By Tina Vasquez (Los Angeles)
In the previews to the new Sarah Jessica Parker film “I Don’t Know How She Does It,” we see a frantic and tired woman constantly in motion; she’s running her children to school, dashing to the office, staying up all night creating her mental to-do list. Some contend that this is a thing of the past, that 10 years ago “having it all” became the obsession of a generation of women, but like Parker’s character, there are still many who wholeheartedly believe they can have it all. They believe it is in their power to have a dynamic career, the picture perfect family, and a healthy marriage and social life – all while maintaining their supermom persona. According to new research, however, not only can this belief fall short, but it can also lead to depression.
Katrina Leupp, a University of Washington graduate student, recently authored a new study that found that working mothers who believe that home and the office can be seamlessly juggled are at greater risk for depression than their more realistic colleagues who accept they can’t do it all.
Leupp looked at 1,600 women — a mix of working and stay-at-home mothers — who had previously participated in the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth, which tracked kids in 1979 when they were between 14 and 22-years-old. As young adults, the women were asked to rate their attitudes regarding women’s employment. Leupp then analyzed those answers alongside a score of the women’s level of depression when they were 40. Her findings confirmed earlier studies that showed that women who are employed have better mental health than stay-at-home mothers. The study also revealed that women who rejected the myth of the supermom were less likely than “supermom-wannabes” to have symptoms of depression. According to Leupp, results remained similar when marital satisfaction and hours worked were considered.
Letting go of the dream of having it all can be very difficult, especially if you’ve spent every waking moment trying to maintain it. If we’re being honest (and it’s hard not to be when findings such as Leupp’s become more common), acknowledging we’re not perfect enables us to achieve so much more. By admitting that balance is impossible, you’ve already found the release valve for the working mom’s unrelenting pressure.
Intensive and Intense
Women, it seems, are always caught in a Catch 22. As Betty Friedan taught us with The Feminine Mystique in 1963, “the problem with no name”—the malaise, emptiness, and frustration afflicting wives and mothers in an era of postwar abundance— is still something strongly felt by stay-at-home moms today, if not more so. But, as Leupp’s research revealed, working moms may have lower rates of depression than their stay-at-home counterparts, but buying into the supermom myth could put working mothers at greater risk for depression. The grass is always greener on the other side and as many working moms dream of staying home full-time with their children, how are they expected to make peace with the reality that they can’t have it all and that balancing work and life is impossible?
Julie Hurst uses a model that looks at active vs. passive living. In passive living, people feel at the mercy of their workload, overburdened, and overwhelmed; they feel that things are out of control. In active living, people feel in the driving seat of their life – including their work life. They are better equipped to manage their working lives as opposed to being at the mercy of them. Hurst’s model covers psychological, emotional, cognitive, and behavioral elements of change so that it is both wide-ranging and long-lasting.
Hurst is a psychotherapist and the director of The Work Life Balance Centre, which she created to help people deal with the increasingly overwhelming nature of work. According to Hurst, the last decade has seen work become more “intensive and intense,” often leaving women feeling as if they’re buckling under the pressure.
For 10 years Hurst led a national research project in the UK called the 24-7 survey, which looked at the ups and downs of modern working life. The results informed a great deal of the work she now does with the Centre and using her qualifications and experience, she began looking for a way to help people stress proof the way they worked. Studies such as the one authored by Leupp are of particular interest to Hurst, who tends to focus more heavily on the psychological effects of work/life balance issues, such as the depression women feel when trying to have it all.
“Interestingly there are few differences between the challenges faced by both men and women in terms of dealing with being overwhelmed at work, but it is at the interface between work and home that women often face an additional disadvantage,” Hurst said. “My particular interest in this subject is psychological and deals with two facets that tend to be much more prevalent in women than men. One is guilt, as in, ‘Am I selfish for wanting to have a career which takes me away from my family?’ The other is perception, as in, ‘Am I seen as less able by putting my family first?’ Because these barriers are not externally obvious and are largely contained within each individual woman’s own thoughts, worries, and feelings, they can be difficult to overcome because no one else knows they are there. Women can also be hesitant to speak up about emotional impacts.”
In A Perfect World …
The first step to easing any depression that is being felt as a result of trying to juggle it all is seemingly simple: open up. Just as you immediately feel better after talking to a friend or loved one about a particularly trying day, discussing the internal barriers Hurst referenced makes it easier for individual women to see their way through the fog of what could have been or what they believe should be. If what you currently want in life has to be prefaced with the phrase, “In a perfect world …” then you know it’s time to start from scratch.
If you simply can’t make peace with not having it all, try to change your thinking about what having it all means in the present moment.
“I am often asked if it is possible to have it all and my answer is always the same: Yes, but not all at the same time. Our lives go in stages and as we grow, mature, and undergo lifestyle changes, we need to check in with ourselves as to whether we are keeping up to date with our priorities,” Hurst said. “When we lose sight of the shape of our lives, when we try to take a life built about one set of needs, drives, wants, and priorities and then add in a whole new set without letting anything go – we are heading for trouble. I encourage women to be realistic.”
Hurst recommends that women take a close look at their psychological needs and drives. What attracts them, energizes them, ignites their passion? What do they enjoy, crave, or feel drawn to? Is it having an impact? Is it solving problems? Is it being creative? If you work out what these things are, then you can ensure that these needs are met in a variety of ways, not just at work and not just at home. When doing this, whatever decisions you make about how you divide your time and where you put your energies do not seem like compromises. You do not feel as though you are missing out. These fundamental needs are met equally effectively in all the areas of your life, meaning you feel fulfilled regardless of your working patterns or work/home choices.
One of the most important concepts Hurst tackles when dealing with her female clients is teaching them that they need to be the number one priority in their own lives. For many women, this is an incredibly difficult concept to wrap their heads around. According to Hurst, it’s as simple as this: If a woman loves and wants to care for her children, then she needs to love and take care of their mother. The more people need us, the more we need to ensure we are in a fit state, both emotionally and physically, in order to be there. This means putting yourself at the top of the list – not at the bottom. This is especially crucial for women raising young daughters. How can you expect to teach your child to have self-esteem if their primary role model undervalues herself and behaves as a martyr? According to Hurst, children learn what they live and will learn to value themselves when they see the women in their lives valuing themselves too.
“I remind women that good decision-making skills are critical; when you cannot do everything, make sure you do the right things,” Hurst said. “We are not perfect, we never have been, we never will be and even trying to be is fruitless and ultimately soul destroying. We all need to celebrate our wonderful ‘imperfectionism’ every day.”