The State of Motherhood

05.11.12 It's getting better for American women, but it's still not good enough


I was listening to the radio yesterday when a woman said, “Americans are ashamed of breastfeeding and don’t support women to do it.” My response was, “Nonsense. Breastfeeding is widely accepted and American women receive tons of support.” That was my initial reaction until I read this year’s State of the World’s Mothers Report. Then, I changed my mind.

State of the World's Mothers 2012 was published by the Save The Children foundation with generous support from Johnson & Johnson, Mattel and Brookstone.

It’s an annual evaluation of conditions that contribute to women’s abilities to raise their children well, their living conditions during their child-raising years and their children’s health, mortality and education. It compares families in 165 countries and ranks conditions in three tiers:

  • Developed countries like the United States, Europe and Australia
  • Less developed countries like Cuba and Israel
  • Least developed countries like Rwanda and Niger.

The report looks at all kinds of factors including:

  • Lifetime risk of maternal death
  • Percent of births attended by skilled professionals
  • Percent of women using modern contraception
  • Female life expectancy
  • Years of formal education
  • Maternity leave benefits
  • Ratio of female to male earned income
  • Participation of women in national government
  • Mortality rate of children younger than age 5
  • Percentage of children in school

Where’s the best place to be a mother? Norway. The worst? Niger.

How did the U.S. do? Not so hot, actually. Out of 43 developed countries in tier one, we came in at 25. Last year we were 31st. Ranked against all 165 countries, that’s not bad, but compared to other developed countries, 25 sucks.

Let’s compare the best, the worst and the U.S. in terms of the big questions and let’s start with the biggest question of all:

How many mothers die having babies?

In Norway, it’s 1 out of 7,600. In the U.S., it’s 1 in 2100. In Niger, 1 out of 16 mothers die.

How long do women live?

In Norway, they live to a ripe old age of 83. In America, to about 81. In Niger, only to 56.

Who delivers the babies?

Virtually all women in the U.S. and Norway have skilled professionals at their births, but only 33 percent of women in Niger have anybody who knows what they’re doing. Usually, they deliver alone or with a friend, family member or unskilled attendant.

How about contraception?

Contraception is super important for keeping mothers healthy and happy. When women can’t control the spacing between pregnancies and size of their families, they get pregnant too often, have more dangerous pregnancies and births and become overwhelmed as mothers.

In Norway, 82 percent of women have access to contraception. In the U.S., 73 percent can get their hands on it. In Niger — only 5 percent.

How easy and affordable is healthcare access?

In Norway, it’s a breeze — they have universal healthcare and women’s health services are covered. In the U.S., women’s healthcare access is directly tied to health insurance, which She has to get through her or her husband/partner’s employer, pay for privately or qualify for limited government supported programs. That’s why American mothers go back to work so quickly after they have babies — to keep their insurance.

What about maternity leave?

In Norway, mothers get full pay for a 34- to 36-week maternity leave. In the U.S., most of us don’t get paid during maternity leave, and unpaid leave is only guaranteed for 12 weeks. In Niger – there’s no paid maternity leave and no jobs outside the home for most women. There’s also a devastating drought happening, which has obliterated crops and cattle and people (especially children) are starving by the millions.

How about education?

The better educated a woman is, the better her chances for employment, the greater her income, access to and understanding of health, economic and educational advantages for herself and her children. Women in Norway and the U.S. average 18 years in formal education. In Niger, it’s four years.

How are the kids?

In Norway, 97 percent of children go to school and 3 per 1,000 die younger than age 5. In the U.S., 69 percent of children go to school and 8 per 1,000 die younger than age 5. In Niger, 71 percent of children start school, but the ratio of boys to girls is 0.84 percent of the total. Out of every 1,000 who survive birth, 143 won’t make it to kindergarten. Virtually every mother in Niger will lose at least one child to disease, starvation, dehydration or injury.

Who’s in power?

Female representation in government has a big impact on women’s issues. Women tend to lobby for things like equal pay and job equity, better healthcare and education and other issues that directly impact motherhood. That’s particularly evident in American politics right now as predominantly male House and Senate representatives debate our reproductive healthcare access.

In Norway women fill 40 percent of government seats and earn 77 percent what men earn for the same jobs. In Niger, women fill 13 percent of government seats and only earn 0.34 percent what men earn. In the U.S., only 17 percent of government seats have women in them and women earn only 62 percent of what men earn doing the same jobs.

Now, back to breastfeeding. Here’s the word from the State of the World’s Mothers Report:

In the industrialized world, the United States has the least favorable environment for mothers who want to breastfeed. Save the Children examined maternity leave laws, the right to nursing breaks at work, and several other indicators to create a ranking of 36 industrialized countries.... Norway tops the Breastfeeding Policy Scorecard ranking. The United States comes in last.

Last! Breastfeeding is just a small example of how American mothers are valued and treated, but it all adds up. We don’t get guaranteed paid maternity leave or affordable access to health care. We don’t have enough women representing our unique needs in government and we don’t earn anywhere near as much money as men.

How do we change the state of the world’s mothers?

  • Elect women to represent us in government and vote for family-supportive policies and your rights to mother
  • Help each other to raise our children
  • Pressure your employers to promote and support women
  • Join humanitarian organizations like Save the Children and CARE.

Jeanne Faulkner, R.N., lives in Portland, Ore., with her husband and five children. Got a question for Jeanne? Email it to and it may be answered in a future blog post.

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