05/07/2011 12:30 pm ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Sacrifices of Motherhood

This weekend we celebrate Mother's Day in the U.S. For most of us living in this country and in the West, this means honoring our mothers for everything they've done for us, all the sacrifices they've made to raise us. Sacrifice seems to be a common theme when we think of motherhood. First we sacrifice our bodies for nine months -- putting on weight that feels unflattering and uncomfortable, losing our appetite for food we once enjoyed, not being able to have a glass of wine with dinner, and of course all the excruciating aches and pains -- long before labor begins.

But that is all temporary. Then the real sacrifices begin: some of us sacrifice career plans; we sacrifice our time, our energy, our sanity (answering a three-year-old's question -- the same question -- 20 times in a row can fray anyone's nerves). We sacrifice our sense of identity as it once existed, before deciding to accept the role of "mother" in a show that will never close.

And yet we accept these sacrifices willfully because the joy and beauty of motherhood overwhelms them, and challenging as it all may be, these are sacrifices we can adjust to and live with.

In much of the rest of the world, however, the sacrifice of motherhood means something very different. It means that when a woman learns she is pregnant, in sub-Saharan Africa for example, she may only a face a one in 22 chance of living to see the birth of her child -- if her child even lives.

Pregnancy and childbirth claim 1,000 lives every day, mostly in the developing world, although the U.S. is not exempt from some of its own grim statistics (more on that later). It's shocking; whereas in America, motherhood is for most women a joyous celebration, in many developing countries, it is often said that to be pregnant is to put one foot in the grave. It's not the number of deaths per day that is so alarming -- though it may indeed shock you. It's the fact that it doesn't have to be this way. Between 80 and 90 percent of maternal deaths are preventable. In Peru, while working with the international organization CARE, I visited one community that reduced maternal death rates by 50 percent in less than five years. Those achievements didn't require any kind of highly advanced medical skills or equipment, but they do require the political will to get it done. Political will is simply a reflection of the public's priorities -- and right now, maternal mortality ranks pretty low in global health priorities.

Sometimes seeing is believing -- or understanding. While making the documentary, No Woman, No Cry, I had the extraordinary experience of meeting some of the women who live with these challenges, and witnessed firsthand the harrowing obstacles they face each day.

In Bangladesh I met Monica, who told me that she was only made to feel worthwhile in her family and community when she became pregnant with her second child. In Tanzania I met Lightness, a 16-year-old who was never given any kind of reproductive health information, became pregnant, and was abandoned by her baby's father and was forced to quit school. In Guatemala I met Linda, an OB/GYN who traveled constantly to provide health care to indigenous women all over the country without access to services of any kind -- all while she herself was eight months pregnant.

But these issues are not isolated to the developing world. In the U.S., one out of five women of reproductive age lack health insurance. Without health insurance, expectant mothers face financial disaster if they want to have prenatal care and deliver in a hospital, which costs tens of thousands of dollars -- and this is assuming they have a complication-free pregnancy. As a result, many women avoid proper medical care, and maternal mortality in this country is dismally high. When I made No Woman, No Cry in 2010, we ranked 41st among nations with the lowest rates of maternal mortality. Since then, according to UN reports, we have dropped to 50.

These are not the kinds of sacrifices we should honor on Mother's Day.

It's interesting to note that, contrary to the cynical belief some people have that Mother's Day was conceived of by a greeting card or flower delivery company, it was actually conceived of through a spirit of female activism.

It started 140 years ago when one woman, Julia Ward Howe, rallied women in an anti-war cry for peace following the Civil War. She believed that women had not only possessed the ability, but the responsibility, to shape social and political policy.

Perhaps this Mother's Day, we might re-embrace the spirit of the day as Julia Ward Howe intended it, to reflect not only on our own mothers, and what they mean to us, but the experience we share with mothers throughout the world, and what we might do to ensure that the sacrifices they face are the same kinds of sacrifices we lovingly and willfully embrace.

Christy Turlington Burns is founder of Every Mother Counts and director and producer of the documentary No Woman, No Cry airing on OWN: Oprah Winfrey Network this weekend.