Obesogenic Moms?

A new article in the journal Child Development reports the more hours a mom works outside of the house, the higher their children’s BMI. What does that really mean?

Posted on | Ramani Durvasula, PhD | Comments ()

A new article in the journal Child Development reports the more hours a mom works outside of the house, the higher their children’s BMI. What does that really mean?

Obviously a mom working does not cause a child to become overweight. But let’s reflect on what being a working mother in this society means.

Compared to mothers not employed outside of the home, working mothers are often lacking in the one characteristic that we – adults and children – need to maintain healthy nutritional practices in our country.


Control over time, money, groceries, stress, health. The health and psychology literature point to perceptions of control as being critical to understanding hypertension, diet, exercise, tobacco use – rats start going batty when they don’t have control, and we humans are no different.

What does this mean for kids? It means homes where mealtimes are chaotic. It means having to generate quick options so parents can get out of the door quickly. It means parents who are distracted by the stress of their lives. It means exhaustion – so much so, that putting together a dinner and washing up after it seems impossible.  

And the findings of this study are likely most pronounced for women who are in lower paying jobs, with less control over schedules, housing and finances. That makes it even more difficult to get a decent meal into a child.

We are a cruel country – “You brought those kids into this world – figure it out.” Many of us should walk a mile in the shoes of a low-income working mother – think about how often they have to outsource responsibility of their kids just to maintain an income, to pay the rent, for healthcare, for food, for the stuff of life. To experience the panic and feeling of surrender that comes from leaving kids in settings that may not be optimal. To experience the sheer exhaustion that comes from the drudgery of low-wage jobs. Women who work to SURVIVE. And frankly – I am being unfair here – let’s bring dads into the mix; many of them find themselves in similar situations, but the Child Development article specifically focused on mothers.

I don’t know the answer, but I do know that demonizing mothers who are working to make it right for their kids is NOT the answer. I am a working mother, which I suppose, according to this article, puts me in the evil ranks of a selfish BMI-busting carb-pusher. I have lots of luxury in my career – flexibility and the like – but I work about 80 hours per week. My girls and I eat well, and as often as possible, together; but, I sometimes go in for the quick fixes of fast food and packaged meals.   

We want quick fixes to childhood obesity, just like we want quick adult solutions. Lap-bands and diet pills aren’t going to make adults lose weight, and telling moms to work less and put better meals on the table isn’t going to work either.  

This isn’t about pointing a finger at working mothers. This is about better educational and occupational opportunities for women and girls at all ages, delaying pregnancies until girls have ways to support themselves (that don’t involve reliance on a man), better school lunch programs, better childcare policies.  

All of that will translate into healthier kids, healthier adults, billions of dollars saved, millions of lives improved, lower healthcare premiums for everyone.  

But in our society, the blame game is so much easier than stepping up and making the real changes. 

Blog written by Ramani Durvasula, PhD
Dr. Ramani Durvasula has over 15 years of teaching, clinical and research experience. After receiving her doctorate in clinical...