ROME — The alarm went off at 7:40 a.m., although it was unnecessary, as Olivia, my almost-3-year-old, had already barged into my room waving her bottle in her hand, demanding her milk. I first looked at my phone, as I always do, to make sure there were no emergencies. With bleary eyes I read the WhatsApp message from my friend and colleague Gaia Pianigiani, a New York Times journalist with whom I often work in Italy.
The shoot was supposed to be the next day, Thursday, but the co-working space for moms had given the green light for me to photograph a day earlier, and I knew everyone was anxious to run the story ASAP. My stomach sank as the dreaded question surfaced: What am I going to do with Olivia?
My partner, Paulo, a fellow photographer, was in Colombia for three weeks, and I had arranged the babysitter for Thursday. She had specifically mentioned to me that she was not available on Wednesday. A few frivolous last-minute attempts at finding a substitute yielded nothing. No time to dwell, with the morning advancing and our 5-year-old son, Rafael, needing to get to school after having been out with the stomach flu for a week. Olivia would have to come with me.
It wouldn’t be the first time I had brought the kids on assignment. Paulo and I had brought Rafael on various stories we did together, from Florida to Japan, running around with him in the baby carrier when he was as young as four months. Yet those were stories where we had a lot of time, and of course there were two of us. The point being that as a photographer there are stories you can take small children on, and others that would be quite impossible or outright dangerous. Children have needs, and when I’m involved in a shoot I can’t always satisfy them.
The irony of the situation was not lost on me. My assignment, in advance of the elections in Italy, was to portray the lack of services for women — in particular the continual chipping away at maternity support for working mothers. And here I was again in my all-too-familiar routine of scrambling for child care.
Often on mornings when I’m not shooting and I take Olivia around the neighborhood, Italian grandmothers question why she is not in school. She is clearly in need of social interaction. Unfortunately, the only space that became available for her at a Roman public day care was 40 minutes away by car or an hour-plus commute on multiple buses, for just three to four hours of care. With private schools and nannies out of the question financially, we do what working parents do, from the United States to Italy: We improvise.