Must Read: Without My Mum By Leigh Van Der Horst


“Children deserve a precious certainty that they are loved. Not because they are wonderful or clever or pretty or musical or any other attribute a child can possess, but just because they are. For no other reason than that they belong in their mother’s heart forever. Those were the beautiful words of motherly wisdom Leigh Van Der Horst’s mother Joanne gave to her. They’re precious not just because they’re about children, but because Joanne died of cancer at the age of 56. Van Der Horst was 32-years-old at the time. “It crushed me. The grief process took a huge toll on me, and all the while I had to continue to selflessly mother my boys and protect them from the heavy sadness,” recalls Van Der Horst who lives with her husband and four sons - Jack, 15, Kye, 12, Josh, 10 and Ollie, 3 – in Victoria’s Mornington Peninsula. “At the time of my mother’s diagnosis, I began to journal what I was going through and continued to do so right up until I felt that my soul had healed after her death.”

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Leigh with her son Ollie.

Her journal is now an emotive, moving book titled Without My Mum, which unravels in three parts and is about learning to live with a grateful heart after loss and grief. “It begins with my story, told through those journal entries and summaries of events at the time. It’s honest and very raw, but also inspiring as going through this harrowing experience changed me forever and for the better. When my mother died, I just couldn’t seem to find any comfort or advice and felt that I needed to create what I craved, as I knew others would also be desperately yearning for similar. To this day there is nothing like my book in the world and that makes me very proud indeed.” She was inundated with pre-orders and within 24 hours of the pre-order link being live, Van Der Horst sold 124 books Australia wide and more than double that worldwide. Her thought provoking book also includes words of motherly wisdom from women such as Lisa Wilkinson, Natalie Bassingthwaighte, Jools Oliver, Rebecca Judd, Megan Gale and Georgie Gardner. We caught up with the inspiring mother and author to find out more about her journey…

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Leigh with her son Ollie.

How would you describe yourself?
“Open, honest, caring, kind hearted, loyal, sensitive, emotional and friendly (and a little hormonal at times…).

What has motherhood taught you?
So many things! It has taught me about patience, acceptance, true love, an unbelievable feeling of fear for my children’s futures. It has taught me to be fair, especially on myself and it sure has highlighted just what the term ‘hard work’ means!

What did your own mother teach you about motherhood?
To be open and accepting. To cuddle often. To praise, encourage and deliver a little tough love when necessary! To admit to being wrong and to remain comfortable in my own skin. My mum was a ‘no fuss’ kind of woman so we didn’t really waste time on drama when I was growing up and I think that is how I mother now. Straight to the issue at hand and how we can deal with it.

What are your most vivid memories of your mother growing up?
She was a schoolteacher and she worked very hard. She had a passion for teaching and loved to learn. She was a walking history book, a dictionary and so, so wise. I could always get the answer that I searched for, but she also loved fiercely. I have a vivid memory of the first time I got my period, she ran me a hot bath, had the products that I needed ready on my bed, had a little chat with me about what was happening and then combed my wet hair, for what seemed like hours. It was absolutely lovely. Very comforting. I will never forget it. My mum also loved to travel and almost saw the whole world. I hope to do the same one day.

Can you tell us about your journey and how you came to write your moving book Without My Mum?
Without My Mum was a book that I just felt I needed to write. I was 32 when my mum died of cancer and I truly felt alone. Over time I came to realise that others had battled a similar loss and so I wanted to create something that might comfort and inspire them. I felt so alone when mum died and there wasn’t anything available to me that I could specifically relate to. I am very emotional and wanted to relate to others on that level. A sense of realness, of friendship in a way. It is so tough to process grief when you are a mum, as there is rarely any time to sit with your own thoughts and ride the roller coaster of emotions. I think, because of that, it takes longer to come to a place of happiness and contentment in your heart. Your heart never completely heals though, especially where the children are involved. All of the milestones and special moments that occur, I am always wishing that mum could share them with us.

Can you tell us about the book…
It’s a three part book that I am so proud of! The first part is my story. Tissues at hand are recommended, as it is very real and raw. I felt that was the only way that I could truly share the experience of losing my mum as it was certainly not a fun one! But, from my journey, you will witness an amazing growth in myself. I was rather negative when I was younger but once my mum was diagnosed with cancer and then caring for her when she was unwell and subsequently sadly letting her go as she passed away, I changed, for the better, thankfully. I learned that life is precious and not to be wasted and I began to really love myself and be proud of who I am, something I credit my mother for teaching me. The second part of ‘Without My Mum’ sees women from all over the world share about their experiences of losing their mothers. The lows, the lessons, the way they coped. I gained so much strength from these stories as they came flooding in and am forever grateful to the fabulous women who shared. The book concludes with a section just for mums. It is choc full of wisdom from beautiful mothers all over the world who have and are walking the walk. From raising young girls to nurturing children with special needs. It’s all there in its wonderful and very real glory. A real coming together of sisterhood! I was also very grateful to have included truly wonderful words from the likes of Megan Gale, Nat Bassingthwaighte, Jools Oliver, Rebecca Judd, Livinia Nixon and many more!

How do you stay so positive?
By focusing on the good. We all have down days and I certainly have my fair share but it is the big picture that we have to focus on. We are alive. We are seeing life unfold every day, we have the opportunity to smell flowers as we walk past a garden, we can hear the sound of the waves crashing at the beach, we get to experience great coffee, watch our children grow and develop, laugh with our friends. These are all precious moments in life and we are truly blessed to witness them. Yes, life can be heavy and sometimes pressure mounts up, but it is just so important to remain focused on the blessings. They can be taken so fast, it all can. Love all that you are and have surrounded yourself in.

How did you deal with the grief of losing your mother?
It took a long time for me to deal with the loss. I still have my moments of sadness, but they are not as heavy as they once were. There are so many stages that you go through when you lose someone you love and depend on. Anger, confusion, frustration, denial, the inability to accept the new reality. For me, once I found someone that I could talk to about all of my emotions I started to face them in their entirety. The key to dealing with grief, I think is being strong enough to sit with each moment and ride the wave. This is so hard as a mum as time is rare and we don’t often get a chance to just be still in a moment but for me it became a necessity. I had to enforce time to myself to be able to allow the heaviness to rise and then fall in it’s own time. Lots and lots of tears roll out but they do dry up eventually and you learn to smile again. There is no time limit on dealing with grief, it takes as long as it takes.

What puts a smile on your face everyday?
The little things. A blue sky. That first and only coffee in the morning. My husbands witty humour. My three year old saying “I wuv you” as soon as he sees me in the morning and “sweet dweams” at night, my 15 year old telling me he loves me as he walks out the door to catch the bus for school, that feeling of contentment when all the boys are happy. I appreciate those days when it all just falls into place.

What are you most proud of in life?
That I have carried, birthed and am raising four beautiful boys. All with differing personalities and dreams and all confident, lovely people. I have many moments where I just stand there, gazing at them, thinking, ‘did I really make you?’ It blows my mind that we (women) are just so damn talented! I am also proud of myself for holding it together long enough to graciously guide my mother out of this life. She passed away with a smile on her face and that means the world to me.

What’s the hardest and best part of being a mum?
Being a mum is both physically and mentally exhausting! I have never known anything like it. I find motherhood extremely hard to plan around. I find that the days that I work often end up threatened by sick kids or those nights you have planned with your girlfriends are too often cancelled due to the kids’ plans or again, illness. The best part of being a mum is the abundance of love. With four boys, it comes from all directions. Boys love their mums so there is no shortage of cuddles but it’s not all roses all of the time of course. I also get lots of joy watching them develop. I love that they are all different and have their own identities and it is just fabulous to witness them succeed and be proud of themselves.

What makes a happy home?
Laughter. I love nothing more than when one of us says or does something really funny and when we all get going, the house just turns into an absolute circus! In day-to-day life, I think respecting each other maintains a happy home, being kind and considerate and giving space to another when it is necessary. We do a lot together too. I find that the glue between us sticks better if we all share moments as a family. Those times also offer great opportunities to deeply talk and relate.

What is your favourite time of the day?
The part when I can finally flop on the sofa and put my feet up (and sneak a bit of chocolate)! Being a working mum is exhausting. I definitely earn the rest but unfortunately, I don’t last long. My eyes start closing far too quickly!

What are some words of motherly wisdom that someone has once given to you and you remember?
Funnily enough, both bits of advice have come from a dear wise friend of mine. They are ‘you are only as happy as your saddest child’ which is so true. My heart aches when I know that my children aren’t happy or if they are struggling in their lives. If only we could just wave a magic wand and fix all of their problems. The other gem is that ‘while they are young, we build their foundations. These foundations will guide them into adulthood’. It can be tough with very young children, repeatedly setting boundaries and some days it feels as though you are not getting anywhere as an influencer but it is so important to keep enforcing the values and behaviours that you expect from your children. No-one is perfect but if you can guide your child into the murky waters of teenage-hood with some common sense and insight, then the ride just might not be as scary as we imagine it to be."

Leigh’s little list of loves:
Long, quiet walks. Especially along the beach, when it’s not so cold!
Fruit and nut chocolate.
Good friends, I have been out so much lately and although it is exhausting, I love catching up with my friends. It gives me such a boost!
A trashy mag and a long hot bath.
Very Useful Face Cream by Go-to Skincare. I was given a sample in a goody bag and my face just literally eats it up! My skin feels amazing once I apply it and it smells heavenly. I plan to get online and order a few things in the range, when I can find the time of course!
I am currently reading Mother to the Motherless by Mama Zipporah, a gorgeous Kenyan woman who is utterly amazing. She runs an orphanage in the Ngong Hills near Nairobi and does amazing work with orphaned children. I am going to meet her very soon, which is exciting and I hope to travel to Africa next year to spend some time at the orphanage.
Ed Sheeran. Ollie and I listen to his album ALL the time.
Wednesday swimming lessons with Ollie. Although I always feel nervous watching him in the water, I love the joy on his little face when he does something new. I’m well aware of the fact that he will be at school in the blink of an eye, so I am truly savouring this parenting stage with him.
The Voice! It has become a good excuse for us all to huddle together on the couch and watch. I get so teary, I’m a bit of a crier, which I get a hard time about but I just feel so proud of the people who get up on that stage and belt out a song. Something I could never do! I love Ricky more and more each year. We all do!
Dinner dates with my husband. We are making it a priority and it is so lovely to sit alone with him and talk with no interruptions. I recommend it to any parents, even once a month if you can. It’s the best.

Photography: Katie Toland Words: Georgie Abay


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