How Wanting It All Can Make You Unhappy

Cheryl Lock
Posted

SupermomAre you ready for this?

Back in the ’70s, all we wanted was to “have it all.” A happy marriage, a good job, healthy kids—and a little bit of work/life balance. Ever since, working moms have put up the good fight, struggling to juggle a career and a home life without dropping the ball (any ball!).

Now a new study suggests women who want it all—and believe it’s possible to achieve—are actually unhappier. According to a study out of the University of Washington, working mothers who profess that their home and office lives can be seamlessly juggled are at a greater risk for depression than their more realistic colleagues.

Working moms who attempt to achieve “Supermom” status are more likely to exhibit symptoms of depression.

In other words, the happiest working moms are “willing to let some things slide,” reports Katrina Leupp, a sociology graduate student and the study’s author.

How We Got Here

The study has tracked the same set of 1,600 married women—a mix of stay-at-home and working mothers—since they were between the ages of 14 and 22. Way back when, researchers started by asking for their reactions to a series of provocative statements, such as:

  • “A woman who fulfills her family responsibilities doesn’t have time for a job outside the home.”
  •  “The employment of wives leads to more juvenile delinquency.”

Now, as adults, Leupp analyzed the women’s answers, as well as their comparative levels of depression (while controlling for marital happiness and hours worked). Her calculations turned up two key findings: First, the research confirmed earlier studies which have shown that moms who are employed generally report better mental health than their stay-at-home counterparts. On the other hand, working moms who attempt to achieve Supermom status—in other words, those who try to have it all, without admitting that it’s difficult—are more likely to exhibit symptoms of depression.

What It Means

While working appears to have positive effects on women’s health and the health of their kids, the study also reveals that facing the fact that being a working mom in America isn’t easy may be your best chance at happiness. “The research findings point to the mismatch between women’s expectations about work and family and the actual structure of the workplace and family care,” Leupp tells LearnVest. “American parents receive little childrearing aid in the form of paid parental leave or subsidized childcare, and women do the bulk of the housework and childcare, even when employed full-time.”

As a result, supermoms who internalize the issue (read: “It’s me. I should do better.”), as opposed to admitting that the problem is real—and something nearly every working mom struggles with—wind up feeling guilty or experiencing a sense of personal failure.

How You Can (Almost) Have It All

According to Leupp, the key to work/life balance is facing the fact that you can’t do it all. But “letting things go,” isn’t easy, especially when you have two to-do lists. So how do you stay on top of everything while accepting that it’s OK to be less than perfect?

“A large part of the depression that women feel stems from a sense of being overwhelmed,” says Cathy Greenberg, Ph.D., author of What Happy Women Know. “To help combat that, focus on small changes you can make in your daily routine.” Consider these ideas:

Feed Well-Being

An act as simple as switching from coffee to green tea, or deciding to drink more water, can literally impact your mood. While it’s easy to medicate with lattes, both caffeine and sugar set you up for adrenal fatigue, which leaves you more exhausted, instead of energized.

Cross Things Off

Take one or two minor items off your to-do list, or delegate those responsibilities. Ask your husband to make dinner once a week, recruit another mom into the carpool or have the kids feed the dog before you get home. Enlisting support not only whittles your list but will also make you feel less alone.

Embrace Healthy Multitasking

When it comes to fitting in exercise, get creative: Grab the dog or the stroller, or ask an older child to walk and talk with you. Maureen, 36, a web editor, bought a fitness DVD and works out at home instead of going to the gym. “I pop it in after my daughter Clemens, 4, has gone to bed, so it’s less time away from her,” she says. “Every minute counts!”

Focus on the Good Stuff

Many of us have a tendency to run what psychologists call a “negative loop.” Focusing on what went wrong, or what we should have done, is a definite trap for tapped-out moms. Instead, decide to replay the happiest five to ten minutes of your day to remind yourself of what went right. At the end of the week, you’ll be pleasantly surprised at all you’ve accomplished.

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Don’t Assume She’s a Supermom

Just as we pay more attention to how much our friends earn than our own bottom line, it’s easy to measure yourself against other mothers. As Bonnie, a tax accountant and mother to three-year-old Ryan, puts it: “I feel guilty for not showing up to all his school events. His preschool teacher actually said it was ‘nice to see me’ the one time I read to his class because, according to her, I’m the only mom who doesn’t.” Remember: You don’t have to do it the way other moms, your sister or your best friend does, let alone the way anyone else thinks you should. Now we have proof that there’s no such thing as a “Supermom”—and that trying to be less of one will actually make you happier.

Calling all moms! Learnvest is superexcited to launch LV Moms—our new newsletter covering everything you need to know about parenting and money—launching October 17th. What are you most interested in learning from LV Moms? Tell us below, and be sure to sign up for the newsletter here.

More Reading

How much does a baby really cost? Find out here.

Learn how to save more money to pay for childcare. Read this.

  • Caryn

    I think women need to adjust their expectations. Too often women feel that they need to be perfect at everything, this is just unrealistic and is often a good place to start. I have a girl friend who raises a child with a disability. She has two other healthy girls as well. She often says “I am doing the best that I can.”  I think this is a much more realistic and balanced philosophy. With that said the US does not provide an adequate childcare support system to help women balance the responsibilities of career/work responsibilities.

  • Baat Enosh

    It amazes me that this articles doesn’t talk at all about the role of the father. If we truly want to achieve work/life balance (or something like that), we need to enroll the men into this picture. Most women who are happy both at work and at home, are living a 50/50 relationship rather than what is referred to above. “Ask your husband to make dinner once a week” – seriously? – Is it really the woman’s job to ask the husband “to help” once a week? Let’s engage men in this conversation, they are also going through a transformation since the 70′s – let’s acknowledge that their roles are changing, and that things are different for them as well. If we keep dealing just with the women side of things, we will stay in a very closed loop.

    • http://senseofcents.blogspot.com/ Michelle

      I agree. The men should already be helping.  If women want to feel like they have it all, men need to help.  My BF helps probably more than 50%. I work more than him, attend school, and make more than him, so he always says that he doesn’t feel like he doesn’t do enough.  THANK GOD he’s wonderful.  He does all of the housework, makes food and so on. I’m closer to “having it all” because of him!

      • Baat Enosh

        Michelle, sounds like you found a great guy. Congrats! To have a real conversation on these issues, let’s try and avoid using the word “help”. It somewhat implies that all these duties are yours, and he is kind enough to “lend a hand”. Once women enter the workforce, these duties should not be solely on their shoulders, and the guys should not be “helping”. It should be a real partnership – both in bringing in income, and in taking care of household work.. makes sense?

        • http://senseofcents.blogspot.com/ Michelle

          Very true, I didn’t mean to use help in that way.

    • eporter70

      Agreed–You shouldn’t have to ask the other adult in the home to help you now and again.  A reminder, maybe, but a regular thing?  No.

      For married, full time employed parents, it has to be a team effort.  As a full time working mom, it makes no sense for me to then come home and clock in at job #2.  The only way it works is for every one–husband and kids–to become part of the team and do some share of the housework, etc.  It think that sets a good example for the kids, certainly keeps spouses from becoming resentful of one another, and generally gives everyone a sense of accomplishment.  

    • Emma

      I totally agree. Asking your husband to make dinner once a week is ridiculous. I am so disappointed in Learnvest for adding that to their list of tips.  What about asking your husband to be a 50/50 partner in the family and domestic duties?!  It doesn’t happen unless you discuss it with your partner.  Both parties have expectations and need to compromise and figure out together what works for both of you.  I have a man who happily cooks more than I do.

    • mirrorghost

      thank you, my  thoughts exactly.

    • http://mischievouskitty.blogspot.com Stephanie

      This is so, so true!!  My husband and I don’t have kids yet (though we do have a total of 5 pets), but we do divide the household chores pretty evenly, and neither of us views cooking and cleaning as “women’s work.”  More often than not, he cooks and I clean.  He mows the lawn, I maintain the gardens.  We’re both responsible for taking care of the animals.  Sometimes we switch things up, or if one of us has an especially busy week at work the other will pick up the slack.  But there is by no means an expectation that I should do it all just because I’m a woman. 

      Taking care of the house (and one day, our kids) is a team effort.  He isn’t “helping” me when he makes dinner any more than I’m “helping” him when I clean the bathroom.  We’re both just pulling our weight!

      • Cybrarian_ca

        Yup. Absolutely. One other thing that I think gets lost in discussions is that in many households where there is a reasonable division of labor (mine included), it may well be the case that only one person does a specific task – for the very good reason that they are better at it, or perhaps because they don’t mind doing it and it’s one of the other person’s most hated tasks. Some examples from my house: I always clean the bathroom. I swear my husband wouldn’t notice a big ribbon of toothpaste covering the mirror, or a large fungus coming to life and climbing out of the sink drain. He just does not see it. However, he cleans the cats’ “bathroom” – the litter box. I love our cats, but hate the smell of kitty poop. I do dishes most often (he hates it), but he vacuums (I hate it so much that I refuse to even learn where the on switch is on the vacuum). Who cooks depends on what we want to eat that night – we go by who is better at making what we feel like eating. I do the laundry in self-defense: the 2 times he did it, he managed to shred a delicate blouse and shrink a cardigan to cabbage patch doll size. If it’s not t-shirts & jeans, it’s not in his wardrobe. He does most of the outside work, especially the heavy stuff like shoveling snow, and I do most of the light stuff like dusting. It’s not even at any given time, and we’ve learned not to sweat it. It all works out in the end.

      • FireLaney

        I wish it worked like that.  honestly, most men I’ve encountered do expect the woman to work full time and take the lead role in everything considered kitchen and kid chores.  Often going into shock when mom goes into overdrive or starts slacking because she’s exhausted from doing it “all”

    • Danielle Ford

      I completely agree. It really surprised me that the article acknowledged that a woman with a full time job is still expected to do all of the housework … yet one of the tips was -not- expect your partner to be your -partner- who engages in an equal (50/50) amount of work for cleaning, childcare, and cooking. Women might certainly be able to have it all, if they weren’t expected to -DO- it all with essentially 2 full time jobs because their partner doesn’t do any housework. In America, women with full-time jobs do more housework than men who are unemployed… let’s not contribute to the longstanding idea that this is how it should be by writing articles that treat every aspect of housecare as the woman’s responsibility.

    • Danielle Ford

      I completely agree. It really surprised me that the article acknowledged that a woman with a full time job is still expected to do all of the housework … yet one of the tips was -not- expect your partner to be your -partner- who engages in an equal (50/50) amount of work for cleaning, childcare, and cooking. Women might certainly be able to have it all, if they weren’t expected to -DO- it all with essentially 2 full time jobs because their partner doesn’t do any housework. In America, women with full-time jobs do more housework than men who are unemployed… let’s not contribute to the longstanding idea that this is how it should be by writing articles that treat every aspect of housecare as the woman’s responsibility.

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1539832958 Toni Larina

      Well, my husband steps in a lot, and he does help a lot. His parents help too. I don’t have any family around, and if I had to do all the parenting on my own, I’d suffocate pretty quickly.
      However, realizing that other people know your child better than you do (simply because they’re around her a lot more than you are) is what makes me feel somewhat of a failure at times. I agree 100% that having the second parent help is crucial, but it doesn’t always help with the feelings.

  • NNY

    I hate the fact that women have to even make this choice (I never see articles like this written about men lol). I am one of those women who thinks you can have it all, but it won’t be easy and you need to have help. I enjoy working and my hope is to have a flexible schedule or work for myself. If that isn’t the case, luckily I have my parents and sister close by so we can all chip in. My parents didn’t have anybody to help, and they both worked, so I think they did everything the best that they could. 

  • Loraine Lindell

    At age 55 now, I was an at-home mom for 20+ years, raising two children, with an at-home business that grew as the kids became older. Volunteered in school, in church, and also raised 7 puppies for an organization that places assistance dogs with physically challenged recipient. I consider this all to have been my dream job, as I now have been in the outside workforce for 7 years really don’t have anything I feel I need to prove to any one. However, I don’t have that seniority or time with a company to have invested in my retirement years. Still, I wouldn’t give up those years for anything..maybe have let the house be more untidy and the dishes sitting for longer! and saved more in my own retirement plan.

  • Anonymous

    How you can have it all:  choose the right partner.  so far, i’ve seen that make the #1 difference in the happiness of my friends with children.

  • Kelly

    It is very hard to balance a successful career, when you’re also being pulled to doing your mom things!  The guilt thing is so hard to get over, and men have no clue what that feels like.  I’d love to work half time and devote more to my kids, but I’m the primary breadwinner, and would have to give up almost everything to make it happen.

    As for working in a workout, I go to the gym on my lunch hour- I don’t want to miss the so very little amount of time I get with my kids.  At my last job I’ve strapped on the sneakers and walked outside during lunch or a break.  I’d park in the lot a mile from the office and walk in, even when temps were below freezing!   If all else fails, I put a DVD in after the kids go to sleep. 

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1539832958 Toni Larina

      Yep! My husband and I alternate “shifts” and go to the gym after work. That way we get to spend time with our little one, and stay in shape.
      We both work insanely long hours, and when our daughter was younger we both didn’t feel as much guilt being away from her as we do now. Now she’s two and it breaks my heart parting with her every morning while she extends her little hands to me yelling “mommy, no, mommy, please!”. Not working for me is not optional, I feel that I can do more as a mother for her if I keep working. I also enjoy working. And I hope one day she understands.
      But it’s not easy, not easy.

  • Jill

    On the new MOMS LV I’d LOVE to see tips on instilling the value of money on young children.  I have a 3 year old that thinks we can just buy anything new if it becomes old, broke or missing.   She also loves “paying” at the grocery store with her little princess playing cards.  While it’s cute- I’m worried she’s getting the wrong idea about money.  I know 3 is young but I also believe that what I do now sets the foundation for future lessons as she gets older.  I’d love more advice on how to set this foundation.

  • Jill

    On the new MOMS LV I’d LOVE to see tips on instilling the value of money on young children.  I have a 3 year old that thinks we can just buy anything new if it becomes old, broke or missing.   She also loves “paying” at the grocery store with her little princess playing cards.  While it’s cute- I’m worried she’s getting the wrong idea about money.  I know 3 is young but I also believe that what I do now sets the foundation for future lessons as she gets older.  I’d love more advice on how to set this foundation.

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Susan-Bewley/100000644207137 Susan Bewley

      I can tell you how my mother did it for all of us.  We started at about 3.  Have your daughter actually start doing little chores with Mommy where she makes a few pennies or quarters. Whatever is change lying around the house.  When she does something simple like clean up her toy, or help Mommy fold laundry, give her money  Then, when she wants something, count the change with her.  Kids pick up money very fast.  

    • Anonymous

      We will definitely cover this topic in LV Moms — how to teach your kids about money values, and what they should be learning at every age, even as young as 1 (mine versus someone else’s). Look out for it!  Thanks for the great comments.

  • Jill

    On the new MOMS LV I’d LOVE to see tips on instilling the value of money on young children.  I have a 3 year old that thinks we can just buy anything new if it becomes old, broke or missing.   She also loves “paying” at the grocery store with her little princess playing cards.  While it’s cute- I’m worried she’s getting the wrong idea about money.  I know 3 is young but I also believe that what I do now sets the foundation for future lessons as she gets older.  I’d love more advice on how to set this foundation.

  • Ora

    You CAN have it all.  Firstly, marry the right man, if you want to have children.  Then remember, you can have it all…but not the same day, nor the same week, not the same month, maybe not even in the same year.  You can have it all in a LIFETIME of life well lived.  I’m doing it! 

  • http://www.bmwysp.deviantart.com Jennifer Megan Varnadore

    Well that definitely can make you feel a bit better about yourself.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=600756 Joy Cannon

    First, I’m not a mom and have no intention of becoming one. But this is an area of interest to me (women’s rights etc). I just finished reading The Second Shift by Arlie Hochschild and Anne Machung. I highly recommend it. The authors do an excellent job of observing and framing what a lot of us have probably felt or possibly done subconsciously. But I think the key here is men haven’t caught up with our revolution, and the majority still are not doing their share at home. If they do participate in household chores or childcare it’s often “a favor” or “helping out” not just doing their share. And women are too often the ones with the mental list of tasks, household inventory, and so on. It’s no wonder we feel overwhelmed. Instead of our partners truly sharing the workload at home, we’re still shouldering the job, in addition to a job outside the home, and left begging for help, exhausted and burnt out. If you are lucky enough to have a partner who is truly involved and doing their share, congratulations! We need to figure out how to reframe our culture such that this is the norm, and the home revolution catches up with the workplace one.

    • Amira

      I agree Joy. My husband is currently unemployed and very rarely does anything at home. He blames some of the things on his past, but he needs to think about our future instead of being stuck in the past. I am the only one working and still come home to clean, wash dishes & laundry, vacuum.

      He likes to cook and doesn’t even have dinner prepared for me sometimes when i come home from work.

      Even when he did work, I was working two part-time jobs at the time (sometimes both in the same day amounting to almost a 16-hour workday) and still came home to clean!

    • Amira

      I agree Joy. My husband is currently unemployed and very rarely does anything at home. He blames some of the things on his past, but he needs to think about our future instead of being stuck in the past. I am the only one working and still come home to clean, wash dishes & laundry, vacuum.

      He likes to cook and doesn’t even have dinner prepared for me sometimes when i come home from work.

      Even when he did work, I was working two part-time jobs at the time (sometimes both in the same day amounting to almost a 16-hour workday) and still came home to clean!

  • Sharon Marcus

    I love your site, but I’m really bothered by the title of this article. I think that wanting it all is normal, and being realistic about what is possible is what’s critical. And you cover that in your article, but the title is misleading, and the one distributed in email “Why you can’t have it all” was even worse. How about “Working Moms With Realistic Expectations Rank Most Self Satisfied?” I would have read that story too.

  • Kate Brennan

    I’d like to learn about parenting and finance tips such as 1) will vs. trust – are they mutually exclusive? which is better 2) 529 vs. Coverdell and other investing options that allow my child the freedom to choose their educational/ life path without be penalized (i.e. if they don’t go to college can they still access the money and what is the penalty for this decision) 3) a sample calculation of the financial trade off of paying for a nanny (single or share care) above board or not, nanny vs daycare, etc.

    Looking forward to the new mom focus. I love Learnvest!

  • http://www.gracestreetgroup.com Jennifer

    I’m all for the suggestion to “Take one or two minor items off your to-do list, or delegate those responsibilities.”  But equally important is to create a To Don’t list—decide upfront what things you’re not going to bother with—AND not going to feel guilty about not doing.  My secret to sanity:  My To Don’t list is FAR longer than my To Do list.

  • KrisCrus

    How about those moms who don’t have a choice whether to work or not to work? I would like to see the divorced/widowed moms addressed as well. What if you don’t have a partner to whom you can ”delegate” work?

    • colby

      I’m one of those moms who doesn’t have a choice to work or not work. I work and I go to school. I try my best to balance it all but I know I’m not perfect.

  • Holly

    I think the useful message (aiming for realistic expectations rather than perfection will make yOu happier) was lost due to all the bad assumptions. Not all working women have working partners (my partner is a stay at home parent while I work outside the home). Not all working women HAVE a partner. Housework and cooking shouldn’t be assumed to be a woman’s responsibility to get “help” with. etc. These assumptions are well covered in other comments.

    The underlying message was sound, but sadly lost in a bad article.

  • Kiki

     I was lucky I got to take care of my daughter for her first five years while I went to college and my husband worked full time. My house was in order, I knew where everything was in the kitchen I was a full time mom and housewife part time student. Back in those days, when I was in my twenties I too got brainwashed by corporate America telling me that as a woman I can have it all career, family and juggle it all. What they don’t tell you is that once you enter the corporate world you go to work and face sharks and have to fend yourself against those sharks. Then, you go home after you pick up your kid from daycare and it’s 6pm you still have to cook dinner then clean up then if youre lucky you get 6 hours of sleep. By the time I was 35 I was tired, I started to neglet my diet, my exersise, my health. Why? because I’m a woman hear me roar I am juggling a full time career and family and home chores. Roaarrr!!! BULLSH**T!!! By the time I was 36 I was looking 46! A woman who once got carded everywhere she went I was now looking like an OLD TIRED HAG!! I HATED MY LIFE!! I HATED MYSELF!!! I WANTED TO WRECK MY CAR EVERY MORNING TO AVOID GOING TO WORK!!!! But, yet I continued to lie to myself!!! Finally I started to call out from work for stupid reasons went on a stress leave. My prayers where finally answered when my job layed off 2000 people and I was one of the lucky ones and right at that time my husband received a large inheritance. Long story short my husband (who also was tired of being a wage slave) opened up two internet businesses and I assist him with updating the websites, but he runs the show (hires employees oversees the wharehouse ect) I became a happy housewife, by this time our daughter was a teenager and I like the fact that I am home so that I know who her friends are and what she is doing. Do I miss office politics? Office gossip? Having to wake up early to rush to work at 8am after I only got 4 hours sleep because I had to clean the kitchent the night before and have to rush to work eating a bag of popcorn because I didnt have the time to eat breakfast and not work out for like ever because I’m always on the go go go?? HELL NOOO!!! Now I get to sleep until I feel like it, I get to eat a leisurey breakfast, I get to go shopping, I get to clean my house the way I want it and If I want to I get to take a nap if I’m tired, I also get to go to they gym, my belly dancing, class, I surf I run my house, bills, cleaning, cooking ect all without some b**tch boss telling me when to jump I NEVER BEEN THIS HAPPY!! And the best part people I used to work with that have seen me a year later say I look younger and rested and good!!! So for all those poor women out there who are lying to themselves thinking they are happier while living in a rush, on the go, juggling career and home, dropping off their kids at daycare with some stranger while they rush  to work w/out breakfast after they slept 4 hours because they had a pile of laundry and kitchen to clean the night before they can keep telling themselves they are fullfilled because the Nile is a big river in Egypt.
    Happy Spoiled Trophy Wife