Doreen Sullivan can't be in two places at once. But she tries. On a recent weekday she interrupted her workday to take her son to the doctor. In the waiting room, her task at hand was not only to watch the clock and keep an eye on her son. Meanwhile, she was also figuring out how to make it to her daughter's dance banquet while also hosting a client at the ESPY awards--happening on the same night.
Extreme multitasking is just part of life for Sullivan, 47, a single mother who founded and runs Post No Bills, a marketing firm in Columbia, S.C. In a typical week, she works 60 hours in her office, meets with clients off-site, shuttles her daughter to dance classes, volunteers with her son at an animal rehabilitation center, gives free marketing consultations to local small businesses--and still squeezes in time to make dinner most every night (Shake 'N Bake, she says, is both quick and nutritious).
Professional women increasingly find themselves with these same types of grueling to-do lists. Further, many can't help but compare their lists against their superwoman peers. "There is a bit of ego in being uber-busy and being somewhere and having something to do," admits Sullivan. "It makes you feel important. Everyone's competing to see who's got it more together."
Stress as a status yymbol
The result is that where once we looked at money, cars and houses as the symbols of success, now, it's all about how busy you are--especially for women. "There's a sense, especially among women, that other women are doing so much more than they are," says psychologist Stephanie Smith, who has written about stress as a status symbol for the American Psychological Association (APA). "They are volunteering at four places and have five kids. They feel like they aren't measuring up, so it drives them to want to do more and more. It can become a bad habit of getting swept away in busy-busy-busy, thinking that accomplishing something all the time is always good."
According to a recent survey from the APA, women pay a price for their stressful schedules. The survey found that more women than men report high levels of stress. But they are also far less likely than men to report that work-related demands have interfered with their responsibilities at home. The stress has also caused more women to report physical symptoms like depression, fatigue and upset stomach.
The cultural pressure to work hard
Americans have long attached value to being a workaholic, says Amie Hess, an assistant professor of sociology at Meredith University in North Carolina. The harder you work, the greater the reward.
But now, workaholic values have shifted to every aspect of life, especially parenting. "Our cultural expectations of motherhood have ratcheted up," Hess says. Not only do women still bear the brunt of childcare duties, they are also expected to attack parenting with the same fervor they used to get ahead in the workplace. This has led to "this idea that if I can be superwoman, then I want a lot of props for it," she says.
The stigma of selfishness
As much as they are interested in getting recognition from their peers for all they do, many women are just trying to avoid negative labels. Many feel that if they don't maximize every opportunity for their children--and top what other mothers do for their kids--"you're perceived as not being a successful mother and as potentially short-changing your children. It's not even being seen as lazy. It's something even more damning: being perceived as selfish," says Hess.
"It's not OK anymore to send birthday invites you bought at Target ( TGT - news - people ) to your friends' kids," adds Smith. "Now you have to make the 10-tiered cake."
Sullivan, who on a recent weekday left work to make dinner for the kids, rushed to a meeting and then came home to not only drop the kids at the pool, but also went swimming with them, does feel a sense of success from all that she does. At the same time, she understands that she is working herself to the bone. "It teeters from 'Wow, I'm a rock star' to 'OK, I may fall to pieces,'" she says.
That's why she says, "I am trying to contain how much I am doing." She has, for example, cut back on her volunteer work with local small businesses. Still, after her son's doctor's appointment, she planned to pick up medicine for him, then set up at her home office to continue working until it was time to make dinner for the family.