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Amy Clare is exasberated by yet another piece of research and media reporting stigmatising mothers who work in paid employment (as well as child care)

Another day, another piece of sexist research being loudly trumpeted in the media, with the result that mothers in paid work are yet again under attack.

The BBC has been reporting a study today which suggests mothers in paid work are more likely to have unhealthy children. The researchers studied 12,500 five-year-olds, and found that those children of mothers who worked were more likely to consume sweetened drinks, spend longer on the computer or in front of the television and be driven to school as opposed to walking or cycling. Unsurprisingly, fathers’ work habits were presumed not to be important.

As usual with these kinds of studies, the information given is patchy and vague. The apparently unhealthy activities mentioned above were described as “health behaviours likely to promote excess weight gain” – but there was absolutely no mention of whether the children in the study were actually overweight or unhealthy. The study picked on a few activities and seemed to disregard other factors, such as what the children’s actual meals consisted of, whether the children played any sport, and so on. It was not what you might call a clear picture of the children’s lives and activities, and yet the BBC saw fit to report it with the subheading: “Children whose mothers work are less likely to lead healthy lives.” Healthy lives, full stop. Nice over-generalisation, BBC!

As for the non-existent fathers, it always astounds me how, when it comes to child-rearing, most people assume that men are no more than sperm donors. Professor Catherine Law, who led the study, explained their absence from the research thus: “Fathers’ employment levels had not changed whereas the numbers of working mothers had increased dramatically.”

This factor is completely irrelevant, which makes Law’s excuse a cop-out. This was not a longitudinal study looking at the effect of parental employment hours over time on children’s health, therefore the apparent unchanging level of men’s employment (Law does not specify over what time period) is meaningless. There is no reason why fathers’ working hours could not have been included in this study. What Law really means, of course is: “Fathers aren’t responsible for childcare, so how much they work doesn’t matter.” Which is the assumption made by the entire study and the ensuing media reports.

Although I’m not surprised, I’m pretty angry with the BBC for reporting this so heavily and allowing women to be once again publicly criticised and shamed for simply being human and doing what men have been doing (without criticism of course) for time immemorial. Despite the researchers’ weak protestations that “our results do not imply that mothers should not work”, the message is crystal clear: your child will end up obese if you don’t be a good girl and stay at home.

Studies like this are not helpful in any way, and the more they are reported on, the more people continue to believe the myth that only women should be responsible for child-rearing. The idea that a father could be equally responsible for his child’s health is still too radical for our times, it seems.