Reality check for ‘supermoms’

U. WASHINGTON (US) — Working mothers who accept that give-and-take is necessary in balancing home and career are less prone to depression than those who believe they can do it all.

“Women are sold a story that they can do it all, but most workplaces are still designed for employees without child-care responsibilities,” says Katrina Leupp, a sociology graduate student at the University of Washington.

In reality, juggling home and work lives requires some sacrifice, she says, such as cutting back on work hours and getting husbands to help more.

“You can happily combine child rearing and a career, if you’re willing to let some things slide,” says Leupp, who presented her study at the American Sociological Association’s annual meeting.

For the study, Leupp analyzed survey responses from 1,600 married women, all 40 years old from across the United States. The respondents, a mix of stay-at-home moms and working mothers, were participating in the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth, administered by the U.S. Department of Labor.

As young adults, the women answered questions about work-life balance by ranking how much they agreed with statements, such as “A woman who fulfills her family responsibilities doesn’t have time for a job outside the home,” “Working wives lead to more juvenile delinquency” and “A woman is happiest if she can stay at home with her children.”

Then, when the women reached the age of 40, Leupp measured their levels of depression.

The stay-at-home mothers had more depression symptoms than the working moms in the study, which agrees with findings from other studies, Leupp says.

“Employment is ultimately beneficial for women’s health, even when differences in marital satisfaction and working full or part time are ruled out.”

Women with a supermom attitude—who as young adults consistently agreed with statements that women can combine employment and family care—were at a higher risk for depression compared with working moms who had a more realistic view.

“Employed women who expected that work-life balance was going to be hard are probably more likely to accept that they can’t do it all,” Leupp says and may be more comfortable making tradeoffs, such as leaving work early to pick up kids.

But women who expect that work and family life can be satisfactorily combined without many tradeoffs may be more likely to feel like they are failing when they struggle to achieve this ideal.

Guilt over not being able to manage the work-family balance and frustration over division of household labor could also play roles in an increase of depression symptoms in the supermom group.

“Supermoms have higher expectations for fairness, so it makes sense that they would be more frustrated with the division of household chores,” Leupp says.

“Employment is still ultimately good for women’s health. But for better mental health, working moms should accept that they can’t do it all.”

More news from University of Washington: