Abby Huntsman's Wild Year: Why She Really Left 'The View' , Her Family's COVID Scare — and What's Next

"The decision that I made was probably the best decision I could have made for my life, for my mental health, for my happiness, for my family," she says as she prepares a new project on her own terms

"It's funny," Abby Huntsman says with a grin partway through a recent interview from her Connecticut home. "I haven't turned on the TV because I just … I can't. I watch reruns of Modern Family on Hulu and I watch CoComelon. If I want to learn the news, I'll just read something. But, I just — I don't watch TV anymore."

Consider it a kind of detox — especially because, for someone who self-describes as a "very private person," Huntsman was living "a very public life" year after year in front of the cameras.

First she was a host on MSNBC, then a reporter and host on Fox News, and most recently a panelist on ABC's The View, which she departed in January 2020.

Daytime's most popular talk show — whose hot-topic format and alchemical mix of personalities has made it a fount of conflict for 24 years — is one to which Huntsman remains so grateful, even as she sounds just as grateful to be gone from it.

"I don't talk much about that time, and I won't, but the decision that I made was probably the best decision I could have made for my life, for my mental health, for my happiness, for my family," she tells PEOPLE.

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Abby Huntsman. Paula Lobo/ABC via Getty Images

The story of what she does next begins with what she decided to stop doing: squeezing herself into a kind of role, depending on the audience, ritualistically scrolling Twitter each morning, "thinking about the next extreme comment I have to make about something."

The story of what's next is also a story about her kids, about motherhood and marriage and about her dad. It's a story about the pandemic.

Here, she'll explain.

"I've been in the news industry for the last 10 years working at so many different places, but it was a decision that I felt in my gut, actually, for quite some time about making, much longer than people probably realize," she says. "And when I made the decision, I remember walking out those doors after they told me, 'No one quits their dream job in television,' and I said, 'Well, this isn't the dream job that I was hoping, in many ways, that it was.'"

"When I walked out those doors for the first time, I could hear the birds chirping in the city, in Central Park," she says, "and I looked up in the sky and I thought, 'This is the best thing I did for myself.' Because I can see the world, I can hear the world, I'm more present."

"And I'll be honest," she continues, "this last year has been a lot of healing and a lot of asking myself questions and thinking things back and wondering, 'Did you make a mistake, did you handle this right or that right?'"

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From left: Jeff Livingston and Abby Huntsman. Abby Huntsman/Instagram

Huntsman's final View appearance aired on Jan. 17, 2020, as she prepared to head to Utah to help run dad Jon Huntsman Jr.'s campaign for governor. Four days later, officials confirmed the first COVID-19 case in the United States.

Huntsman, along with her husband, Jeff, and their three young children, headed to Utah "thinking it was going to be a two-week thing."

"Everything was breaking in New York, and so my husband and I said, 'Let's just take the kids there.' We locked our apartment door thinking we'd be back in two weeks, and you pack a bag for a few days, for a week," Huntsman says. "And, as we all experienced, it escalated and escalated."

Huntsman's parents got sick. She got sick. So did her daughter Isabel and twins Ruby and William. Two weeks before her dad lost his primary race in early July — a shock in and of itself — her husband was hospitalized with COVID-19.

The thought crept in, because how could it not: Would he survive?

"I just remember feeling so helpless and so overwhelmed and so unsure about what was going to happen — was he going to be okay, am I going to be okay, are the kids going to have lifelong effects from this virus?" Huntsman says now.

"There was a period, to be totally honest, that I didn't think I would be able to get through," she admits. But she did. She told herself, "You just have to keep going. You just put one foot in front of the other in front of the other."

Her husband recovered; her family recovered. And she spent weeks, still living in Utah, picking back through her dad's failed campaign. He had already been Utah's governor once and most recently served as an ambassador to Russia.

Still, voters chose someone else. The thing she left to do after The View didn't work.

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From left: Abby Huntsman with parents Mary Kaye Huntsman and Jon Huntsman Jr. Abby Huntsman/Instagram

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"I could sit here and tell you everything's a lesson, but no … that was one of the hardest things I ever went through," Huntsman says.

In a way, it was the same lesson the pandemic taught her, just learned a different way.

"I look back on it now and I realize how much resilience my family has and how proud I am to be part of a family that put themselves out there knowing that you can lose, and you do lose," she says. "And you know what you do? You get back on it again, you pick up the pieces."

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From left: Jon Huntsman Jr. and Abby Huntsman. Abby Huntsman/Instagram

After a year living out of suitcases, Huntsman's family moved to Greenwich. Post-pandemic normalcy is growing closer (Huntsman's oldest just went to her first soccer practice).

"It wasn't the easiest [time] for us and for so many people," she says. But, had it not been for all of that, had it not been for the roller coaster of her life, "I don't think I'd be sitting here in Connecticut and feeling like a new person with a whole new perspective of my priorities and what I want out of life and what I hope to spend my time doing."

She's excited about getting back into media on her own terms and is planning a podcast with friend Lauren Leeds. The project — she's mum on the title — is eyeing a fall launch with Dear Media.

It'll be a show "about real life things, ups and downs and big chapters in life, losing someone you love, getting married, having kids, getting a divorce, becoming grandparents," Huntsman says. "Every time we've talked on the phone over the year — she's in L.A., I'm in New York — we talked about the ups and downs of life. And she's also in television, and we just say, 'How fun it would be for us to get together and do it the way we want to, have the conversations that we want to have and really pull out the most interesting things from interesting people?'"

They can't wait. "I miss interviewing people so much. I miss storytelling," Huntsman says.

For all the success she had in her previous cable and talk show roles, this will be something different.

"I didn't want to be pulled on TV in a direction that wasn't me, and so instead I just pulled myself from it on my own to say, 'I don't want this,'" she says. "I'm really looking forward to having just an outlet that I can control."

And yes, of course she acknowledges the gossipy headlines constantly churning around The View, a show that pays its panel of hosts to debate — not to mention the clips of on-air arguments that boomerang around social media, and the sources whispering about dressing room sniping as the reps deny it.

"There's so many articles that you're like, half of that's not even true," Huntsman says. "And that was part of the reason in my decision: I don't want my kids reading things about me growing up that are just so far from reality."

"But you feel trapped in that, and there's no way out," she adds. "So I don't miss that at all. I can at least control what's in my home right now, and I'm not living every day thinking, what's this person going to write next?"

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Abby Huntsman. D Dipasupil/Getty Images

"This is only my story," she says. But, for the record, she did meet with the network before leaving The View.

"As anyone should when they go quit a job, you go sit down with the executives and you tell them why. And I spoke to them before that as well, about concerns that I've had on the show and environment and things like that. I said, 'I'm walking out these doors, but I hope that certain things that we talked about will change,'" she says. "But, of course, everyone wants to write about the drama, because that is the show."

The truth is, she says, "I'll have friends there for the rest of my life. I'll have even some mentors there that I'll keep for a long, long time. So I still feel so lucky to have had that opportunity."

For Huntsman's 35th birthday last month, View moderator Whoopi Goldberg sent a note and a box of chocolates. "I'll text Joy [Behar] about something random. Sunny [Hostin] just sent me her book," Huntsman says.

And of former colleague Meghan McCain, she says, "Our families have always been close and we always will be, and I'm so thrilled that she's a mom. I think she's a totally different person as well after becoming a mom, as we all are."

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Abby Huntsman (center) with her husband and three children. Abby Huntsman/Instagram

"That's what people don't write. They don't write about the friendships, they don't write about us being real people, or any of that," Huntsman says. "It's the drama of it all. And, to be honest, a lot of that is driven by executives and an environment that they let happen. It's less about individual people, because there are so many hard-working people that go in there every day just to do their job and to be good at it, but a lot of it's out of their control."

After all of that, she says, "I know exactly who I want to be in life."

At the moment, that mostly means raising three toddlers — savoring her downtime, cherishing the value of a good routine and showing her children what it means to be bold in being kind.

"I feel like I'm in a really good place. I'm sure of who I am, I'm sure of what I do every day. And raising these kids, as stressful as it is, there's nothing that makes me happier, because I'm giving it my all," Huntsman says. "And I'm failing every step of the way, trust me. But I'm going to look back, I'm going to be so glad that I gave this my everything."

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