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By Sarah Klein

MONDAY, August 22, 2011 ( — Working mothers are less likely to be depressed than stay-at-home moms, a new study suggests.

However, working moms who thought women should be able to do it all are at greater risk for depression at age 40 than those who had more realistic expectations before they had kids.

“Holding a job is likely to improve your overall mental health and well-being, which is ultimately a good thing for yourself and your family,” says Katrina Leupp, the University of Washington sociology graduate student who led the research.

But it’s not a bad idea to “accept that balancing work and family is difficult, rather than feeling guilty or unsuccessful if you can’t devote as much time as you would like to your job or your family,” she says.

Leupp analyzed U.S. Department of Labor data, which included 1,600 married women who were approximately age 40 in 2006. The women had been surveyed in 1987, when they were around 20, about their thoughts regarding working moms.

The women who supported combining motherhood with a career had a greater risk of depression later in life than those who thought women should stay at home to raise kids.

In fact, the young women who were the least likely to support the idea of blending home and work life had the fewest depression symptoms when they were actually working moms at age 40.

It’s not clear why, but women who expect to be a supermom may feel bad when they find it harder than they anticipated. And those who don’t may feel less guilty about making sacrifices such as leaving work early to pick up the kids, says Leupp.

“The current generation of employed young women are more likely to have been raised by employed mothers than were past generations,” says Leupp. “Having an employed mother might make one more aware of the difficulties in balancing work and family, but it also provides you with a role model demonstrating that balancing work and family is possible and rewarding.”

Working moms shouldn’t feel guilty if they have to cut corners or take time for themselves. “Be gentle with yourself,” advises Leupp. “Time away from your kids on Friday might make you a happier and better parent on Saturday.”

In general, studies have shown that employment is beneficial for a woman’s mental health. The survey found that stay-at-home moms were more depressed at age 40 than working women, regardless of their viewpoints before they had kids.

The study will be presented this week at the American Sociological Association’s annual meeting in Las Vegas.