Back in the ’70s, all we wanted was to “have it all.” A happy marriage, a good job, healthy kids—and a little bit of work/life balance. Ever since, working moms have put up the good fight, struggling to juggle a career and a home life without dropping the ball (any ball!).
Now a new study suggests women who want it all—and believe it’s possible to achieve—are actually unhappier. According to a study out of the University of Washington, working mothers who profess that their home and office lives can be seamlessly juggled are at a greater risk for depression than their more realistic colleagues.
Working moms who attempt to achieve “Supermom” status are more likely to exhibit symptoms of depression.
In other words, the happiest working moms are “willing to let some things slide,” reports Katrina Leupp, a sociology graduate student and the study’s author.
How We Got Here
The study has tracked the same set of 1,600 married women—a mix of stay-at-home and working mothers—since they were between the ages of 14 and 22. Way back when, researchers started by asking for their reactions to a series of provocative statements, such as:
“A woman who fulfills her family responsibilities doesn’t have time for a job outside the home.”
“The employment of wives leads to more juvenile delinquency.”
Now, as adults, Leupp analyzed the women’s answers, as well as their comparative levels of depression (while controlling for marital happiness and hours worked). Her calculations turned up two key findings: First, the research confirmed earlier studies which have shown that moms who are employed generally report better mental health than their stay-at-home counterparts. On the other hand, working moms who attempt to achieve Supermom status—in other words, those who try to have it all, without admitting that it’s difficult—are more likely to exhibit symptoms of depression.
What It Means
While working appears to have positive effects on women’s health and the health of their kids, the study also reveals that facing the fact that being a working mom in America isn’t easy may be your best chance at happiness. “The research findings point to the mismatch between women’s expectations about work and family and the actual structure of the workplace and family care,” Leupp tells LearnVest. “American parents receive little childrearing aid in the form of paid parental leave or subsidized childcare, and women do the bulk of the housework and childcare, even when employed full-time.”
As a result, supermoms who internalize the issue (read: “It’s me. I should do better.”), as opposed to admitting that the problem is real—and something nearly every working mom struggles with—wind up feeling guilty or experiencing a sense of personal failure.
How You Can (Almost) Have It All
According to Leupp, the key to work/life balance is facing the fact that you can’t do it all. But “letting things go,” isn’t easy, especially when you have two to-do lists. So how do you stay on top of everything while accepting that it’s OK to be less than perfect?
“A large part of the depression that women feel stems from a sense of being overwhelmed,” says Cathy Greenberg, Ph.D., author of What Happy Women Know. “To help combat that, focus on small changes you can make in your daily routine.” Consider these ideas:
An act as simple as switching from coffee to green tea, or deciding to drink more water, can literally impact your mood. While it’s easy to medicate with lattes, both caffeine and sugar set you up for adrenal fatigue, which leaves you more exhausted, instead of energized.
Cross Things Off
Take one or two minor items off your to-do list, or delegate those responsibilities. Ask your husband to make dinner once a week, recruit another mom into the carpool or have the kids feed the dog before you get home. Enlisting support not only whittles your list but will also make you feel less alone.
Embrace Healthy Multitasking
When it comes to fitting in exercise, get creative: Grab the dog or the stroller, or ask an older child to walk and talk with you. Maureen, 36, a web editor, bought a fitness DVD and works out at home instead of going to the gym. “I pop it in after my daughter Clemens, 4, has gone to bed, so it’s less time away from her,” she says. “Every minute counts!”
Focus on the Good Stuff
Many of us have a tendency to run what psychologists call a “negative loop.” Focusing on what went wrong, or what we should have done, is a definite trap for tapped-out moms. Instead, decide to replay the happiest five to ten minutes of your day to remind yourself of what went right. At the end of the week, you’ll be pleasantly surprised at all you’ve accomplished.
Don’t Assume She’s a Supermom
Just as we pay more attention to how much our friends earn than our own bottom line, it’s easy to measure yourself against other mothers. As Bonnie, a tax accountant and mother to three-year-old Ryan, puts it: “I feel guilty for not showing up to all his school events. His preschool teacher actually said it was ‘nice to see me’ the one time I read to his class because, according to her, I’m the only mom who doesn’t.” Remember: You don’t have to do it the way other moms, your sister or your best friend does, let alone the way anyone else thinks you should. Now we have proof that there’s no such thing as a “Supermom”—and that trying to be less of one will actually make you happier.