Alice Domar is a modern-day mom, so she knows the drill:
"When you're at work you feel guilty that you're not at home, and if you go home at 5 or 6 p.m. to pick up the kids from day care, you feel guilty you're not at work — or you do what I do: You have your Blackberry in hand, and every time you get to a stoplight, you check your email."
She gets home, she says, and she's greeted by clutter. Then maybe there's an email like the one she received the other day, asking her to help out at a school event on a weekday afternoon.
"I emailed back, 'I'm really sorry, I'm seeing patients until 7 that day,'" she says.
"But you know what I did? And I shouldn't have: I said I'd bake something."
Up against it
The pressures of modern motherhood run the gamut. There are the souped-up societal expectations, the costs and logistics of day care and the division of household labor that usually still leaves mom with the lion's share of cooking and cleaning.
Experts also point to biology (moms are quicker to respond to a crying infant than dads) and to the rise of perfectionist parenting, in which parents invest vast amounts of time and energy in their children's education and extracurriculars — and are really hard on themselves if something should turn out less than ideal.
A whopping 40 percent of working moms say they always feel rushed, compared with 25 percent of working dads, according to a 2009 report from the Pew Research Center.
At-home moms, now the minority in families with kids 17 or younger, are less rushed, but 82 percent still say they experience stress sometimes or frequently, the Pew report says, compared with 86 percent of working moms and 74 percent of working dads.
"From the research I've seen, (mom stress) is just going exponentially up," says Domar, an assistant professor at Harvard Medical School and author of "Be Happy Without Being Perfect: How to Worry Less and Enjoy Life More."
The good news is that moms, overall, report that they're happy with their frazzled 21st century lives.
"I make a lot of sacrifices," says Jana Mathews, 34, a college professor from Orlando, Fla.
"I don't have any friends or any sort of social life to speak of. I go to work. I get home when my kids get off the bus from school, and then I work from when they go to sleep at night until 1 o'clock in the morning. But I'm profoundly happy. I've found what I want to be doing in life."
The bad news is that stress, in large doses, can lead to headaches, back pain and sleep problems. It's also been linked to more serious health conditions such as depression and Type 2 diabetes, according to Kathleen Kendall-Tackett, author of "The Hidden Feelings of Motherhood: Coping with Stress, Depression, and Burnout."
"We used to say 10 to 15 percent of new moms got depressed, and now it's more accurate to say anywhere from 15 to 25 percent," Kendall-Tackett says.
A certain amount of stress is built into motherhood.
Anthropologist Sarah Blaffer Hrdy points to an ingenious experiment in which researchers played recordings of crying infants to new parents. Although moms and dads responded with equal alarm when a baby was crying hard, moms were much quicker to respond to the baby who was crying softly.
Souped-up schedules, helicopter parenting and a lack of social support combine to create a new level of pressure. And then there's the day care issue.