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Tough times for Mom

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Esther Cepeda
May 5, 2011
— Hug a mother or grandmother extra tight this Sunday because no amount of pink carnations and chocolate can possibly make up for how tough moms have it in this country.

OK, certainly not as tough as mothers in Afghanistan—the worst country in the world to be a mom, according to the 2011 “State of the World’s Mothers” report put out annually by Save the Children, an international children’s advocacy organization. On every measure of well-being, women and children there have it harder than anywhere else.


That said, the United States, which has been the world’s largest economy for about 140 years, should be doing better by its moms. Of the 43 most developed countries, America ranks 31st this year on several factors that included women’s health, educational, economic and political status and indicators of their kids’ well-being. Norway is again the best place to be a mom.


The reasons the U.S. rates so poorly in this survey won’t come as a surprise to those who’ve been paying attention to the awful toll the Great Recession has taken on families across the country. But things weren’t so wonderful before—we ranked only 26th in 2007, before the big crash, and just 28th last year.


First, and maybe most shocking, the country’s rate for maternal mortality is 1 in 2,100—the highest of any industrialized nation. Only Albania, Russia and Moldova are worse than the United States. A woman in the U.S. is more than seven times as likely as a woman in Italy or Ireland to die from pregnancy-related causes, and her risk of maternal death is 15 times that of a woman in Greece, which, despite its own economic troubles, ranks 19th.


An American child is more than twice as likely as a child in Finland, Greece, Iceland, Japan, Luxembourg, Norway, Slovenia, Singapore or Sweden to die before reaching age 5, which is on par with Latvia. Additionally, only 58 percent of U.S. children are enrolled in preschool—the fifth-lowest in the developed world on this indicator.


Despite being the richest country, the U.S. has the least-generous maternity leave policy—both in terms of duration and percent of wages paid—of any wealthy nation. And, on average, women make only 75 percent of what men do for the same work. In looking at political power, the report tells us that only 17 percent of congressional seats are held by women, compared to 45 percent in fourth-ranked Sweden and 43 percent in second-ranked Iceland.


And Save the Children’s report doesn’t even touch on single motherhood, which brings with it a whole other world of difficulties. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, there were 9.9 million single mothers living with children younger than 18 in 2010, up from 3.4 million in 1970. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development recently reported that 25.8 percent of U.S. children are being raised by single parents, which puts those families at high risk of poverty and all its challenges.


Obviously the low state of moms in this country is about more than just money—30 countries with smaller economies than the U.S. are providing a better quality of life for mothers and their children. It’s not because they’re wealthier, but because their national values put a priority on women and their natural role as mothers and family caretakers.


Frankly, it’s a little embarrassing that 30 other countries are succeeding at improving access to maternal and child health care and women’s economic opportunities while U.S. women feel as though their legislators are at war with them. This is how many women are interpreting proposed efforts to shore up the country’s busted budget by cutting health care and food, employment and education assistance, much of which goes to women and children.


Now there’s an irony you won’t see reflected in any of the Mother’s Day cards. But it’s much easier to profess that mom is as important to the very promise of America as apple pie and baseball than it is to actually set our collective minds to making it so.


Esther Cepeda is a columnist for the Washington Post Writers Group. Her email address is estherjcepeda@washpost.com.

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