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.