the john, feigns an attack of vomiting, then looks at you and says with a smile, "Look! Just like Mamma!" there is only one possible explanation.

Yes, folks, we've got a bun in the oven. And before I go on, let me just clear up a couple of things.

How you know this is not your first pregnancy

  • With your first pregnancy, you decided around month five to go out and buy a pair of maternity pants, mostly for kicks. The second time around, roughly ten minutes after you pee on the stick you are forced to unfasten the top button of your jeans. By the following morning you have already commandeered your husband's sweatpants and are trying to remember where that box of maternity clothes is stored up in the attic.
  • The first time around, you read "What to Expect When You're Expecting." You worshipped this book. You memorized it. You photocopied their pregnancy diet and taped it to the fridge. This time, you get to roughly page 7 (right around where they start getting all self-righteous about taking Tums and eating ice-cream) before you chuck it and go back to finishing off your firstborn's Easter candy for dinner.
  • When people asked you during pregnancy number one, "So, what are you hoping for?" you either responded "A Girl", "A Boy" or copped out with "Just as long as it's healthy". This time when people ask what you want, you look at them with the concentrated intensity of the battle scarred and say, "A Good Sleeper."

How you know this is not your husband's first pregnancy

  • When you tell him the news, his first reaction is not tearful joy, but "Does this mean we'll be living on corn flakes and rice cakes for the next three months?" (Answer: yes, as it turned out.)
  • When you tell him the news, his second reaction is not tearful joy, but "Hon, this time I think you should take the epidural, okay?"
  • When you were pregnant the first time, if you happened to mention at midnight that you had a craving for pierogies, he booked the next flight to Warsaw and had them hot and fresh to you by breakfast. This time, if you ask him to kindly get his lazy butt off the couch to make you a sandwich, he mumbles something about waiting for the next commercial break. If you happen to make any sort of remark about folic acid deficiency and birth defects and how if something goes awry it will all be because of this sandwich, he will finally haul himself into the kitchen, but toss over his shoulder as he goes, "I don't think you were this bitchy the last time."

Having said that, let me clarify that we are thrilled. There was a period that we thought number two just wasn't in the cards for us, and this left me strangely bereft. Strangely, I mean, in the eyes of many of our friends in Italy because families with single children aren't all that uncommon here. In fact, in many areas especially the further north you go, it is more the rule than the exception.

I think that this is one of the facts regarding modern Italy that most surprise first time visitors. The world seems to have freeze framed Italy in roughly the neorealist period, where women all looked like Sofia Loren and had at least a half a dozen offspring fetchingly dressed in short pants, news vendor caps, and ankle boots. The reality is that birth rates have been steadily going down in Italy for the past three decades, and by 1988 the Bel Paese vied with China and Japan for the lowest birth rates in the world. The current birthrate has risen slightly to 1.25 children per woman, which puts Italy somewhere between second and third place worldwide, depending upon whose numbers you read.

Regardless, one of the main reasons that the birthrate has risen slightly over the past few years is because of the relatively higher birthrates among the immigrant population, which has risen proportionately over the same period. So the fact remains that more than half of all Italian couples, and more like two thirds in the center and north of Italy, choose to bear only one child.

There are various reasons for this tendency of modern Italian couples limit the size of their family. One is purely demographic: many Italian women don't marry until their early thirties, and don't procreate until their mid to late thirties. Many explanations are given for this delay, namely difficulty in finishing higher education and instability of the labor market. Well, call me jaded, but the majority of my girlfriends who have put off marriage have been much less swayed by Pursuit of Higher Education and Career Advancement than by Lack of Man Who Doesn't Fall into the Even if You Were the Last Male on Earth Category. But who am I to go against the big statisticians? The bottom line is when you've had your first at 38 it gives you great pause to consider having number two at 40. I, for one, am planning my first uninterrupted night of sleep the day I turn 40, certainly not starting the whole business all over again.

The second reason is straightforward economics. The cost of living is high in Europe in general, and Italy specifically. Utilities are expensive here, food and clothing can be costly, and, most importantly, housing prices are sky-high, especially in the wealthier center and north. Many Italian families live in relatively small urban apartments where space is tight for a family of three, much less four. We know of at least a few couples who gave up on having a second child because there was simply no space to put him or her.

The third, and I think most compelling reason, is socio-economic. Many couples in Italy make a conscious choice about the style of life they prefer. They can either have a second child, or they can have an nicer car, a week skiing vacation in the winter and a month seaside vacation in the summer, and name brand clothes and shoes. It is easy to dismiss this as a superficial preference, but considering modern Italian history I am not so quick to disdain.

Italy was an extremely poor country until just recently. Starving poor. Approximately one tenth to one quarter of its population emigrating abroad in the twentieth century poor. It was a time that the elderly in Italy colorfully call "the years of misery", a time that my husband's grandmother left her home in Umbria to travel to the Marche and work as a wet-nurse, leaving her newborn daughter at home who died soon after, quite probably of malnutrition.

The economic upturn began in the sixties and seventies, with a higher standard of living, industrial development, and the birth of a strong middle class. However, in many parts of Italy, including the mountainous rural areas in Umbria, this taste of the good life did not arrive until even later. My own husband did not have an indoor bathroom until 1981, a fact that he likes to bring up every time I suggest a camping vacation. As I recall, I spent the entire twelve months of 1981 bitching to my parents because I was the only girl in the entire school to not have a pair of Nike gym shoes and baggy striped Lee jeans. My husband also clearly remembers when electricity, telephone service, and television arrived in the area. He was born in 1967.

The point I'm trying to make is that abject poverty is living memory in Italy, and economic security or even prosperity quite recent experience. So if young Italian couples decide that they want to enjoy their disposable income in consumer goods rather than try to form a family basketball team, who am I to judge?

Clearly, there are pros and cons to being a single child, which I discovered when I married one. The pros are, of course, that all the energy, time, and finances of the family are concentrated on a single person. Sometimes this produces offspring who are unspeakably self centered, but my experience is that it more often produces adults who are happy, secure, and responsible. My husband has to be the most spookily well adjusted person I have ever met, for example. The flip side is that there is no one else with whom you can shoulder the responsibility when your parents begin to age, which is a problem we, and many of our friends, have just begun to face in the past few years. We have noticed that the adults we know who were raised as single children now tend to have at least two themselves, and those who have siblings are more likely to limit themselves to one. The grass is always greener, I suppose.

Anyway, our train has left the station for destination Baby Two, so it's too late for us to rethink things now. All I have to say is all previously discussed plans for number three are now officially null and void.

Famous last words.


Rebecca's View is a series of monthly articles on Slow Travel. Read the article "Rebecca's View - Introduction" for more information.

Rebecca Winke lives in Assisi, Italy and operates Brigolante Guest Apartments. www.brigolante.com

© Rebecca Winke, 2004

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