Vanessa Lachey on Healing from the ‘Hurt’ of Her Mom Leaving When She Was 9 — with Nick’s Support –


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"It's a beautiful bracelet, but it's the symbolism for me," the NCIS: Hawai'i actress, 41, told PEOPLE on the set of her cover shoot earlier this fall. "As he was screwing it on, he said, 'One day we will screw this on our daughter's wrist when she's 18. She will always have a piece of us in her world.'"

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That moment reminded Vanessa — who is opening up for the first time about the pain she faced after her mom left her when she was 9 years old — that Nick, 48, is truly "the one" for her.

"I don't want to negate the power and the strength in me personally, but Nick has been a very strong reason for how I am who I am. What I needed was to believe in myself, and it took me marrying the best guy to say, 'You are all that and more,'" says Vanessa, who shares in the introduction of her upcoming lifestyle book, Life From Scratch (out Nov. 30), that she last saw her mother when she was 18.

Adds the star, who's mom to Brooklyn, 6, and sons Camden, 9, and Phoenix, 4: "What I've taken out of it is how it's ultimately made me a better mom, a better wife, and hopefully a better person. I will never take my family for granted."

For more on how Vanessa Lachey found true happiness with Nick and their three kids after a difficult childhood, pick up the latest issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday.

nick and vanessa lachey

Credit: Jeff Lipsky/

Born in the Philippines, Vanessa moved frequently around the States with her American dad, Vincent Minnillo, who served in the U.S. Air Force, and her Phillippines-born mom, Helen Bondoc, until they separated when she was 3.

Vanessa and her older brother lived briefly in Turkey with Helen and her new husband, who also served in the military, but they were evacuated back to America for safety when the Gulf War began in 1990.

Helen dropped off her children at Vanessa's father's L.A. home, telling their stepmom she would be back, Vanessa recalls. Over the next several weeks, Helen visited a handful of times but then disappeared.

"I didn't really understand when she didn't come for one weekend, and then another weekend," says Vanessa, who saw her mother only twice over the next decade. "Then you just hope she's going to come back and always wonder why she didn't. It took me [time] to understand that it wasn't [my fault]."

nick and vanessa lachey

Vanessa threw herself into her work as a model, actress and TV host, finding fame as one of MTV's Total Request Live veejays in her 20s.

She began dating Nick in 2006, and while she felt "accepted" by a partner for the first time, it wasn't until they became pregnant after their 2011 wedding that she realized how deeply she had been affected by her painful childhood.

She struggled with feelings of self-doubt and insecurity, but ultimately "what I realized is you don't have to fall into those [same] patterns, and I didn't," she says.

Adds Nick: "One thing I've learned about my wife is that she's a fighter and so resilient. If nothing else, [her experience] gave her a real appreciation for how important her kids are to her."

nick and vanessa lachey

Vanessa and Nick Lachey

| Credit: Jeff Lipsky/

Over the last year, the couple and their kids have been living in Oahu while Vanessa — the first woman and Asian American to lead NCIS — shoots the show (airing Mondays at 10 p.m. on CBS).

"When I got the job, Nick's exact words were, 'This is your time,'" she recalls of her husband, whose Fox music competition show, Alter Ego, premiered the same week as NCIS in September.

"We've always supported each other — whether I'm going on tour and they come with me, or we move to Hawaii for her show," says the 98 Degrees singer. "We just look at it as a big family adventure."

nick and vanessa lachey

Vanessa and Nick with Camden, Brooklyn and Phoenix

| Credit: Jeff Lipsky/

"Your messy past doesn't have to define your future," she says of what she hopes fans take away from her book. "For that person who is doubting themselves, I would just encourage them to know that they know what's best for themselves and their family."

After more than two decades estranged from Helen, Vanessa isn't closing the door on a possible reconciliation. "I would want to hear her story. It's not healthy or healing to carry around all that bitterness," she says.

But for now, she's focused on the life she's built with Nick and their family. "I tell [my kids], 'Mommy will never leave you. I'm here no matter what — forever and ever.'"

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