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-W. Bradford Wilcox
Associate Professor of Sociology, University of Virginia 

Mom’s Working Long Hours; Junior’s Watching TV—and Getting Fat

Bryce J. Christensen and Nicole M. King

Many progressive commentators see nothing but good in the movement of mothers into out-of-home employment. But in a study recently completed at the University of Southern California, researchers implicate maternal employment as a reason for unhealthy behaviors among the children left alone at home.

In explaining why they are investigating the impact of maternal employment on children’s health habits, the authors of the new study note that “childhood obesity in the U.S. has increased threefold over the last four decades” and that “the labor force participation among mothers with school-age children increased dramatically during the same time period as the obesity epidemic.” Might maternal employment be the engine driving the upsurge in child obesity? 

To clarify the relationship between maternal employment and child obesity, the Southern California scholars parse data collected from a national probability sample of approximately 20,000 students first surveyed in kindergarten and then tracked through eighth grade. In these data, evidence emerges of a strong linkage between maternal employment and child obesity: “Our results confirm that maternal work hours are positively associated with children’s BMI and obesity,” write the researchers, who note that this association is notable “especially among high-S[ocio]E[conomic]S[tatus] families.”  

More specifically, the researchers calculate that an additional 20 hours of maternal work translates into an 11% elevation in the likelihood of obesity in 5th grade (p < 0.01), and a 7% elevation of the likelihood of obesity in 8th grade ( p < 0.05).

The linkage between maternal employment and worrisome child weight problems persists in statistical models that account for differences in “basic child, family, and contextual variables . . . including child’s gender, race-ethnicity, age in months, birth weight, mother’s education, single-parent household, number of siblings, percent minority in school, and urbanicity.” Accounting for hours of paternal employment likewise proved inconsequential to the statistical results.  

Closer scrutiny of the data helps to uncover key reasons that maternal employment incubates child weight problems. One of the reasons highlighted in this study is “the deterioration in children’s diet” when mother works outside the home. “Children whose mothers work more,” conclude the researchers, “consume more unhealthy foods (e.g. soda, fast food) and less healthy foods (e.g. fruits, vegetables, milk).” More particularly, the data indicate that “20 additional hours of [maternal] work is associated with a statistically significant decrease in the likelihood of consuming fruits and vegetables at least once a day and consuming at least 1 glass of milk per day.” The same elevation of maternal employment translates into significant increases in daily consumption of soda and weekly consumption of fast food.  

The finding that children eat less healthily when mother works outside the home should surprise no one. Mothers employed outside the home simply do not supervise children’s meals in the way that homemaking mothers do. The data in this study indicate that “more [maternal] work hours are associated with a significant reduction in the likelihood that the family eats breakfast and dinner together at least thrice per week” for both 5th graders and 8th graders.

If the children of employed mothers are not eating many meals with their families, they still must be eating something somewhere if they are putting on weight. Indeed, the researchers limn indications that higher levels of maternal employment translate into maternal willingness to “outsource meal preparation,” often by “purchasing prepared foods.” But as any nutritionist knows, “foods not prepared at home . . . have a higher fat density and lower nutrient density than foods prepared at home.”

But poor diet is only part of the story when maternal employment translates into child obesity. Another part of that story unfolds as children of employed mothers increase their TV-watching time.

To be sure, the researchers do detect in the data indications that children of mothers employed full-time outside the home are “slightly more physically active” than peers whose mothers are employed fewer or no hours. This slight advantage in physical activity, the researchers conjecture, is “likely due to organized physical activities,” as two-career families use some of their “financial resources to enroll their children in sports programs and related activities.”

But when not with their soccer club, the children of employed mothers are especially likely to sack out in front of the television. The researchers discern “a significant increase in sedentary behaviors” among children of mothers reporting high hours of employment. These children are significantly more likely to watch two or more hours of TV per day. Furthermore, the researchers detect a statistical trend suggesting that the likelihood of children spending two or more hours per day surfing the Internet or playing video games also rises as hours of maternal employment go up.

As the researchers weigh the potential benefit the children of employed mothers enjoy by participating in organized sports against the harm inherent in a poor diet and excessive TV-viewing, they focus on the data on BMI and obesity. And in the view of these scholars, “the BMI and obesity results suggest that the deterioration in diet and increase in sedentary behaviors dominate,” making any advantage of sports participation an insufficient counterweight.

As they summarize their findings, the authors of this new study seem to realize that they have stumbled into a political minefield. Are they saying that mothers should actually be at home, caring for their children in ways that will prevent them from becoming obese? Perish the thought! “The take-away from our study,” the researchers implausibly assert in their final paragraphs, “is not that childhood obesity can be addressed by reducing mothers’ work hours nor that maternal work has unambiguously detrimental effects on children.” The time has come, they assert, to explore ways to use “federal programs such as the Child and Adult Care Food Programs and School Meal Programs  . . . [as] policy vehicles to help families achieve work-life balance and mitigate adverse impacts [of maternal employment] on children.”

In today’s academic environment of political correctness, professors expose themselves to the risk of censure if they dare criticize the social movements that have harmed children by undermining home and family life. The authors of this new study reduce their exposure by reassuring readers that they surely do not intend to restore motherhood or family life. Rather, they just want our Federal bureaucrats to do more to hide the loss.  

(Ashlesha Datar, Nancy Nicosia, and Victoria Shier, “Maternal Work and Children’s Diet, Activity, and Obesity,” Social Science and Medicine 107 [2014]: 196-204.)