Trying to have it all could be bad for your mental health, according to a new study that finds that "supermoms" have higher rates of depression compared with working moms who let things slide.
The research, presented Aug. 20 at the annual meeting of the American Sociological Association in Las Vegas, finds that working is good for mothers' mental health. But among working mothers, the least depressed are those who don't expect to combine work and family life seamlessly, said study researcher Katrina Leupp, a graduate student at the University of Washington in Seattle.
"Ascribing to an ideal that women can do it all actually increased the level of depressive symptoms compared to women who were more skeptical of whether or not work and family can be balanced," Leupp told LiveScience.
Leupp analyzed survey responses from 1,600 married women who participated in a large survey called the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth. In 1987, the women answered questions to gauge their support of women's employment, including whether they agreed with statements such as "Women are much happier if they stay at home and take care of their children."
In 1992 and 1994, the now 40-year-old women answered questions about their symptoms of depression. Like earlier studies, the survey data indicated that women who worked outside the home had fewer symptoms of depression, perhaps because outside work gives women more social interaction, more varied activities and a larger income, Leupp said.
Among the employed women, though, the cheeriest were those who had indicated in their younger years the least support for women combining career and family. The results held even after controlling for earlier levels of depression.
"Somewhat ironically, women who don't expect to be able to balance work and family have better mental health than those who do," Leupp said.
Having it all
The study didn't pinpoint why optimistic views of balancing family and motherhood would correlate with later depression. The reason may come down to expectations and real-world work environments, Leupp said. Women who expect to have it all probably come up against workplaces that aren't designed with work-life balance in mind, she said. When they can't balance everything perfectly, these supermoms are more likely to feel frustration and guilt.
"I think this research really speaks to a mismatch between women's expectations and the actual structure of the workplace," Leupp said.
The takeaway for working moms is to temper their optimism about juggling parenting and employment, Leupp said, and not to blame themselves if they struggle.
"Recognize that if it feels difficult, it's because it is difficult," she said.
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Stephanie Pappas is a contributing writer for Live Science, covering topics ranging from geoscience to archaeology to the human brain and behavior. She was previously a senior writer for Live Science but is now a freelancer based in Denver, Colorado, and regularly contributes to Scientific American and The Monitor, the monthly magazine of the American Psychological Association. Stephanie received a bachelor's degree in psychology from the University of South Carolina and a graduate certificate in science communication from the University of California, Santa Cruz.