Thursday, February 10, 2011

Who's Minding the Kitchen While Mom Is Out Working?

Holy Family at Supper, from the Book of Hours of Catherine of Cleves.

In the United States, most mothers work: In 2007, the labor force participation rate for mothers with children under 18 was 71%, and this figure must be rising as women have gone to work as their husbands were laid off in the Great Recession.

Now, researchers at American University, Cornell University, and the University of Chicago studied 900 school-aged children and found a mother's employment outside the home correlates with a small but measurable increase in the child's body mass index (BMI). The researchappears in the January/February issue of the journal Child Development.
[A]mong sixth graders, a mother’s entry into employment was associated with an increase in BMI of about two fifths (40%) of a standard deviation, and those children were about 6 times more likely to be overweight. Additionally, among fifth and sixth graders, entry into employment was associated with an increase in the likelihood of being overweight of 8 and 11 times, respectively. However, there was no evidence that TV time or physical activity mediated this relation at either fifth or sixth grade, or that total HOME score, time spent unsupervised, in structured settings, or with parents mediated this relation at fifth grade (the HOME scale and time-use data were available at third and fifth grades only)....

Our FE results provide evidence for a cumulative influence of maternal employment; every period (averaging 5.3 months) a mother was employed was associated with an increase in her child’s BMI of 10% of a standard deviation. For a child of average height, this is equivalent to a gain in weight of nearly 1 lb every 5 months above and beyond what would typically be gained as a child ages. This link between maternal employment (vs. nonemployment) and children’s BMI is consistent with a growing body of evidence on this question (e.g., Anderson et al., 2003), including studies that have adopted comparable analytic approaches....

The results of this study have implications for policy and practice. We find that maternal employment has a cumulative influence on children’s BMI that, over time, could lead to an increase in the likelihood that a child is overweight or obese. We also find evidence that, among older children in particular, maternal employment status is linked to an increased likelihood of being overweight. Excess weight in childhood is a risk factor for excess weight in adulthood (Strauss, 1999), and the effects of obesity on chronic conditions have been found to be even larger than those of current or past smoking and problem drinking (Sturm, 2002). On average, in 2002, an obese adult and an overweight adult spent an additional $395 and $125 in health care costs per year, respectively, than healthy-weight individuals (Sturm, 2002).

In addition to the physical health and economic consequences as adults, being overweight as a child has social-emotional implications. During the early elementary school years, higher BMIs are associated with greater internalizing problems (Bradley et al., 2008). In adolescence, overweight status is associated with an increase in depression among girls (Needham & Crosnoe, 2005). Additionally, overweight teens have lower academic achievement, especially in contexts in which being overweight is stigmatized (e.g., schools with high rates of dating or lower average BMI; Crosnoe & Muller, 2004). For girls, higher BMIs are also associated with a reduction in dating (but not in having sex; Cawley, 2001; Cawley, Joyner, & Sobal, 2006). Overall, research suggests that stigma against overweight individuals is commonplace, including in the workplace, in the health care system, and in schools (reviewed in Puhl & Brownell, 2001).

Since many of the other factors measured in this study--such as TV time, sedentary life styles--did not budge the overall statistic, it appears that the culprit is the actual food consumed--its quantity and quality. A working mother is also simply less able to monitor her child's food intake and teach good eating habits throughout the day. My sister-in-law, who was a stay-at-home mom, did a great job of this with her children.

As a working single mom for more than half of the years that my daughter was growing up, I know that it is fatiguing to come home from a long day of work to make a decent dinner, set the table, and clean up after. In the days when I had a long commute, I resorted to feeding my daughter and myself like the mother in Little Miss Sunshine--fast food and ready-made frozen food. Since the food is basically unsatisfying and also heavy in salt or sugar (not to mention expensive), the tendency is to eat more.

Finally, I decided this was not fair at all. Why shouldn't my daughter be able to smell a good dinner cooking or be able to enjoy fresh homemade baked goods? So I tried to clean up my act.

Marion Cunningham -- to the rescue.

My cooking savior was Lost Recipes: Meals to Share with Family and Friends by Marion Cunningham. You can read about this wonderful book at Letters from a Hill Farm. I also used Mrs. Cunningham's The Supper Book, which has more easy recipes for preparing an easy and fast evening meal. A lot of her recipes can be created straight from the pantry and don't require a hunt for expensive exotics. Some recipes appear in both books. I especially savored her descriptions of the recipes and how she found them and her exhortations to revive the ritual of the family meal. For working mothers, who may be harried people, we need this kind of encouragement.

I also started baking with these books and Mrs. Cunningham's Fannie Farmer Baking Book.

When my daughter was in 10th grade and had her Humane Letters seminar for the first two hours of school every morning, I took a lot of pleasure in sending her off with a loaf of freshly made quick bread or muffins for her teacher and classmates to enjoy with their seminar coffee. (She went to Trinity School at Meadowview.) I rearranged my kitchen counter so that all the measuring cups, measuring spoons, and mixing spoons along with the flour and sugar canisters were alwayson the counter in front of me with baking powder, baking soda, spices and herbs, and oil in the cabinet above. In this way, I was able to whip up these morning items in no time flat.

I started using the crock pot. My daughter likes meat and potatoes, and it was easy to make a stew or a pot roast with potatoes in the morning and have the meal ready when we got home. I also made salmon or cod cakes that I could freeze and take out at the end of the day to cook. Mrs. Cunningham's cobb salad was a big favorite with my daughter and her friends.

Beef stew in a crock pot compliments of Audrey's Favorite Recipes.

Soon of course my daughter was off to college, and home cooking is more humdrum. Even so, yesterday morning I made a shrimp and rice dish based on Margaret Cunningham's "Sara Tyson Rorer's Spanish Rice with Chicken" in The Supper Book and looked forward all day to coming home, scooping some on to a plate, zapping it in the microwave, and sitting down to a decent home meal.


Jodi said...

I've always admired you, Linda, and now even more. I was raised by a single mom, and I know how hard it is.

ldeg said...

I took a good hard look at the full study after seeing the press release elsewhere, and it is not entirely clear to me that their conclusions are justified. Their own figures show that there was no significant difference in the percentage of overweight children between employed and unemployed mothers in the study, although the percentage was slightly higher for children with unemployed mothers.

They worked very hard with their statistics to get a significant correlation, and given the sample was just over 900 children, spread across the country, I wouldn't take it as true.

Nan said...

Your post makes me cry. Not the study, but your own story. It just warms my heart. What a good, good person you are. I think the big thing is most people don't care that much about what they eat. I recently told my daughter that I couldn't believe potatoes come in a box, and she said some people just don't have time to cook potatoes. What could take less time than potatoes? And what is being done with that 'saved' time anyhow? Oh, I know. Sitting in front of tv eating snacks out of boxes and bags. What a skewed way of looking at life. Your post is just so commendable. if you can do it, anyone can. There's a great quote:

Other people are prepared to put so much effort into other areas of their lives. I mean, nobody says it's wrong to go out shopping for hours on end. People go to salons and have their bodies mucked about with and have their hair and nails done. But five or six nights a week, they come home and they don't want to cook when it takes only half an hour to make a good supper. It's actually quite a relaxing thing to do at night.
Tamasin Day-Lewis

Linda said...

Hi Ldeg, I think the correlation over time is clear. Surely the weight of young people and teenagers has been on the rise since mothers starting entering the work force en masse. The aisles in the supermarket of frozen foods, snack foods, and frozen pizzas (Americans now eat an average of 33 pounds of cheese a year, nearly triple the 1970 rate.) correlates with mothers joining the workforce. I think also heretofore kids were "thrown outside" by stay at home mothers. In contrast, even in a home where the mother makes not only dinner but dessert, children are not overweight.
Kids also played outside all day. The mothers of the neighborhood were in the house, available, and watchful, so their kids could run outside.

To Nan and Jodi, Thank you but the credit goes to Marion Cunningham. I read an article about her and her Lost Recipe and Supper books and decided I had to, and could, cook again. I am sure I wasn't the only one. Hats off to this lovely lady.

Nan said...

She may get the credit for the inspiration but you did it. I was stunned about the cheese. I don't like it and never eat it, but watching commercials for restaurants on tv there is SO much cheese on everything. I think I read somewhere that it is like an addiction. I know that in my childhood it was hardly ever eaten except in a grilled cheese sandwich, cheeseburger, mac and cheese, or sprinkled on spaghetti.