Lessons from a Startup Wife

I was a Startup Wife for nine years. I know that’s not a thing, but I think it should be. My husband worked for five different startups during and following grad school. For most of our thirties. I freelanced a good amount during those years, while also raising kids and having babies, but it was his willingness to hustle for us all that was our main bread and butter, which should be a whole other post. For those years, there was always a question mark hanging over our heads about whether the company would last, how much notice we’d get if it didn’t, how long until we would know for sure, and whether the paycheck would arrive on time this month.

It was hard, exciting, and scary. While he was getting up early, staying up late, and trying to get different projects off the ground, I learned a few things, too. I got used to living with a fair amount of churn — even if we weren’t in the middle of a big change, it felt like we could be at any moment. Uncertainty became familiar. I realized that a lot of the game of dealing with our startup lives would be won or lost in my mind. A strategic mental framework went a long way in helping me navigate it.

Here are three pieces of that framework:

“For now”

When I was still an inexperienced Startup Wife, I got some great advice from a friend: “Remember this is just where you are FOR NOW.” As in, “This is home for now,” “My husband has a job for now,” or “These schools work for now.” “For now” is enough for now. It’s a lot like counting blessings, except you can add anything that’s not in crisis. Remembering that things were pretty much always okay “for now” kept me from focusing on uncertainties in the future.

Sometimes that “for now” was very “now” indeed. My husband may not have a job when he gets off the phone, but for now I’m going to start dinner. Meeting work deadlines, shuttling kids to piano lessons, folding laundry, all happened in the world of “for now.”

It works the other way, too. “For now” is only for now. The “for now” mentality helped us get through some super uncomfortable weeks right after our third cross-country move, when it was clear we hadn’t downsized enough. I was relearning that it takes more time to move into a smaller place — each room and each piece of furniture could only fit one way, and I had a number of extra pieces and several that were just wrong for that puzzle.

Another time, when our one-year lease was almost up, and I couldn’t wait to move out of our rental with its hobbit-height ceilings and damp bathroom we all shared, “for now” helped me get through the rest of the lease. I was tired of the stillness of waiting. I wanted to push us into motion, even if it was the wrong direction. Remembering it was only “for now” helped me wait out the clock.

How to shrug

I also learned how to go all in on a risk, to lay it all on the line — or for it to feel that way at least — and then shrug. Call it what you will — holding things loosely, detachment — we were living through a crash-course in figuring it out. It felt like we had bet all our chips on a decent hand and instead of gripping the table with white knuckles, we learned to shrug. It was a Who knows, What can you do, We’ll see what happens kind of letting go. So many things were outside our control: market forces that influence investors, Facebook algorithms that privilege content or hide it, competitors with more funding and employees. The only way to play and stay sane was to learn not to take winning or losing personally.

All the job changes eventually taught us to unwrap our identities from what we did for money. We learned we weren’t our jobs. Through the churn, we had a good marriage and good family life, so we knew the most important things weren’t on the line. We’d been through lean times in early marriage and grad school, so we know how to cut back, operate on a restricted budget, save for a rainy day and then live on that savings through a few months of downpour. These things gave us a decent shot that not everyone gets. If you have any of these things in common with us, you’re in a position of strength. It’s helpful to remember and be thankful for them.

How to camp

During one year following a cross-country move, with all the challenges of building a life in a new place, I kept feeling like I was camping. We were renting, which underlined the temporary-ness of our situation and gave me a sense of adventure for what would turn out to be a tumultuous year. The camping mentality shifted my expectations, and also gave me the freedom not to do many things I would have if I thought our stay was permanent.

Making a functional campsite is different from setting up a home. It’s a time to focus your energy on what you can explore, what you can take with you, and let other things take backstage. There’s so much good living to be done outside our homes. As a homebody who enjoys fixing up my home, I miss out on this too often. We can’t change who we are, but we can stretch ourselves to appreciate life from a different perspective. If viewing your home as a camp brings some freedom, do it. The upside of not feeling rooted is being light on your feet. If that gives you an advantage, use it.

Of the years I was a Startup Wife, only one year was spent in a rental. Most of that time we lived in a home we owned, and we ended up being there for eight years. In some ways those years were harder, because most of the people around us were not trying to stay agile, not preparing to bounce. They were choosing schools by thinking about where their kids might graduate, making financial plans, planting roots.

We had no plans to move, no reason to, but I think our way of living kept us from feeling like we were home there. Even after planting gardens, hosting holidays, and having yearly routines, we still didn’t feel at home. And maybe we should have acknowledged that feeling at home under those circumstances would always be strained — I wish I would have stopped comparing ourselves to others and my ideal and called it camping all along.

The startup life wasn’t easy, and the further we got into our thirties, the harder it became. My husband has a stable job now, and we’re in a place where we can plant roots. But we’ll always be dealing with uncertainty, taking risks, needing to getting through tough times, living with chance, and going through seasons when we’re camping. I’m glad my job as a Startup Wife taught me a helpful framework for getting through it.