Working Mum it’s all your fault too.

a small cat with wide-open eyes and mouth, caption OMFG NO WAI!?!Just when you thought it was Ladies of Leisure being at fault now it’s working mothers making their children fat.

A study has found that the more mothers work during their child’s lifetime the more likely their children are to suffer from obesity.

Researchers from American University in Washington, Cornell University in New York state and the University of Chicago studied data on more than 900 primary and middle school-aged children in 10 US cities.

They found that the total number of years the children’s mothers worked had a cumulative influence on their children’s body mass index (BMI) – the weight to height ratio used to measure if a person is overweight or obese.

“Every period of time (averaging 5.3 months) a mother was employed was associated with an increase in her child’s BMI of 10 per cent of a standard deviation,” says the study which was published in the journal Child Development.

“For a child of average height, this is equivalent to a gain in weight of nearly one pound (half a kilogram) every five months above and beyond what would typically be gained as a child ages.”

The findings were strongest among children about 11 years old.

SMH 8.2.11

So. Mum is to blame. I’m guessing that this study wasn’t done solely using single mother families, so where is Dad or Partner in this study? [Note: this could have been selectively ignored for the purposes of the media article]. Why isn’t someone else in the family shopping for healthy food and cooking healthy meals if Mum can’t? Why is it still Mum’s fault? [rhetorical question]. When will the obesity panic end? [another rhetorical question].

But wait there’s more [obesity panic]

The researchers were unable to clearly explain the findings but theorised [emphasis added ~Ed] that because working mothers have little time to shop for healthy food and prepare meals, they and their children eat more fast and packaged foods, which tend to be high in fat and calories.

Childhood obesity in the United States has tripled in 30 years.

Today, one in three US kids is overweight or obese, meaning they are more likely than their normal-weight counterparts to grow up to be obese adults and suffer from obesity-related conditions including diabetes, cardiovascular disease and fatty liver disease.

Childhood obesity has also been linked to “behaviour and academic problems in adolescence and adulthood”, [here would have been a great place to provide some links to some research which supported this claim. Has anyone heard this one before?] said the lead author of the study Taryn Morrissey, assistant professor in public administration and policy at American University, calling for healthy foods to be made more accessible to working families.

So they didn’t actually talk to any of the families it would seem. I wonder what “healthy foods be made more accessible to working families” actually means? It would also be interesting to see who the other researchers in the study were and if they are specialists in Child Nutriton, Child Health, Child Growth etc. I know 2/3s of sweet FA about Public Adminstration and Policy but I’m guessing that it doesn’t include a lot of stuff about children’s growth in the curriculum.

Categories: health, Life, media, medicine, parenting, skepticism, work and family

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15 replies

  1. Okay, so those working mothers should stay home so they can cook healthy meals from scratch, right? What’s that, you say? If those mothers don’t work, they can’t afford the food for those healthy meals? Gee, I suppose in that case it’s ok to let your children starve, at least they’ll be thin (not). I don’t know what those researchers are thinking with, but it’s not their brains, that’s for sure.

  2. “I blame women.”
    “For what?”
    “I don’t know yet; it depends what’s wrong.”
    Childhood obesity has also been linked to “behaviour and academic problems in adolescence and adulthood”, [here would have been a great place to provide some links to some research which supported this claim. Has anyone heard this one before?]
    On on TV, where fat kids are always the bullies rather than the victims.

  3. I read the (sadly) paywalled paper. To answer some of your questions:
    1) They certainly didn’t talk to any of the parents, as they were analysing an eight year old dataset collected by someone else
    2) They specifically designed the study to look at maternal employment, due to previous literature suggesting a link between maternal employment and BMI.
    3) Paternal employment was considered as an independant variable in their model, but only as a binary “Father/partner works 35 or more hours per week” rather than the cumulative hours of maternal employment.
    4) Other statistically significant (with P < 0.05) correlates of increased BMI were present in the model, but not reported. Unsuprisingly, birth-weight was most strongly correlated to BMI. Other significant predictors included being African-American, and the number of children in the home (with BMI decreasing as family size increased). Most interestingly from a gender politics point of view though, the “number of adults in the home” was positively correlated with BMI. So perhaps the headline should have been “Single mothers less likely to have fat kids.”

  4. @SunlessNick:

    Childhood obesity has also been linked to “behaviour and academic problems in adolescence and adulthood”, [here would have been a great place to provide some links to some research which supported this claim. Has anyone heard this one before?]

    For the benefit of those who don’t have access to the original research, I’ll quote the relevant section:

    In addition to the physical health and economic consequences as adults, being overweight as a child has social-emotional implications. During the early elementary school years, higher BMIs are associated with greater internalizing problems (Bradley et al., 2008). In adolescence, overweight status is associated with an increase in depression among girls (Needham & Crosnoe, 2005). Additionally, overweight teens have lower academic achievement, especially in contexts in which being overweight is stigmatized (e.g., schools with high rates of dating or lower average BMI; Crosnoe & Muller, 2004). For girls, higher BMIs are also associated with a reduction in dating (but not in having sex; Cawley, 2001; Cawley, Joyner, & Sobal, 2006). Overall, research suggests that stigma against overweight individuals is commonplace, including in the workplace, in the health care system, and in schools (reviewed in Puhl & Brownell, 2001).

    Full references:

    Bradley, R., Houts, R., Nader, P., O’Brien, M., Belsky, J., Crosnoe, R., et al. (2008). Body mass index and its relation to internalizing and externalizing problems from infancy through middle childhood. Journal of Pediatrics, 5, 629–634.
    Needham, B., & Crosnoe, R. (2005). Overweight status and depressive symptoms during adolescence. Journal of Adolescent Health, 36, 48–55.
    Crosnoe, R., & Muller, C. (2004). Body mass index, academic achievement and school context: Examining the educational experiences of adolescents at risk of obesity. Journal of Health and Social Behavior, 45, 393–407.
    Cawley, J. (2001). Body weight and the dating and sexual behaviors of young adolescents. In R. T.Michael (Ed.), Social awakening: Adolescent behavior as adulthood approaches (pp. 174–198). New York: Russell Sage Foundation.
    Cawley, J., Joyner, K., & Sobal, J. (2006). Size matters: The influence of adolescents’ weight and height on dating and sex. Rationality and Society, 18, 67–94.
    Puhl, R., & Brownell, K. (2001). Bias, discrimination and obesity. Obesity Research, 9, 788–805.

    • Thanks for the referencing and links, FMark. Did the paper talk at all about the possibility of working to change social attitudes that dehumanise the obese as a possible way to reduce these adolescent behavioural/academic problems that are the result of stigmatisation and marginalisation by their peers?

  5. Not at all. Despite referencing Puhl & Brownell’s (freely available) review of the literature on discrimination, there is no mention of the possibility that discrimination could be reduced. Instead, they speak of “interventions” targetted at families with working mothers:

    For example, in addition to integrating information on nutrition and physical activity in the classroom, the Planet Health curriculum also includes fact sheets for parents that offer advice on how to increase physical activity (e.g., suggesting parents play tag with their children after school), and reduce TV time (by banning it during dinner; e.g., Planet Health, 2007). Encouraging family mealtimes and reserving 1 day a week without extracurricular activities is another possible avenue (Fiese & Schwartz, 2008). School-based programs such as CATCH and Planet Health may be even more effective if they can be tailored to fit the particular issues of parents with various employment circumstances.
    Planet Health. (2007). Planet health: An interdisciplinary curriculum for teaching middle school curriculum and physical activity. Retrieved from
    Fiese, B. H., & Schwartz, M. (2008). Reclaiming the family table: Mealtimes and child health and well-being. Society for Research in Child Development Social Policy Report, 22. Retrieved from

    Obviously this is a problem with their research. Their logic is: obesity is associated with problems, maternal employment is associated with obesity, therefore children whose mothers are employed should be targeted for health programs. The link between obesity and discrimination is taken as an unquestioned constant. In other words, obesity is problematised and discrimination accepted, rather than the reverse.

  6. But if these mothers don’t have time to shop for and cook healthy food where is the time to play tag going to come from?

  7. Isn’t it pretty widely accepted that obesity is linked to poor socio-economic status?
    Isn’t it more likely that women will work longer hours, and earlier, if they need the income?

  8. I don’t understand the suggestion to ban TV during dinner. People are seated during dinner, and the typical response to such a rule is to switch the TV on directly after dinner/washing up (perhaps while Mum washes up *sigh*).

  9. No no no! Silly Wymenz! The BMI with it’s height and weight thingy was invented by Quetelet, who was a nineteenth century belgian statistician, so you should be blaming working mothers for making their children nineteenth century belgians. The other thing you have wrong, is that it’s not about making them too heavy, it’s about making them too short. If they were taller, their BMI would not be a problem at all.

  10. I wonder whether the relationship between maternal employment and BMI is similar in other developed countries.
    After all, we know that a lower proportion of children are overweight or obese in countries like Sweden, Norway and Denmark than in the US. And since a high proportion of mothers work in some low obesity nations, you might suspect that there are other ways of encouraging healthy eating and exercise other than having mothers at home.
    And to be fair to the paper’s authors (try this link: the paper doesn’t suggest women are to blame or that the solution is for them to work less.

    • Good question, Don. We tend to eyeroll at the overuse of the BMI here anyway, but its variance across developed countries certainly needs to be kept in mind.

  11. @FMark: Thankyou for the details.

  12. @ Don, yes this post could easily have been called ‘The Media claim research says women at fault, when no such claim was made #126541′. Thanks for the link.

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