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 

Winter
2016

Healthy Eating When Mom’s Out Working? Fat Chance!


Bryce J. Christensen and Nicole M. King


Progressive commentators view the movement of mothers out of the home into paid employment as a very positive development. Consequently, these commentators have to avert their eyes when researchers uncover evidence that such a movement has hurt young people. Swelling the flow of evidence is a new study concluding that children whose mothers are employed full time are much more likely to be overweight than peers whose mothers are not so employed. At a time of deep national concern about the epidemic of weight problems among children and adolescents, this finding is deeply inconvenient for progressive social narratives.

Completed by researchers at the University of Liverpool, this new study examines weight problems among children. Such weight problems demand attention, the Liverpool scholars believe, because “levels of overweight (including obesity) have risen and remain high among children in many high-income countries.” This rising incidence of child weight problems indeed now constitutes “a major health problem,” as a growing number of young people are exposed to the “increased risks of health problems in childhood and adulthood” consequent to their being overweight.

As they consider the possible reasons for the upsurge in weight problems among children, the researchers focus on “parental employment, and maternal employment in particular, . . . as a possible precursor of childhood overweight.” After all, they note, with “greater numbers of mothers entering the labour market” in recent years, many mothers have likely found themselves lacking “sufficient time outside work” to handle responsibilities that have traditionally fallen to them—responsibilities such as “providing a healthy lifestyle, including a balanced diet and regular mealtimes, supporting children to get involved in physical activities, limiting children’s use of screen-based activities, or walking rather than driving children to school.” 

As they seek to determine whether empirical evidence actually does implicate maternal employment as a cause of weight problems among children, the Liverpool researchers scrutinize data collected for 18,296 children born between 2000 and 2002 and tracked to age seven. In a careful analysis, the researchers examine the relationship between parental employment and children’s weight using a statistical model that takes into account various background variables, including children’s birthweight, the duration of breastfeeding, and maternal smoking. This model establishes a markedly elevated risk of a weight problem among children with mothers employed full time for six of their children’s seven years of life (Relative Risk of 1.46).

In contrast, the researchers can find “no equivalent association between childhood overweight and part-time maternal employment or paternal employment (regardless of hours worked).”

Through further probing, the researchers conclude that children living in “households . . . where two parents are full-time employed have increased risks of overweight.” In other words, it appears that in two-earner households, full-time maternal employment  has “weakened the otherwise protective effects of socio-economic advantage.”

Particularly disturbed that their study shows “that risks for childhood overweight were elevated when both parents in couple families were employed full-time,” the researchers call for “policies to help [such parents] to maintain a healthy lifestyle for their children growing up in an environment outside of the family environment which is often obesogenic.”

But what this study obviously actually reveals is the need to return children to the family environment, an environment available to children only when Mom’s employed no more than part time outside of the home.

 

(Steven Hope et al., “Parental Employment during Early Childhood and Overweight at 7 Years: Findings from the UK Millennium Cohort Study,” BMC Obesity 2 [2015]: 33, Web.)  

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