This week the media and the blogosphere have been abuzz over a study examining rates of depression among mothers.
A press release by the American Sociological Association (ASA) details the work of Katrina Leupp, a University of Washington graduate student who led a study examining rates of depression symptoms among stay –at-home-moms and working moms. (The press release is available in its entirety here .)
The press release doesn’t tell us the professions of the 1,600 forty-year-old women who took part in the study, or their work history prior to having children. The study divides the women into three categories. The first category consists of Stay At Home Moms, with the second and third categories consisting of working moms – either SuperMoms, or “working moms who expected that they would have to forgo some aspects of their career or parenting to achieve a work-life balance,” what I call ‘Realist Moms.’
All of the women in the study had previously participated in answering a questionnaire. The age of the women at the time of the questionnaire is not disclosed in the press release, but they are called ‘young adults,’ and presumptively did not yet have children. The study’s division of the now forty-year-old women into SuperMoms and Realist Moms depended on their answers to the questionnaire at a previous point in their lives.
According to the press release, Stay At Home Moms fared the worst in the study, with the highest rates of depression symptoms. Leupp gives credence to the saying that Stay At Home Moms have the hardest job in the world, it reports. “Employment is ultimately beneficial for women’s health, even when differences in marital satisfaction and working full or part time are ruled out,” says Leupp.
Who are the SuperMoms? They are the women in the study who as young adults consistently agreed with statements that women can combine employment and family care. They had the second-highest level of depression symptoms. The Reaslist Moms are the women in the study who expected that work-life balance was going to be hard and were “probably more likely to accept that they can’t do it all.” Realist Moms had the lowest level of depression symptoms.
What, if anything, does the study mean to mother-lawyers, both working and not?
We know from other recent studies (to be discussed later) that up to twenty-five percent of mother-lawyers ‘opt-out.’ If we believe Leupp’s study applies to ‘opted out’ moms as well as other Stay At Home Moms, those opted out moms are most likely to exhibit depression symptoms. If that’s the case, why do opted out moms report being so happy - Lisa Blegen’s book-club moms, or the moms described in 100 Hour Couples (more on that another day.) Or do moms who have opted out feel like they must appear to be happy? Opted out moms have given up a lot – status, money, independence, the ability to pee alone. If they don’t appear happy, would others – or secretly, they themselves – judge them as foolish for having given those things up? Maybe opted out moms’ previous high-powered careers were so stressful, that they truly are happy staying home – it’s just that there are so few of them, they are mere outliers.
Where do the working mother-lawyers land in Leupp’s study? My guess is that they are primarily SuperMoms – women who before having children believed that it was possible to combine employment and family care. Here’s why. Today’s mother-lawyers have had very few role models in the profession, and have therefore been trail-blazers in this brave new world of combining motherhood and lawyerhood. As a general rule, trail-blazers of any sort believe that they will be successful. (If they believed they would fail, would they even attempt to blaze a new trial?) Add to that the fact that lawyers are trained to be perfectionists. (It can hardly be otherwise in a profession in which minor errors can have devastating consequences to a client’s life, liberty or livelihood.) These trail-blazing women with perfectionist predilections tend to have high opinions of their own abilities, believing themselves capable of achieving things impossible to mere mortals. Such as – apparently – combining employment and family care. Besides, how many young women who later became lawyers believed they were not capable of doing something? Especially with no role models to warn them otherwise? My guess is very few.
Given the well-known high levels of depression in the legal profession at large, and the assumption that Leupp’s study applies to both opted out mother-lawyer, and working mother-lawyers, I have come to the unfortunate conclusion that mother lawyers are destined to be
depressed if they do (opt out), depressed if they don’t.
Unless, of course, Leupp’s study is flawed in grouping opted out moms in the same category as other Stay At Home Moms. Maybe we need a study measuring depression levels in opted out moms. Is there one out there? If so, let me know. If not, maybe I’ll create one.
Note: Leupp’s study was presented at the annual conference of the ASA. It has not yet been published, as publication requires peer review, and acceptance by an academic journal. I plan on following up on this post when/if the actual study is published, and available for review.