A few weeks ago my 5-year-old daughter was at the kitchen table happily doing an art project, or so I thought. Suddenly she burst into uncontrollable sobs.
I was at my desk frantically trying to send out a work e-mail before dinner and from the sound of her despair I was sure she had stabbed herself with the safety scissors. As I wiped away the tears from her perfect little face, she calmed down enough to explain what was wrong. "Mommy, you were typing, typing, typing and I couldn't take it anymore!" She snapped angrily. "Why won't you draw pictures with me?"
She may as well as stabbed me in the gut with those safety scissors. Every working mother understands exactly what I'm talking about. I know that all mothers, whether they commute to an office every day or not, experience the guilt that comes from not being able to give their children everything they want or because they can't spend enough time with them, but for those of us who are perpetually torn between deadlines and school plays, moments like this are particularly full of self-reproach.
I sometimes believe that my daughter and I are engaged in a Pavlovian experiment of sorts where she was born with a button directly attached to my heart strings. She presses that button over and over again to elicit from me, feelings of love, joy, happiness, awe, pride – and yes, quite frequently, guilt. I do forgive her for pressing the guilt button so often. I don't always respond to it the way she wants because I know it isn't good for her to always get her way or for me to spend every waking minute with her. It's her birthright to press it and my responsibility to react accordingly.
What is harder for me to make peace with is the external blame and recrimination that seems to bombard working mothers on a daily basis. Just today a new study twisted the scissors in a little deeper. It reported a link between the length of maternal employment and childhood obesity. For each year a mother continues to work, University of Chicago investigators found, her child's body mass index (BMI) creeps up a small but statistically significant percentage.
"It amounts to about 1.5 to 2 pounds per year above average, depending on the child's age," Taryn W. Morrissey, Ph.D., one of the report's authors and an assistant professor with the department of public administration and policy at American University, told me. She noted that the difference doesn't make it more likely that a working mother's child will fall into overweight or obese BMI category than any other child, just more likely that the child will be nudged into the higher end of the normal range.
Morrissey seemed like a very smart woman but I didn't really want to talk to her. I was more interested in speaking in one of her co-authors who herself is a working mother. She was out of the country on business.
So with this irony, it was left to Morrissey to explain that the authors found no association between how much time a mother spends at the office and the amount of time her brood spends exercising or parked in front of the TV. Although they didn't find a relationship, they suspect the difference is down to harried, multitasking working mothers resorting more often to fast food and takeout rather than preparing meals at home. The correlation between maternal employment and BMI was strongest among higher income families.