Confident, empowered, resilient. Those aren’t words divorced women typically use to describe themselves. But Pamela Elaine Nichols says divorce made her a better woman. “My kids have a different mother from the woman I was before, and I love that she exists for them,” she says.
It didn’t start out that way. Nichols came unwound when her perfect Main Line life—successful husband, four kids, a lovely Penn Valley home—came crashing down around her.
Nothing particularly dramatic or tragic had happened. Her husband hadn’t done anything. “It was what I had not done, which was work out the baggage I’d brought with me into the marriage,” says Nichols. “My ex wasn’t innocent, but he wasn’t fully to blame, either.”
Nichols met her husband at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. He was in medical school, and she was earning her master’s degree in health science. The two married when Nichols was 28. Both carved out high-powered careers. For Nichols, it was executive positions at Penn Medicine, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and Virtua Health. It’s fair to say that she’s an overachiever, and she applied that mindset to maternity, adopting three kids, each of them a year apart. She got pregnant with the fourth.
Then, Nichols says, she made the biggest mistake of her marriage: She stopped working. “I thought being a stay-at-home mom was great for my kids, and it probably was,” Nichols says. “But I lost myself in the noble work of motherhood. All of the education and ambition I had were buried in diapers and boo-boos and carpooling.”
Nonetheless, Nichols went on pretending she was happy—for more than a decade.
One day in 2008, Pamela Nichols collapsed on the floor of her bathroom, a low point that led to her unpacking the mental baggage she’d carried since childhood. “Once you identify it, you can fix it—and then you’re free from it,” she says. “It’s kind of sink or swim. Are you going to keep sinking? Or are you going to get out of the muck and mire—the pain and fighting—and into a life that makes you happy?”
Nichols’ marriage lasted another four years. But the inner work she’d done prepared her for the divorce. She recruited a support system of divorce mentors, including a financial planner. “I showed up as a woman in power rather than a victim,” Nichols says. “I was confident and willing to be in charge, but ready to negotiate from strength. That kept us out of court, which was great for us and our kids.”
Most of the divorce was amicable, and they used binding arbitration to settle the rest. The terms were finalized in 2013. Since then, Nichols and her ex-husband have co-parented effectively, even modifying their 50-50 custody split to suit his business-travel schedule.
As for the children, “they are really OK,” Nichols says. “Divorce sucks, but they’re adjusting, both emotionally and psychologically.”
None of this would’ve been possible if Nichols hadn’t gotten right with herself. The experience led to her 2015 book, Muddy High Heels: 14 Lessons Learned From My Breakdown, Breakup and Breakthrough. Now a resilience coach and motivational speaker, she’s in a loving relationship with a great man. “It’s easier to stay on that floor and be a mess—and many people do,” she says. “But I made a decision to get up, to hold my head high with my confidence intact—and that’s made the difference.”