Working mothers who think they can do the “supermom thing” and juggle a full-time career with full-time child-rearing are more prone to depression than mothers who take a more realistic view of what it takes to balance a career and children. Katrina Leupp, a University of Washington sociology graduate student, presented these findings on August 21 at the American Sociological Association‘s annual meeting in Las Vegas. As she says in Science Daily:
“Women are sold a story that they can do it all, but most workplaces are still designed for employees without child-care responsibilities,” said Leupp…. In reality, juggling home and work lives requires some sacrifice, she said, such as cutting back on work hours and getting husbands to help more.
“You can happily combine child rearing and a career, if you’re willing to let some things slide.”
For her research, Leupp analyzed survey responses from 1,600 women — working mothers and stay-at-home mothers — who had participated in the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth, which is administered by the US Department of Labor:
As young adults, the women answered questions about work-life balance by ranking how much they agreed with statements, such as “A woman who fulfills her family responsibilities doesn’t have time for a job outside the home,” “Working wives lead to more juvenile delinquency” and “A woman is happiest if she can stay at home with her children.”
Leupp looked at these answers in comparison to data about the women’s levels of depression at the age of 40. Women who as young adults had expressed a “supermom” attitude based on their “consistently agree[ing] with statements that women can combine employment and family care” were shown to be a higher risk for depression than those whose statements suggested a more realistic view about needing to make accommodations when working and raising a family. As Leupp notes, “Employed women who expected that work-life balance was going to be hard are probably more likely to accept that they can’t do it all.”
Leupp also found that stay-at-home mothers had higher rates of depression than those who worked. “Employment,” she notes, ‘is ultimately beneficial for women’s health, even when differences in marital satisfaction and working full or part time are ruled out.” There is, she says “some truth” to the saying that “Stay-at-home moms have the hardest job in the world.”
As Time magazine ‘s Bonnie Rochman notes, Leupp’s own mother, a first-grade teacher, stayed at home for a year before going back to work; Leupp herself does not yet have children and notes that “Staying home probably wouldn’t be the best choice for me personally.” While saying that her findings are “sage advice,” Rochman — a “work-from-home” mom whose situation Leupp’s study does not cover — asks:
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.
I’m not sure that such a rubric can exist. Different jobs, not to mention employers, have different demands, responsibilities, work hours. It’s one thing to be a corporate lawyer in Manhattan expected to work as many hours as required just to keep your job; another to be an elementary school teacher whose work hours are steadier (but who has just as many demands on her). But I do think Leupp’s point about accepting that “you can’t have it all” — while commonsensical — is highly valid.
I’ve worked at least part-time and mostly full-time for all of my 14-year-old son Charlie‘s life. Charlie is on the moderate to severe end of the autism spectrum and his care and education have always been my number one priority and I’ve chosen jobs and scheduled all my work hours around his needs. These have included lots of intense therapy sessions and also lots of one-on-one time on my husband and my part, to teach Charlie to talk, to handle himself in public settings, to learn daily living skills (like putting on his clothes) and academic skills. Jim and I are Charlie’s only caregivers.
I’ve been very glad and sometimes rather amazed that I’ve kept working through all these years of raising Charlie. I have not always wanted to admit it, but I have had to make choices. Currently I work at a college that stresses teaching, service and research in that order; I teach lots of classes, advise students and rush home. The scholarship about ancient Greek and Latin poetry I once envisioned I would center my career around requires extended time for library research and writing that I’ve simply not been able to do; writing shorter pieces — blogging — can be done in quick moments between taking care of Charlie.
I know, if I had to do it all again, there’s no question that I would choose taking care of Charlie over combing through dusty tomes to review what early 20th-century German scholars wrote about the ancient Greek poet Pindar’s odes. I love being a mother. What we need is better policies to support working mothers — maternity leave, flexible work hours — and real recognition of how tough and wonderful a mother’s work is.
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Photo by Romana Correale