Family Matters

Working Women Who Try to Be ‘Supermom’ May Be More Depressed

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You know all that maternal hand-wringing over staying home with the kids versus going back to work? Well, working seems to translate into less depression for mothers, but to really guard against symptoms, it’s important to kiss the supermom façade goodbye.

New research finds that working mothers who believe that home and office can be seamlessly juggled are at greater risk for depression than their more realistic maternal colleagues who accept they can’t do it all.

Any woman who’s peeled a sobbing toddler from her thighs as she’s running out the door for work probably won’t find this news surprising. Ditto for any woman who’s begged off a 5 p.m. meeting to zoom to a kid’s soccer game where that kid scores no goals and has no assists but at least knows his mom cared enough to show up. Every accommodation has a repercussion; embracing that, says Katrina Leupp, a University of Washington sociology graduate student who authored the study, is key.

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It’s inevitable that working moms will need to compromise on some aspects of the way they approach their career or their parenting — or both. “If you think you can have it all, don’t,” says Leupp, who presented her research Aug. 21 at the American Sociological Association’s annual meeting in Las Vegas. “Maybe knowing that you can almost have it all is the better way.”

Leupp looked at 1,600 women — a mix of working and stay-at-home mothers — who had participated in the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth, which began tracking kids in 1979 when they were between 14 and 22 years old; the oldest participants are now about 50. As young adults, the women were asked in the following eye-popping statements to rate their attitudes regarding women’s employment:

  • It’s much better for everyone concerned if the man is the achiever outside the home and the woman takes care of the home and family
  • Women are much happier if they stay at home and take care of their children
  • The employment of wives leads to more juvenile delinquency

Leupp then analyzed those answers alongside a score of the women’s level of depression when they were 40. Her findings confirmed earlier studies that showed that women who are employed have better mental health than stay-at-home mothers, and also revealed that women who rejected the myth of the Supermom were less likely than Supermom-wannabes to have symptoms of depression. Results remained similar when marital satisfaction and hours worked were considered.

It’s important to note, says Leupp, that job quality — in terms of women’s perception of whether they enjoy their work — also matters: you have to really like what you’re doing.

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Leupp will likely take a cue from her mother, a first-grade teacher who stayed home for a year before returning to work, should she have children of her own. Says Leupp: “Staying home probably wouldn’t be the best choice for me personally.”

Because while balancing work and family is certainly stressful, observes Leupp, what about the alternative? “To be a stay-at-home mother is also stressful,” she says. “Other studies have looked at spillover: you’re on your Blackberry when you want to be playing with your kids or you have to leave work to pick up a sick kid. But there is also a positive spillover: your role as a parent makes you a more patient boss, or having time away from your kids makes you a happier parent when you’re with them.”

In a press release, Leupp was quoted as saying: “You can happily combine child-rearing and a career, if you’re willing to let some things slide.”

It sounds like sage advice, but in reality, I find it off-putting. Where’s the rubric that decides which things should be allowed to slide? If you neglect your job, you’re probably not going to get very far ahead. Shortchange your kids, and it’s hard to overcome the guilt you’ll feel for skipping a school play or that scoreless soccer match.

Leupp’s research didn’t focus on work-from-home moms like me, but that’s tough too. Office-goers may be jealous of my lifestyle, but pounding out copy from the kitchen has its pitfalls, particularly when it comes to delineating the boundaries of home and work. On particularly stressful days, I fear my kids’ abiding image of me will be Mom hunched over the MacBook. “Why you always got to do work?” is my 4-year-old’s favorite refrain.

That said, work sustains me, just as it does for many women. We’ll continue to pull double duty as employee and mom because — despite the pressures — being both really does make us feel good.

Bonnie Rochman is a reporter at TIME. Find her on Twitter at @brochman. You can also continue the discussion on TIME‘s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.