The most incisive guide to issues facing the American family today . . . An invaluable resource for anyone wishing to stay on the cutting edge of research on family trends.

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

Mom's Employed, Junior's Badly Nourished

Editorialists never cease to bewail all the fat and salt in teen diets.  But they studiously avoid any mention of the changes in family life that lie behind adolescents’ nutritional problems.  Still, social scientists keep doing studies implicating such changes in the alarming upsurge in teen obesity and teen malnourishment.  The latest study threatening to push editorialists toward unpleasant questions comes from researchers at Temple University and the University of Minnesota.

Of course, academic social scientists—like editorialists—evince an ideological reluctance to face some family issues squarely.  In particular, when the Temple and Minnesota scholars look at the causes of adolescent obesity, they frame their research agenda in terms of “parental employment”—as though maternal employment were not the key issue.

But the researchers’ empirical findings cut through the posturing.  Analyzing data collected from a socio-demographically diverse sample of 3,709 parents of adolescents, the researchers limn a clear linkage between maternal employment and unfavorable teen dietary habits.  Statistical analysis clearly indicate that “full-time employed mothers reported fewer family meals, less frequent encouragement of their adolescents’ healthful eating, lower fruit and vegetable intake, and less time spent on food preparation, compared to part-time and not-employed mothers, after adjusting for socio-demographics.”  The data also indicate that, compared to peers employed only part time or not at all, mothers employed full time were significantly “more likely to have fast food for family meals.”

The Temple and Minnesota scholars further note that, compared to mothers employed only part time or not at all, “full-time working mothers consumed fewer fruits and vegetables themselves, which is important for women’s health as well as the potential to affect children’s diet quality.”

The researchers were clearly looking for political cover by also analyzing the effects of paternal employment on teen diets.  But their statistical analysis on this front yielded meager results, showing that—unlike maternal employment—“few differences [in teen diet] were observed by fathers’ employment status.”

Understandably, the researchers interpret their findings by turning to earlier “studies [that] have observed significant relationships between maternal employment and children’s weight, with higher amounts of hours that mothers work or mothers’ full-time employment associated with children’s increased risk for obesity.”

Uncomfortably aware that they have skated beyond the boundaries of political correctness, the researchers bend over backward to assert that “parental employment [read: maternal employment] provides many benefits to children’s health.”  In a further, rather transparent attempt to salvage their ideological rectitude, they assert that “the results of this [study] should not be interpreted as diminishing the importance of parental employment”—with parental again clearly meaning maternal.

Indulging in a bit of wishful thinking, the researchers argue that “efforts such as engaging all family members in meal preparation to alleviate burden on working women could contribute to improvements in family food environments on a population level.”

A less fanciful interpretation of the findings would indicate that Americans should be looking for ways to get back to what they once had—homemaking mothers.  It is hard to imagine a healthy nutritional future for the nation’s teens without many more such mothers.

(Katherine W. Bauer et al., “Parental Employment and Work-Family Stress: Associations with Family Food Environments,” Social Science and Medicine 75.3 [2012]: 496-504.)