Study Finds Link Between Working Moms, Overweight Kids

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A recent study has linked a child's chance of obesity to the amount of time his or her mother works. Researchers found that for every five months a mother worked, a child could gain a pound more than normally expected. Host Michel Martin discusses the findings and challenges of making kids eat right with the study's lead researcher Taryn Morrissey and regular "Moms" contributors, Jolene Ivey and Dani Tucker.


Now to our regular moms conversation. They say it takes a village to raise a child. But maybe you just need a few moms in your corner. Every week we check in with a diverse group of parents for their common sense and savvy parenting advice. Today we're talking about the fight against childhood obesity. Just last week the White House marked the one-year anniversary of first lady Michelle Obama's Let's Move campaign. And we checked in on the progress of one Washington, D.C. elementary school that's been trying to get the kids to move more and eat more of the good stuff.

This week we turn our attention to a new study that links children's weight to mothers working outside the home. The study was published in the journal Child Development and it found that for every five months a mother worked, a child could gain a pound more than normally expected. It also found that sixth graders with moms who worked outside the home were six times more likely to be overweight than sixth graders whose mothers worked at home.

Now, you can imagine that this has sparked quite a discussion online and in workplaces around the country, among working parents. So we've called on Taryn Morrissey. She's an assistant professor of public administration and policy at American University here in Washington, D.C. She's the lead researcher on this study. Also here with us, our moms regulars, Dani Tucker and Jolene Ivey. Thanks so much for joining us.


DANI TUCKER: Thank you.

JOLENE IVEY: Thank you.

MARTIN: Now, Taryn, you can imagine that a lot of people are hating when they saw the headline of this research, suggesting that it's mom's fault yet again.

So, first, I just want to ask you, what was your intention in the research, and tell us how you conducted it.

MORRISSEY: Sure. Over the past few decades, we've seen this tripling in the childhood obesity epidemic. And the study identifies the total time mothers work, over the child's lifetime, as just one of the many factors at play. So this is not a smoking gun. Nobody's found that, unfortunately. This issue would be much easier to fix if we had.

But I want to stress that while we found that the duration of time that mothers worked is associated with an increase in their children's body mass index, it was a very small increase. So it's about a pound per five to six months that mothers work when a child was at third grade. But it's a smaller effect when they're younger because children's BMI is a different scale when they're younger.

MARTIN: So that's the body mass index. You followed 1,000 children from infancy to age 15. And you connected various factors with the child's body mass index, or the BMI. You're saying that the actual mothers working outside the home was a small part of it. What was a bigger part of it?

MORRISSEY: Well, it's a small association between maternal employment and children's BMI but it's not maternal employment that's contributing to BMI per se. So we wanted to stress that - I know that people have a visceral reaction to this but it's not intended at all to be guilt-inducing.

MARTIN: Well, you're saying it wasn't guilt. Let me just bring the other moms in here. When you first read this, you're saying it wasn't intended to be guilt-inducing, but was it?

Jolene, you've had both sides. I'll just mention for those who aren't aware, Jolene Ivey is an elected official. She's the mother of five boys and she's lived on both sides of the working-outside-the-home aisle. So was it guilt-inducing? Tell the truth.

IVEY: Well, I think Taryn really is just backpedaling now because she knows Dani and I were going to beat her up in the elevator.

MARTIN: No violence.


MARTIN: This is a civil zone.

IVEY: But I'm afraid that what happens anytime there's a study where they can make any connection between working mothers and at-home mothers, it's just a way to like incite violence or something among the moms. And there's so many other ways they could have framed this discussion.

Maybe the real thing is, you know, lower income families that are in neighborhoods that don't have access to high-quality food, they're the ones more likely to have the higher body mass index.

MARTIN: Okay. Dani, what is your thought? Guilt-inducing?

TUCKER: For me, not really because I don't pay them studies no attention anyway.


TUCKER: I mean because I got to raise my kids and I, you know, don't eat broccoli, eat broccoli...

MARTIN: You got to get food on the table some kind of way.

TUCKER: Exactly. I mean the bottom line. You know?

MARTIN: Well, what about it? Is there anything about it that resonates?

TUCKER: No, because there's too many factors. I mean I respect her research and what she did, but there's just too many factors that are involved here, healthy lunches, you know, in the schools, which is a big part of it, the kid's inactivity, you know, with all of the games and all of the video games and things that they do. So, I think all of those factors play a part.

The working mother part to me was the fact that we can't be with them, you know, not just to cook but to just monitor what they're doing when they're not with us, you know, that is, you want to study something, study that.


TUCKER: You know, what do we do when we're not with them to get them to, when they're going to these convenience stores, to buy the healthy choices? I mean even McDonald's and Wendy's now has healthy choices. So just trying to, you know, but for a lot of the moms I see why they did feel guilty and upset because we already feel inadequate, I think, as moms sometimes. You know, you never feel like you do enough. You know, I can understand why some moms might have got a little crazy with it.

MARTIN: Well, why would the work outside the home affect the child's body mass index or child's weight? Why would it?

MORRISSEY: Well, Dani's exactly right. There are so many factors that factor into childhood obesity. And like I said, this is small - I'm really not backpedaling. I feel that a lot of the coverage on this has been extremely sensationalized.

First of all, this is not the first study to identify this link. And we were motivated to figure out what's underlying this and what can we do to change it because if we understand what's underlying this association - not an effect. We don't know if this is causal, first of all - we can do something to change it. And so we can improve access to healthy foods, we can improve information about children's sleep habits, we can help inform policies and parents and working parents, both mom and dads alike, to promote healthy weight.

MARTIN: Well, tell me though, what are - go underneath the research. You said that you feel a lot of the coverage has been sensational and picked up on this one aspect. But why would there be an association, a correlation between hours worked outside the home and children being overweight? Why would there be?

MORRISSEY: Most of the research points to changes in eating habits, and so both nutrition and routines. And it seems that most - well, the families in which both parents work tend to spend a larger proportion of their food budget on fast food or eating out, and we know that everyone eats healthier when they eat at home, if possible.

We know that mothers, when they work, spend less time cooking, understandably, than mothers who don't work outside the home and dads don't seem to pick up that slack. So there's a full story that's been lacking in a lot of the media coverage about what we can do.

MARTIN: Were there other factors that played a larger role in the child's weight than the mother working outside the home?

MORRISSEY: Oh, sure. This is the...

MARTIN: Like what?

MORRISSEY: Income, where they lived, if they lived in a food desert, race and ethnicity tend to play a big part. We used a statistical model that looked at within-child changes, so we didn't compare across children. So actually it wasn't that children with working moms were six times more likely to be overweight. It was that when a mother entered or reentered the workforce at sixth grade only it was associated with a one-time increase in likelihood of being overweight. So that is a much smaller, more limited effect than what has been publicized.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're talking about that new study - got a lot of attention. This is that children of working mothers are more likely to be overweight than children of mothers who work at home. And I'm speaking with the lead author of that study, Taryn Morrissey and we're also here with our regular moms, contributors Dani Tucker and Jolene Ivey.

Well Jolene, what about it? When you went back to work did you find that to be the case, that when you went back to work outside the home that you spent less time cooking and that your husband, as wonderful as he is, did not pick up the slack?

IVEY: I did not, because my husband absolutely did pick up the slack. Now, saying that, he also picked up the slack with all those processed foods that I won't use. He loves to go to the store and buy those instant rice packages where you just have to tear open the edge and put it in the microwave for 90 seconds and I hate them. I think they're really bad and I'm always talking to him about trying to cut back on sodium. You know, we have a rice cooker now. If you just put the rice in when you get home it'll be done in time for dinner.

So on the one hand, he does cook and I'd rather him cook than not cook, so I try not to complain too much. But I think that when he cooks he has a tendency to rely on more on those processed foods.

MARTIN: But, did you know Michelle Obama, our first lady, talked about this in launching her Let's Move initiative. She talked about the fact that when her kids started having their own schedule, she talked about getting food out of a sack and having to train herself out of that. And she said even one of her pediatricians pulled her coat to this and said, you know, you might want to rethink the diet and cook more. And she just felt the time crunch, particularly with her husband being on the road so much...

IVEY: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: ...that that was where she started to see weight gain in her children. So Dani, what about that? I mean do you find that you are relying more on prepared or processed foods than you perhaps might like to if you didn't work as many hours as you do?

TUCKER: Of course. I mean no mother can - working mother can sit here and say we don't. I mean, but like you said, it's not just the fact that we're working; the kids have a lot of activities, you know, so we keep our kids busy. You know, she was, you know, Michelle Obama was taking her kids to activities. You know, there's only 24 hours in a day, you have to squeeze everything in there.

But we just learned how to make better choices out of that sack. You know, I mean, they're just - there are wraps now instead of cheeseburgers now and, you know, they've got the apples on the side now instead of the cookies on the side now.

So my problem with the study was there are a lot of moms who don't have a choice. They have to work. They have to work. I have to work. I don't have a choice. You know, so when you have to do that, you know...

MARTIN: Well, I think most mothers who work feel that they have to work, for whatever reason, either to supplement - they are the family income.

TUCKER: Right.

MARTIN: Supplement the family income or save for college and, you know, other things like that. Jolene, you wanted to say something before I give Taryn the last word?

IVEY: Well, I think what we really need to do is spend more time when we do have time, maybe on weekends or whatever, getting your food together for the week because I have found that if you prepare and if you cook things ahead of time, it is possible to quickly cook dinner. It really is and that you don't have to rely on processed food and you don't have to eat out of a sack.

Now, I will also admit that yesterday I went to the grocery store and I bought all these things that are really easy for my family to cook because this week I'm really busy and I won't be there to do that.

MARTIN: Taryn, final thought from you, since you were disappointed at some of the coverage of the study. You felt that it went for the kind of the most sensational guilt-inducing, infuriating angle. What would you like people to draw from this study? And what would you like to study next in this area?

MORRISSEY: Well, I think that working parents as a whole can try to, as best as they can, there's time crunch, but setting aside regular meal times or eating together once a week. That has been shown to be associated with lower childhood obesity. Trying to make healthier choices to the extent that you can, making sure that your kids get to bed at a reasonable hour is really, really important. So in our next steps we're looking at how sleep patterns may play a role in this.

MARTIN: Interesting. Taryn Morrissey is professor of public administration and policy at American University. She's lead author of the study on asking the question of whether maternal employment has some connection to childhood weight. And she was here with us in our Washington, D.C. studio, along with our regular moms, Dani Tucker and Jolene Ivey.

And if you'd like to read the study for yourself, and we hope that you will, we will link to it on our website. Just go to, click on the Programs page, then on TELL ME MORE.

Ladies, thank you all so much for joining us.

IVEY: Thanks, Michel.

MORRISSEY: Thank you.

TUCKER: Thank you.

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