U.S. study shows health dangers even to traditional families from non-standard working hours and makes case for greater parental entitlements to flexible working and living wages.

Children of married mothers sometimes face significantly greater obesity risks than children in families where moms are single or cohabiting. That’s the unexpected finding from our study of childhood obesity in the United States, which highlights nutritional dangers for children when married moms work late night or weekend hours in addition to their regular day jobs.

These insights add a caveat to two key assumptions of U.S. family policy – that the wellbeing of children in low-income households is greatest when mothers are married and when they work.

“Our findings challenge the often unspoken assumption that social policy’s task is to fix marginalized or complex families and there is little to worry about in married families.”

Our study looked at how the likelihood of children being overweight or obese varied for different types of families when mom had a second job—such as cleaning, nursing or waitressing—that required her to work some nights or weekends. This meant that the she might not be at home for mealtimes or at bedtime.

Previous studies have generally found that children are more likely to be obese when their mothers work longer hours. A small number of studies have also found higher obesity risks for children whose mothers work non-standard shifts. We found that, when compared to children whose mothers worked only standard week day hours (6am-6pm), children were more likely to be obese when their mothers worked a combination of non-standard hours in a second job alongside normal hours in a primary job. But this was true only for children living with married biological parents. We found no increased risk for children living with unmarried biological parents or single moms. Fathers’ work schedules were not associated with children’s likelihood of being overweight or obese.

Our findings stand as a warning to social policy makers not to assume that children of married mothers are immune to risk. They challenge the often unspoken assumption that social policy’s task is to fix marginalized or complex families and that there is little to worry about in married families. And they also indicate that the modern labor market, which increasingly requires non-standard hours, particularly from low-wage workers, can pose threats to children’s well-being in all types of families—even those with married parents, which are, understandably, regarded as generally sound places for child-rearing.

This research has implications for how policy makers might construct work support for families. Most U.S. policy discussions about maternal employment focus on whether parents should or should not work. In contrast with many European countries, little attention has been directed in the U.S. toward helping families to establish healthy work-family balance and avoid disruptions to family resources and processes, which may in turn damage child health and well-being. This study strengthens the case for focusing more on how programs and entitlements might help working families cope with irregular hours of work, which are increasingly common.

Why might children of married parents uniquely face this particular nutritional risk when mom has a second job with irregular hours? Previous studies have indicated that non-standard working hours disrupt children’s routines. We expected children in single-mother families to be most affected, because they have fewer resources. However, given our findings, it may be that married biological families are less able than single-mother and cohabiting families to cope with these irregular hours. Single-mother and cohabiting families may be more accustomed to being flexible around mothers’ availability.

The stability of married-parent families, which is normally an asset, may actually make them less able to adapt to the types of stress posed by the complicated work shifts to which cohabiting and single-mother families often become habituated. One reason might be that married biological parents may be characterized by more traditional gender roles, so that dads are less likely to take responsibility for providing healthy meals when mom is absent.

Whatever the reasons for these increased risks, parents clearly need better options to avoid the difficult choice that some currently must make between securing family income and maintaining their children’s nutritional health. They would benefit from greater access to flexible work policies, such as being able to choose their shifts, as well as access to generous family and medical leave. Wage policies are also important: parents are often forced to make these choices because their first wage is insufficient to support their families. This research shows that all families need such supports, even those led by married biological parents. For some parents, their job choices are creating risks to their children’s health.

Header photo: Peter Burge. Creative Commons.

Policy Implications

Government should focus more on how programs and entitlements might help working families to cope with increasingly common irregular hours of work.

References

 Miller DP & Chang J (2015), Parental work schedules and child overweight or obesity: does family structure matter?, Journal of Marriage and Family 77.5