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.