A study about working mothers is getting a lot of buzz. The official title of the paper: Maternal Employment, Work Schedules, and Childen’s Body Mass Index. Most media summaries however are entitled something like, “Mothers Who Work Have Fat Kids.” I’m not kidding.
I hate seeing studies (and media reports) like this. Not because they’re not helpful or worthy of our time, but because they examine the effect of mothers working, not mothers and fathers working, on our childrens’ health. In addition, the media/blogosphere goes bananas. This is the stuff that sells; studies on working moms get our attention. They feed the so-called “mommy wars.” They suggest that with the rise of women in the work force over the last 5+ decades, our children are suffering. No mention though, that fathers have been working during this time, too. No mention that, “In general, children whose mothers worked outside the home were less likely to live in low-income families.” That’s a direct quote from the results section of the study.
These studies dole out merit to the ever-present struggle that most working moms feel–the constant tug-of-war in our hearts between the need to be home and the need to work outside our home. I don’t read about men having this struggle. Is this biologic? Why are woman held more responsible for our child’s health? Can’t we evolve and get past this archaic notion? How many more studies will narrowly look at women in the workforce while leaving the role of fathers’ employment aside? As we come to embrace a more diverse family unit, we must rid ourselves of these rigidities. Studies like this suggest that men aren’t to blame if kids are overweight, but that women are. Most of the children in the study had more than one parent at home (on average, children with working mothers had 1.91 adults at home, therefore the far majority had either an additional parent or adult around). Seventy-nine percent of working moms were co-habitating or married.
It just can’t all rest on the moms’ shoulders. Really, overweight is more complicated than finger pointing; the authors know this. They didn’t set out to create blame, rather to create ideas for solutions for busy families with working moms…
Problem is, most of the media reports spun it a different way. Many summaries are like this one, “Study Links Working Moms to Fat kids.” Although this particular blog post is agonizing to read, it defines the typical thin summary. As you can see in the comments, I don’t think the author of this post even read the study. It starts out with falsehoods not determined by the study (that kids with working moms eat more cheetos and watch more TV–this was controlled for). Many of us may read only these type of summaries that don’t get to the nitty gritty of a study and walk away feeling slightly dented. If I weren’t writing this blog, I would never have read this entire study. It’s long and complicated. To understand a few limitations of the study, read a great, critical summary on the science and the media coverage at The Biology Files. It’s a post written by a savvy PhD working mom who works and even claims to make homemade food for her kids. Imagine.
The flip side: studies like this can provide necessary insight about raising healthy children in the 21st century. I believe that’s the intent of the researchers. In that light, I’ll review a bit of what they found and how it can help all of us (working parents or not) raise healthy, strong, lean, and active children.
Child Development published a study finding that children who had working moms were more likely, with each additional 5 month interval of work, to be overweight as determined by their body mass index (BMI). Although BMI doesn’t equate to obesity, it’s a very good marker of overweight and kids who are at risk.
First, some background:
- This claim isn’t new. And this is relevant to the majority of us. The 2008 Bureau of Labor Statistics found that 71% of mothers of children under age 18 were working. A number of recent studies find that children with working moms are at risk for being more overweight than their peers with a SAHM (stay at home mom). Most studies previously controlled for family income but none really determine the mechanism of why children are overweight with working moms. The implication: work for moms is a trade-off between money and time. Most of the time it may be. A 2007 study found that working moms spend less time cooking (duh) with a 2009 study finding the more a mom worked the poorer nutritional intake a child had. Previous studies presumed less activity in kids with working moms. This wasn’t true in this study (22.6% of time for kids with unemployed moms was spent in moderate to vigorous physical activity versus 22.2% of time in children with working moms). The researchers write, “All else equal, children who engage in less physical activity are at greater risk of having a higher BMI.” Yes, but not all children with working moms don’t move.
- Previous studies also reflect and theorize the reality that working moms have less time to shop for healthy food an rely on fast or prepared foods (higher in calories). The worry is that ultimately busy families are less active and eat more. Most studies assume as well, that kids of working moms watch more TV. We know TV contributes to overweight in 3 ways: one, kids are less active, two, increased TV watching is linked to craving snack food due to TV ads aimed at children, and three, increased TV watching may encourage snacking. The study sought to understand how work schedules affected overweight.
Here’s what the study tells us:
- The researchers evaluated the effects of working moms and their schedule on the weight of children. They evaluated the time of day a mom worked (traditional 9 to 5 versus those moms that work evenings and nights) with the BMI of over 900 children at 3 different ages in grade school, in various areas of the US. They controlled for TV time, physical activity, home environment (a scale evaluating quality and quantity of support and stimulation in the home), parental supervision and engagement, and maternal depression.
- This study findings don’t knock me off my chair. And really don’t make me feel too “guilty” about going to work. Of the 900 children studied, 19.05% of children with SAHM versus 18.49% of working moms were overweight. The difference is not that huge. But when controlling for factors listed above, the effect on the amount of work a mother completed contributed to overweight in children.
- Researchers reported evidence for the risk of cumulative employment, meaning that the longer a mother works during a child’s life, the more the risk for overweight. They found that every period of about 5 months a mother was employed, there was an associated increase in her child’s BMI. They noticed the strongest risk in 5th and 6th graders. They had lots of speculation about the why behind this.
- In contrast, they found that moms in nonstandard work (night and weekend) did not have an associated greater risk for their child being overweight compared to mothers in standard (9 to 5) employment.
Bottom line is this: dual-working families have different dynamics, different menus, and on average, less time to purchase and prepare food. But this study doesn’t “prove” that going to work causes overweight. This is a study finding an association, and although well controlled, it still doesn’t prove that having a career causes overweight. For example, the type, size, and design of child care was not controlled for. Some children have healthy meals during the day prepared for by caregivers that aren’t their parents. When my son is at school he is offered fresh veggies, fruit and homemade meals. It’s true that some days he may have a more unique healthy lunch at school than at home.
The bigger issue is when will we allow for our roles as mothers and fathers, while employed, to be viewed equally. When will this stop being about mom going to work and start being about the balance between work and childcare in the family as a whole?
Oh, I am so sick of the Mommy Wars and I hate the so-called “ammunition” that each side gets from time to time. Parenthood is difficult enough without all of the judging and “my way is better than your way” that goes on.
I did notice another pediatric obesity study on the news today. It was about formula fed babies who started solids before the fourth month having a higher likelihood of obesity. I would be interested to hear your take on that study and whether you think this will adapt any feeding guidelines?
These kind of “studies” make me so angry!!! They never look at the reality of so many families (at least here in the greater Seattle area) which is – if mom doesn’t work, the family either becomes homeless or barely an improvement, might still have a roof over their head but doesn’t have health insurance, can’t afford the essentials for daily life such as healthy food, warm clothes, utilities paid and school supplies. Instead of villifying working moms – why not look for ways to make life a little easier for families where they have no choice and look up to women who have chosen careers because they are teaching their children that women (like men) have a choice as to what they want to do with their lives!
I wanted more than anything to be a “stay-at-home” mom and we were able to afford it until my daughter was three years old. Then I had to go back to work but have been lucky and have been able to afford to only work part-time so I can be home when my daughter gets home from school. So, I feel like I’ve got the best of both worlds (I feel more confident and fulfilled challenged now that I’m working again but also get to spend lots of time with my daughter). So, I guess I can see both sides of “stay at home” vs. work. And they both have ups and down.
What this study doesn’t take into account is a ton of factors like whether or not the dads are active thus encouraging the kids to be active (I’ve noticed that kids whose dads choose video games over playing basketball with the guys are much doughier than kids whose dads like to ski and be active). They don’t take into account the nutritional education of both parents, or if the parents can afford to buy healthy food (which is way more expensive than unhealthy food). There are so many variables with no concrete control group that I just don’t buy their conclusions.
It reminds me of the study that kids who watch a lot of tv are prone to depression and suicidal thoughts. Is that because of actually watching tv or because of a lack of relationship with parents for some reason or another? Are the parents watching tv with the kids like I do with my daughter – and talking about the tv shows? Or are they using it as babysitter? Do kids whose parents don’t spend time with them even though they’re not allowed to watch tv have similar bouts of depression and suicidal thoughts? Once again – there is no concrete control group and it’s not a real scientific study in my opinion because too many variables exist.
I’m so tired of our society wanting easy scapegoats. Parenting is hard and complex and different for every child and every family. I’m really really tired of “studies” with no scientific merit popping up and trying to place blame on some easy target and not being honest about how there is no good scapegoat and the problem of overweight or depressed children is something to be addressed individually amongst each family.
=deep breath= Ok. I’m done.
Or as my husband just said “Correlation does not equal causation”.
I’d like to see the headline that says “Families who live on a street that has one or more trees on it have fat kids.”
I recently ran across a site like this called “Peaceful Parenting” that was FILLED with studies like this–all negative. I wanted to ask the site founder, if you are so sure you have made all the “right” choices, then why do you have to keep reminding yourself with these studies about what other people are doing?
I knew I shouldn’t read them, but I did, and was nearly in tears afterward. Basically the attitude was, “if you can’t raise them, don’t have them.” And again, it all falls on the mother to choose career or kids. Yes, we have the ovaries. We physically bring them into the world…but aren’t we people aside from that, too? Don’t we deserve the chance to be good at something?
The truth is, the decision isn’t always between 3 cars and 2 big screen TVs and a huge house or being a SAHM. The truth is, the economy has put a lot of us through the ringer for making what we thought were smart decisions. The truth is, if you’re a SAHM who runs a home daycare, I don’t see how you can judge me on the one hand and take my money in the other.
Do your research, make your own choices. And leave the other moms the hell alone.
Natasha Burgert, MD says
Thanks for taking the time to speak up for the working moms. You have done us all a tremendous favor. As member of a working mom *and working dad* family, I found the media’s misrepresentation of this study to be alarming. I agree this study information is not new, nor earth-shattering. However, leave it to our media friends to load their guns with this ammunition.
As a pediatrician, I talk to many types of families including those with moms in the public workforce, and those with “unemployed and fully engaged with my children” moms. I routinely counsel *both* types of families about weight management, healthy food choices, and family meals. I find that regardless of employment status, getting good food on the table is a challenge for many families. Meal planning takes time and effort. Some parents don’t like, or don’t know how to cook!
We are all trying to make the best choices for our families. At times, we all fall short of this very lofty goal. Blaming the working moms, the lazy dads, the SAHMs, processed foods, infant formula, rice cereal…. should I keep going?….. for increased weight in our kids is getting tiresome. Let’s choose to focus our energy towards sharing productive suggestions to help raise healthy kids, not continuing the “mommy war” battle.
And what of children with two working parents who will still be with one parent or the other almost constantly? My spouse and I are expecting our first child, and will be working different shifts (I from 8-4, husband from 5-9pm at his part time job on weeknights, and 8am-12pm on Saturdays). My husband will actually be spending slightly more time with the baby, as I’m the bread winner, but we’ll both be spending significant time at home.
The father not being factored in at all really gets my goat.
Wendy Sue Swanson, MD says
Yes, gets my goat, too.
Thanks for all of these thoughtful comments and the link, Ben.
Did the authors also mention that school enrollment is also linked with childhood obesity? I have not read the study, but really, how does this help our world? Is this something we didn’t know or didn’t suspect already? Why did they focus on working Moms, as opposed to working Parents of either gender? Or perhaps they did look at that? I’m probably biased though, I’m the working parent but my husband stays home and cares for our kids, which I know is not entirely typical.
Regardless, we have a childhood AND adult obesity problem folks. MANY MANY factors, outside of working vs. stay-home parenting, contribute to it — here are a few off the top of my head:
drastic changes in our food environment (lights+noise+distraction=fast-consumption of lots of calories, etc)
financial influences from government funding (or lack of)
communities that lack safe ways to move about on Human Energy
high-calorie, inexpensive foods
less PE in schools
less physical labor needed for most jobs — we don’t even need to walk (or drive) to a library anymore thanks to yee-old-wonderful internet
socioeconomic status (which apparently they hinted at with their comment about “In general, children whose mothers worked outside the home were less likely to live in low-income families.” It is a well-known fact that poverty increases risk of obesity)
And the list goes on. I’m sure the authors did not intend for their research to be misconstrued as the mass media likes to do with these sorts of studies, but this happens quite often.
Obesity is a complex, societal issue that I find best illustrated with the graphic from this article:
Population-Based Prevention of Obesity: The Need for Comprehensive Promotion of Healthful Eating, Physical Activity, and Energy Balance: A Scientific Statement From American Heart Association Council on Epidemiology and Prevention, Interdisciplinary Committee for Prevention (Formerly the Expert Panel on Population and Prevention Science). Circulation, Jul 2008; 118: 428 – 464.
See page 442 from the free-full-text-access article, for the really impressive graphic of obesity’s complexities.
Thanks for tackling this issue. Our society seems to value women for the ability to nurture/procreate and their sexuality. Men are valued for their earning potential or machismo. Sure there are stay at home dads and childless women, but they are anomalies in our culture. I hoped that higher education would protect me from sexism. Naive. I hope you will consider doing a post on the pay inequity between male and female physicians just highlighted by this study:
The biggest problem that they do not seem to addres is the fact that people who grew up on junk food as children are now at the age that they are having their own children. And the cycle repeats. If you often went to McDonalds (and I thank god every day that my parents rarely if ever caved in to that with us) and now find it a comfort food, or have happy memories as a child there, wouldn’t you be more likely to share that with your children?
As well, the amount of crap that our food is now laced with is naturally going to force our bodies to adapt, the same way that moving from hunter/gatherer to farmer adjusted how our body stores the food we eat. (I know, long evolution vs. shorter term, but still.) Seriously, take a look at the packaging on something as simple as cereal. How much of that list of ingredients can you identify or even pronounce? That certainly can’t be helping our body chemistry, which is now forced to adjust to these additives which weren’t used by previous generations (which they might just try to ‘compare’ at some point to the current generation).
Also, have the people in these ‘studies’ actually went out to try and buy healthy food? Twice the price! I know because I recently had an issue with Gluten. Whereas a package of hotdog buns would typically cost, what, $1.50 for a dozen – gluten free, 4 hotdog buns, $5.99 average. This forces people to not be able to purchase the foods that they normally would – and when you are relegated to scraping by on 3/$1 mac n’ cheese with artificial chemical cheese, what do you expect?
It’s frusterating that they spread such false and incomplete “studies”. Maybe if the people who request grants for such studies actually worked for the basically free money they would take more factors into account instead of closing their eyes and blindly pointing fingers.
Really? The main point of the study was about women who feel they’re being
treated as second class citizens because our society has traditionally (and
biologically) identified them as the main caretakers of our children? Seems
you’ve got your own issues mixed up with the study.
The study does make the point that there is no substitute for parental
involvement in raising our kids. I agree with you that in an ideal world both
parents would share equally in child rearing. But frankly its unrealistic and
I’m more than a little insulted by the suggestion that men would rather “dump”
the responsibility on women. No matter how long you shake your fist at wind
mills (Don Quixote reference), a successful professional career will always
require full time work. Thus one parent in that family will always be asked to
do more child rearing. What makes you think that men wouldn’t love to spend more
time with their kids? I would.
There is a great book you should read called “The Making of a Surgeon” by
William Nolen. A chapter in it talks about his wife’s role in his career. I’m
sure you’ll object to the book based on the fact that it was written in the
1950’s but the points he makes in this chapter are still relevant today; it
takes two people to have one successful family and one successful career,
working together toward that goal. That doesn’t mean that men and women can’t
share responsibilities or that women can’t have careers. But one person hoping
to do both full time jobs (raising kids and a career) well at the same time is a
fantasy. One or both will necessarily suffer.
And, a point you missed from that study; 20% of all kids in our country are
overweight. Other studies have it as high as 33%. That’s way too high. Clearly
both men and women are failing our kids. Maybe the debate should focus on the
kids and not on whether or not men and women are treated equally by societal
traditions born of biology and necessity.
I would love to learn how many meals and snacks little children could take per day , what kind of food would be good for snacks. Would you kindly let me know how often children could eat candies , doughnuts, potatoes chips , cookies and such . I would like to learn aside from eating lots of vegetables and fruits, a child should eat more carbohydrates or more meat protein . Would you kindly show me how , if you happen to have some info about it.
We must pray as if everything depended on God and work as if everything depended upon us.
St. Ignatius of Loyola
Your blog” Diet Matters From Day One” said all. Thank you very much, Doctor Swanson.
I would like you to instruct us how to raise children that write good compositions. and Also, how about the house chores rules , what age, which chores.
Thanks. Merry Xmas 2011 and Happy New Year 2012 to you and your families.
Perhaps the stay at home mom’s have a big problem with working mothers because we view the situation differently. For instance, I view your lack of priorities as an insult to your children. I see your lack of parenting and the consequences for every generation as a slap in the face for all of us. All I can say when I see “working women” with children is “Why in the world did you even have children if you aren’t willing to be a mother first and foremost?”
It doesn’t matter to you that your kids end up being fat, illiterate or a drain on society. Go ahead and sacrifice all of that time with your child. Stick them in daycare from the time they are six months old just so you can afford to have satellite television.Do not teach them right or wrong, just pay someone else to do it. The public school teacher with thirty six other students to look after can be his moral compass.
I would never deny a woman her right to a job, or the fact that a stay at home dad would work just as well for children as a stay at home mom. The fact remains that most people don’t even care enough. Get the pain medication during labor, who the heck cares if it has a lasting effect on your baby your in pain now! Don’t bother trying to breastfeed your baby, you have to go back to work. It doesn’t matter how good it is for your baby and you, money counts more. Please don’t even think about researching things for your child! Who cares what is in the shots the doctor gives them or what kind of paint is on his new crib made in china, Its not your job to look out for that kind of thing.
Never mind the fact that if you cut down on some of your bills and started being more careful with your money almost everyone could stay home with their children. I know that most of you wont agree, that I will her “living in poverty!” at least once or twice from that comment, but I don’t care. I don’t see not having 1,000 channels on television, or not buying every new gadget that comes out “living in poverty”.
Enjoy your jobs ladies, and I think I will go enjoy my babies. I think perhaps my “job” is more rewarding than yours, no matter what position you hold or how much money you make.