WHEN I LEFT
WORDS AND PHOTOS BY LISA HOGG
AMSTERDAM, THE NETHERLANDS
In 2015 i made a decision that made me stop being a mom for a year and a half.
I didn’t really stop being a mom but it sure as hell felt like it. I had been living in Amsterdam for over 17 years. Moved there from South Africa when I was 23 and just married (yikes). I had my daughter Faith at 26 and my son Danté at 29. During this time I was hardworking, ambitious and just trying to make sure my family had what they needed. I experienced major challenges in my marriage and some huge disappointments but I continued to try make it work. In 2009 I realized that I was screaming against thunder and I left my husband, I liberated my soul and became a wolf mama leading her own pack.
As a new divorcee, I celebrated my freedom, but as the dust settled I lost sight of what I needed for myself. I had a fairly good career and built up my home from an empty space with two IKEA beds to my true Mom cave for my cubs. Being a woman who holds herself to very high standards is a trajectory that is exhausting and relentless. What my failed marriage had taught me was to not settle, so I constantly looked for progress and a better life for myself and my cubs, regardless of the effort it required. This is what led me to make one of the toughest decisions of my life.
I needed a new job, the one I was in was going nowhere for me, and the work culture was toxic. I was unhappy and desperate. Amsterdam can be a hard mistress at times because there are either great opportunities or none at all, never anything in between. In my job search I was made a seemingly great offer but it required a move abroad to Italy, over 600 miles away. Yes, 600 miles away!
For better or worse, part of my character is that I move from A to Z at the speed of light. I deliberated and debated, and for once in my life, I was also ready to do something for ME, to put my career and my own sanity first. So just like that, I resigned and mentally was already working and living in Italy. Even though I had 50/50 dual custody set up with with my ex, I was still the primary parent in terms of scheduling the kids lives, be it social, school or medical. I 100% assumed he would agree to let the kids move with me. My daughter at this point was 14 and my son 11 - I had waited for them to get to an age where I thought a move would be more manageable. On so many accounts, boy was I wrong.
My ex said "no way!" I was blindsided. I cried all day. I swore vengeance. I spat fire. A friend came over and took me for ice cream (thanks Jason) and talked me off the ledge. The father of my children made fair points about the disruption taking them to Italy would involve. A more "sane" me would have stopped and regrouped, but still I was so committed to my mission of leaving that I couldn’t waiver on my decision. If I look back now it's easy to see what I should have done, but I had moved too far too fast and it ‘seemed’ following through was my only option.
So I left.
My kids would visit me during holiday times and some weekends, but I would cease to be the day-to-day Alpha mama that I have always prided myself in being. I left and I nearly died.
To explain that feeling of loss, that feeling of losing your north star, is hard to put into words. I was so afraid and confused by what was going on but found no answers. But I went on. The irony was that the only thing that made me keep going was my children. I went to a very dark place and was so close to giving up on everything at times, yet my legacy and theirs made me take one day at a time until I figured it all out.
My support network (all at a distance) was limited. One of the sad things I find about a community of women is the judgment rather than the support. I heard comments like “if it’s so hard why did she do it." Nothing in life is that simple. That said, I had my tribe. I now believe and live by quality, not quantity. One of the many invaluable lessons from my time living in an empty den.
During my 18 months as a single mom in Italy, I barely made any friends, in or outside of the office. I lived in a big house with my two dogs and although work was busy, before and after I would be alone, no conversation, no plans. I couldn’t even listen to people around me because I didn’t speak Italian well enough yet. I would eat alone, sit alone. Sometimes I wouldn’t speak to anyone for days at a time. I was so fucking lonely. That in itself has been one of my primary lessons in this. I left Amsterdam because I could feel so alone, but in my time in Italy I realized in Amsterdam it was a choice but in Italy it was a reality. The judgment we often make of ourselves is far more severe than what anyone else is capable of.
I felt like a bad mother, a bad person, and lived 24/7 in my own mistake. with dire results.
I would wake every day, missing the feel of my son’s hair on my face from our morning cuddles. I missed the smell of my children. I missed packing lunches, even shouting at my daughter to move her teenage ass so that she wouldn’t be late. I was losing my grip on moulding my children to be independent thinkers and good people, of guiding them through school and the challenges they face. Being a Mom, the one role in life that I never questioned myself in, had found my joy in, was gone.
Don’t get me wrong I whatsapp’d every day, tracked homework online, but nothing replaces being in the room, be it to deliver a dagger-look across the room but more importantly to give a Mom hug. The kind of hug that washes the day away and lifts you above all the bullshit. My son needed it. My teenage daughter needed it more.
Things escalated. On both ends. My daughter was unhappy and her schoolwork suffered to the point of starting to fail semesters. I was either at work, travelling or drunk from too much wine and self pity on my couch. She avoided and I numbed. I gained over 20 lbs, smoked more than ever before and developed hypertension. Things went from bad to worse and it became clear that the job I had moved for was going nowhere. I struggle with making mistakes but I read a quote once that said ‘failure is nothing but information’ - and lets just say I felt like I was watching a Wikileaks episode of my life.
After 13 months of trying to make positive change in my new role, regardless of the continuous opposition within a severely misogynistic company, it finally dawned on me that none of it was worth it. That sometimes going back is the only sensible and healthy thing to do. The kids and I discussed it and created the timeline for my return to them and Amsterdam.
So here I am. Nearly two years later, but back in my happy place. The furniture is back in my Amsterdam apartment where I had it before, I walk my dogs on the same streets and I pack lunches in the same OCD way I always have. My daughter’s friends asked recently, ‘when did you start eating healthy?’ and she replied ‘when my Mom came home!’ The soul in my Mom cave is incredible, it's warm and strong, full of love. The gift of perspective can be very costly but I am truly so grateful. I now know my limits, I know that the biggest dreams I have had are real and that sometimes standing still is actually the kind of progress I need. I have made peace with the last two years because berating myself for the veering off my path gives me nothing. I am more grateful and more awake than ever before.
The primary lesson I learned from all this is that, first and foremost, I can’t be away from my children. Some may be able to do it but I simply cannot. In my experience, being a mom is significantly different from being a dad. My cubs expect more from me than they do of their Dad. That's just the way it is. And I always deliver more, because it is just innate for me.
The other insight that I take with me is that your support network is everything - focus your energies on those who empower you, who challenge you without leaving you feeling judged and on those who always try and understand where you are at, even if they can’t identify with your decision or experience. Take their help, don’t be afraid to be vulnerable and admit that your shit is not together.
Finally, listen to your pain and your gut. My body told me the right thing to do and I didn’t listen until I learned the hard way. But for us tough ass bitches, it’s the only way at times. Sometimes it is giving in and not giving up.