Five years ago, I became conscious of a deep-seated expectation I’d been holding for myself, to be a high-earning, healthy, present mom. At various points in my career I had separately met each of these self-imposed criteria. Why, I wondered in 2016, was I not living up to my ideal of meeting them simultaneously? Was anyone?
I knew I wasn’t alone. Too many high earners work so hard that they sacrifice their health and/or relationships. I set out on a quest to find examples of women earning six figures who manage to take good care of their children and themselves. If they existed, what could I (and others) learn from them? Curious and inspired, I started exploring.
Between late 2016 and early 2017 I conducted 26 complete one-on-one phone interviews with women I determined to be High-Earning Healthy Present Moms (HEHPMs). These women, whom I’d met through extensive networking and recruiting, self-identified as earning an annual income of $100k or more, physically healthy, and present to their children under 18 who lived with them.
Each woman was inspirational, insightful, and eager to learn from others like them. I was fascinated by them all.
As I began analyzing the interview data, several themes began to emerge from what I had heard:
- 92% (24) of HEHPMs were partnered.
- 96% (25) of HEHPMs had highly involved co-parents. Of these, 96% (24) also had involved family members nearby and/or paid people regularly caring for their homes and/or children.
- The sole HEHPM in the study without an involved co-parent had both other sources of support — family members AND professionals helping with her home and children.
- Merely 15% (4) of HEHPMs had a child with special needs. The sole woman with two children with special needs had all three sources of support — an active co-parent, involved family members, AND paid household assistance.
I was gobsmacked. My story looked so different from those of the HEHPMs.
As a divorced, primary breadwinning, primary care-giving mom of two kids with special needs, without in-home childcare, living far from family, I led a life that was distinctly different from any of theirs. This led me to wonder whether it was actually possible for me, given my current reality, to be a High-Earning Healthy Present Mom.
So I considered next whether I was willing and able to change any of my key circumstances. Upon brief reflection I concluded that:
- I could not magically generate a highly capable and available co-parent.
- I could not (and did not want to) change my children or their needs.
- I could have moved across the country to live closer to my parents and siblings and/or hired more paid household help, but I preferred not to. I truly wanted to continue raising my kids in Arlington, MA, near their friends, as the main person providing them with car rides, meals, and a loving home.
My Aha Moment
Before I even had time to expand my search for additional HEHPMs, these realizations set me free.
When I recognized that the combination of my life circumstances and choices had disqualified me from simultaneously meeting my four HEHPM success criteria, I no longer carried shame about my “failure”.
Right then I let go of my own expectation that I would be a High-Earning Healthy Present Mom while my kids still lived at home full time. I reprioritized my original success criteria to the following order:
- Present to my children
- High Earning
Present Mom became my new leading indicator of success.
Feeling lighter, I realigned my professional work with those two. As personal time allowed, I would continue to work on my health. I released myself from the goal of earning a six-figure income again until both my kids had graduated high school.
In the years that followed, life continued to be intensely busy for me. The way I lived my life didn’t change because of the research I had done, but the way I felt about myself did. Rather than feeling ashamed of not reaching my original expectations, I became proud of and fulfilled by my ability to deliver on my top two priorities.
By sharing more of what I learned, my intention now is to help you release any shame you may feel about not living up to your own high expectations. Along the way I hope to impart compassion, insights, and inspiration.
Beyond the critical success factors identified above, I pulled together these nuggets of wisdom the HEHPMs developed along their journeys.
- Let go of perfection. Don’t worry if your school form is late or a shopping cart scratches your car. Allow a messy house. Accept that things will fall through the cracks sometimes.
- Employ systems, routines, and structures wherever possible.
- With involved co-parent, family member(s) and/or paid household support:
- Practice clear communication combined with lots of listening. Consider weekly or nightly meetings to discuss plans and goals.
- Understand and respect each other’s likes, strengths and differences, and allocate responsibilities accordingly.
- Keep fun in the mix.
- Involve kids where possible. Engage them to contribute around the house in age-appropriate ways.
- Preserve flexibility in your schedule. It’s essential and invaluable.
What HEHPMs Wanted to Know
Of all the questions I asked in the interviews, I found myself especially interested in what the HEHPMs said they wanted to know about other HEHPMs. Here is a quick rundown of questions they raised, along with anecdotal responses I collected during the interviews.
Do other HEHPMs feel like they have everything together?
No one expressed or indicated to me that they felt they have everything in hand.
Do other HEHPMs also feel guilt, anguish, or resentment, for not being able to do everything they wish they could?
Yes, they do.
What do other HEHPMs do to help with their mental clutter?
HEHPMs mentioned the following practices:
- Fun escapes – makeup, clothes, yoga, reading (magazines, fiction, self-help, non-fiction), listening to audiobooks and podcasts, drawing, TV
- Getting outdoors daily
- Acupuncture/massages/facials/manicures and pedicures
- Connection with community
- Naps/breaks – allowing themselves to do nothing for short periods of time
- Mindfulness and spirituality
- Fridays free from meetings
- Family trips or activities like skiing
- Regularly reviewing and renewing commitments to priorities
What have other HEHPMs sacrificed along their journeys?
HEHPMs identified missing out on:
- Pursuing promotions
- Doing “deep and meaningful hard things”
- Overnight shift work opportunities
- Business travel opportunities
- Time with close friends and old friends
- Attending graduate school
- Participating in or looking at social media
- Regular exercise
- Earlier bedtimes
- Alone time with partner or time to find a new partner
What are other HEHPMs’ constant struggles?
These hurdles came up repeatedly:
- Hard on selves/self-doubt/feeling not good enough
- Dealing with extra weight
- Holding boundaries
For those who didn’t grow up economically advantaged, what keys helped them become HEHPMs?
- Positive mindset
- Love and support
- Strong role models
What specific responsibilities do HEHPMs delegate to co-parents, involved family members, and/or paid household support?
Participants delegate as much as possible, including the following activities:
- Driving kids
- Menu planning
- Shopping for groceries, clothes, and birthday gifts
- Dog walking
- Home repairs
- Tech support
- Scheduling and attending kids’ medical and dental appointments
- Straightening house
- Pool maintenance
- Yard work
Given my professional focus these past two years as a Crisis Navigation PartnerTM, I reviewed whether participants mentioned experiencing any crises during their time as HEHPMs. Noting that at the time I hadn’t thought to ask them directly about crisis, here’s what came up organically and for how many participants:
- Ill partner or in-law (3)
- Cancer (2)
- Divorce (2)
- Post-partum depression (2)
All 9 of these HEHPMs had the benefit of extensive support during these crisis periods.
Through the course of my research, I felt privileged to meet powerful, ambitious, thoughtful women who inspired me with the lives they had built and the generosity with which they shared their experiences. I am deeply grateful for their time and openness, and for what I discovered through our conversations. Their collective gifts provided me with newfound freedom that changed my life.
Expectations, from society, family, and ourselves, can be absolutely unreasonable without us even realizing it. We can chase goals we believe are attainable, only to feel failure, shame and blame toward ourselves.
Through this process I released myself from this self-sabotaging trap. When I changed my own success criteria, factoring in my life’s circumstances and the choices that were right for me, I finally gave myself a fair shot at achieving my own highest priorities. As a result, I became more present for my children and took better care of myself.
Today, four years later, with my son now a first-year college student and my daughter a high school senior, I have at last become a High-Earning Healthy Present Mom, one whole year ahead of my revised goal.
I would love to hear how this study landed with you. Did anything surprise you? Any new insights about your own journey to your goals? Has your perspective on your own experience changed at all? Have you been inspired to release any expectations of yourself?
Please share your thoughts in the comment section below.
Debra, although this does not fit my scenario now, it made me realize, in hindsight, I had decided to put my kids first. I worked non-proft for 10 years to gain a better work/life balance. As mothers, single or not, we put alot of pressure on ourselves. Its a matter of stopping and prioritizing as you mentioned.
Thanks for sharing this!
I appreciate you sharing some of your story, Angela. It’s absolutely true – we women, regardless of partner and parenting status, tend to put expectations on ourselves that are too much for our realities.
Thank you Debra for always showing me a way to live a more intentional life. You never step away from the hard work to do it either.
Your unique beauty in all this is that you are always SHAREING your journey and its lessons. This post shows the deep ‘analytical’ work, combined with an open-hearted curiosity of emotion that led to a more joyful way of living each day.
You have inspired me to do the work! And, this post has given me clear, step-by-step guidance on how I can begin the process of reflection and reorientation. What a gift. Thank you!
Oooh Julia – I love the term “more intentional life”. I feel deeply that sharing my journey and its lessons is part of my purpose. I so appreciate that my writing resonates with you. Let me know how your process goes!
Thank you Debra for sharing.
I resonate with your many points, especially along the lines of self care, struggles and sacrifices. Keeping a daily gratitude journal has brought more serenity to my days.
Looking back, I wish I had learned earlier about setting healthy boundaries and prioritization. It would have alleviated much guilt and anxiety in my past!
I read a quote on LinkedIn this morning that said “Be wiser, younger.” So much easier said than done!
This research of yours is fascinating and excellent. Hats off to you for taking this on as a project and learning the valuable insights gained for yourself and all with whom you’ve shared the info! It’s an important contribution to the much-needed message to women of “ladies, stop beating yourselves…!” I can certainly relate to the core lessons learned.
At the same time, it also rang true for a situation I have discussed often with a gay male friend about the loneliness burden we single people face while living thru COVID in a pod of one. Those with a partner, a family they live with or family members nearby and actively involved in their lives don’t bear the same burdens as single folks without those resources. In short, as with your study, one needs to be kinder to themselves in these one-down situations and stop comparing themselves to those living in different circumstances.
Everything has it’s trade-offs and there are some advantages to being a pod of one at times (as there may be to being a single parent of 2 special needs children). But it was really interesting and helpful to read your research and give myself permission to relax a bit more often or not show up so often because of the exhaustion I experience trying to keep the ship afloat by myself while staying healthy, solvent, relatively positive, supportive of others, a contributing neighbor and society member, etc. etc.
I’ve forwarded your message to several friends whom I thought would appreciate and benefit from your findings. We high achievers need to stick together because otherwise we will drive ourselves into the ground…
I completely agree with you about the extra challenges of living alone. I can only imagine, which I’ve started doing as I’m expecting to become an empty nester next fall. I already feel like it’s hard for people to understand the life of a single parent in COVID (or any time), and while the 3 of us were at home together I was grateful all the time that we had each other.
I really want to endorse what you said about being extra gentle with yourself and acknowledging that keeping the ship afloat alone is *plenty* to do and may not always leave you with extra energy to meet requests/demands from others.
Thank you for sharing the post with others. I agree that we high achievers need to stick together!
This was powerful and enlightening. Thank you! Mindfulness, meditation and spiritual practices have taught me to embrace self-compassion, which then leads to compassion for others, and a lightening of spirit as you mentioned. I know I am constantly reminding myself to let go of expectations and accept what is. Thank you for sharing and knowing we are not alone!
Yes, Su-Yen! Mindfulness, meditation, spirituality, compassion for self and others – all excellent tools. Thank you for reading and sharing your thoughts.
Great article. I feel like I learned more about you, and I want to recognize and applaud all moms trying to be HEHPMs
Applause for your applause! 🙂
Debra, THANK YOU for doing this work. I am not a mom yet but have been aspiring my entire career life to be able to be a HEHPM when that time comes. I loved the back and forth of your experience and the takeaways from the women you interviewed. I found myself resonating with so much of what was said.
That is wonderful to hear. What I’ve learned is that you can have it all as a working mom, but not always at the same time. I’ve found it extremely helpful to regularly revisit my priorities. At moments I have only been able to meet my top one, but to me that still qualifies as success.
WOW!!! Thank you SO MUCH for sharing this, Debra. It’s one thing to tell myself that I can only do the best I can (but still feel bad about myself because it’s not “enough”) and another thing to understand how some people do seem to achieve more–that it typically comes with a lot of help, a lot of delegation and letting go of some things that I choose not to let go of.
AND that they still sometimes feel bad about themselves and that they’re not doing enough!
I loved hearing your discoveries and loved seeing how they freed you. I am taking this to heart. Thank you for doing the work to uncover some essential truths and for sharing them with others who will so benefit from knowing…
Jen, thank you for commenting! As entrepreneurs and moms we set the bar high for ourselves. Here’s to resetting for more realistic expectations and a greater sense of fulfillment.