It was around two years ago when I found myself on one of those musty and cramped overnight buses headed from Cuzco to Lima in Peru. Tired of watching B-grade Spanish movies and eating Pringles to pass the time, I went online to Google my mom: Michelle Meyjes.
All the expected results came up: CEO, award-winning South African businesswoman, media mogul, a ‘proven leader’ and her face on a few magazine covers. There was even an article that declared her one of ‘South Africa’s top 30 wonder women’ alongside Graça Machel, Ferial Haffajee and Thuli Madonsela.
And there I was, slouching in that seat on a musty and cramped bus, the only child of this superwoman, the only hope of carrying forth the great business genes; now on my last pennies, eating Pringles and on a bus to nowhere.
We laugh about it now but it took me a good few years to learn that a shadow is no great place for the daughter of a businesswoman.
Mom and I have always been wonderfully close – we share everything (except underwear) and we’ve always celebrated our differences: she is humble as chips, I’m showy as a peacock; she’s astute with money, I never have any of it; she’s strategic, I’m creative. And she comes from the generation where you start work and you stay there your whole life whether you like it or not. It’s all you know, it’s what you’re good at, so just put your head down and shoulder the storm, dear woman!
For a while, I tried to play in the same work place, riding off the coat-tails of a phenomenal mother and industry role-model. I moved to Johannesburg to ‘pursue a career’ because that’s what the city promised our young, educated and ambitious professionals: work, money, commodity, stuff. I was groomed to ‘be MD in two years’ and told ‘you’re going to be just like your mother’.
And then one day, I couldn’t face getting out of bed. My phone was stealing my life – ting, ting, ting, beep, beep. Emails and text messages and phone calls from clients and the boss and my co-workers and more emails… I put my duvet over my head and tried to block it all out. At 24, I was sick from stress, burnt out and uninspired.
That night, I made the decision to pack it all in – leave the job, the boyfriend, the title and the money and head in the direction of goodness knows where. And the best thing of all was that mom remained my biggest supporter. Often she said, “Don’t do what I did, my baby.”
So I decided to live for living. I moved to France, I worked on a few super yachts and was fired once or twice. I met my future husband while taking out the rubbish and I learned to speak Swedish (he’s Swedish). I got a casual job in Tanzania and I backpacked through parts of South America. I studied as a Pilates instructor in Italy and moved to the outskirts of Monaco, where it’s okay not to have much money and eat cheap Indian curry. I don’t own a Louis Vuitton bag. And until further notice, we won’t own a car. I started writing again and mustered up a community of South African expatriates who were also trying to figure out why Europe still didn’t feel like home.
And I spent time repairing, re-gathering and listening to the stories of other people. Whether it was a lesson from my homeless friend John or a moment spent making a bed for Arabic royalty, I came to learn that life has so many different angles and that success can mean so many different things.
I learned things about success that a career would never have taught me.
And in the end, I have come to terms with the fact that we have chosen different lives – my mom and I.
It’s a sad thing that success has become about money and things and a frantic, hard slog to the top, often in tough and abusive work environments that are especially hard on our women. For us women, success should be about time: spending time, having a good time, or simply having the time. Success should be about time with the right people, time with ourselves; or doing what we love while we still have the time to do it. Time makes us richer.
I may have walked away from a well-paved career but I never believed packing up meant giving up. I still admire those women who have the guts to survive in that world. And I thank my supermom for giving me the courage to choose differently.
The writer studied radio journalism and landed a desk job in South Africa before packing it all up for the more interesting life.