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Supermoms At Higher Risk For Depression: Study

Working Moms

First Posted: 08/22/11 12:00 PM ET Updated: 10/22/11 06:12 AM ET

It's only natural for a mom to wish for perfect work-life balance. But thinking that dream is actually going to materialize? Well, it turns out the "I can and will have it all" attitude isn't the way to get happy.

Several studies have shown that working moms tend to have lower stress levels and fewer symptoms of depression than stay-at-home moms. Other researchers have found that a mom's well-being is heavily dependent upon the quality of the job she has, and on her individual preference to work outside the home or not.

Moms are better off at home if that's really where they want to be, and they're better off working if that's where they really want to be.

The newest findings suggest the key to preventing emotional slumps is to manage attitude and expectations. The study, led by University of Washington graduate student Katrina Leupp, found that working moms who thought they could easily juggle their work and home lives showed greater levels of depression symptoms than women who acknowledged that they'd have to make sacrifices in one area for the other.

"What the study is really pointing to is that if a woman goes into her job and thinks 'I should be able to have it all,' and then gets there and realizes 'No this is really, really hard,' then she's more likely to feel a sense of disappointment with herself," said Leupp. "She might feel like it's a personal failure instead of, 'It's hard because it's hard.'"

Feelings of guilt, too, may play a role in women feeling more depressed when they aren't able to manage their work-family lives as well as they thought they could. Leupp pointed to another study from March that found women experienced greater levels of guilt than men when they answered work calls at home.

So it's okay to want it all, as long as you don't think you can have it all? That sounds like a fine line to walk. So we asked Ellen Galinksy, president and co-founder of the Families and Work Institute and author of "Mind in the Making," to give us some pointers. Here are her six rules:

Find your work-life fit.
"Balance" is a guilt word; it implies you have to have everything on an even keel and that if you give to one side, you take from the other. Family can energize you for work and work can energize you for family.

"Fit" on the other hand implies that what works best for me might not be your best solution. I wanted to write a book when my children were little, but didn't want it to take away from the time I spent with them. So, I got up very early for a year or two and by the time they were up, I'd done something I was happy about. See if you can find one thing to fix, whether it's getting up early so that you have a few minutes before chaos starts or it's creating a better transition from work to family.

Don't feel bad about training for that marathon, wanting to join a book club even if you're already swamped -- these are good things.
In the early days of work-life research, 40-some years ago, there was an assumption that working was harmful and many researchers set out to say children and mothers were both worse off as a result. There was this notion of role conflict -- being a parent took away from being an employee, and vice versa.

Now, there is a long list of literature that says working moms are less depressed, but it's not only about job or no job: Having other things that are important in your life outside of your children, such as volunteering or getting involved with a sport, is the critical factor. There are always times when being a parent is tough, or times when work is tough, but when you've got something else going on, you're bound to feel healthier mentally.

Own your choices.
Women question whether or not they should be working and men don't. That's a big difference. Any niggling questions about whether you're making the right choices are guilt triggers. So, while men may want to be more involved with their kids, they don't question their role. Women do, even though today's women are bringing in 44 percent of family income. If you know in some fundamental way that you made the right decision about working, you'll be more comfortable going forward than if you're always questioning yourself. Occasional questioning is fine but deep-seated ambivalence is bad.

Try a two-item to-do list.
Expectations are the critical lever for depression. Guilt comes from having an expectation that's seeming to not come true. Most working women come home and have a list of "45 Things I'm Going To Do," rather than having an idea of "Two Things That I Can Do and Then Maybe I'll Get to the Third." When there's a feeling that you have to do it all, then you're exhausted by work and you're exhausted by home, rather than being where you are at that moment.

Ask yourself, "What's important now?"
Remember, it's a long time being a parent. You think there a few magic years, but there are many: Right now, I'm sitting in the car with my grown-up daughter to drive to a talk she's giving in Albuquerque.

Make an expectation adjustment.
If you're feeling guilty or depressed or worried, ask yourself: "What am I expecting that isn't coming true? Why is that happening? And in five years what will I regret?" If you're going to regret something, see if you can change it.

That doesn't mean you have to forgo family day or stop answering every work call. Personally, I'm on this vacation I had planned for a year. I really, really wanted to turn off and have time to do the things I want to do, but it wasn't happening. I had a conference call on my first day for two hours. And I was mad at myself and everyone else because of it. As soon as I adjusted my expectations and realized it's a work-cation -- I'm in a beautiful place and I get to do a lot of the things I like to do while I'm working -- I was okay.

Aligning your expectations with reality is half the battle. Staying stuck with expectations that aren't coming true leads to depression and guilt. So it's not a vacation, it's a work-cation. And that's working out perfectly.

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