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?