On the outside Sophia A. Nelson had it going on. As a high-powered Washington, D.C., attorney, she traveled in the fast lane. But four years ago, shortly after she turned 40, she had an epiphany: Despite her numerous career achievements, she wasn’t happy. The more she confessed her feelings to successful single friends like herself—and even to her married and divorced girlfriends—the more she realized she wasn’t alone. Instead of taking to her bed, the spirited Nelson took action. She gave up her job and gave in to the voice in her head that was encouraging her to write full-time. You may have seen her on CNN and MSNBC, or read her byline on The Huffington Post, theroot.com and in this magazine, where Nelson serves up sharp commentary on race, gender and politics.

Last month Nelson released her first book, Black Woman Redefined: Dispelling Myths and Discovering Fulfillment in the Age of Michelle Obama (BenBella). In its pages, the author pleads that we release ourselves from the bondage of other people’s expectations for our lives and define achievement on our own terms. “There is nothing wrong with success, earning degrees and being proud of yourself, but for too many of us that is all we have,” says Nelson, now 44. She pauses to take a call from Valerie Jarrett, senior adviser to the President, then seamlessly picks up where she left off, arguing that many supersuccessful Black women have become locked in a prison of overwhelming stress, creeping depression and isolation.

The irony, Nelson says, is that we hold the key that could release us from our self-constructed prisons. But first we must be willing to make an honest assessment of where we are—and where want to be. Part sisterhood manifesto, part self-help, 100 percent kick-inthe-pants, Nelson’s Black Woman Redefined doesn’t hold back. Nor does Nelson. “We don’t have to do what great-grandmama had to do or what grandmama did or even what mama did,” says the author. “Let’s get rid of being sick and tired of being sick and tired. Let’s just admit we do get tired, we do need help, and we do need a rest. And that is okay.”

Nelson says she wrote the book, in part, to counter the soul-destroying stereotypes of successful Black women, both the ones that others hand out and those that we accept. “The last few years have been open season on accomplished Black women,” she says, pointing to the 2007 Don Imus scandal in which the broadcaster called the Rutgers women’s basketball team “nappy headed hos,” the “Angry Black Woman” persona the press used to define Michelle Obama during the presidential race, and recent news specials about how many professional Black women are unmarried. Nelson felt something critical was missing from this coverage: our voices. So she went on her own listening tour, interviewing a variety of experts, hiring pollsters, and diving into exhaustive research.

As part of Nelson’s inquiry, the polling company, inc./WomenTrend conducted a nationwide online study of 540 professional Black women, plus two focus groups. More than half of the participants reported annual household incomes approaching or surpassing $100,000. The good news? As a whole these Black women were proud of their accomplishments. The challenge? More than two thirds indicated career advancement was still a hurdle for Black women compared with White women, with 29 percent seeing racism as the biggest barrier. But Nelson found it even more striking that almost half of the survey respondents had never married, and a whopping two thirds said they’d rather be alone than settle for a man who didn’t meet their expectations. And yes, almost half admitted that their standards might be too high. Another stressor? Overall 60 percent cited financial pressure and debt as the problem most likely to leave them feeling blue. For women in white-collar positions the number was even higher.

Nelson says it’s time for Black women to stop hiding our stress and loneliness behind the gleaming facade of financial achievement. Instead of our relentless striving to play by other people’s rules to win the game, Nelson wants us to think about changing the game. She wants us to take a hard look in the mirror and reconstruct our notions of success, spirituality and love, because she believes that only when we dare to redefine what truly matters to us will we be able to unlock our happiness. Here meet three women who have done just that.

“I was everything to everybody but nothing to myself”

Antoinette Dalton, 43, worked at AT&T in Indianapolis for 11 years, most recently as a training manager. It was a coveted utility gig, the kind of job, she jokes, that “Black folks don’t leave” because of the solid pay and good benefits, a combination that helped push a generation of Black Americans into the middle class. So when Dalton left her job five years ago to seek a different kind of success, it came as a surprise to everyone—including herself. During her career at the phone company she often worked two jobs, from evaluating standardized academic tests to night shifts at the post office, not because she was in great financial need but because “two checks are better than one” she says. “I was the good worker, the loyal daughter, the loyal friend. I was everything to everybody but nothing to myself.”

And then one day she saw clearly the path she was on. “I would often travel a lot for my job,” she explains. “I would come home late Friday evening, take my clothes out of the suitcase, wash them and throw them back in the suitcase, and be off again Monday morning. One day I was in Dallas to do a session at this huge training center. It was 3:30 in the morning and I was at the center getting things ready. I looked around and no one else was there. And that’s when it hit me. I was very good at what I did, but this wasn’t who I wanted to be.”

She turned in her resignation soon after returning home. “I did something you aren’t supposed to do,” she says. “I left my job without having my next one lined up. I took a leap of faith.” Dalton eventually pursued a public administration master’s degree in New York. By the time she graduated, she realized her true calling was to become a writer. For the last year she has spent her time writing a novel based on her experiences in grad school. She admits she gets a lot of pointed “How are you doing?” questions from family and friends. “It’s been five years since I left that job and I am still living at the same address, I have the same phone number, my electricity is still on, I’m still here,” she notes. “The only difference is now I am happy, and to me that is a big success.”

Clinical psychologist Aby Washington suggests that taking bold action as Dalton did can move us in the right direction. “Black women are extremely undisciplined at focusing on our own self-care,” says Washington. “What we are modeling to younger women is what was modeled to us. Someone has to break the cycle.”

In choosing her own definition of success, Dalton shook up more than her work life. “I just lost a friendship with someone who could not support my decisions,” she says. “Some people cannot imagine following your passion. She felt if you weren’t getting a paycheck from some company, you must be lazy or not motivated. And a couple days ago my 10-year-old cousin said to me, ‘Remember when you worked and had money and used to buy us stuff. I miss those days.’ “

Yet in the years since she left the phone company, Dalton has never once regretted her decision. Yes, she had to tighten her belt and reassess her spending habits. “I don’t have cable anymore,” she says. “My yearly vacation has been curtailed. But for the first time I am not being valued by someone else’s measure.”

“I’m looking for another thing to love”

Finding your passion is critical, but Black Woman Redefined is also about love. Indeed, Nelson believes that the main reason for highly accomplished Black women to reexamine our definitions of success is so that we can forge satisfying human connections and find love. Though Nelson is not one to sound the single Black women alarm, she admits she is troubled by the fact that so many of us remain alone. She is haunted by the recent death of political trailblazer Juanita Goggins. In 1972 Goggins was the first Black woman to become a delegate for South Carolina at the Democratic National Convention. As a former teacher in the state’s segregated school system, Goggins later worked within the legislature to reform education in the state. In February of last year, Goggins, 75, froze to death in her rented house. Her body was not discovered for nearly two weeks, according to press reports.

Her story galvanizes Nelson. She argues that we need to work at staying connected to people who care about us. The Black women in her survey overwhelmingly agreed that the “hardest thing for many Black women is to ask for and seek out help when needed.” When “feeling blue” the majority of professional Black women surveyed—66 percent—turned to their faith to get them through a difficult time, as opposed to friends, partners or family. While the research found that professional Black women believe stress-related disease runs higher among them than their White counterparts, only 12 percent said they would seek medical or therapeutic help for depression.

We have to stop thinking we have no other option than to trudge through life relying on no one but God and ourselves, Nelson emphasizes. Most important, she says, we have to strive to become as successful in love as we do in our careers. That starts with loving ourselves unconditionally. “If I can’t love me, then it is impossible to love you,” she notes, encouraging Black women to put physical and emotional wellness at the top of our to-do list. This means learning to sometimes say no to everyone else’s list for us.

For bookstore owner Crystal Bobb-Semple, putting herself first—loving herself—meant changing her work–life balance. This past fall, Bobb-Semple, 40, walked away from her flourishing business, Brownstone Books, closing the ten-year-old shop that had become an anchor in her Bedford-Stuyvesant community in Brooklyn. Although the tough economy made the decision easier, it was not the reason for the closing. Instead Bobb-Semple, a wife and mother of a 9-year-old daughter and 4-year-old son, no longer wanted to sacrifice time with her family for her business.

“I had always enjoyed opening the gates, turning on the lights and being in that space every single day,” she reflects. “I had never felt that this was something I didn’t want to do. Then one day I woke up and did not want to go to the store. I just did not want to get out of bed. It was the first time I’d ever felt that way. I knew in that moment that it was time to move on and do something else. Being an entrepreneur is so all-consuming it really becomes your everything. I was tired of how large a role it played in my life.”

Bobb-Semple says she wants to continue to serve her community, but doesn’t yet know what form that will take. “I don’t know what is next for me,” she says. “For some reason folks are uncomfortable with that answer. Everyone is looking for jobs, while I am looking for another thing to love. Too often we think of success as what other people say it is, or we do what other people expect of us, when the real deal is doing what is in your heart and doing it well.”

“I reexamined my relationship with God”

Perhaps Nelson’s boldest discussion in Black Woman Redefined is on the subject of faith. “Jesus ain’t your man; he’s your Savior,” she says, warning against being so concerned by what we think the church wants of us that we no longer look within to discover what truly fulfills us. In a controversial move, the progressive Christian connects the rise in singlehood among successful Black women to what she feels is an overdependence on the church for companionship.

In a survey of 211 Black men that Nelson commissioned, 51 percent believed that professional Black women’s devotion to rituals could interfere with intimacy, while some of the high-achieving Black women surveyed discussed “having to choose between their commitment to God and their standards for men, implying that one would have to be compromised in a relationship.” Nelson notes: “We need a healthy intersection of faith and humanity and sexuality. Let me put this on record: You can have a vibrant sex life and still be a godly woman.”

In Black Woman Redefined, the Reverend Adriane Blair Wise, a married Gen Xer and minister at Washington, D.C.’s historic Metropolitan Baptist Church, debates whether Black women’s commitment to the church is enough to explain the large number of professional Black women who are single. Instead she suggests that in the post–civil rights era, Black families placed an emphasis on achievement, with marriage delayed by the pursuit of education and financial independence. However, Wise does agree with those who say that the church needs to speak more realistically about the intersection of success and spirituality, and how we can balance these pursuits and still remain faithful Christians.

The question of what it means to embody spirituality in an authentic way was a major part of Lori Price’s journey from thriving journalist to struggling entrepreneur. Two years ago she took a buyout from the Milwaukee newspaper where she had worked for three years. Price, 40, had been lonely in Milwaukee, a fact that helped influence her decision to return to her native Dallas and her support system of family and friends. Her plan was to freelance as a journalist while getting her jewelry-making business off the ground, but right out of the gate the recession hit. To make ends meet, Price was sometimes forced to take on five jobs at once, ranging from hostess in a restaurant to house cleaner to security guard.

As a Christian, Price had been raised within her church to believe that God rewards us based on the path we are traveling, and yet she never connected that teaching to her hard times. She began to realize that her concept of God was less punitive, and amid the challenges of this period, her spiritual practice began to evolve. “I started to reexamine my relationship with God,” she explains. “That relationship is personal. I can’t live in fear. I now believe sometimes he is also trying to say, ‘Job well done.’ I now feel that my purpose is to share whatever has been given to me.”

Once she began to understand God as a protector watching over her, she found the courage to keep going. Now the director of the writing program at Paul Quinn College, a small faith-based HBCU in Dallas, she is also in a fulfilling relationship with a man she met two weeks after she returned to Texas. “I had to learn to practice spirituality in a way that is productive for me,” she says. “I now feel as if I am truly living.”

And to that, Sophia Nelson would say simply, Amen.

Loading the player...