Aug. 29, 2012 -- A new Cornell University study has found that American moms with full-time jobs spend roughly three-and-half fewer hours a day than nonworking moms attending to their children's nutritional and fitness needs.
The study, which appeared in the current online issue the journal Economics and Human Biology, looked at close to 25,000 people, and found that working mothers spent 17 fewer minutes cooking, 10 fewer minutes eating with their kids, 12 fewer minutes playing with them and 37 fewer minutes tending to child care than their nonworking counterparts. This was true regardless of the mother's education, age or income, and the differences tended to be greatest for mothers with children younger than 5.
What about dads? The researchers found they weren't picking up the slack. Employed fathers devoted only 13 minutes a day to cooking for and playing with their children; nonworking fathers contributed 41 minutes to the same activities.
"It seems men are not doing much extra work," said John Cawley, the study's lead investigator.
Only about 15 percent of the fewer minutes spent in activities devoted to their children's health by working mothers appear to be offset by increases in time spent by husbands and partners. To make up for the time deficit, the data suggested that working mothers spent two more minutes per day than the stay-at-home moms purchasing prepackaged meals or ordering take out, an amount of time the researchers said was statistically significant.
Study Stirs Outrage
Previous studies have found that the children of working mothers tend to have a higher body mass index, or BMI, and higher obesity rates than children of nonworking mothers. For example, in 2003, the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth run by the Bureau of Labor Statistics examined families with children 3 to 11 years old and found that 10 additional weekly hours of maternal employment over the course of the child's life increased their chances of becoming obese by 1.0 to 1.5 percentage points.
Cawley emphasizes that his investigation isn't intended to point the finger of blame at either parent. The aim of this latest study was to explore some of the reasons obesity may be tied to a mother's job status by tracking how much time both parents dedicated to their children's health.
Still, this type of data does tend to put working women on the defensive.
"Instead of giving her credit for giving birth to a healthy child, then frantically trying to also financially provide for her family, keep a roof over their heads, clothes on their backs, educational books on the shelf, we make working moms feel bad about not having the time to make a healthy meal," said Antoinette Rodriguez, a financial adviser in Manhattan and mother of a 7-year-old daughter. "I get the sense that working fathers don't sweat the small stuff as much as moms. But then again, they're not judged for it."
Beth Anne Ballance, the mother of a 3-year-old son and a parenting blogger for Babble.com, owned by Disney, the parent company of ABC News, agrees that the sort of findings reported in the study are often interpreted as a failure on the part of mothers more than fathers. "Despite the progress we've made as a society, despite women's equality, we still look to women as the main nurturers of children," she said.
But she believes studies like this one short change fathers too.
"He's a parent, not a babysitter, so he's just as responsible for choosing healthy foods and encouraging activity in our kid," she said.
Study Drawbacks The Cornell study didn't take into account the benefits of having a working mother in the family. For one thing, the financial advantages are obvious. And many believe working mothers provide positive role models for their children. Additionally, the data doesn't prove that employment alone is what drives the way mothers spend their time, nor did the study look at the quality of the ready-to-serve meals -- were they unhealthy prepackaged foods or low-fat organic fare, for example.
Cawley also points out that his research didn't provide any clues as to why fathers didn't pitch in more. It's possible the increased income from a mother's employment is used to hire nonfamily caregivers to handle some of these caregiving, household tasks. Another possible explanation is that fathers are unable or unwilling to increase time devoted to household tasks when their wives work.
"I don't like phrasing the question as whether working moms contribute to the problem. I think it's modern life that contributes to it," he said. "The question is what can families and schools do to promote child health given the changes in modern life?
What parents can do Cawley said, is get better educated about the nutritional content of restaurant and prepackaged foods, particularly if they don't believe they have the time to stop and prepare a meal from scratch.
"In order to make more informed decisions, consumers need to have nutrition and calorie information available where they buy their food." He said while also noting that federal health care reform rules will soon require chain- and fast-food restaurants nationwide to post the calorie counts of the foods they sell.
He also recommends asking schools to shoulder some of the responsibility. "Of course, we can't ask schools to do everything, but there are some obvious easy changes they can make, such as switching from easy-to-prepare popular foods in the cafeteria to healthier more nutritious foods, and providing more opportunities for kids to get physical activity throughout the day."
According to Cawley, the Institute of Medicine and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have urged those very same measures as part of a comprehensive change in school environments to combat childhood obesity.