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.
That difference in response isn't huge, Hrdy says, but it's likely to grow as, day after day, the baby becomes accustomed to the mother responding first and begins to prefer her attention.
As biology nudges the modern mom into the traditional position of comforter-in-chief, she starts to contend with the dazzlingly high domestic standards promoted by everyone from Martha Stewart, to HGTV to your friendly neighborhood alpha mom. Today's perfectionist parent might, among other things, sign up her kid for two or three organized sports, when a generation ago one would've sufficed.
And guess who guides, supervises and chauffeurs them?
College-educated moms have increased their child care time by more than nine hours per week since the mid-1990s, according to an analysis by Garey and Valerie Ramey of the University of California at San Diego. Less educated moms are putting in an additional four hours per week.
"We get so much information and advice about everything we do, how could any mother currently feel like she's doing a good job?" says Domar.
"We need to get to the point of saying look at our mothers, our grandmothers, our great-grandmothers who didn't do anything like what we're doing for our kids now and, first of all their kids turned out OK, and second, what kind of toll is this taking on us? What kind of pressure are we putting on ourselves to excel in every way?"
Throughout our evolutionary history, mothers have been working moms, Hrdy says, gathering food and performing tasks in addition to child care.
What's different now is that the strong networks of friends and family that traditionally helped with child care have eroded, due to factors such as geographic mobility.
"Mothers don't have enough social support," Hrdy says. "That's the bottom line. The idea that mothers were ever meant to care for children by themselves in our species is not realistic."
High-quality day care could help fill the gap for some moms, she says, but progress in that area has been slow. A recent study by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development found that the U.S lags behind more than a dozen countries, including Britain, Italy, Mexico and the Czech Republic, when it comes to government spending on child care.
Even reducing stress can be stressful for the modern mom.
Mathews, author of the popular Meanest Mom blog, (themeanestmom.blogspot.com), agonized for three months after being offered her dream job at a large public research institution in 2008, but ultimately decided that she couldn't have a high-pressure career and still be the kind of hands-on parent she wanted to be.
"It was arguably one of the hardest decisions I had to make, but I chose (to sacrifice some) glory and fame and future job prospects just to try to relieve some of these pressures that I had felt building," says Mathews, an assistant professor at Rollins College in Winter Park, Fla.
"Now it's kind of the happy medium where there's enough pressure to keep me motivated but not so much pressure that I'm going nuts."
If your stress level isn't manageable, you should talk to your doctor, according to womenshealth.gov, a Web resource of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Your doctor can help you get counseling, suggest ways to better handle your stress and prescribe antidepressants and sleep aids.
If you're coping well but would like to do better, womenshealth.gov suggests a wide range of stress management options.
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.