Just in time for Mother’s Day, Save the Children has published its twelfth annual State of the World’s Mothers Report.  This report includes the Mothers’ Index, a ranked list of 164 countries around the world.  Like last year, Norway tops the list for the best place to be a mother.  Afghanistan is worst.  The U.S. fell three places, to number 31 on the list.

In other words, the U.S. ranks closer to the bottom than the top of the 43 developed countries examined in the report.

Of course, as the report reminds us, the numbers don’t always tell the whole story—an individual mother’s situation can vary greatly within the same country.  Nonetheless, national-level comparisons do suggest trends and provide overviews that can provide a valuable framework for digging deeper.

For those of us living in the U.S., these national numbers should give us pause.  Why didn’t mothers in the U.S. fare better?  And why are we falling in the rankings instead of improving?  These startling numbers complicate the rosier picture of motherhood and family that many Americans tend to hold.

The first reason for our low ranking is our maternal mortality rate, an issue I wrote about last month for Girl w/Pen and Ms.  As the State of the World’s Mothers Report points out, the U.S.’s rate for maternal mortality is 1 in 2,100—the highest of any industrialized nation.  In other words, a woman in the U.S. is “more than 7 times as likely as a woman in Italy or Ireland to die from pregnancy-related causes and her risk of maternal death is 15-fold that of a woman in Greece.”

Other reasons for our low ranking include the under-five mortality rate (forty countries beat us on this one) and the percentage of children enrolled in preschool—only 58%, making us the fifth lowest country in the developed world for educating young kids.

Finally—surprise, surprise—our country lags in supporting working women with children, and in creating pathways for women to political office nationally:

The United States has the least generous maternity leave policy—both in terms of duration and percent of wages paid—of any wealthy nation.

The United States is also lagging behind with regard to the political status of women. Only 17 percent of congressional seats are held by women, compared to 45 percent in Sweden and 43 percent in Iceland.

This report made me feel a lot of different emotions about the state of motherhood in the U.S. as well as globally—shock, anger, outrage—not to mention gratitude. I’m fortunate enough to have healthy kids and privileged enough to be able to pay for things like health insurance and preschool. Given the state of things for many mothers, this is no small potatoes! And yet, the more I thought about this report and my reaction to it, the more I began to think about how important it is to use feelings to propel us to something more—understanding, wisdom, action, and working together.

This view of motherhood lies at the origins of Mother’s Day.  Long before Hallmark made sentimentality synonymous with Mother’s Day and restaurants began the tradition of the Mother’s Day brunch (neither of which I plan to reject come Sunday!), Julia Ward Howe imagined a very different kind of occasion.  In her 1870 Mother’s Day Proclamation, she called for a day when women could come together and work towards peace.  In the aftermath of the violence and carnage of the U.S. Civil War, she called for women to

…meet first, as women, to bewail and commemorate the dead.

Let them solemnly take counsel with each other as to the means

Whereby the great human family can live in peace…

After grief, counsel.  After sorrow, solidarity.  After remembrance, action:

To promote the alliance of the different nationalities,

The amicable settlement of international questions,

The great and general interests of peace.

So here’s my Mother’s Day Challenge to myself this year: after enjoying whatever treats my family makes for me, and feeling lots of warm tenderness toward them (note to kids: you will be good), and making sure I have time to write in my journal, and calling my own mother on the phone—I’m going to do one thing, one action, toward addressing one of the issues raised by this report.  I haven’t decided what, quite yet.  But here are some ideas I scribbled down this afternoon, a personal list to start my brain juices flowing:

  • Write a letter to one of my representatives about some of the issues that really matter to mothers and families.  (Education!  Parental leave!  Women’s health!)
  • Send money to Emily’s List.
  • Write an opinion essay.  Send it out.
  • Go to a protest, like this one sponsored by Mothers & Others United in the Hudson Valley.
  • Find out more about the campaigns to connect kids across the borders of class and geography—the UN’s Girl Up and Save the Children’s k2kUSA are ones I’ve recently run across.  Think about how to plug my own family into these networks.
  • Find out more about efforts in my own backyard.  (I could start by actually reading all those items in my church’s bulletin!) Ask someone how I and my family can get involved.
  • Make a donation to one of these campaigns, or one of the many organizations working for women’s rights and healthy families.
  • Write down in my calendar that I will bring up all these issues up again on Father’s Day.

I invite anyone and everyone to join me in this challenge.  Share ideas and actions from your own list.  (And be sure to watch the video about Julia Ward Howe below, released from Brave New Foundation in 2009, which includes an inspiring reading of her Mother’s Day Proclamation.)  Happy Mother’s Day!