Home Health News Moms: Your Work Schedule Makes Your Kids Fat

Moms: Your Work Schedule Makes Your Kids Fat

by Erika Nicole Kendall

Um, I know “Feminist” is a dirty word, but I am gonna have to go ahead and come out of the closet.

I’m a Feminist… and “Studies” like this make my Feminist cup runneth over with frustration:

Childhood obesity in the United States has more than tripled in the past three decades, and prior research has linked maternal employment to children’s body mass index (BMI), a measure of their weight-for-height. A new study by an American University professor in the January/February issue of the journal Child Development has found that children’s BMI rose the more years their mothers worked over their children’s lifetimes.

Taryn W. Morrissey, assistant professor in public administration and policy, led the study with colleagues from Cornell University and the University of Chicago. The researchers used longitudinal information from the Study of Early Child Care and Youth Development, which was sponsored by the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD). They looked at 990 children in grades 3, 5, and 6 who lived in 10 cities across the country.

The researchers found that the total number of years mothers were employed had a small but cumulative influence on their children’s BMI, which, over time, can lead to an increase in the likelihood of overweight or obesity. The findings were strongest among children in 5th and 6th grades. Surprisingly, changes in children’s physical activity, time spent unsupervised, and time spent watching TV didn’t explain the link between maternal employment and children’s BMI. Moreover, the time of day moms worked wasn’t significantly associated with children’s BMI.

The reasons for these findings are not entirely clear. According to the authors, one possibility is that working parents have limited time for grocery shopping and food preparation. This may contribute to a greater reliance on eating out or eating prepared foods, which tend to be high in fat and calories.

Given that more than 70 percent of U.S. mothers with young children work, the importance of providing support to these families is clear. Based on their findings, the researchers call for efforts to expand the availability of affordable, readily accessible healthy foods, and to support and educate working parents about strategies for providing nutritious meals despite busy schedules.

“About a fifth of American children are considered obese, and childhood obesity has been associated with health, behavior, and academic problems in adolescence and adulthood,” according to Morrissey.

“Community- and school-based programs offer promise for promoting healthy weight by providing information to children and their families about nutrition and exercise, as well as how to make quick, healthy meals.”

Now, let me be frank. I grew up a latch-key child for a considerable part of my childhood. Might that’ve had something to do with my gaining weight? Of course. That’s not what I’m annoyed by.

I’m annoyed by the fact that this study makes no mention of Fathers… or male guardians at all, even. Any guardian other than the Mother. I mean, don’t get me wrong. If a University tried to study the “father” in my home, they would’ve come up short. I’m a single parent. But now, all of a sudden, women like me (or women who are simply

Does the study control for whether or not overall parental involvement – in general – makes a difference in a child’s propensity to gain weight? Or did they only study Moms? Why put the entire responsibility on the Mother? The hell are we supposed to do?

I’d stand to believe that the more available a guardian is in the home, the more opportunity they have to prepare food – as mentioned in the study’s press release – but why only mention the mother? Why not refer to the guardian? Or anyone else?

I mean, of course – any parents who are working “too much” are going to feel as if they have less time to cook for their children. I get that. But why put all of this on the Mother? What about the Father? What about this? What about that? For crying out loud, who’s got the study?

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Eva February 7, 2011 - 1:49 PM

I totally agree with your critique. Here’s the thing. To me the study is b.s. you know why? Because black women have been working outside the home for decades and black children, at least the way I see it, weren’t obese then, so why now? Maybe it’s because of the chemicals in food, maybe it’s because of the prevalence of fast food. I’ve always lived in NYC and I became a “latch key kid” in 1972 when my father died. Back then there wasn’t a McDonalds or Burger King or KFC on every corner, and we kids played outside all day until they came and closed the playground, and I grew up in Harlem.

My point is that fast food, a sedentary lifestyle and chemicals in food probably causes more childhood obesity than parents working.

Daphne February 7, 2011 - 4:34 PM

Agreed. I wonder if there has been a study done on SAHM over the years, and the proportional rise of obesity? Probably not, because nobody wants to admit that a primary reason for obesity is the rise of availability and convenience of processed, junk, and fast foods. Please know that mama not working does not equal kids eating healthy foods. You can probably watch any Housewives show on TV and see the opposite in action.

I don’t have children, but I know preparing and cooking foods take some time for me, even with proper planning. I can only imagine the added level of complexity with a husband and child(ren), and having to note allergies, finicky eating habits, etc. A parent is a parent is a parent – and both mother and father have responsibility for the child(ren)’s health. And yes, if mama is slacking, due to time constraints or lack of concern or whatever, then heck yeah it’s on papa to step up.

Excuse the tangent, but it’s amazing to me how many well-known chefs are MEN, but, at least in the United States, it’s commonly accepted for men not to know how to cook and prepare foods. What the hay? It’s almost always perceived as the woman’s role in daily life. And I think, how do these men who don’t get married until their late 20s, 30s, and beyond manage to get by?

And no, I don’t count protein shakes or smoothies as knowing how to cook.

CoCo February 7, 2011 - 6:21 PM

Eva, I agree with you 100%. I was thinking the same thing! When I was little my mom always cooked for us; eating out was a luxury. Me and my little sister used to play outside everyday and we were perfectly healthy.

Nowadays, people eat out all the time. It’s not uncommon for some of my friends to grab at least one meal a day from a fast food restaurant. When I drive home from work during the school year, I RARELY see children playing outside. It trips me out to drive through a neighborhood after a snowstorm and see NO snowmen at all. It’s crazy.

Basically, life isn’t the same now as it was when we were little. A lot of other factors have changed, but for some reason the researchers chose to focus only on working mothers. That’s crap. Activity levels have gone way down, children have access to junk food at school and all the sports and afterschool activities that were free back in the day, now cost an arm and a leg (or they aren’t available at all). I think those issues have more to do with childhood obesity than whether the mother works or not.

Zoe July 18, 2011 - 11:08 PM

co-sign, co-sign, co-sign

Jessica June 20, 2014 - 2:39 PM

I agree totally! I don’t ever remember going out to eat as a child unless it was Easter or Mothers day. My father died when I was 2, so it was my mother raising 3 children, alone. She cooked like everyday but Friday and would get us fast food on that day only. And I would be outside from sun up until the street lights came on. Playing in the streets, at the part, as a child I did a lot of walking and running and bike riding. Now, these kids come home and grab their tablets and sit on the couch eating some kind of after school junk snack like doughnuts or ho ho’s. No telling what they already ate at school either! Luckily, my niece and nephew go outside and play a lot. My mother (she’s old school) watches them a lot and she encourages them to go outside. Half of the time they don’t even want to eat because they are so anxious to get on their bikes or go swimming. The world is changing in good ways, sure yeah, but some of those good convenient ways are not healthy for us.

Ceej April 18, 2013 - 11:33 PM


Rae @ Rainbows and Dragonflies February 7, 2011 - 2:35 PM

OMG THANK YOU! I heard this on the news this morning and my blood started to boil. I am so tired of these studies that do nothing but pit mother against mother. Working mom vs stay at home mom. Why is it ALWAYS on the mother to be accountable for everything? The kid has a unibrow. Oh that’s mom’s fault. 😐

And Eva, I totally agree with this “My point is that fast food, a sedentary lifestyle and chemicals in food probably causes more childhood obesity than parents working.”

J Danielle February 7, 2011 - 6:24 PM

I almost wrote a post on this article. It bothered me because parental behavior doesn’t happen in a vacuum–it’s a response to broader social issues. I don’t know how you can discuss an issue like this without taking into account the fact that recess has been pulled from schools, that work/life balance for many people is zilch, that food and housing is more expensive even adjusted for inflation, that people live in unwalkable suburbs, hormones in food etc. etc. This reporter would have benefitted from a stats class that would show you how to go beyond the surface of an issue and look for contributing causes beyond the obvious.

I remember my stat professor said that rapes increase significantly as more ice cream is sold, and then asked the class what is the conclusion? We went through a bunch of ridiculously obvioius ones (ex: rapists love ice cream) when the real answer was that rapes increase during warm weather because people are out and about more. This article reminded me of that conversation which is not a good thing.

Erika February 7, 2011 - 6:54 PM

OMG!!!! *mortified face*

Cheryl February 8, 2011 - 8:35 AM

You hit on exactly what I was thinking! Correlation should not imply causality. And, like Erica said, where are the fathers? They were careful to state that physical activity, tv time, unsupervised time and mother’s work schedule were included and ruled out as a causal factor, but completely left out the most obvious and relevant factor – presence of a dad? Who is funding this shoddy research?

Love the rapist and ice cream analogy. I dropped stats before we got to anything like that…

JoAnna February 7, 2011 - 6:27 PM

Kids get fat because they aren’t allowed to play outside anymore. Parents or guardians are too busy to take them to the park or physical activities because they’ve come to believe than earning more money is important to buy more toys, not experiences. Kids and parents are flooded with ads to drink “Sunny D” and other sugar/corn syrupy drinks instead of water. They’re brainwashed into believing that a plate of white pasta, loaded with meatballs and powdered cheese and sweet tomato sauce with a side of cheesy garlic bread is a complete balanced meal. I could go on, but you get the picture.

I know single mothers who spend their “free time” getting their hair and nails done instead of budgeting time for yoga/karate/ballet/swimming/etc activities for themselves or their kids. I’m not saying that mothers don’t deserve their “me” time, but physical acitivity is just as important as “looking good”. And a lot of those mothers have to have their taste buds retrained to enjoy less sugar, more vegetables, and more plain water.

As a former teacher, I knew students that would not play outside at recess because they had gotten new white gym shoes and their mothers would get upset if their gym shoes got dirty. No joke. So if mom doesn’t take time to care for herself (diet and exercise), then her children aren’t either.

Single fathers aren’t off the hook, but we see more single mothers than single fathers.

Eva February 8, 2011 - 1:03 PM

I do see what you’re saying, but there’s another way of looking at this.

One of the reasons people work so hard today is things are WAY more expensive percentage wise. Housing/clothing/bills are more expensive so people have to make more money just to survive. Fast food is available today, it wasn’t so available when I was a child, in fact in the 60’s and 70’s you had to actually drive somewhere to get to a McDonald’s/Burger King, now you just walk down the street.

But I do agree with you about the hair/nails issue. When I was a child, I never even saw a nail salon in a poor neighborhood, they were only downtown, for the wealthier women.

Green Afro Diva February 8, 2011 - 7:38 PM

Here is an article you might find interesting about processed foods affecting childhood obesity http://abcnews.go.com/Health/dietary-patterns-early-childhood-iq/story?id=12860729

Karen March 2, 2011 - 1:24 AM

I found this website though an Essence magazine, so it’s my first time on here & this caught my attention…mainly b/c I need to lose weight & have a 4 yr. old son(& am a single mom). I think another reason kids don’t play outside more often too, is because of the dangers that are more prevalent now, i.e. molesters, abducters, etc. I know that for me, the house in which we lived( which I owned) I ended up renting out & moved to an apartment in a better neighborhood b/c the neighborhood of the house had gotten so bad I didn’t want my son outside at all due to the dangers & to the kids as well( no parental involvement & they were just buck-wild!!) So of course, better neighborhood-higher rent, less $ for activites–in a luxury kind of executive apt. setting, so not many kids, etc.. IN any case, My son LOVES veggies, fruits, salads, green drinks, etc…so I’m happy about that & in his short 4 years exposed him to great healthy options–and Popeye eating his spinach for big muscles helped too!!:-)

Max April 17, 2011 - 12:04 PM

Bleh, this just leaves a bad taste in my mouth. What a useless piece of research, or perhaps reporting, or both.

Missy August 5, 2011 - 2:44 PM

You mentioned feminism as though it’s somehow not compatible with proper childcare. I beg to differ: one major goal of feminism was affordable, high-quality child care. Sadly, that goal was not accomplished. Nobody cares about the children, really. The people who work in child care are generally a special population of under-educated, minimally regulated, underpaid, unprofessional, otherwise un-employable folk who can barely be classed as educators. And that’s a choice we’ve made as a society.

I totally appreciate the work of the small minority of high-quality, thoughtful, effective early childhood educators out there, but that appreciation must not be confused with the reality that they are, in fact, a minority. And it is relevant to this conversation because they’re also expensive and inaccessible to most working parents, single or otherwise.

Tremilla November 9, 2011 - 5:37 AM

I think they only did this study based on the mothers because there are no fathers. Most families these days are single parent households and the parent is the mother or a maternal figure. And even if it is a two parent household, who is responsible for meals 90% of the time? Mom.

Ceej April 18, 2013 - 11:41 PM

Yeah… those selfish single moms… working more hours outside the home… making their kids fat (the worst thing a kid could ever turn out to be)… and for what? to earn money for rent and food… what horrible bitches… amirite?


Lisa September 23, 2013 - 7:20 AM

This study was published nearly three years ago. The authors did a followup study looking at both maternal and paternal employment, found here in abstract form:

and here in full text (requires login): http://linkinghub.elsevier.com/retrieve/pii/S0277-9536(12)00479-0

Erika Nicole Kendall September 23, 2013 - 8:03 AM

Yep – I wrote this (and went on NPR to discuss it) three years ago.

True October 19, 2013 - 9:09 PM

This makes my head hurt a lil bit…okay a lot. I’m not a mother but I am with you on the singling out just the female gender. Hmm…I don’t like that ONE bit!

barb October 28, 2013 - 2:40 PM

Thank you True, for bringing up the gender issue. That’s the first thought I had when I read the report and headline. Now, I DO think that having both parents work has presented difficulties for kids. And I DO think that single working moms deserve a heroism award. (Yeah, I had one.) But why the mamma blaming all the time???? Something radical? At least one parent should have a choice to stay home during child rearing years. And a stay-at-home parent should, at minimum, earn social security points. And god bless those single working parents. Can we get off their backs please?

Nana May 26, 2017 - 12:52 PM

I live in France where 3.6 percent of the children are obese (versus 20% in the US) and only 20% of French women with children “stay at home” (which, from what the quoted article says is lower than in the US).
So…this correlation does not make any sense to me!
There might be a million explanations for why French kids are less likely to be obese (even if most of their moms do work and sometimes don’t get home until 7)… What I do know is that here kids walk to school and up the five flights of stairs to get home… they certainly do not eat when they want (nor what they want.) Being overwheight is also not socially acceptable (which has its drawbacks but social control can be efficient)

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