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Trying to Be 'Supermom' Can Raise Risk for Depression

By Jenifer Goodwin
HealthDay Reporter

SATURDAY, Aug. 20 (HealthDay News) -- Working moms are less likely to show symptoms of depression than stay-at-home moms, a new study finds.

However, working moms who don't cut themselves any slack and have unrealistic expectations about how easy it will be to balance work and family have higher levels of depression than their more laid-back counterparts.

Researchers analyzed survey results from 1,600 married U.S. women who had children at home and were participating in the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth.

When the women were between the ages of 22 and 30, they were asked their opinion of such statements as: "A wife who carries out her full family responsibilities doesn't have time for a job outside the home"; "The employment of wives lead to more juvenile delinquency"; "Women are much happier if they stay at home and take care of their children"; and "It is much better for everyone concerned if the man is the achiever outside the home and the woman takes care of home and family."

The responses to the outdated statements were actually intended to ferret out women's attitudes toward work-life balance by seeing how seamless they thought it would be to juggle work and family.

Then, at age 40, researchers measured their levels of depression.

Overall, women who were employed either full or part time were less likely to be depressed than those who stayed at home. Signs of depression included difficult concentrating, feeling lonely, sad or restless, having trouble sleeping or getting going in the morning and feeling unable to shake the blues.

But working women surveyed who were less sure about the ability of women to balance careers and family were also less apt to show symptoms of depression than women who thought it was going to be easy to do both, according to the study.

"The findings really point to the mismatch between women's expectations about their ability to balance work and family. Women still do the bulk of household labor and child care, even when they're employed full time," said study author Katrina Leupp, a graduate student at the University of Washington in Seattle. "Women who go into employment expecting it to be difficult -- 'I'm going to have to work full time and do the laundry at night,' but who are accepting of that are less likely to be frustrated than women who expect things to be more equal with their partners."

The study is to be presented Saturday at the American Sociological Association annual meeting in Las Vegas. Research presented at medical meetings should be considered preliminary until it has been published in a peer-reviewed medical journal.

About 65 percent of the mothers of young children and 80 percent of women with children over age 5 are employed, according to 2006 statistics cited in the article.

Though today's Dads do help with housework and child care more than in prior generations, studies show that women -- whether they're employed or not -- still do the bulk of those duties.

"The difficult task of juggling employment and family care falls primarily on women," according to the study. Compared to European women, American women get little in the way of paid time off after childbirth or subsidized child care.

Prior research has also shown that despite the challenges, having outside employment is beneficial for a women's mental health, said Shelley Correll, an associate professor of sociology at Stanford University.

One reason why researchers found that women who have a realistic attitude about what it takes to balance work and family turn out to be less depressed than women who expect it to be easy: The women who are more pessimistic about work-life balance might choose a partner with that in mind, Correll said.

"Women who have a realistic expectation are more likely to choose men who are going to help out around the house," Correll said. "If you choose someone who will be a helpmate to you, that may lead to lower levels of depression."

Some of the women who think it's not difficult to work and take care of kids may also be buying into the "supermom" complex -- pressuring themselves to be overachievers in all aspects of life, Leupp said.

Instead, working moms may be happier when they delegate and let a few things slide -- in other words, let someone with more time run the bake sale, make sure your husband is doing his share of laundry folding and limit your work hours when you can.

"We do know that, having to do things like answer an email at night is associated with feelings of guilt for women but not for men, and that guilt is associated with psychological distress," Leupp said.

Though researchers didn't study the nature of women's jobs, prior research has shown the greatest psychological benefits from jobs in which women have autonomy and more control over their schedule, she added.

So how can working moms cope?

"Be gentle with yourself and accept that balancing work and family feels hard because it is hard, rather than feeling that guilty or unsuccessful if you can't devote as much time as you would like to your job and to your family," Leupp said.

More information

For more information about working women, visit the Women Employed.

SOURCE: Katrina Leupp, graduate student, University of Washington, Seattle; Shelley Correll, Ph.D, associate professor, sociology, Stanford University; Aug. 20, 2011, presentation, American Sociological Association annual meeting, Las Vegas

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