To survive the pandemic as a working mom, I ended up living alone in the woods of New Hampshire with my 8-year old son and dog - while launching a startup. Here's my story.
Why I'M sharING my story
I'm nervous about sharing this story. I do not want to diminish all of the other hardships that everyone went through during these last two years. Endless frontline workers experienced challenges that I cannot even imagine. So many people were displaced from their jobs and lost family members. I do not want to compare my experience to theirs.
I also feel a real need to share my story. I think I need to share this to help me close this chapter of my life. And, who knows, maybe my story will help you, too.
The world shut down on my first day
On my first day at Petri, the public schools shut down; I found myself with a brand new job, in a new field, without any childcare.
It was March of 2020 and Tony Kulesa, a former fellow of mine from MIT, had just invited me to be the first full-time hire at a new biotech accelerator based in Boston. 10 founders had just been funded and we needed to build a program around them. Soon after, Josh Moser joined; the three of us were the boots-on-the ground team.
HOMESCHOOLING and Sprinting
From March until June of 2020, my husband and I tag-teamed teaching our second grade son. Our public school gave us a whopping 15 minutes of meaningless curriculum each day, so we were pretty much on our own.
During this period, I got up early and taught second grade until lunch. For P. E. my son and I took our dog for a walk in the woods. At 1 PM, I switched “shifts” with my husband and got the next four hours to cram in an 8-hour workday.
Looking back, this first stretch of the pandemic was actually the easiest.
My husband is a research scientist and, come June, he was back in the lab full time, leaving me alone with a kid, a dog, and a startup. I frantically found ways to hodgepodge my way through the summer, relying heavily on a teenage neighbor and lots of Zoom art camp.
Planning for fall: 8 hours of school
In August, our public schools revealed their plans for the fall and we panicked. We were going to have only 8 hours of in-person instruction per week which is nowhere near enough when you have a 40++ hour a week job. We frantically explored every possible option for what childcare could look like in September from learning pods and nannies, to private schools. None of them panned out.
As we inched closer and closer to the end of the summer, with no solutions in sight, my husband said “I wonder what happens if we consider using New Hampshire as our base instead of Boston.”
You see: we had just bought a tiny cabin in the woods of New Hampshire. We hadn’t even closed on it yet, so it hadn’t crossed our minds as an option. Before you get an idea about how luxurious our second home is, I want to describe our cabin to you. Imagine an 800 square feet Scandinavian-inspired treehouse off a dirt road, off another dirt road, on a dead end in the forest. Now imagine that roughly one-third of the house is unfinished and there is a half-mile steep hill leading to it that isn't maintained. To get to the cabin in winter requires a snowmobile. There are literally zero neighbors nearby with winterized homes.
One more key fact you should know about the New Hampshire option: my husband wasn’t going to be able to come with us.
He needed to stay in Boston; a lab scientist cannot do much without a lab.
Moving to NH with my son and dog
I really did not like the idea of moving into a new house, in the woods, alone with an 8-year old and a golden retriever. But at that point, it truly looked like that was the only option that would allow both of us to keep our jobs and for our son to get some semblance of an education. We found a small private school about 30 minutes away that was going to be able to offer outdoor instruction and stay open.
I was absolutely terrified, but I decided that I should step up; this was a leadership moment.
Overnight I became a solo parent in a remote area where I knew absolutely nobody. And all of this, while six months into launching a startup.
Life in New Hampshire
Every day in New Hampshire, I woke up at 4 AM to start my work day in order to get enough work done, since school was from 8:30 AM - 2:30 PM. I had a half-hour drive each way to school and didn’t get a minute to myself until 8 PM, when I made myself go to bed so I’d have enough energy to make it through another day.
Although I have spent an enormous amount of time outdoors, I have to tell you that it feels really different when you are living alone in the woods. As a woman. As a mom. It’s pretty scary. There are bears in the woods. There are big men with guns hunting in the woods. There are no neighbors in the woods to hear me scream. I made my dog sleep in bed with me every night.
And then, on top of it all, there was the fear of the pandemic. What if I get sick going to get groceries? Is the school protecting my child enough? What happens if we get sick out here? And the endless worrying about what all of this is going to do to the development of an only child who, on top of it, had a tough time learning to read.
Why DIDN'T ANYONE help me ?
You may be asking yourself: Where was your husband in all of this? What about your teammates? Couldn’t they have helped you?
Funny that you noticed that. I didn’t. I was so focused on being the tough girl and playing the part of “strong leader” that I didn’t let any of them know how much I was struggling. I wanted to appear joyful for my son and protect him. I wanted to make sure I didn’t make my husband feel any worse than he already did for being apart from us. He came to visit us as often as he could, often driving for long stretches to see us for a few hours. I didn’t want my teammates to see me as being incapable of holding my own weight and adding value to the bottom line. I desperately wanted Petri to succeed and felt I needed to be ruthlessly optimistic for all of us.
I thought I was being a great leader - a “level five leader” who humbly leads by example. I wanted to be seen as someone who steps up and does what needs to get done, doesn’t complain, and is a rock of reliability. I wanted to be strong enough for everyone around me. But my body was stiff with stress. My heart was operating at a fight-or-flight pace every single day. All day. And every one of my girlfriends vanished; all of us were drowning in childcare and the weight of the invisible work that we absorbed.
I lived like this for four and a half months. When my son’s school went virtual because of the pandemic, I was beyond relieved that I was given an out from this model. Around Thanksgiving, we moved back to Boston and were reunited as a family.
What I learned from it all
After much reflection, I want to share some lessons I learned from this experience. To be honest: they’re lessons I already knew but forgot because I was too entrenched in the moment to remember. So, I guess I’m calling these lessons out here to remind me - and you - about their importance:
1. Great leaders show vulnerabilitY
I suspect that, if I had shown how hard it was for me to be alone in New Hampshire, others could have offered me some support. By making it look like I was fine, I didn’t signal that I needed help. There’s literally no way they would have known otherwise. Josh, Tony, and my husband are some of the most compassionate people I know. And yet I was scared to be seen as weak. I feared I would be a burden. What I forgot is that there’s a way to ask for help that’s coming from a place of strength. Leaders lean on others sometimes.
2. Leaders ask for helP
My husband and I were frantic finding a solution while working against the clock. The best option we found was, quite honestly, really imperfect. We should have reached out to more people to help us think more creatively about alternatives. I'm sure there was a solution out there that would have kept our family together. Sometimes, when you’re deep into a problem, you need fresh perspectives to surface solutions. Leaders recognize when they need help.
3. Leaders need to know their limits
If I had known how hard of a toll it was going to have on my mental health, I should not have agreed to living alone in the woods with my son. I wanted to step up for my family and be the hero. My well being, however, was quite grim towards the end of the 4.5 months. My stress response had been so intense for so long that, as soon as we got back to Boston, I experienced a six-week cortisol crash with extreme fatigue. This was too big of a “stretch assignment.” Leaders need to know when it's too much; there's a thin line between pushing yourself past a comfort zone and heading into hazardous terrain.
4. Leaders INVEST IN THEMSELVES
I was physically alone in the woods, but I was emotionally alone, too. I literally didn’t interact with another adult most days in New Hampshire. What if I’d gotten myself a coach? What if I scheduled into my week a few things I needed to be able to fuel myself for this marathon? I was so focused on putting in enough hours at work each day that I invested nothing into taking care of myself. As a leader, you need to be a whole and grounded version of yourself in order to have enough strength to push an entire organization towards the future. To be a great manager, you need to be healthy so, when others look to you for support, you have something to offer. Leaders have to take care of themselves first.
Moving forward: HELPING OTHERS
My pandemic experience deeply influenced my decision to leave venture capital and become a coach. It’s so easy - in the heat of the moment - to forget what we know are best practices and get pulled out of balance. It’s so easy to forget to take care of ourselves when we are pushing towards big goals, up against great challenges, and in a position to take care of others. Startups are, by nature, high-risk pressure tests.
Moving forward, I'm looking forward to leveraging my experience to help others. I aim to be an anchor for emerging leaders while they explore their own limits, strengths, vulnerabilities and style. I have a particular passion for helping women who, much like me, have wondered how to play this role of founder/leader with all of the expectations others have on us - and we have on ourselves.
I'm going to be that person who reminds you to put on your oxygen mask first. Learning with a great coach is such a different experience than figuring it out alone.