The news cycle is full of wonderful irony. One week it’s International Women’s Day, and we’re all talking about how important it is to reduce gender inequality across the world. The next, news sources from across the world are blaming childhood obesity on — of all things — working mothers.
It sometimes feels like last week never happened.
Headlines everywhere have been screaming that working mothers are “to blame” for obesity, that the childhood obesity crisis is due to working moms, or that scientists are blaming working mums for “UK’s obesity epidemic”.
We love blaming working mothers for everything under the sun. Maybe it’s because society needs a scapegoat when things appear to go wrong, maybe it’s because we all yearn for the days gone by, or maybe it’s because misogynistic nonsense makes better news than well-reported science.
Fortunately for mothers everywhere, there’s nothing to worry about. You aren’t making your kids sick just by going to work.
The headlines were wrong.
The study that has made news around the world was a very interesting piece of research. The scientists took a large group of people and their kids, asked them a large number of questions, and then followed them over time. They then looked to see whether the working habits of the parents — in particular the mothers — influenced whether the children gained weight over time. They found that children who had a mother who worked either part or full-time were more likely to have a higher BMI than children whose mothers did not work. This effect got even stronger for single mothers, meaning that kids who had a single mother who worked were the most likely to have a higher BMI.
Basically, it seemed that mothers going to work caused children to gain weight.
So mothers who worked had fatter children. Mothers who were single AND worked had kids who were even more unhealthy.
The researchers then looked at possible mechanisms for this, and found that children whose mothers worked were also more likely to spend more time in front of the TV and eat less healthy food. The same was not true of working fathers, whose employment didn’t effect their children’s weight at all.
But before we demonize mothers, there are a few major limitations to this piece of research that make it almost meaningless to most people’s lives.
Working mothers aren’t bad after all.
Right at the outset it’s important to note that every single news story got it wrong.
Let me explain.
The figure that was painted all over the news was that children with single working mothers were “25% more likely to be overweight”. It’s strange, because that’s absolutely not what the results showed.
The study actually found that the standardized coefficient of variation, with BMI as the dependent variable, in a fixed-effects linear model that controlled for a range of factors, was 0.243, indicating that having a single working mother was associated with a significantly increased risk of children being 0.243 standard deviations heavier in terms of BMI.
If that sounds like a complex finding that’s difficult — or almost impossible — to translate to a specific percentage risk increase you’d be absolutely correct. The “25% increased risk” figure seems to have been plucked out of thin air.
It’s also important to note was that this study was observational. What that means is that it’s quite difficult to draw a causal link between the results and any conclusions. In other words, it’s entirely possible that the weight gain of the children wasn’t down to their mothers working at all.
For example, the children may have been more likely to have abusive fathers. Children with abusive fathers are more likely to become obese, and women with abusive partners are more likely to be single. This is what’s known as a confounding factor — essentially, something related to both the exposure (working mother) and outcome (BMI) — that can completely change the results of an experiment.
The researchers in this study did control for a range of factors, but as the saying goes “you don’t know what you don’t know”. You can only control for things that you’ve measured, and it’s impossible to measure everything in studies like this.
So the study didn’t prove all that much, and even the effect that it found was tiny and unlikely to make much of an impact on children’s weight.
But even worse than that was the very obvious thing that every news story ignored: fathers.
Let’s assume that the study did prove that mothers who went to work caused their kids to gain weight. It probably didn’t, but for the sake of argument let’s say it did. Women go to work, have less time to spend with their kids, who then spend more time in front of the TV and chow down on more chips than ever before.
The researchers themselves thought of a really good solution to this. It turns out that it usually takes two people to make a child. If mothers spending more time at work makes their children gain weight then rather than women resigning en mass maybe the fathers* should start doing some more childcare instead.
Or, to quote the study authors:
“involving fathers as active players in efforts to tackle the high rates of childhood excess weight and to promote children’s health and wellbeing seem to be a fundamental step”
The idea that childhood obesity has anything to do with mothers going to work is a poisonous absurdity. If fathers were to pick up the slack, it’s likely that this wouldn’t be a problem at all.
In fact, this study actually supports that idea quite strongly. Only 10% of fathers in the sample didn’t work, compared to more than 50% of mothers. Fathers also worked almost double as many hours as mothers.
If fathers stayed at home more, maybe we wouldn’t have so many problems.
Ultimately, it’s very unlikely that mothers are harming their children by going to work. It’s much more likely that complex social factors are both causing moms to take up work and kids to gain weight. Even if the increased hours for mothers are causing kids to gain weight, the idea that this means that mothers are somehow to blame for childhood obesity is simply nonsense.
Maybe instead of blaming women, we should strive for balance, and get fathers to take an equal part in child-rearing.
Just don’t worry about working mums.
Our obesity epidemic is far more complex than that.
*Note: the study in question didn’t really look at non-traditional families — it was confined to a fairly binary view of gender and parenting — but it’s worth noting that this is probably less applicable to same-sex parents or more gender diverse couples.