Previous research has found a link between working moms and childhood obesity in the past, but it didn't look at the reasons for this link — or the role of dads. A new study does both, by analyzing time-use surveys completed by mothers and fathers. The result: working moms are spending significantly less time than those who stay home on activities that could help their kids maintain a healthy weight, like preparing meals from scratch. And dads aren't offsetting this shortfall, even if they're stay-at-home parents themselves.
For their study forthcoming in Economics & Human Biology, economists John Cawley and Feng Liu used data on almost 25,000 families from a yearly survey of how Americans spend their time. They found that each day moms who worked spent, on average, 17 fewer minutes cooking, 10 fewer minutes eating with their kids, and 12 fewer minutes playing with them, than moms who didn't work outside the home.
Dads did pitch in a bit more if their spouses worked — on average, dads with working wives spent 5 more minutes cooking than dads whose wives stayed home. But they didn't make up anywhere close to the full difference — working moms spent a total of 127 fewer minutes per day with their kids than non-working moms, and dads made up for just 15%. Men who didn't work outside the home pitched in slightly more, contributing 42 extra minutes per day if their spouse worked — but that's still just a third of the amount of kid time working moms gave up.
Cawley and Liu note that reduced time cooking for children and eating with them could both increase kids' risk of obesity: eating purchased rather than home-cooked food and eating fewer family meals are both associated with a fattier and less nutritious diet. But Cawley tells BuzzFeed Shift that the study shouldn't be used to demonize working moms: "we don't want people to interpret it as saying the rise of obesity is due to moms working. Childhood obesity has gone up due to changes in the modern world." He adds that it's simplistic to blame moms alone for spending less time with kids when dads seem to be failing to offset the difference. Now, he says, the question is, "how do we promote children's health while allowing the world to be modern?"
For answers to this question, Cawley points to schools, which could offer healthier food and better physical education. And he praises the Affordable Care Act's provision requiring calorie counts on restaurant menus — working moms spend more time purchasing food outside the home, and Cawley says calorie counts are a cheap and easy way to give parents more information about the nutrition content of the food they're buying.
The data suggest that dads have a role to play too — especially the stay-at-home dads whose numbers have swelled during the recession. Cawley does caution, though, that "we're not trying to say men are scum" either — it's possible that dads whose spouses work are outsourcing food prep and childcare to babysitters or other care providers. Without more research, we don't know whether those tasks are being done by people other than the parents, or just not getting done.
Cawley and Liu's study doesn't address why men aren't chipping in as much, or how they could be encouraged to do so. But Cawley calls for more research into "how parents cooperate to feed and raise and nurture their kids in the wake of changes in the economy and changes in society that may lead to arrangements people didn't expect." Parents today may not be able to operate the way their own parents did — they'll need new systems that let them function in the modern economy while still raising healthy kids.