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Avoiding the ’desperate housewive’s’ syndrome


Does the act of being ’superwoman’ at work and around the home leave you feeling stressed and unable to cope? Do you identify with the TV character Lynette from ’Desperate Housewives’? University of Western Sydney researchers are looking at domestic irritability and depression in women, and whether women are risking their mental health by taking on too much responsibility.

The study will also consider the impact of relationships and pre-menstrual syndrome (PMS) on women’s ability to cope, and whether a partner’s attitude can ease the stress.

The research team of Professor Jane Ussher, Associate Research Fellow Julie Mooney-Somers and Dr Janette Perz from the UWS Gender, Culture and Health Research Unit need women from around Australia to take part in the study.

Professor Ussher says despite the advances resulting from the women’s liberation movement, recent Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission data shows that equity in the household is still a long way off.

“The ’Striking the Balance’ discussion paper shows that despite women’s greater involvement in paid work, they’re still doing 70 per cent of the housework. On top of that, many women still maintain the primary child-rearing role,” says Professor Ussher.

"Many women feel it’s their responsibility - their job - to manage a household, take care of the kids, and hold down full or part-time work. They feel that they should be able to cope with everything life throws at them, without complaint.

"Women are either unwilling or unable to talk about their frustrations or fears with others because it’s like admitting a weakness or a chink in the armour. By expressing vulnerability, they can’t live up to their idealised notion of what’s expected of women.

"But everyone has low points where the stress becomes too much, and it’s usually a relatively minor incident that becomes the proverbial straw that breaks the camel’s back. In women, this can manifest itself in teary outbursts, or snapping at the kids or a partner.

“Left unresolved, this could lead to mental health issues such as depression, and may also be detrimental to women’s relationships with their partners, children or work colleagues.”

Professor Ussher says recent research shows that premenstrual syndrome (PMS) is a significant factor in women’s ability to cope, particularly for the 40 to 50 per cent of women who suffer moderate or severe symptoms.

"My recent study of 70 British and Australian women, published in the journal Social Theory and Health, has shown that premenstrual experiences such as anger and depression are linked with self-silencing, self-policing, and self-blame; where ideas of ’normal’ and ’abnormal’ behaviour are internalised and used to judge worth and value.

Any deviations from so-called ’normal’ behaviour are seen as failure, and something to be avoided" says Professor Ussher.

"One theme that emerged in interviews was the idea of PMS as a reaction to over-responsibility. On those days where they felt they couldn’t cope, women said they wanted to escape from their daily routine and deadlines, but couldn’t because of family or work responsibilities.

“Others described a loss of control, or a split personality when they were premenstrual - a Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde or ’good versus evil’ scenario - resulting in temper flare-ups, emotional breakdowns and later, feelings of remorse or guilt over ’losing it’. Most of these interactions involved family members or partners, so relationships may also be a contributing factor.”

Professor Ussher hopes to expand on these themes in the current three-year study, funded through a prestigious Australian Research Council Discovery grant.

“We’re interested in hearing about women’s experiences so we can identify the times when they feel vulnerable, angry or unable to cope,” she says.

“We want to find out whether particular issues trigger these upsets, and how women feel when it happens. By gaining a greater understanding of the underlying issues, we can hopefully offer some strategies to help women keep the harmony in their professional and personal relationships.”

Both single women, and those in relationships, are encouraged to take part. Participants will be required to complete a questionnaire, and some will be selected for one-on-one interviews to explore their experiences in greater depth.


For more information about the study, or to register as a participant, download a survey from, or call +61297 726 618 or email


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