Depression is less common among ‘Supermoms’ who accept their limitations

September 26, 2011

At the end of almost every day, I fall into bed feeling more like a super-mess than a Supermom, having neglected my work for pressing child-care concerns or my kids for a looming deadline or, without fail, my house.

So I was intrigued to come across a new study reporting that women who recognize that something has to give when it comes to juggling a job and family tend to have fewer depressive symptoms than those who think they can truly have — and handle — it all.

“It’s really about accepting that combining employment and family requires that trade-offs be made, and then feeling okay about letting certain things go, either at home or at work,” says the study’s leader, Katrina Leupp, a graduate student at the University of Washington.

Though this research, presented at the annual meeting of the American Sociological Association last month, has yet to be peer-reviewed, I’m guessing that it will strike a chord with many readers, as work-life balance remains a much-discussed, emotionally fraught topic, especially among the overextended masses here in Washington. I mean, who couldn’t use an excuse to cut herself some slack when it comes to that flubbed presentation or another missed soccer game, especially if it means a better mental health outlook, right?

If only it were that simple. “Many of us have very high expectations for ourselves, and it can be hard to let them go,” says Ellen Galinsky, president of the nonprofit Families and Work Institute. She adds that problems arise when there’s a clash between what you expect — a perfectly clean house or a home-cooked meal on the table every night, for example — and what actually happens; the end result is guilt, particularly for women.


(Paul Gilligan/GETTY IMAGES)

Research published last spring in the Journal of Health and Social Behavior found that women feel guiltier than men when they receive job-related texts, e-mails and phone calls at home after hours, and that translates into higher levels of psychological distress.

Socioeconomics also affect how women think about work and family, particularly during a time of slow economic growth, when just being employed is often the dominant concern. “If you’re grateful for your job because it’s really important to your family’s well-being, then you don’t tend to have as much angst about it as if you believe there are choices,” says Galinsky.

“One’s occupation, education level, income, the economic climate — those are all critical factors that shape people’s feelings and decisions and all kind of things that have to do with work and home life,” agrees Melissa Milkie, a professor of sociology at the University of Maryland, who points out that a single mother working full time at a fast-food restaurant is in a completely different position than a downtown lawyer with the resources for a full-time nanny.

Interestingly, it’s not just “Supermoms” who are facing mental-health issues due to work-life conficts these days, according to Galinsky. “As men’s time with children has increased dramatically and they’re taking more psychological responsibility — not just time, but remembering the orthodontist appointment, or this kid doesn’t eat this but that one does — we hear them saying that they’ve gotten a taste of it, and now they want more,” she says.

Galinsky co-authored a report called “The New Male Mystique,” which found that in 2008, 60 percent of fathers in dual-earner families experienced some or a lot of work-family conflict, up from 35 percent in 1977.

“There are a lot of men out there now who want to have it all and do it all, and they’re suffering in the same way as women,” she explains. “Actually, men have even more work-family conflict than women do these days — and probably less permission to talk about it.”

It seems that despite advances in technology, job flexibility and a more equal distribution of work in the home, these issues aren’t going away as long as there are working parents who love their children.

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