What would it take to make a country where mothers could bear and raise children in the best possible circumstances? How would such a place look? Would it look like the United States?
Thanks to Save the Children’s State of the World’s Mothers Index for 2012, we already know a great deal about the building blocks for a pro-mother, pro-child society. The best place to be a mother is one where women would be educated, share political power, and have access to good health care and nutrition. Their incomes would be on a par with men’s. They would not get pregnant until they reached adulthood, and they could use contraception to limit the number of pregnancies and space them out. They would give birth assisted by qualified caregivers who could intervene if complications arose. Common medical conditions, infections, or pregnancy-related risks could be minimized or eliminated.
After delivery, mothers would be able to spend time with their children, recovering, bonding and learning how to breastfeed. Not having paid employment right away would not threaten the family’s economic security. The new baby would have regular doctor visits for routine care, a safe place to sleep, clean water and air. The child could grow, and in time start preschool, then continue formal schooling. His or her parents could find affordable, excellent child care to the extent they wanted and/or needed it. Being a parent would not disadvantage them at work, and working would not restrict their role as parents.
It’s clear that a child’s well-being is dependent on the mother. Children do best when their mothers are healthy, educated, and have economic and political opportunity. The place on the planet where women have these advantages, for the most part, is Europe. Leading the industrialized world in the 2012 Mothers Index are Norway, Iceland and Sweden. Australia and New Zealand can also be found in the top 10. In these countries, women rarely die in childbirth, an infant can expect to live to adulthood, and a woman will celebrate birthdays well into her 80’s. After giving birth, the mother will have several months – perhaps up to a year, – of paid maternity leave.
The United States is not the best country in which to be a mother. It is not in the top 10, or the top 15, or even the top 20. It trails France, Estonia, Greece and Belarus. It ranks 25th out of the 186 countries for which data are reported. The reasons why are surprising.
For a developed country, we have a remarkably low rate of women in public office. At 17% of Congressional seats, we compare poorly with Australia (29%), Austria (29%), Belgium (39%), and Sweden (45%). The U.S., unlike all other developed nations and most other countries in the world, does not guarantee a new mother a single day of paid maternity leave. Our child mortality rate (percentage of children not living to their 5th birthday) is extraordinarily high, and on par with far less advantaged countries like Bosnia, Slovakia and Qatar. Our maternal mortality rate is similarly high, at one death to every 2,100 pregnant women. In Greece, only one out of 31,800 new mothers will die. In Italy and Ireland, only one out of about 16,000 new mothers will die. For all the technology and innovation in our health care, and for all the money we spend on it, it does a comparatively poor job of keeping mothers and young children alive.
There is no mystery regarding what to do to make the U.S. a country in which mothers and children get a fair shake. Contraception must be available. Men and women should be paid equitably and have the same opportunities at work. Discrimination against family caregivers and pregnant women must stop. Paid parental leave must become the rule and not the exception. Women should take their place in government, business, and all places of power and influence until both genders are proportionately represented. If these changes are made, more children will live to see first grade, more mothers will survive childbirth, and we’d be closer to realizing the kind of society we’ve been saying we want for years.
‘Til next time,
Your (Wo)Man in Washington