Becoming a parent is a monumental shift in life, even when in a familiar culture and surroundings.
It’s no mean feat, then, to have a child or move your family to a new country with different rules, norms and expectations – not to mention all in a foreign language.
But along with the challenges, there are rewards to making such a bold leap. The Local spoke to parents who moved to Italy to find out more about the pros, the cons – and the entirely unexpected.
Adult-centred but child-friendly
Richard Hough has been living in Verona for 10 years with his wife and two boys, now 13 and seven years old.
He’s seen both sides of the coin as his first child was three when they moved to Italy from Glasgow, Scotland, and his second son was born in Italy.
“The one born in Scotland still has Scottish characteristics when it comes to food and the weather. He doesn’t wear hats and scarves, much to the shock of Italians, and he loves British food like Heinz baked beans and ginger biscuits,” Richard says, “Our little one is much more Italian – he loves pasta and his nonna,”
Regardless of differing attitudes towards heritage, Richard says Italy is “a fantastic place to raise a family”.
“The climate, diet and lifestyle are all great for children. Verona itself is a really safe city to raise them and the fact that they are bilingual and bicultural really appeals to me,” he added.
He also says that in his experience, Italians love children: “They are so affectionate towards them, they treasure children.”
It’s an observation echoed by Paige Latham, an American national living in Alessandria, Piedmont, with her husband and two boys, aged 12 and four.
“I feel like children are more integrated into adult life in Italy. When you go out to dinner, people bring their children along a lot more,” she says.
Like Richard, she finds that children are nigh on idolised in Italy.
“I think kids are adored here, people are more vocal about them. If someone sees them at supermarket, there’s always a kind word, like ‘ah, they’re so cute, so sweet!’ They interact more with kids and children are more noticed, more valued maybe,” she says.
The impression that children are highly important to Italians is a common thread.
Shirin Georgiani had her first baby in Ferrara, in the north of Italy, almost 18 months ago. After becoming a mum she says she noticed that children open up conversation with everyone.
“Mostly old people would stop me on the way somewhere to coo and ask if the baby was a boy or girl, what’s his name, and to ask if he was good. There were constant questions, such as asking, ‘does he sleep well?’ and unsolicited advice on parenting,” she told us.
Since recently moving back to London, she’s noticed the cultural differences even more: “At the same time as feeling like having a baby makes you public property, everyone was endearing. Maybe because there are fewer children in Italy and are precious… they are the centre of the universe in Italy, whereas nobody cares in the UK!”
Different parenting styles
The culture in which your child is born or raised has a huge impact on not just them, but how you’re expected to be a parent too.
According to the parents we spoke to, there’s also the flip-side of the adoration towards children – and that’s the judgement of your parenting.
“It’s a cliché but true: Italian kids are much more mollycoddled than Scottish kids. They spend less time outdoors in winter, so old ladies would come and tell me off if my children were what they deemed inappropriately dressed,” Richard told us.
He also spoke of the near obsession with monitoring a child’s temperature.
“Any Italian mum knows the precise temperature of their child at any given time. You’ll hear at the school gates, ‘Giovanni is 37.5C!’ And I’d think 37 what?
“In our household we didn’t even have a thermometer. That’s changed since Covid of course, but it’s different here – we just used to get measured from the back of your mum’s hand on your forehead.”
Considering how much he noticed Italians’ warmth towards children, Richard says he was surprised that the country isn’t set up for them.
“I was first quite shocked about the lack of changing facilities in bars and restaurants. Nowhere had decent changing facilities – or a child-friendly menu. I took that for granted back home,” he tells us.
“It has changed in the last 10 years, but at the beginning, we couldn’t even get a high chair and the child had to just sit in your lap,” he adds.
Paige also notes that there’s less infrastructure around children in Italy compared to the US.
“Babysitting isn’t as common – in the US, you’d get a babysitter and most people use them. Here, I don’t hear about anyone using babysitters,” she tells us.
“I don’t like that side of parenting in Italy. If my husband or I need personal time, we take turns. We tag team. If you’re a single parent, that could be a huge challenge,” she adds.
Shirin also notes “very different parenting styles” between Italy and the UK, as well as differences when it comes to official advice.
“In the UK, I was shocked at some things the nurse was saying. I was advised not to feed him to sleep and that he doesn’t need milk anymore,” she says.
“I was told I’d become a sleep crux for him and needed to change the sleep associations he has. Sleep training and all that ideology is something I never came across in Italy: the health advisors there never pushed the idea of getting him out of our bedroom or holding the baby less.
“I can’t imagine a nurse saying there’s a sleep and feeding routine to stick to in Italy. In the UK, they seem in a rush to separate the children and make them grow up,” she adds.
The Italian healthcare system
One big area of concern around having a family in Italy is giving birth in another country and how alien or daunting that might feel as a foreigner.
Fortunately for any worrying mum-to-be (or dad), all the parents we spoke to were largely positive in their experiences of accessing antenatal care and the experience of labour itself in Italy.
Paige tells us that she used Italy’s public healthcare system for everything. She was living in Rome during her first pregnancy and says that the “care was good” and that all the staff were “very helpful”.
“As long as you make your appointments in time, you’ll get what you need done. The only thing I paid for were monthly blood tests and a gestational diabetes test,” she says.
The regular check-ups and scans impressed Richard too.
“The Italian healthcare was fantastic. My wife had regular blood tests and ultrasounds, you can’t fault the quality of it. Each child has a designated paediatrician too,” he tells us.
For Shirin, her rating of healthcare was similarly positive, even if she found aspects of it challenging due to being pregnant and giving birth at the height of the pandemic.
“Had I not been alone, I would’ve been really happy with the healthcare and the support I got from Italy. I only know it now that I’m back in the UK and have spoken to friends. The monthly blood tests and scans are a privilege that you don’t get here,” she says.
“Medically I think there’s a lot of support and there’s more if you need it. I was even offered psychological support when I cried during one visit – but I refused it, I was just emotional!
“The prenatal courses were free and in-depth. Luckily, I could do them in person as restrictions started to drop. Face-to-face interaction did really help. You have a trained midwife for three hours a week to ask any questions you want about birth, breastfeeding and labour.
“You’d never get that in the UK. I felt I was looked after medically more than my UK friends. When I look back, I couldn’t fault the healthcare system. I can’t complain,” she added.
The aftercare got less of a glowing review, however.
“I felt the moment I stepped out of hospital, I was left alone,” Shirin tells us.
“I begged for support and one midwife came to the house. After that, it was all over the phone or online – and even then, I had to really go looking for it and only found out about any support through a WhatsApp group,” she adds.
Going to playgroup and school
Once the baby has arrived, parents have a whole new set of challenges to face as their little one grows up – and a lot of it does seem to rely on word of mouth and WhatsApp groups.
“There’s a lot going on, it’s just not obvious, you have to ask. If you see someone in a park with a child, just ask. As a foreigner you’re not going to know, so you’ve got to just talk to people and throw yourself out there,” according to Shirin.
“Parenting in Italy can be such a positive social thing, but nobody is going to come knocking on your door,” she added.
Paige also had similar experiences and went along to mum and baby groups in Rome to forge a support group.
“It’s lonely when you have little kids and you’re a foreigner. It’s important when you find a group of mums, as there’s someone to have coffee with and helps to keep your sanity – you feel less alone,” she says.
Richard was the one who took on a bigger share of childcare when they moved to Verona, and this threw up a different set of obstacles.
“The impression here is that parenting and bringing up kids is still mainly the woman’s domain. I was the only dad picking up children from scuola materna (preschool or nursery school). And at the park, I was the only bloke, but that has definitely changed in the past 10 years,” he tells us.
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Other shifts over the past decade are attitudes to the balance between work and childcare. Richard says he encountered barriers when he asked for more flexibility with his teaching job in order to pick up his sons from school – and was refused.
But, he says, “things are changing” as people increasingly appreciate the need to be flexible.
As for schooling in Italy, the parents we spoke to noticed significant differences to the educational system they’re used to.
“I don’t know if Italian schools are better or worse. There are good and bad aspects – it is completely comprehensive, they cover so much ground in so much detail and in such a logical, precise way,” Richard says.
He adds that there is a focus on testing and homework – that also struck Paige about schooling in Italy.
Even at a young age, around eight or nine years old, her son was bringing home plenty of homework, she says.
Plus, in Italy, parents need to fork out substantial sums for textbooks, as they are not paid for by the state: Paige says she spent €300 on her son’s materials for this school year.
The fixation on academia also means that a lot of schools aren’t that interested in sports or social clubs, something that’s largely done outside school, Paige says.
The fun side
There is an element of sheer joy and fun to raising children in Italy, as the parents we spoke to attest.
Not least because, in some cases, it can actually broaden your social network.
Shirin says that finding your groups will really help stop you from feeling isolated: “Once you do cement in, Italian friendships are very loyal, true and genuine. It’s getting there that’s the hard bit.”
For Richard, raising his boys in Italy has been one of the best parts of moving here: “I used to love taking my little boy for a ‘babyccino’, to the library and the park. Enjoy those times, because they pass quickly.
“When I used to take him for a gelato – the mess he would make! But those were the moments to treasure. Looking back on it, those were probably the happiest days of my experience in Italy.”
What are your thoughts on parenting in Italy? How does it compare to raising a family in your home country? We’d love to hear readers’ experiences in the comments section below.