I am almost divorced.
I thought about staying private about this. And I mostly have over the last nine months. But here’s the thing — this decision is one of the best ones of my entire life.
I have not been at all immune to the roller coaster of emotions. The last few months have brought me peace and happiness. And as I have shared my story with more friends, I recognize that sharing our stories and normalizing the experience with transparency has become important to me.
I recorded a podcast with Jeff Smith, MD, this morning. He and I have worked in the space of physician well-being for the past decade. We have different approaches. Jeff emphasizes the path we can take as individuals, such as resilience, health, breath and yoga. I emphasize the role that practice efficiency and operations play in supporting the physician to optimize our relationships with our patients and enhance medical care. We both agree that all of these things are important, but we choose to come at our work from different directions.
When Jeff and I come together in podcasts or speak alongside one another from the podium, we sometimes respectfully spar about our opinions.
In fact, just two days ago, we did this from the podium of an instructional course lecture at the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons (AAOS) Annual Meeting in Chicago. So when Jeff asked me to join him for a podcast recording, I assumed we would spend our time in that space that we have grown used to together.
But we went in a different direction.
Jeff asked me what I wanted to talk about as we got set up with our microphones. I started rambling and quickly realized how much I needed to share the story of my last nine months. The floodgates opened, and I decided to “come out” about my divorce. My marriage ended last summer, and this morning I recognized that holding this private has been hurting my soul a little bit.
A few weeks ago, a dear friend and partner in my orthopedic practice admitted that I have not seemed like myself. Although no one spoke to me directly using the word “angry,” I heard through the grapevine that this descriptor was being applied to me for the first time in my life.
I had two choices. I could get angry at being called angry. Or I could absorb, reflect and try to grow. I was tempted to do more of the angry thing. But somehow, I gathered myself to do the reflecting thing.
At baseline, I am consistent in criticism of the daily operations of my practice. I send emails expressing concerns about the lack of support for physicians in our care of our patients. From scheduling to message management, call responsibilities to sleep deprivation, I am vocal when I see room for improvement. And I usually speak or write with a mostly level-headed voice. Except recently, I have not.
And there is a short explanation. Nine months ago, my husband of 17 years and I decided to divorce.
The emotions that go along with divorce and the dismantling of a family of three children and two dogs are tremendous. For some reason, I became subconsciously determined to avoid the cliche of the experience.
I wanted to separate my home life from my work life for the first time in my career. I have spent the last 20 years advocating for work-life integration. I have modeled with transparency the influence my personal life and family have on my work life and career, and vice versa.
Well, it turns out that this is not so hard to do when life at home is stable and traditional. Yet the stressors of the massive change that divorce brought to my home became so real and sad for me that I could not open the smallest window to my work life for fear of a flood of crazy.
As I spoke to Jeff, I thought about my work partners. It turns out they have been noticing. And really, how could they not notice?
I have been afraid of being judged as a woman who could not handle it all and keep it all going. I was worried I would be seen as disingenuous for my persona as @mymomthesurgeon. But I had it all wrong.
These men who work alongside me have risen to a level of caring that has blown me away. Some of them have been through a divorce. And they have been giving me grace without me even noticing. I have been grouchy and tired, complaining and short with people. And they have given me understanding without me even realizing it.
A few weeks ago, when I realized that I have been an angry person recently, I asked my middle daughter for some feedback. My 12-year-old daughter, Coco, is a fierce, honest and fiery redhead. She also prefers to be in a handstand as much as possible these days. So when I asked her, she happened to be upside down. She looked at me sideways from her inverted position and said, “Yeah, mom, I’ve been walking on eggshells with you.”
My 15-year-old daughter, Lila, convinced me to get her not one but two one-eyed cats to help her with her anxiety. She has told me without words what she thinks I need by bringing these cats to me over and over wherever I am in our home.
My 10-year-old son now opens doors for me, holds my hand, and pulls out my chair for me when we go out to dinner. Clearly, he is stepping into the space of taking care of me.
I’ve gained a little bit of weight from the stress and change. I brought my girls shopping last week, and when I no longer fit into my preferred size, Coco offered to go look at shoes with me, pointing out, “At least your feet didn’t get fat.” She did try to back-pedal and quickly shifted to calling me “thick,” which she assures me is a complement among her peers.
Lila softened the exchange by saying, “Mom, it’s OK. I mean, you’ve never been through a divorce before, and you’re just figuring it all out.”
My sister has been a rock during this time.
Sometimes, she is so irreverently funny about all of this. But sometimes, she is serious and pulls out her professional best. And she reminds me to reground myself with purpose and intention.
When I got on the plane to come to Chicago last Monday, I followed her suggestion and did precisely that.
I set an intention to spend my week away at the AAOS doing two things. 1: re-grounding myself in my gratitude for my career in orthopedic surgery at Kaiser Permanente. And 2: allowing myself to be uncomfortable in the work I am doing nationally to move my profession forward in culture, to call out and battle against harassment, bullying, racism, homophobia and bad behavior in our realm.
When I met with Jeff this morning, I realized that I stayed on script this week.
As I fly home, I am proud. I spoke from a podium alongside our AAOS president and dear friend, Dr. Danny Guy, with a resolution to tell the story of the behavior that has marred our field for too long. In co-founding #SpeakUpOrtho, I have stood up and spoken out.
I received an honor from the women in my field this week as well. I have been welcomed into the presidential line of the Ruth Jackson Orthopaedic Society, whose mission is to further the work of women in the field of orthopedics; I feel seen and supported.
My malcontent is not easy to sit with. I have written about moving away from people-pleasing and toward activism. This space is uncomfortable. But it is real. And perhaps it is one of the reasons that my marriage has ended.
And I guess it’s OK to have anger. I am going back to the model I created with my social media handle @mymomthesurgeon. I am not an orthopedic surgeon in a vacuum. I am still a mom. And now I am a divorced mom. This persona is now the new one to weave into the work-life integration I have touted for 20 years. I am proud of the happiness I am finding in this. And I am now proud to accept the condolences and kindnesses bestowed upon me as I go public with my new place in life.
Jennifer Weiss is an orthopaedic surgeon and can be reached at her self-titled site, Jennifer Weiss MD.
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