Edited on 2/8/11 to add a link to the study cited in Child Developmentdiscussed below.
What’s great about being 3 is that you are “allowed” to have tantrums, because it’s expected for your age. Try doing that when you’re 37 and you come across as irrational and going off the deep end. Ah, to be 3 again…if I were, I’d be indulging in a full blown, on the floor, kicking and screaming, making no sense, snot coming out of the nose, shut the windows before the neighbors call the police type of tantrum.
Why? Because when I read this article about a recent study that implicitly suggests that there is a correlation between mothers who also work outside the home and increasing childhood obesity, I almost went through the roof. Luckily, the ten inches of ice on our roof is what ultimately stopped me.
As an aside, please notice I have chosen my words carefully: “mothers who also work outside the home”. I say it this way because I sincerely believe that ALL mothers are working, whether someone else gives us a paycheck or not, whether we stay at home full time or not. Let’s face it, being a mom a parent is hard work no matter where you spend your day. But for the sake of brevity, I am using “working mothers” here to mean those of us who get paid by someone else to do something other than be a mom for at least part of the day and have to pay taxes on that “compensation” because I believe that was the focus of the study as well.
To be fair, I have not read the actual study, which has been published in the journal Child Development, although I am trying to get my hands on it because even sites like Huffington Post can skew things one way or another. I like to read the data for myself and find my own nuggets of truth. But, based on what HuffPo mentions in their article, I can already find so many flaws that it literally makes my stomach turn because, once again (remember the whole daycare produces aggressive kids study a few years ago?), working mothers are being given an unfair share of the blame for all that is wrong with our kids.
I fully admit I am no statistician, but let’s start with the numbers (and someone please correct me if I’m wrong with the numbers). The study looked at more than 1,000 children nationwide from infancy through 15 years old. For the sake of argument, let’s call it an even 1,000. So, here’s the first problem: of those 1,000 children, 750 of the mothers worked outside the home (according to their own statistics, as published by HuffPo). Wouldn’t it have made sense to compare a similar number of children of working mothers against a similar number of children who have stay at home moms? Why use such a large sampling of working mothers? Seems unfairly skewed to me.
And while I know it’s anecdotal, I know at least a handful of mothers who do not work who have overweight kids. And I know just as many working mothers who have lean kids, including my own. I’m not saying I make perfect choices every night (because I don’t) but I think that with what time I have after getting home, I usually can cobble together something fairly nutritious and edible. It does require planning ahead and relying on some boring tried and true repeats from week to week, but eating healthy does not have to (necessarily) be expensive or time consuming. And that’s the point. Being overweight is not about who’s working and who isn’t. Rather, it boils down to the obvious rule of weight control: calories in must equal calories out or you’re gonna have kids who get bigger. (Admittedly, I am flunking this dietary math myself, but that’s beside the point….oh wait, maybe it’s because I’m working…) It has to do with choices that are made (or not made) at the grocery store and in the kitchen, and whether the kids are getting enough activity, no matter where they spend their day. And that has nothing to do with whether the mother is working or not.
And in this study, 800 mothers were either living with a partner or married. Even being very conservative, this would translate to 550 of those married mothers also being working mothers…so, um, why are we not also focusing on the partners/fathers too? What about their role in household nutrition? Last time I checked, men were completely capable of getting to a grocery store, learning how to read a recipe and, even in a pinch, knowing that even in take-out world a veggie stir-fry is probably slightly healthier than pizza. This idea that only mothers are or should be responsible for what goes into kids’ mouths is dated, sexist and completely unfair in this day and age when there is so much information out there of what we should and shouldn’t eat. Maybe from some ancient biological standpoint, there is some tendency for the mothers to take on the role of “cafeteria lady” more than their male counterparts–hey, it happens in my own house, but certainly not every night–but come on. It’s not rocket science. It’s food. Enough with these kinds of studies that leave men out of the equation, and certainly out of the blame game. The study itself admits that it did not look at the fathers’ work history or the schedules of both working parents to determine whether that was a factor. My question is, “why not?”
Here’s the irony in all of this: the researchers admitted that they didn’t even obtain data on the household eating habits and “so Morrissey and her colleagues weren’t able to confirm their hunch that diet is largely responsible for their findings.” Yet they simultaneously suggest that working mothers are using fast food and frozen dinners because they are implicitly pressed for time. Perhaps I’m missing something here, but if you’re going to propose that working mothers are doing X (feeding fast/frozen/less than ideal food) while they’re doing Y (working outside the home), and it’s causing Z (overweight kids), shouldn’t you at least try to get some data about X to support your conclusions?
And can we talk about the food industry’s role and government’s role in all of this? Where are they in this study? Let’s talk about how corn and other agricultural subsidies have been going on for far too long and lead to cheap, processed food. Food, that for any parent, is more likely to be chosen because it is cheaper than healthier options, particularly in this economy (and who can blame them?). The food industry is very slick with its pervasive marketing and has a way of convincing even the most strong willed among us to make purchases that are probably not ideal. The food industry also has a very strong lobby that, unfortunately, has too much say even in the food pyramid put out by the USDA, again possibly leading to some well-intentioned, but misinformed choices. And labeling? If we put too many labels on things like take-out or restaurant food, people cry foul and “food police!”, yet if these are the only options that a truly harried parent has to make on any given night, shouldn’t we give them the tools to make the right choice? Oh, what a tangled web of red tape we have weaved for informed food choices. Yet, it is the working moms shouldering the blame.
And while the study notes that it accounted for certain things like time spent in front of the television and physical activity, I truly wonder about that. Did they really take everything into account? Kids have less and less recess and outdoor time during school, gym classes are being cut from many school programs and the amount of homework has gone up over the past several years. Did they use reliable metrics to quantify the amount of physical activity–as in calories burned by the children–to equalize the working vs. non-working mother households? Does time spent in front of the television also include time in front of the computer or playing video games or other sedentary activities rooted in technology? I wonder. Again, another reason for me to get a copy of that study to find out.
The thing that gets me so riled up about these types of “studies” is that they are usually incomplete yet provide provocative sound bites for the media. And more unnecessary–and unsubstantiated–guilt and blame for working mothers. Parents who feel stressed (emotionally, economically), pressed for time…yes, maybe that does lead to raising kids who become overweight for myriad reasons, but ALL parents feel like that at one time or another, not just working ones. I think it’s time that these researchers go back to the drawing board and put together a comprehensive study that honestly figures out the legitimate factors that are driving childhood obesity, and (pie in the sky here) offer some meaningful solutions instead of some latent blame.
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