Oh, the astounding advice that comes to you on a daily basis during a time of crisis.
I cried in my boss’s office today. Like one of those bad, ugly kinds of cries that you just don’t want to do as a woman in front of your male boss. Except, in the case of my particular male boss, it’s sometimes borderline acceptable because he is a kind, wise soul. I would never overuse his kindness in this way. I’ve cried exactly two humiliating times in front of him, today being the second. The waterworks started while we were talking about something I’m struggling deeply with these days -- my professional persona in light of my personal life collapse. See, I work in a leadership position in an academic institution. I’m one of few women in leadership positions, and there is a bit of a propensity at this place, and particularly in my field, for young female physicians-in-training to pass by my office informally and ask questions like “how do you make it all work?” And, in that nonchalant passerby question, they are referencing things like simultaneously juggling knives while also making it work with marriage, kids, teaching residents, and taking care of a panel of primary care patients. And, so, in a world where I trained with very few female role models who were “having it all”, I took it upon myself to be that kind of path builder. It was a conscious decision to open my life up to the generations of female physicians who were maturing into their multi-faceted roles as women, doctors, mothers, partners, and allow them the freedom to pass by my office and come in when the door was ajar, and ask me what it was all like in “real life”. I certainly never sugar-coated it -- it’s hard for everyone -- but I wanted to give them faith that a fulfilling life, both personal and professional, was possible. I did have that for a time, until I didn’t.
Today, in my boss’s office, I reflected on my failure to be this person I aspired to be, and who I thought I was. I also talked about my failure to be the role model I wanted to be for my residents. I humbly asked his advice about how to handle it. It wasn’t so much that I wanted his advice on how to handle my divorce and all of the emotional muck that goes with that (it is so deep), but how to negotiate this space where most of my trainees know me as married, two kids, physician, teacher, academic. At this moment, my new identity is single mom with two kids, physician, teacher, academic. And I’m struggling on every single one of these fronts. And frankly, it’s hard for me to struggle. I’m a perfectionist by nature -- good survival trait for a physician, but it turns out to be a harmful trait when everything in your life goes up in smoke.
I’m noticing that I’m deeply clinging to my sense of self as physician and leader, but I feel this person (or who I thought she was) slipping away. In the last nine months, I haven’t lived to my own standard, nor been the person my residents think that I am. So, am I a fake? A fraud? An impostor?
At one point during this talk with my boss, with tears and eyeliner cascading down my cheeks, and both nostrils completely clogged with snot, I said “I’m fighting my way back. I’m doing the best I can right now (sob, sob), and I know it’s not my best. But I’m really trying. And it’s super important to me that you know that, and you don’t lose faith in me.” He sat there. He nodded. And he sat there some more. And I cried a little more. And, you know, like a good primary care doctor, he just let the silence be the space between us for a while. And then he said softly “I think, really, if I was going to give you any advice, it would be to let go of the concept of fighting to come ‘back’. You’ll never, ever be back, Frieda. You will be somewhere, but let go of the idea that you will be back where you were before. Nothing is ever going to be the same.”
And, so it was burned in me, under my skin. These words. This wisdom. It was so right. How come I hadn’t thought of it before? In some ways, a liberating thought. In most ways, it deepens my grief. I’m a fighter. A bootstrapper. A resilient woman. I’ve been putting all my energy into paving my way “back”. Literally every ounce of my soul, strength and breath have been put toward getting one foot in front of the other everyday to get back to where I was -- and I suddenly realize I’ve been deluding myself. It’s so simple, in fact, but I’ve just been unable to see it. It begs the question, so just where am I going? Forward? Then what?