In defense of working moms

Claire McCarthy, MD
Claire McCarthy, MD

Being a working mom means feeling guilty and stressed. There’s always something we can’t get done at work because of our kids, or something we can’t do for our kids because of work. We can’t win.

Now there’s a study from the United Kingdom to make that guilt and stress even worse. Apparently, when moms work full-time, it’s more likely that their kids will be overweight. Not that it helps if we stop working: being in a lower socioeconomic class (which could happen to our families without our income) raises the risk of having overweight kids too. Again, we can’t win.

I gotta say, this feels unfair. I’m okay—well, sort of okay—with being blamed for a work project not getting done, or forgetting to pack the Girl Scout vest in my daughter’s backpack. I’m okay with being given a hard time for not working late, or for missing a school concert because of work. But I’m not okay with being blamed for childhood obesity.

The study didn’t look at why there was an association between moms working full-time and kids being overweight, but one can imagine some possible reasons. It’s hard to cook healthy meals when you get home right at dinnertime (or later); fast food is an easy option (and it makes kids happy). Making sure your kids get exercise isn’t straightforward either; getting kids to team practices, or making sure they play outside after school, is tough when you’re gone most of the day.

But it’s not helpful to package this as a working-mommy problem. Where are the dads in all this? Why can’t we call it a working-parents problem? And what about the kids? Granted, they were looking at elementary school age children, who aren’t generally taking care of themselves, but maybe some of those families had teenagers who could help out by cooking or taking siblings to the park. Where are the neighbors, who could help out? And why aren’t there healthier fast food options?

My point is that this is a bigger societal issue. Yes, more mothers are working. But that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. For the most part, mothers work for remarkably good reasons, and their families and communities benefit from their work. It certainly doesn’t have to lead to childhood obesity. There are many ways we could be sure that kids of working moms (I mean working parents) eat well and exercise. Schools could play a big role, by improving the food they serve, and having more exercise opportunities built into the day. Same goes for daycare and afterschool programs. Communities could work to provide more safe (preferably supervised) outdoor play spaces; sports teams and local gymnasiums could offer more evening and weekend options. Local restaurants and supermarkets could sell affordable, healthy meals-to-go. There are so many possibilities.  Where there is a will, there’s a way.

Therein lays the problem, I think. While it didn’t get as much airtime as the working mommy part, the study showed that the children most likely to be overweight were those with overweight parents. Having a mother who worked full time raised the risk 48 percent; having an overweight parent raised the risk 300 to 600 percent. It’s not as sexy a sound byte to talk about overweight parents, but it’s the real finding of the study.

Currently, an overwhelming two-thirds of American adults are overweight or obese. We’re comfortable in our sedentary, super-size-it lifestyles. And when the majority of the adults around you are overweight, it reinforces the comfort; being overweight seems, well, normal. So we settle into our habits, and we don’t worry if our kids are leading sedentary, super-size-it lifestyles too.

The problem is that it isn’t normal—and it isn’t healthy, for us or our children.  As a society, we need to stop scapegoating and start looking for solutions instead. We need to start by taking a long, hard, honest look at ourselves—and we need to do it now. The future of our children is at stake.

7 thoughts on “In defense of working moms

  1. Well said, Claire! I totally agree! Thanks for speaking up for all the working moms out there. I own & operate a Child Care Center in the metrowest area of Boston. I think my working moms are super heroes!!! As a child care center, we work hard to keep our ‘snacks’ healthly and provide great gross motor exercise both inside & outside. Thanks, Janet Webster/MCC

  2. As an obese child of working parents (now an adult), I might suggest looking closely at eating which occurs between the end of the school day and formal dinner time. Without a parent present to maintain a structure around eating – choosing a healthy snack, limiting quantity – those few unsupervised hours can be a dangerous opportunity for binging.

  3. Thanks Claire for your well-thought out, well-articulated comments. As a FT working Mom, I agree that there are so many factors that can contribute to our children’s health (or lack of). It’s easier to take one correlation and create a scapegoat rather than take a look at all of the contributors. The societal contributions, especially, often seem too daunting or even impossible to change, so we focus on the scapegoats. We all need to take the appropriate amount of responsibility (no more for those already swimming in Mommy guilt and no less for government officials who don’t provide enough funding for all schools to have healthy options and plenty of exercise) and each do our part.

  4. What about a working dad? Should we not feel just as guilty? After all, our evolving society in America has redifined the parental roles and Dad’s are now left with the feelings of “can’t win” attitudes. We have just as much, if not more, guilt because now we can no longer finacially support our families as we had been able to historically.

  5. Here, here Claire! My immediate reaction to the news story was “Sure! It’s MY fault!” I agree — Dads are not off the hook!

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