A new study from the University of Washington in Seattle finds that while working outside the home is good for mothers’ mental health, so-called “supermoms” have higher rates of depression than those working moms who are willing to let go of their expectations of perfection at home and at work. “Supermoms” who set the unattainable goal of being perfect are more likely to be depressed, the study found.
On Tuesday, The Today Show talked to the study’s researcher, Katrina Leupp, who interviewed 1,600 women and found that there is a mismatch between women who expect to do it all and their workplaces, which are not designed with work-life balance in mind.
This study won’t be news to many moms, whether they consider themselves “supermoms” or not. When I think back to the years I spent as a corporate vice president trying to be a “supermom,” I get depressed just thinking about that time in my life. The study’s author is correct that most workplaces are not conducive to a woman who wants to raise her young children and work full time. My former job required long hours, weekend work, attending events and travel. There was also another problem. The women’s restroom didn’t have a counter, so if a working mom wanted to pump her breast milk, there was nowhere to do it. Setting sterile breast pumps set down on a germ-filled bathroom floor just doesn’t work. It was very clear, in subtle and not-so-subtle ways that if you were a mom of young kids, you weren’t welcome at my former company.
So why do so many women keep trying to be “supermom?” It’s because we’ve been told we can be “supermom” and we’re encouraged to “go for it.” We are well educated, successful and we think that adding one more achievement (is a kid merely another goal to be achieved?) to our lives can’t possibly be that hard. After all, we’ve always aimed high and reached our goals. How many times did I hear, “you don’t have to give up your career just because you have a baby?”
What’s not anticipated—or is ignored-- by those dispensing this "invaluable" advice to us overachievers, is the tremendous responsibility that comes with being a mom. Nobody seems to be able to explain exactly how the logistics work when you decide you can be “supermom.” Outsourcing everything related to the house and kids to nannies, drivers, gardeners, grocery delivery services and even carwash services wasn’t for me. Still, I can't blame those moms who do so. I have friends who are on the “supermom” track. They work in high-powered executive jobs, they run marathons and triathlons and they travel for business with jobs that don’t have flexible hours. They don’t have stay-at-home husbands in case you’re wondering. My girlfriends balance everything like a high wire act, carefully choreographed so that nothing comes crashing down. They are driven by their own ambition. They want it all and nobody can tell them it’s not possible. When I ask my “supermom” friends why they don’t scale back when they’re telling me how stressed they are, they say they can’t. They have too much happening at work.
The “Supermom” study author, Leupp, suggests that working moms should “temper their optimism about juggling parenting and employment and not blame themselves if they struggle.” This is great advice. I wish this were the message being communicated to working moms by our culture. Instead, we constantly see images of working moms who look like “supermoms” because they balance work, family, soccer practice, cooking dinner, training for a marathon, yoga classes, getting hair highlighted, having their nails done, seeing friends, hosting parties and a lot more. Sure there are magazines articles telling moms to “make time for yourself” by taking a hot bath or setting aside time for a spa day or some other unrealistic ideas for staying mentally and physically healthy. Don’t get me started on celebrity moms like Angelina Jolie who manages to be photographed talking her six kids shopping without help (actually the help is hiding from the cameras). But, unless you’re super-human, by the time you’ve worked a 12 -hour day, rushed to pick up the kids, attended baseball practice, picked up—or cooked-- dinner and put the kids to bed, most normal moms are too tired to work out. Then there’s your relationship that needs attention…if you still have one left. This is a race to see which runs out first, the hours in the day or the “supermom’s” energy and patience.
The backlash to the “supermom” phenomena is visible on highly popular mom blogs like, Vodka Mommy, Her Bad Mother and Wiskey In My Sippy Cup and other “bad mommy” blogs that chronicle all the things these “bad moms” are doing wrong. Of course, many of the posts are written with a wink and a nod to say, “I’m not really so awful, I just write about it to make my readers feel better.” Some of these blogs have a dishonest quality about them. Others are funny and lighthearted. The trend is toward those confessional blogs that mock the “supermom” and make readers feel like they’re not alone when they arrive at a kids birthday party, dressed in work clothes, covered in vomit. Or, when in their harried state of existence, they send their kid to school with strep throat. “We’re just like you,” the “bad mommy blogs tell their readers day after day. What these blogs offer is a quick dose of sympathy and an anti “perfect mommy” sentiment. What they can’t do is truly help women who are incredibly hard on themselves—and each other--to ease up.
The “Supermom” study suggests that women recognize that if it feels difficult, it’s because it is difficult. Women, Leupp says, need to “temper their optimism about juggling parenting and employment and not blame themselves if they struggle.”
I hope there are more studies forthcoming like the University of Washington’s that lets working moms know that being a “supermom” is overrated. Then again, do we really need a study to tell us what many of us already know? When trying to be “supermom” creates depression, it’s time to re-think priorities. Perhaps the workplace should take the lead in this effort to help reevaluate the world of work for moms trying to balance career and family. Hopefully, the mythical “supermom” will go the way of the dinosaurs.