Our thanks to Yvonne for this piece in today’s Times. She describes herself as “guilty as charged”:
Research has found that a mother’s job status has a direct effect on the weight of her children — but a father’s does not
Britain’s childhood obesity crisis has long been blamed on too many fizzy drinks, too much fast food and not enough exercise. Now researchers have identified another culprit directly linked to the rising weight of children: mothers who work either full or part-time.
The study of children born between 2000 and 2002 claims to be the first to provide “causal evidence” linking a mother’s employment to the weight of her offspring.
The effects are most pronounced for single mothers working full-time, but also related to working mothers who have partners.
“We find that children whose mothers work are more likely to have increased sedentary behaviour and poorer dietary habits,” concludes one of the study’s authors, Professor Emla Fitzsimons, from University College London Institute of Education. “Maternal employment during childhood increases children’s body mass index [BMI].”
The study was based on data supplied by the UK Millennium Cohort Study of a representative sample of 19,244 families.
Despite the study’s scale and academic weight, its findings are unlikely to impress the growing number of working mothers only too aware of the competing demands of their jobs and family lives. [J4MB emphasis: Oh well, that’s the key thing, to impress working mothers…]
The last time an academic study suggested that absent mothers were turning their children into “telly tubbies” with “more freedom to eat sugary snacks slumped in front of the TV”, there was outrage on social media.
“Working mothers are the ones struggling to provide a healthy meal after a day’s slogging at work,” one angry parent complained at the time. “Then [we] spend evenings trying to make healthy pack-ups and do the best for our kids. Why vilify working mums?”
The new study, to be published next month in the journal SSM — Population Health, describes obesity as “the most common chronic disease of childhood and likely to persist into adulthood with far-reaching effects”.
It notes that a dramatic increase in the numbers of obese children and teenagers over the past four decades has been accompanied by a similarly sharp rise in the employment of mothers. In the UK, the proportion of working mothers with children under the age of five increased from 31% in 1980 to 58% in 2008.
The children of single mothers working full-time were almost 25% more likely to be overweight than the offspring of stay-at-home mothers. For full-time working mothers who have a partner, the figure falls to 7.8%.
The study also found that the children of mothers working full-time were 29% less likely to eat a regular breakfast and up to 19% more likely to spend more than three hours a day watching television.
Previous studies have asserted that working mothers spend less time on housework, meal preparation and child supervision.
The study also addresses the thorny question of why working fathers should not be held responsible for the health of their children.
While some of the effects of a working mother’s absence were mitigated where grandparents lived with the family, researchers said they could not find “any significant effect” of a father’s job on his children’s BMI. The burden of childcare, the study makes clear, continues to fall mainly on mothers, whether they work or not.
“The fact that maternal employment has a detrimental effect on children’s BMI, while paternal employment does not appear to be relevant, is suggestive of differing workload and childcare responsibilities between parents,” the study concludes diplomatically.
It suggests that a “fundamental step” in tackling childhood obesity is to involve fathers as “active players” in promoting their children’s well-being: “Programmes encouraging healthy behaviours among children could be better tailored to bring both parents on board.”
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