The XX Factor

Working Moms May Mean Fatter Kids. Now What?

Reading the Reuters report on a recently published British study that shows a correlation between working mothers and obese children, it’s easy to picture the researchers backing up with their hands in the air. Mothers’ full time employment appears to be a factor in the trend toward increasing obesity in children. It may be “one of the variables.” It’s possible that it “contributed.” Of course a mother working full-time doesn’t actually cause her kids to get fat. With all of the studies and research and reports we’ve seen on the issue, we (and by we, I mean the reading public) get the difference between causation and correlation. But it’s rare so see such backpedaling. According to this study, children of working mothers were 48 percent more likely to be obese than children of nonworking mothers.

That percentage sounds like a lot. Why are we so bothered by this particular connection between the changed circumstances of life before 1980-when we were, as a whole, a pretty skinny lot-and life after? These researchers aren’t the first to show the correlation-a pretty obvious one, viewed from a historical perspective. Women went back to work in large numbers in the 1980s. Childhood obesity began increasing in the ‘80s as well, and both stats have been generally increasing ever since. Of course, whether a mother is employed is only one factor among many, including increases in the consumption of high-fructose corn syrup, junk-food advertising, screen-time. But who can avoid noticing that some of those things go pretty well with having a working mom, too? It’s just not something that’s acknowledged much outside of conservative circles, and with good reason. Suggesting that working mothers leads to fatter kids raises our collective hackles; it makes us defensive. Elizabeth Badinter points an accusing finger at society and the media for increasing the social pressures that push women into abandoning the inventions that have “liberated” women. As Broadsheet’s Anna Clark puts it, what about the untold men who’ve never tied on an apron?

But the correlation between a working mother and a fat kid is worth real consideration. Badinter’s reaction is relevant only in limited “opt-out revolution” circles. For many women (like those Hanna spoke to for ” The End of Men ” in this month’s Atlantic ), there’s no male breadwinner to fall back on. Admitting that it’s harder for working mothers to raise healthy kids isn’t going to send droves of mothers back home. A working mother isn’t an option or a luxury, it’s a fact of life, and if it’s also a factor contributing to childhood obesity, the answer isn’t (and never was) for mom to head back to the kitchen. Instead, we have to consider whether there are ways to make healthier options as easy for a working mom to pick up as the products our own mothers relied on when they went to work themselves. It’s time the food industry noticed that the same women who once seized on boil-n-bag veggies and Hamburger Helper are right here, waiting. If you make it-and promote it, advertise it, send us coupons for it, and make it cheaper and tastier and easier than a seductively sweet-and-salty bag of Kettle Cooked Mesquite BBQ Chips-well, we know it’s a lot to ask, but if you build it, we will come.