I'm a mum who has made a decision to return to work sooner than I had originally intended. The reasons for this are many and complex, but as you will note from my previous post, I've not managed to avoid a fair degree of guilt in coming to this decision. Ironic, as my girls already go to nursery two days a week; a move that we are very happy with having seen a huge improvement in my eldest daughters vocabulary and social skills in the first few months she went. So the girls won't be spending any less time with me. I then felt guilty that I won't be able to do the cleaning and laundry whilst they are out, but will have to do it in what it now their time with mummy. The guilt was short lived when I cottoned on to the fact that I could actually pay a cleaner to do all the chores (since I'd be earning) and therefore playtime isn't affected at all. Still felt guilty though. I think it's because I'm actually looking forward to working again, and almost feel that if I'm looking forward to doing something that's not with my girls I should feel guilty.
Knowing all this, you can perhaps imagine my response to this research report, published in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health. It basically concluded that children of working mums were more likely to be fed junk food, and allowed to watch more telly and do less exercise.
As if I wasn't feeling guilty enough already! And then I got quite angry. As is the case with all research of this type, it's isolated. It doesn't measure how happy, contended or fulfilled the children, mums and dads in these families are. It doesn't account for mums that overcompensate and deny their children sweet snacks so vigorously that the children rebel as teens and end up even more likely to eat unhealthily as adults. It doesn't point out the other effect of mums going to work. The message it sends to the children that mum is a strong, independent woman, who works hard to provide for her family. Surely all positive?
As an accountant and statistician I felt compelled to look at this report more carefully. Typically I discovered that results had been 'adjusted' for confounding and mediating factors. In English, the results were originally the exact opposite. The unadjusted results show that children of mums who worked full or part time were more likely to eat fruit and veg between meals, eat three or more portions of fruit a day, participate in organised exercise three or more times a week, and eat fewer sweet snacks between meals.
These results were adjusted to take away the influence of the following factors; ethnicity, mum's job type, mum's marital status, mum's highest qualification, the number of other children and household income. This adjustment isolates the data to conclude that it was only the 'to work or not to work' status that affected health detrimentally.
The report did, to be fair, admit its limitations as all good reports do. (Pity the papers then reporting on them tend to pick out the sensationalistic bits only). It pointed out that results were based on answers to single questions, and that estimates were used where data was missing (for example assuming working hours continued at the same rate week after week).
Maybe the data would feel more helpful if they could somehow account for the mums (and dads!) values, beliefs, commitment and determination in these reports. When they find out who does the chores (maybe it's bought in, like my suggestion!), and measure the sizes of the food portions (one Jaffa cake for pudding is a bit different to large quantities of chocolate and ice cream. Half a packet of crisps after a large healthy meal isn't the same as half a packet of crisps when nothing else has been eaten.) Maybe then I could feel that it was a helpful report. But probably not. Afterall, I won't accept anyone telling me I'm a bad mother. I do the guilt thing quite happily on my own thank you.
I'd like to propose that all us mothers respond to this as follows. We take it with a pinch of salt.
We all have common sense, and we all know what we, and our children, should be eating. And to be fair I believe that there are a huge amount of people out there, parents or not, who already feel pressurised to be stick thin, tanned, gorgeous, successful, sexy... and calm, and despite all this ridiculous pressure, are living life the the best of their ability and doing a darn good job of it.
Give us all a break and let us figure it out ourselves. We know we could be healthier. There's unlikely to ever be a point when people tell us we're too healthy. So give it a rest!
Go to the guardian website just for the fun of reading the resulting comments that the press report obtained. Seems to be a general consensus that this scientific report will be, at best, ignored in the same way that the working dads were. http://www.guardian.co.uk/society/2009/sep/29/working-mothers-child-health
View the actual report at http://press.psprings.co.uk/jech/september/ch84590.pdf