• Sun, Feb 6 2011

How Helpful Are Studies That Point To Problems With Working Mothers?

In yet another study that points to the dangers of mothers who work out of the house, researchers from American University found that kids whose moms work are more likely to be heavier than their peers. According to CNN, the increase in weight was minimal — about one pound for every six months the mom works — but still, they said, a clear link exists.

The authors of the study say that their research wasn’t intended to make working moms feel bad, or to suggest that moms should step out of the workforce. But in that case, what was the intent?

What, indeed, is the point of this kind of research?

I don’t think it takes a Ph.D to recognize that for working moms who read this study (and others like it), there will almost certainly be two negative effects. The first is that they will very likely experience guilt, defensiveness or self-doubt, and wonder if they’re harming their child by working. The second (and perhaps less important, although also perhaps more irritating) is that traditionalists will re-assert that women shouldn’t be working, which will cause working moms to feel another round of guilt, defensiveness and self-doubt, and will flame the ever-escalating mommy wars.

The idealistic researchers go on to suggest that, hey, maybe studies like this could mean that the government will think about providing better policies to support working families! And also, maybe unicorns will dance into my living room wearing gold lame tracksuits and performing choreographed moves to “I Will Survive.”

The reality is that the government isn’t paying attention to every study that comes out of every sociologist’s office in every research institution in the world. Maybe some elected official, somewhere, will someday push for legislation that will include support for working families, and maybe there’s a small chance that research like this will be used to make that case, and that legislation will get drafted, and passed in the House, and passed in the Senate, and then enacted in the states, leading to real changes for real people.

Yes….maybe that will happen. But what’s a lot more likely, while we’re waiting for centaurs to fly to the moon and declare it inhabitable for humans, is that this research will do one of the things I already mentioned: inflame fighting between women and encourage and finger-pointing, which leads to stress, which we actually know leads to obesity and other health problems, in both parents and kids.

So again, I ask, are studies like this helping or hurting? What do you think?

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  • Eileen

    I find it obnoxious that CNN makes no report of how – or if – the survey controlled for families’ income levels. The stay-at-home mom has always been the marker of a middle- or upper-class existence (I had a prof once who called the housewife the “ultimate in conspicuous consumption) – and lower income levels tend to be associated with less education and lower nutrition levels. Is anyone surprised at the idea that two parents who work minimum-wage jobs are less able to provide a healthy lifestyle for their child than a father who makes half a million a year and whose wife stays at home with their kid? The main reason mothers work for money isn’t to preserve their independence or stick it to the patriarchy or anything like that – it’s because they fucking have to.

  • Katie

    I agree with Eileen that the study is probably really fallacious, but researchers shouldn’t not publish something because it might make people feel bad. All research, done well or poorly, should be out there for other researchers to learn from and build on.

  • Leah

    I agree with Katie that we shouldn’t be holding back research because it might hurt people, but “studies” need to be a lot more transparent about about their population. What was the age group of the mothers studied? Did they distinguish between a single working mother and a married working mother? Where these subjects from various regions, or one specific area? Did they ask how many children were in the family, or the health of the parents themselves? There are always more layers to the onion.

  • jhive

    I think the issue isn’t whether the results should be published because it might make people feel bad, it’s about why these types of studies are performed and funded in the first place. The government, in case you were wondering, spent $447,000 funding this study in 2010 alone. Is it worth half a million dollars to know something that fosters stress and prejudice AND can’t possibly be changed? At best, it’s just not helpful.

  • jhive

    I am not inclined to defend the point or purpose of this study, but I just wanted to point out that many of the factors mentioned in the comments (such as income) are almost certainly addressed in the actual publication of the study. From the abstract: “There was no evidence that maternal or home characteristics or children’s time use mediated these associations, nor was there any evidence that nonstandard work was associated with children’s BMI.” I’m guessing that maternal or home characteristics includes the obvious things like marital status and income. Of course, that’s not to say that the study is perfectly controlled. I think there are probably dozens of variables that contribute as much or more than “maternal employment”. I just wanted to suggest to Leah that the problem probably isn’t transparency in scientific reporting; the problem is the translation of scientific results by the news media.

  • Lindsay Cross

    My biggest problem isn’t the controls or the onion or the deeper meaning. My problem is exactly what Jessica said: the fact that information such as this will actually lead to better support for working families is laughable.

    We all accept that working mothers read this studies and feel guilty and insecure. And we do very little to actually support working mothers. We’re so quick to tear other women down. We point out every flaw or difference in opinion.

    Well you know what, screw that study. I was raised in a family with two working parents, just like my mother was and just like my daughter will be. And we’ll all turn out just fine.

  • TheGnome

    My problem isn’t the results, so much as this focus on working moms. Where are the studies detailing the negative effects of the father not staying home?