Don’t Get Me Started

I had the *ahem* “pleasure” of reading a rather incendiary, very insulting, and apparently quite flawed piece of research yesterday, which suggested that the childhood obesity crisis can be blamed on…working mothers.  Yes, you read that right.  Not screen time, not poor eating habits, not processed foods, not the lack of recess and P.E. in schools, not lack of access to safe playspaces.  Working mothers.

Don’t get me started.

As a working mother with one heavy child and one borderline underweight child, I was drawn to this article like the proverbial moth to flame; although I should know better by now, and should be an inveterate jaded survivor of the online Mommy Wars, I anxiously scanned the piece looking for the bit of incriminating evidence that would explain to me just what it is that I’m doing wrong to make L. bigger than his classmates.  Where is the fascinating and radical piece of information that we’ve all, until now, overlooked?  What is it about the lifestyle of a child whose mother works that is so vastly different — in ways both mysterious and nuanced — from the lifestyle of a child with a stay-at-home mother?  And if I could find that a-ha moment in this article, would it allow me to somehow put on the brakes in P.’s development and prevent him from eventually becoming overweight, too?

Snort.  Reality check time.  Of course I didn’t really think I was going to find some magical key in this article, and unsurprisingly, I didn’t.  It doesn’t even appear to have been a well-designed study, frankly; the researchers admitted that they never looked into the eating habits of the children they studied in any way.  That’s right: no observation of the kids’ meals and snacks, no anecdotal evidence in the form of food diaries, parental interviews, or even a shoddily designed nutrition survey.  Nothing about food at all.  How strange, then, that the researchers make a big leap in offering the hypothesis that “busy families may accelerate weight gain by relying too much on fast food and frozen dinners rather than preparing fresh, healthy meals.”

OK, I’ll bite.  Yes, of course, we all know that a busy parent — and I emphasize, by the way, the use of the word “parent” here — may be inclined to take shortcuts and go through the drive-thru line or order in pizza or any number of other less desirable approaches to dinner.  We all know, too, that there are a vast number of families who eat this way much more often than they probably should.  But it seems to me to be nothing short of irresponsible to leave the FACTS of diet and nutrition out of a study on childhood obesity and simply wave a magical hypothesis wand stating that “these kids are fat, so it must be that their busy working mothers don’t take the time to feed them homemade foods.”

Could it be part of the puzzle?  Perhaps.  But it struck me, as I re-read the piece this morning, that the lead study author is quoted as saying that “it’s not the mother’s employment, but the environment…there needs to be improved access to healthy foods.”

The environment?  So…it appears, at least to me, that another giant quantum leap of reasoning is made here, in which the study authors are assuming that the home environments of children whose mothers work are nutritionally poor.  Um, professor?  Over here.  Ooh, ooh, I know, I know, call on  me!

Could it be that the children of working mothers are more often fed by people other than their parents?  Could THOSE be the environments, and caregivers, that are in need of reform?

We don’t know, because, of course, the study authors didn’t look into this possibility at all (see what I mean about giant, gaping holes in the research?).  But as a logical, thinking person, it would occur to me that:
A) Children who do not have a stay-at-home caregiver spend more time, from an earlier age, in child care and preschool settings, which often provide snacks, lunches, or both.

B) School-aged children who do not have a stay-at-home caregiver probably spend more time, from an earlier age, in after-school care programs and activities.  Many of those after-school care programs provide snacks.  Also, even when the activities are sports-based, there appears to be some pathological need of activity providers and well-meaning parents to send gigantic and often unhealthy snack options to be served to the participants, lest they expire of starvation and thirst after even the slightest exertion.

C) Older kids and adolescents who do not have a stay-at-home caregiver may be spending more time either at friends’ houses, hanging out in various places around the community, or looking after themselves at home.  In any one of those scenarios, the opportunity for a tween or teen to gain access to less-healthy food options, in less desirable portions, is apparent.  In our own community, a majority of the kids walk to and from school (which is one of the things we liked about our neighborhood, when we first looked at the house).  In the 3/4 of a mile between the middle school and our street, they pass a frozen lemonade stand, a Dunkin’ Donuts, two sandwich shops, a chicken wing joint, and an Italian bakery; just 100 yards past our street, they could get pizza; and by veering only a block or two off their intended path, they’d be able to hit up several drugstores and corner markets offering soda, chips, candy, and other unhealthy snack foods.  Guess where we see most of the kids hanging out after school?  (And it’s not the library, which is also located in this stretch of territory.)

I told you not to get me started.  But seriously, what I want to say is this: I know many working families who feed their children wonderful, nourishing, homemade foods; I also know many who don’t.  I know many families with stay-at-home mothers and fathers who feed their children wonderful, nourishing, homemade foods, and an equal number who don’t.  Darn straight that it’s not the mother’s employment but the environment, dear researchers, and the ENVIRONMENT is no longer defined by the four walls of home, but by the world at large in which we raise our children.  Until we stop fostering this petty Mommy Wars mentality and jockeying to prove who’s doing more to screw their kids up, we’ll never be able to broaden the lens and work together to solve the real problems.  Which exist not at my dinner table, professor, but at the school lunch tables, fast-food restaurant tables, and snack tables of the world.

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15 Responses to Don’t Get Me Started

  1. I don’t have an opinion on this study other than to say that I usually ignore studies like this. But, as a journalist, I do need to jump in and say that while there are certainly biased and inept journalists out there, most of us are in this profession to raise awareness and serve as watchdogs, not to sensationalize the news.

    I’ll also add that if you have questions about the study design or conclusions, or whether a journalist misrepresented results, the best way to answer that is to go to the source — the study itself: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1467-8624.2010.01541.x/full

    That’s what this journalist would do, anyway…

    • Thanks for the insight, Christina. My intent with the post was not to get into journalistic bias, but to talk about the broader context of the study itself and my personal reaction to it (not being a journalist, I simply wanted to record my thoughts about having read the specific piece to which I linked). The journalistic bias question was raised in the comments only and I felt it was fair to allow for that possibility, as well as point out that regardless of whether it’s accurate reporting or inaccurate reporting, the fact that this type of headline (and the research behind it) continues to lead many people down a garden path towards pointing fingers in lots of different directions, and may dilute the overall public health messages that are more salient to the issue.

      • Thanks, Bri. Totally get that wasn’t your intent. But part of what I’m saying is that, in order to fully respond to or critique these kinds of studies, people really need to read the study themselves. Then there’s no need for speculation about the details (or concerns that the reporter got it wrong), and it can be put in proper context. Even if an article doesn’t link to the original study, you can find almost any study online with a little searching.

      • OK, so I just took a quick spin through the study, and in fact the data used by the researchers did include (in minute detail, actually) stats about where exactly children spend time during the day. So it appears the study did take into account the broader definition of “environment.”

        OK, done now. 😉

      • I’ll consider myself duly chastised.

      • Oh, goodness, no chastising meant! Just wanted to convey the importance of fact-checking before opining. Otherwise we risk the very sort of thing we don’t like in other articles, you know?

        Please take this in the good spirit in which it was intended.

    • Renee says:

      Thanks, Christina, for posting the link to the study. (BTW, I meant no offense about journalists. I’m a scientist, and in my work I often find that popular media report on scientific studies in ways that skew the results. I don’t know if it’s intentional, or just that the journalist doesn’t understand the science enough to realize they are skewing it. However, I realize that this is not an indictment of all journalists. It’s obvious from your own blog posts that you research and report thoroughly.)

      Bri, here are some interesting comments from the conclusion section of the study:

      “Two key contenders as yet unexamined include children’s eating and sleep behaviors—including the quality, quantity, and regularity of these aspects of children’s lives. Unfortunately, data were not available at all of the necessary time points to test these potentially important factors.”

      “Another limitation of the FE model is that it is not able to address issues of reverse causality; specifically, the possibility that mothers may change their work status or schedules in response to the needs of their children (in this case, in response to their children’s BMI). Such concerns are eased by the fact that the vast majority of mothers work. Nevertheless, to the extent that mothers’ decisions to work occur in response to their children’s BMI, our results are biased.”

      It seems to me that the authors still have lots of work left to do, and that perhaps it wasn’t really the best choice of article to report on in Health.com. I completely agree with you that this is another “let’s blame the moms” (and how come the dads are never blamed?) article. Things like this are why I’m such a proponent of “public health” and legislation that supports it. We wouldn’t need to blame anyone if we lived in a healthy society, where laws controlled what corporations could do (such as market to kids –the study actually discusses how increased TV time might contribute to poor food choices because of the heavy food marketing), rather than live in this unhealthy society where corporations are allowed to do anything they please because they have bought and paid for our government. Hmm . . . I think I sound a bit cynical. 🙂

  2. bmd4me says:

    OMG don’t get ME started either! I’ve worked all my life and managed to raise two normally built, normal weight, intelligent (albeit a bit obnoxious at times) young men who didn’t know they were “suffering” from having a working mom. Yes there were times when we resorted to fast food, fish sticks and hot dogs, but for the most part I made sure my family ate well and got the exercise they needed – even if it meant me losing precious hours of sleep night after night. I’d love to know where these so-called experts get their information.

    • That’s where I think articles like this are particularly foolish — in that, even as they expose what may be an issue for some families, they manage to diminish the great efforts of many others. Clearly they did some sort of research that led them to this hypothesis, but as Renee points out in another comment on this post, it may be the journalists who are really spinning the research in a way that causes the damage. Either way, I think it serves as a smokescreen for the real issues contributing to obesity and poor health in our children, and I am concerned about the proliferation of bad information like this (and like the obesity among babies, and other notable “scientific studies” I’ve ranted about of late) when we desperately need good information to lead us out of this national health crisis.

  3. Renee says:

    I enjoyed the first comment I read on the article you linked to: maybe it’s the obese children making the mothers get out of the house to work –after all, that’s equally likely in the correlation of these two factors.

    While I can understand your feelings about the article, when I read it, I thought that by “environment” the author’s might have actually meant the community environment, not just the home environment.

    However, from the Health.com article, it does appear to be a really poorly designed study. What I wonder, sometimes, is how badly the author’s work is being represented by journalists? I think journalists like to make their stories controversial, and often take quotes out of context, as well as totally misunderstanding the studies they report on. They want people to react emotionally, so they’ll get lots of comments.

    • It’s a good point, Renee, though I did read a couple of other versions from different sources and they all had pretty much the same title and the same bent (which may simply imply similar journalistic bias, but basically, I didn’t find anybody who had a different accounting of the study). I would like to think that the authors of the study meant “environment” in the broadest terms, as well, but it’s not clear which way they were really leaning — other than, frankly, that in a study of obesity, they do appear to have missed some key factors that I’d think you’d want to measure. Good for you for taking it with a grain of salt, though; my biggest concern with it, stepping back, isn’t so much the study itself as the fact that journalists and media sources continue to hype stories like this one, which I think detracts from the overall efforts that need to be made in key areas like food safety, labeling, safe play access, and agricultural overhaul.

  4. Bri: I’m about to put up on The Lunch Tray a funny post that mentions this study in passing. I’ll link here.

  5. Liz in Vermont says:

    I think in some cases they might be right, that some working mothers might resort to fast food instead of meal planning or home-cooked meals. Howevah, these researchers have obviously not met you!
    As for your supposedly heavy child, my brother is a similar body type. Though he carried a few extra pounds over the years, he would go through these growth spurts where he would grow a few inches in a year and get skinnier. This happened a few times, almost as if his body were preparing him for the growth spurt. The best news is that because he is learning to eat healthfully as a child from his working mother, he will carry that with him as he gets older.

    • Sure, in some cases they’re probably dead accurate. The problem is that their RESEARCH didn’t lead them to that conclusion; their ASSUMPTIONS did. Which makes it not so much a study as a rumination.
      And as far as L. goes, yes, he’s got great eating habits, so I’m not concerned about that per se. I also recently discovered that kids who have the kind of disabilities he has are up to 30 percent more likely to be overweight, no matter what their habits are; so that helps me understand a little better some of the things we may need to do to help him manage his health as he gets older.

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