Being “Supermom” Could Be Bad For Your Health


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.


Related Care2 Coverage

The Economic Reality of Raising an Autistic Child for Mothers and Families

Where Are The Best — And Worst– Places To Be A Mother?

Men Struggle To Have It All, Too

Photo by Romana Correale


Sheri J.
Sheri J.3 years ago

I saw a neat freak on youtube and her house looks like a store. It looked so clean and organized, it's not the warmest place to live in.

Eternal Gardener
Eternal Gardener4 years ago

So true!

Laure H.
Laure H.4 years ago

Evan, you must be a guy and not a parent. lol.

What you say is true; it just doesn't work out that way in reality without huge amounts of effort as we try to surmount habits and cultural attitudes and the expectations of others while babies demand, kids act out, husbands feel needy, hormones rage, tasks at home are never done- or if they are, they don't stay that way - bringing home the bacon.....

The balancing act isn't easy.

Evan Reyes
Evan Reyes4 years ago

i think it's not bad for the health. As long as you know how to manage your time.

Laure H.
Laure H.4 years ago

negotiate their current and/or future relationships for a more equitable and flexible division of labor. And in addition to training girls and boys in housework, let's train boys that the guy that puts out in the housework department is likely to get more benefits of other kinds.....

Laure H.
Laure H.4 years ago

Laurie G - when we married, we purposely lived in the tiniest place so we could do ok on one paycheck. Perhaps you weren't so much lucky as smart to have a small house with a small mortgage. Life - and its expenses - happen to all of us, especially when we have kids.

Sally E - it sucks that employers penalize you for taking time off to deal with the needs of children. It happened to me, too. Vacation/Sick/Personal leave time should be bundled and used at the employee's discretion, and it should accrue throughout the years of employment - and the employee should be ready to withstand the financial cost of being stupid about using it.

Margaret C - women raising kids alone is so are fortunate in having the physical strength to stay the course well enough to be called a supermom by your child. Did being the sole provider help you overcome the stressful expectation to be the stressed-from-inadequacy-supermom, or make that cultural expectation more stressful, or not affect you at all?

Sandra and Marianne and Marylyn and others - the unequal division of labor at home when there is a partner or spouse is a reality that is probably stressful to many "supermoms." We've recognized this problem for a long time> I chose a tidy man that doesn't mind doing housework and will pay to have some things done for him so that I don't have to shoulder too much unless I want to (like the lawn chores). Let's encourage women to "put on their big girl panties" and

Anastasia F.
Anastasia F.4 years ago

Working full-time and parenting is just too hard.

Anastasia F.
Anastasia F.4 years ago

I am continually finding it less and less do-able to be a full-time worker and a mother to my two kids. I am always tired, never have enough time for myself, miss my partner, and often feel like I'm not doing such a great job of being a mother. I wish I could cut down on my work hours, have a little time to myself, and then be re-charged and ready to devote quality time to my kids.

Tim Cheung
Tim C.4 years ago


Robert O.
Robert O.4 years ago

Thanks Kristina.