Why is it always working women to blame?

A new study claiming working mums have unhealthier kids seems both unhelpful and misleading.

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Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Just in case working mums haven’t been stigmatised enough, new research suggests that their kids end up being fatter, lazier and generally less healthy. The report, which is based on a study of 12,000 British children born between 2000 and 2002, claims that kids whose mothers work full-time have a worse diet and spend more time in front of the TV – even if said mums take advantage of employers’ flexible working arrangements. But despite the inevitable headlines that have ensued, the research clearly doesn’t show a causal link between the two – and even if it did, why are we pinning the whole thing on Mum?

On the face of it, it may seem plausible that working women have less time on their hands, which means less time for children and more chance of them slipping into bad habits. However, we’re pretty sceptical about reports like this. For a start, the study claims that the result holds true even if you adjust for various factors that could affect the results, like socioeconomic background. But the problem with any lifestyle study of this nature is that there are so many potentially distorting factors that it’s almost impossible to take them all into account.

And it’s worth emphasising that even the report’s authors admit that it doesn’t prove a causal link – working full-time doesn’t have to mean your kids are less healthy – merely a ‘definitive association’. So don't go sacking your childminder/ grandparents just yet.

What’s more, even if it was true, what are women expected to do about it? The authors note that 60% of British women with a child aged 5 or younger have gone back to work, and we suspect that many haven’t done so purely for their own benefit; these days, lots of families rely on two salaries. In fact, we’d be interested to see what impact a reduced family income has on a child’s life chances (notwithstanding all the caveats above). Same goes for a less fulfilled mother, for that matter.

The other interesting question is why so much of the coverage has been focused on working mums. As far as we can see, all of this research surrounds the benefits of having a stay-at-home parent of any flavour – yet the story is all about how working mums have fatter kids. There’s been a lot of progress made in breaking down the stigma that’s attached to working mothers, but these kinds of headlines aren’t terribly helpful.

We suppose there’s something to be said for this research if it encourages the Government and employers to give more thought to flexible working or parental leave policies, or if it funnels more money towards supportive health visitors – thus making it easier for women to build their work around their family lives. But generally, the whole thing strikes us a bit daft.


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