Well, here we go again. A study (behind a pay wall) entitled Examining the Relationship Between Maternal Employment and Health Behaviours in British Children, which was published in the September 29th online version of the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, has led to a flurry of headlines intended to reinforce the piety of staying at home, and the guilt of being a selfish, money grubbing, working mother. Maybe you’ve seen some of these headlines, including “Working Mothers Have the Unhealthiest Children” (Guardian, UK), and “Kids of Working Moms Less Healthy” (MSNBC). I wonder how many of the journalists who penned those sensational headlines actually bothered to read the study. If they had, they would have realized that the data tell a very different story — one that does not support the conclusion published in the abstract.
The study was based on survey data collected from the mothers of 12,500 children who are part of the Millennium Study Cohort. These children were born at the beginning of this century to parents who received the universal Child Welfare benefit and who live in England, Wales, Northern Ireland or Scotland. Their mothers have participated in three rounds of interviews, including the most recent in which they were asked questions about the foods and beverages they serve between meals, whether the children spent more or less than two hours each day watching television or working on the computer, whether the children spent more or less than three days each week participating in organized sports and activities, and whether the children walked, cycled or were driven to school each day. (Do five-year-olds really cycle to school?)
The survey results (to the extent that self-reported data are reliable) indicated that the children of working mothers actually ate healthier snacks, were more likely to get the recommended servings of fruits and vegetables, were less likely to drink sugar laden beverages and were more likely to participate in organized athletic activities, but were more likely to be driven to school than to walk or cycle. In sum, children of working mothers had healthier lifestyles than did the children of stay-at-home mothers who were included in the survey.
However, when the study authors “adjusted” the data for potential confounding factors, including maternal ethnicity, socioeconomic status, maternal age, level of academic completion, marital status, and number of children in the household, the correlations reversed and healthier eating and exercise habits were now attributed to stay-at-home mothers. The authors failed to provide any details about how this “adjustment” was made, but a quick review of participant demographics reveals that the very large sample pool was quite diverse with respect to maternal SES, educational completion, and household income, but less so when it came to ethnicity and marital status (the majority of the respondents were white and in two-parent households).
I’m not sure how reliable a data set is when an “adjustment” for confounding factors causes an absolute reversal in correlations, but it would appear, then, that factors such as SES status, education level, ethnicity and household income (the sources of the adjustment) are far more determinant of a child’s nutritional and activity status than is the mother’s employment status. Maternal employment status would seem to be an independent variable rather than a dependent variable.
The authors were clear about their dissatisfaction with British public policy that encourages women to work, and they used their manipulated study data to support their policy recommendation that the British government, in exchange for advancing it’s harmful policy that encourages women to work, should provide better nutrition and exercise programs in schools. Good policy recommendation — improved nutrition and activity in schools — which would help all families and children, but not, as they suggest, to make up for the shortcomings of those horrible mums who work.
What troubled me most in reading the study, however, is that the authors completely glossed over what may be the most interesting and important finding of the paper — that only 31 percent of working mothers take advantage of the flexible work arrangements that employers in Great Britain are mandated to provide to mothers of children under the age of 6. Flexible work arrangements, including things like job sharing, working from home when necessary, having school-year contracts, and being off during school vacations and holidays are clearly designed to help mothers juggle the demands of work and family, yet only 31 percent of eligible mothers take advantage of those arrangements. I wonder if there aren’t parallels between taking advantage of flexible work schedules and stopping the tenure clock with the birth of a baby. Perhaps the important policy question, though clearly not the one of interest to the study authors, is why aren’t mothers taking advantage of workplace flexibility that is designed to benefit them and their chidlren?
Sure, the catchy headlines were successful in stimulating debate between mothers (interesting that while 80 percent of the households had two parents, fathers were not included in the study), but I am concerned that such poisonous (and erroneous) headlines serve only to further confuse young women who, on one hand, are being told to pursue an education, a meaningful career, and pay equity, and to repay their student loans, while on the other hand are being told that should they elect to work after having a child, they will harm their children.