Jaynehowarth’s Weblog

Journalist and writer

Please accept my apologies for being a bad mother

with 17 comments

Surveys. Don’t you love them? One week there is a scientific piece of research that tells us a glass of red wine three times a week is good for the heart.

Fast forward a fortnight and there is a contradictory “evidence”: drinking three glasses of red wine a week can increase incidences of “certain types of” cancer.

I do try to take them with a pinch of salt (not too much, because I don’t want a stroke. Perhaps I should take them with a pinch of low sodium substitute), but there are occasions when, in the name of science, anthropology or just sheer mischief making that studies make me want to scream (primal scream therapy is alleged to help with emotional problems).

This week – for there are these pieces of research popping up weekly – is the “news” that working mothers are breeding obese, TV-addicted children who never eat fruit and vegetables.

According to research carried out by Centre for Paediatric Epidemiology and Biostatistics at the Institute of Child Health, University College London full-time working mothers were bringing up the unhealthiest children in the country.

This was followed by women who work part-time. Women who stayed at home had the healthiest children were “stay at home” mothers.

The figures in the report appear to be impressive in that the researchers involved 12,000 children born between 2000 and 2002 who were part of the Millennium Cohort Study.

Mothers were questioned about their working hours, their children’s food intake activity and exercise levels, as well as how much TV they watched or computer access they had.

The findings? Children of working mothers were more likely to have fizzy drinks, eat fewer portions of fruit and vegetables  and watch more TV – and do less exercise.

It is this kind of “research” that just makes me fume. Surely it is parenting skills – not whether or not the mother works – that makes a difference.

Women do not usually have the luxury of choice when it comes to returning to work – most have to work to help pay the mortgage/rent, the bills and put food on the table (whether that’s a bag of chips or a full Sunday lunch).

If they do have the choice and they decide to stay at home – that is fine. It is also fine for a woman to go to work.

Yes, we might feel torn in two when leaving the children when we put on the working suit and leave the vomit-stained jumper at home, but that doesn’t mean we forget what vegetables look like.

Bringing up children has nothing to do with whether or not a woman goes out to work. Basic parenting is a learned skill, but we need vegetables and fruit, too. That doesn’t go out of the window when we go to work.

Most of us have the knowledge, but probably need a bit of support when it comes to time management skills. What we don’t need is castigation and snide finger-pointing.

I know this research came out yesterday – but I didn’t have chance to blog about it then. I was busy being a bad mother: out working ALL day (yes –  from 9.30am until 5pm).

I could have written this yesterday evening, but I’m afraid I was too busy making my family a vegetable and wholewheat pasta bake (making my own tomato sauce, thank you), collecting son from his Beavers group and tidying the kitchen before falling into bed at 10pm.

So, please accept my humblest apologies for being a bad mother.

Written by CommonPeople

September 30, 2009 at 7:44 am

17 Responses

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  1. Hi Jayne

    Sorry, but I have to speak up for the statisticians, scientists and researchers here. The problem isn’t them, what they do, or the research they undertake; rather it’s lazy, sensationalist journalists who take published data (often without any peer review or in an unfinished state), draw easy, lazy conclusions from it and then splash it over the media. PR companies are also devils for publishing fake, flimsy surveys in weak attempts to get their clients name greater exposure.

    Can I suggest you take a look at the following links:

    http://www.badscience.net – Dr Ben Goldacre’s bog where he rants about the idiocy of science and medicine reporting in the UK
    http://brownhillsbob.wordpress.com/2009/08/10/badscience-net-on-the-now-show/ – an audio recording of Ben on Radio 4’s ‘Now Show’ pointing up the idiocy of many cancer ‘scares’
    http://kill-or-cure.heroku.com/ – a catalogue of contradictory Daily Mail medical ‘stories’

    The problem will persist until journalists learn, or are forced to learn, how statistics work and exactly what they mean. Surveys and statistics rarely give absolutes, which are the only answers the media ever want.

    Fear not.

    Best wishes

    Bob

    BrownhillsBob

    September 30, 2009 at 8:11 am

  2. Well said, Jayne. This annoyed me, too.

    Emily Cagle

    September 30, 2009 at 8:39 am

  3. An excellent post voiced my thoughts completely! A truly monumental waste of time, effort and public money that report was the findings were hardly a supprise I felt but the way the message was put across was flawed let’s hear it for the “bad” working mums + dads of the UK!

    sdcsmith2000

    September 30, 2009 at 8:50 am

  4. It’s standard media stuff. Find guilt stick. Beat parents with it. Find new guilt stick. Repeat.

    I do however have a plan. If the government are willing to pay either myself or my wife £40k p.a., one of us will give up work to become an at-home parent. If not, then perhaps they can shove their advice up…

    JackP

    September 30, 2009 at 9:11 am

  5. This report was published in a very low impact journal. Just in case you’re not familiar with journal impact factors (!) this means that it normally wouldn’t get cited, even in the field it’s aimed at. Worse though, is the shabby and careless reporting from the BBC, which gave the report so much coverage. The reporter saw fit to change the wording of the conclusion from “may” to “is”, presumably thinking either that a) it wasn’t important, or b) it made a better story. The other main findings of the same study were:

    1)Most studies showed a higher rate of childhood overweight where mothers were employed, though this was not always statistically significant.
    2)Working mothers have higher vaccination rates and hence healthier children.
    3)There is a trend which may or may not be the case. Good enough for the BBC science pages. (via @colin_rickman)

    So it’s not necessarily the study which was flawed, but the misunderstanding, deliberate or otherwise, of the reporter.

    Rory

    September 30, 2009 at 9:31 am

  6. Thanks for the detailed reply, BrownhillsBob.

    While I agree there is a certain laziness among journalists to report on headline figures, however meaningless and jumbled, there is a fundamental flaw with all these pieces of research, too.

    Whenever I write about some research for a medical website (usually from an appallingly-written press release, done by an “expert” in the field), you think you have something to go on – you have the angle, but then you read the comments from the lead researcher.

    These usually play down the findings to such a degree you wonder if it was worth producing the report in the first place. They usually say that because they haven’t looked at XYZ, we cannot take the research as seriously as we might like to. They ALWAYS calls for more research (well, they would, wouldn’t they?).

    This is why I generally ignore research like this: it is meaningless and produced to create a headline – and a reaction. But i couldn’t let this one go: I’m sick of reading how bad we mothers are for working. Total nonsense.

    Thank you for the Daily Fail link – I will relish reading that!

    jaynehowarth

    September 30, 2009 at 9:39 am

  7. Thank you for your comments, Emily and SDCSmith. I’m just off to beat myself with a stick.

    jaynehowarth

    September 30, 2009 at 9:40 am

  8. Nice plan, Jack P – perhaps we could start a campaign! Thank you for reading and responding.

    jaynehowarth

    September 30, 2009 at 9:41 am

  9. Thank you for taking the time to read it and comment!

    jaynehowarth

    September 30, 2009 at 9:41 am

  10. You might enjoy reading the NHS choices version of this: http://bit.ly/3KIGuU

    Here’s a paragraph from their take on the study:

    Children whose mothers had worked during the study were compared with children whose mothers had not worked. This showed that children whose mothers worked full or part-time were more likely to eat fruit or vegetables between meals than other snacks, to eat three or more portions of fruit per day, to take part in organised exercise on three or more days/week, and to be driven to school. In addition, children whose mothers worked full or part-time were less likely to snack on crisps or sweets between meals.

    That’s almost the same. Isn’t it?

    tipexxed

    September 30, 2009 at 12:53 pm

  11. Wow! Thank you, tipexxed. The editorial judgment on this story makes me want to weep further into my fizzy drink.

    jaynehowarth

    September 30, 2009 at 1:21 pm

  12. I hear you and agree with everything you say here – which is par for the course of course! I’ve just read two more great posts from @nixdminx and @ClaireAllan on Twitter and Liz @ Livingwithkids has also blogged about it, I’ve added my 2p at http://www.gotyourhandsfull.com – so now we could say “A survey conducted in Cannock revealed this piece of research was a pile of pants!”
    x

    Linda

    September 30, 2009 at 9:31 pm

  13. Thanks for commenting, Linda – and for the heads up on the other pieces written on this, I’ll certainly go and have a gander. I think this research – however “well meaning” (and likely to be victim of media skew) has got a lot of people, particularly women, angry.

    Look forward to collaborating on the Cannock survey🙂

    jaynehowarth

    October 1, 2009 at 6:32 am

  14. I’ve reserved comment on the many blog posts about this issue.

    But there are 2 points I’d make. First, this isn’t about the study. It’s about the journalists who spin the story from the study. And, surprise, surprise, the Daily Mail and various others chose to run with “working mums have fat kids” line. You don’t *have* to take the bait, every time.

    If you read the study at source, the report doesn’t really (or just) say that. At all. And the study authors were at pains to say; this isn’t a judgment about working mothers, it’s a judgment on employers and government agencies that do not put in place effective policies and practices to help working women to better balance their jobs and families.

    Second, I wish some women would stop looking at every report of this kind as a personal insult. Now, my child doesn’t watch television. So I know that, if I read a report that says “statistically, children of working mothers watch more TV”it doesn’t really apply to me. But statistically there are millions of working Mums out there, many of whom make different choices, and face vastly different circumstances. Overall, I can believe that women who work have kids who watch more TV. Just because I’m a woman who works doesn’t mean I have to be offended by that fact.

    Or am I missing something?

    Sally

    October 2, 2009 at 9:47 am

  15. Sally – thanks for your comments.

    This is the first time I have commented on these kinds of studies – I think it was the straw that broke the camel’s back, if I’m honest!

    I have acknowledged (ref answer to BrownhillsBob) that the problem with these kids of studies is that it is as much the fault of the journalists who do anything they can to get a “good” headline – being selective with which bits they take from the study. I also acknowledge with this report that the numbers of people questioned in the research were large (12,000 – as opposed to the usual small numbers in some consumer tests).

    In many ways I guess I am directing my anger as much at fellow journalists as the study itself. There are many studies coming out hither and thither that “comment” on people’s lifestyles, their choices and their skills. I question the validity of some – they don’t seem to be offering answers, just pointing fingers

    There are also some good points raised on health reporting on En.glemed’s blog site http://englemed.blogspot.com/2009/10/tough-week-for-health-reporting.html about the pitfalls of reporting these kinds of stories.

    In it, the editor says: “We felt it raised all sorts of social issues rather than establishing any direct health links between parents working and their children’s lifestyles”. I agree with that entirely!

    jaynehowarth

    October 2, 2009 at 10:00 am

  16. Although I felt instinctively the story was problematic, I’ve got to challenge the idea that reporting it was lazy journalism. The journal was a reputable journal and the study did involve sizeable numbers. There are potential pitfalls with epidemiology studies, which is they can boil down to being data-mining ie if you crunch enough numbers in different ways often enough you will get all sorts of bizarre conclusions, which pass various statistical tests. So researchers who do this work need to be able to back it up with a hypothesis and some evidence to explain the correlations. I think the researchers here were working on the line that they wanted to highlight the difficulties of being a working parent rather than to stimatise parents. In the UK many children of working parents go to after school clubs. These can be active and provide a child with more activity than they’d get sitting at home in front of the telly or PS2. Or not.

    Jon

    October 2, 2009 at 11:30 am

  17. Thanks for your comment, Jon.

    Interesting point you raise re journalism. While I accept your point about the problems of this kind of reporting (as you point out brilliantly in your blog post – details above!), there is a tendency by some editors not to look beyond the headline, which doesn’t really tell the story that the researchers were intending.

    How many times do health journalists want to tear their hair out because news desk don’t really understand the data and just want the XYZ story, when that isn’t the nub of the piece? Rather a lot, from what I’ve read and heard.

    I think a lesson learned for me: just pretend the Daily Mail isn’t there!

    jaynehowarth

    October 2, 2009 at 11:37 am


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