In January of 2016, I was driving 2000 miles away from home in Chicago with everything I could fit into my little white KIA Optima. I was headed to start my first big girl job in Los Angeles. Just weeks after settling in, I was chasing starry skies and bonfire nights in Joshua Tree, taking weekend trips up to Santa Barbara and packing my tent up for any adventure in Yosemite that I could tag along on. I jumped immediately into the surf culture, buying a short board the day after I figured out how to stand up on a long board, which sent me nose diving under water enough times to humble my overambition. I was doing what I always did, throwing myself into unknown places and experiences, even those in which I knew no one, and thriving in the challenge of it all. That was me. Your independent, confident, adventurous girl - hellbent on paving her own way.
Just thirteen months later, back in February of 2017, I found out I was pregnant. It wasn’t planned or expected or any of the things you dream of for your first pregnancy. I was 23, single, looking for the next next and, in a single moment, that future crumbled beneath me. The dreams, the plans, the resumes sitting in the inboxes of some of the trendiest agencies in LA. In just seconds, my perceived world became much smaller.
The day after I found out, I scheduled an abortion. I spent one week wrestling with fear and what this would mean for my life, and the day before I was scheduled to take the pill, I canceled the appointment. Little did I know, that mass of tissue would become the greatest joy I would ever know, my beautiful daughter, Renley Jane.
I’ve mulled over the way in which I’d share my story at least a thousand times, and after two years of writing and rewriting different versions of this, I let go of my perfectionism and settled on this. As painful as it often was and is to relive this painful week of my life and the months that would follow, I’ve written this most specifically for women who find themselves in similar shoes. I’ve written this for the women who have experienced enveloping fear and hurt in the face of something unplanned for, for those who feel alone and abandoned, for those who have faced their own February or one that is yet to come.
Part 1: The Storm of the century
Part 1: The Storm of the Century
They were calling it “the Storm of the Century.” Los Angelenos are always a little dramatic when rain falls but as I was driving myself to Rite Aid, sheets of water pounding my windshield and flooding the storm drains, I found the headlines to be accurate - about the weather and about the next few weeks of my life.
I stood in the feminine hygiene aisle for what seemed like an eternity staring blankly at an aisle full of tests of different colors, brands, prices and the “latest technology.” I was overwhelmed by the choices, though I didn’t need the test. I already knew that I was pregnant. I knew even before I’d missed my always-regular period by a week, before I burned my neck on a curling iron twice (a new clumsiness that wasn’t like me), before the weeks of exhaustion set in or what I prayed was my period coming on. I knew by the recent crimp in my hair that formed at the back of my head near my scalp above my neck. It was a crimp I knew well and recognized instantly; it was the same as my mother’s, just a different color - blonder, mousier - not of her Italian roots. Growing up, I’d watch my mother meticulously blow out her long, thick dark chocolate-brown hair straight after each time she showered. But no matter how hard she pulled with her brush as the heat dried her hair to a crisp, that pesky crimp remained in the same spot at the back of her head near her scalp above her neck. When I asked her about it as a young girl learning to fix my own hair, she’d told me it had shown up when she was pregnant for the first time, with me. The day that crimp arrived, I knew.
But like most things in my life, despite what I knew in my gut, I needed hard proof. And so despite the $8 price difference, I chose a three-pack of the kind that reads “pregnant” or “not pregnant.” There was no time for interpretations of faint pink or blue lines.
I returned to my apartment and sat down on the toilet, breaking open the pack and peeling back the individual wrapping around the test. I was too impatient to read the instructions, but holding back tears, I paused for just a moment to whisper a simple and desperate prayer in vain,
“Please, I’m not ready to be a mother.”
I waited. I paced around my bedroom, continuing the prayer in soft mumbles and three minutes later, that straightforward little test gave me exactly what I wasn’t ready for: motherhood.
I walked slowly out into the living room of the two-bedroom apartment I shared with a friend, Ali, who I’d met only 13 months prior. Ali had taken a chance on me, a total stranger looking for a place to live in LA after landing my first real job out of college. Five years ahead in her career in marketing and advertising, Ali became more than a roommate and friend but a mentor. She’d brainstormed the various agencies I should apply to, the different positions I’d fit well in and she’d helped paint a picture for how I believed the next few years of my life would look. She’d reviewed my updated CV the month prior and proofread the cover letters I’d sent out just weeks before. But that day, standing in our kitchen with the test in my hand and a petrified look on my face, Ali - with her wedding just around the corner - reflected the life I was sure was crumbling before me: the life of a successful woman climbing the ranks in her career, of living out her twenties in a new and vibrant city, of wedding bells before babies, of all things accomplished in the “right” order. As fast as a lightning bolt, I felt a humbling that actually brought me to my knees.
Before that day, I was impervious to pregnancy tests and missed periods; I was immune to unplanned pregnancy. Every door was mine to open, the world was my oyster and I could control every chapter of the story of my life. I was in invincible.
“It says I’m pregnant.”
And then the panic set in.
“No no no no, this can’t be happening” is all I can remember saying over and over out loud. Ali told me to sit down and I listened. I sat with my elbows rested on my knees, my face buried in my hands and continued with the same words in a desperate voice I found unrecognizable. How did I get here? The reality washed over me again and again. How is this possible? I could feel my fear closing in on me like four walls. It felt familiar - like a reoccuring nightmare I’d had as a child where a thickening foam bubbled up in my mouth and suffocated me. I was suffocating, drowning, buried in something I couldn’t control - I guess it felt like all the worst ways to die. There must be a way out. The thought of abortion flickered in my mind but I immediately dismissed it. Catholic-raised, I was educated to dismiss it.
The next hour ensued a blurry search for a way out. I wanted to run away, to disappear, to wake up from this terrible dream. I was facing every non-celibate girl’s most nightmarish reality: unplanned pregnancy. For me, there was no ‘could-be-worse’ scenario. There was no silver lining. Then my pride took hold. How could this happen to me? The eldest daughter, the responsible child, the rebellious spirit that finally grew up and made my parents proud. The big sister, the role model, the girl with the beautiful Instagram living “the California dream.” Who was I now? The girl who got pregnant? That wasn’t part of my plan. That wasn’t the girl I wanted everyone to think I was. I desperately searched my brain for something to melt my fear, to ease my mind, to escape the way I’d always escaped negative actions and truths in the past - with could-be-worse scenarios - but they went unfounded. I was face to face with the biggest consequence I’d known to date. I’d been caught.
I felt like there was something foreign inside of me and I wanted it all to go away.
Part 2: Fear is bloody red
Part 2: Fear is Bloody Red
The storm of the century was still coming down outside when we stepped into the coffee shop. I met with Renley’s dad, Tom, shortly after I hesitantly spit the news out over the phone.
We weren’t together at the time, and hadn’t been together for over a month. Our relationship leading up to this moment was on and off, non-committal and wound together with co-working complicatedness. It was complex, to put it simply.I remember the coffee shop was busy but I don’t remember what I ordered or a single person I saw there. I do often wonder if the barista could see the pain in my eyes as I ordered the drink I never touched. I don’t remember if anyone stared at us, if anyone noticed how distraught and disheveled we looked sorting through the situation at hand. I don’t remember if our intensity affected anyone around us. It didn’t matter. The opinion of others - something that always mattered to me - no longer held any weight. Nothing else matters when your entire world feels like it’s crashing down around you.The only thing I remember about that coffee shop was the foggy window we sat next to and the way Tom held my hand tightly - tighter than he ever had. The fear in his eyes was bloody red. He was so filled with it, he wouldn’t look anywhere but into my eyes, searching for relief. I was searching for the same.Before then, I never realized how strong the emotion of fear can be. I didn’t know that some of us embrace fear, others get curious with their fear and still others run from it all together. I had no idea until this moment how I reacted to fear myself. It turns out, we went running in different directions.I stared into the foggy glass collecting condensation for most of the time, still coming to grips with the shock. Our conversation wasn’t productive. At that moment, I don’t believe it was fully real for him. It usually isn’t for men until they see the first ultrasound or their baby’s face for the the first time in the hospital room. He still wanted it not to be real and I was trying to accept reality. We couldn’t help one another because we were trying to solve for different things. In the midst of my fear, something inside me wished for the response every woman longs to hear in this moment. The excitement every woman looks forward to when someday she’ll meet the man of her dreams, decide to spend her life with him and then tell him - pregnancy test in hand- that she’s carrying his child. I imagine that man picking her up, swirling her around, kissing her neck. Maybe this only happened in movies. Either way, I could hardly imagine that moment in contrast to what I was feeling that day in that coffee shop. I don’t blame him for not giving me what I wished for. It was complex. We weren’t a couple and we’d never discussed spending our lives together. You can’t expect a contrasting outcome than the one that circumstances lay a foundation for. But in that moment, I wished so badly things could be different, that I could go back in time and change something. As every women does when she carries a child, I desperately wanted to be loved. But I just remember the fear. Fear that felt like desperation and shame.I was afraid of what my parents would think. In a common attempt to scare her daughter out of premarital sex, my mother had told me many years earlier, “If you ever find yourself pregnant, don’t come running home to me.” Thoughts of how my family might reject me filled my mind. My greatest fear was letting them down, especially in this way. I feared that I’d never find love. I feared that I’d never be financially independent. I feared that gone were the days of surfing, camping, traveling and every free-spirited thing I ever loved. The fear just filled and overwhelmed me.The rest I don’t remember. The people who must have passed in and out of that coffee shop monotonously ordering their coffees and going about their average Friday afternoons. Small talk of weekend plans and yesterday’s gossip must have swirled around our heaviness. I don’t remember if anyone saw the tears streaming down my face or the fear in Tom’s swollen red eyes. All I do remember was thinking fear is bloody red and that Los Angeles never looked so dreary.
Part 3: The glimpse of joy
Part 3: The Glimpse of Joy
That next morning Tom and I visited a women’s clinic in Santa Monica to confirm that I was pregnant. The clouds still hadn’t let up so the weather felt just as melancholy. The waiting room felt impersonal and cold; I remember feeling uncomfortable in my own skin as I waited - a feeling that would last long after this day.
I wondered what the woman next to me was there to do. Was she pregnant too? Was she as afraid as I was? I longed for another woman to connect with, someone who was also with child, someone to tell me this would all be okay.
“Alexa?” A woman with a clipboard waited for me.
I sat down on the examination table and took off my clothes, slipping on a cold blue smock. The doctor returned to administer the ultrasound. Before I could prepare myself, the sac in my uterus was displayed on screen and the doctor was saying, “Yep, you’re definitely pregnant.” She followed with a quick congratulations that forced a sad “thank you” from my lips. Seeing that this wasn’t a celebratory moment, she proceeded with our options: prenatal care or the abortion pill that would force a miscarriage. We payed for the appointment in cash and I scheduled the abortion for the following Thursday. I told myself I needed one week.
On the way home, I asked to stop by the chapel in the nearest church I could find on Google maps. I knelt and prayed in silence. All I could muster over and over was, “God give me strength. Please give me a miracle.” And then we drove back East in similar silence.
For days, I walked in a fog. I was drowning in my own fear and I could barely hide it. I felt alone, trapped in my despair. The pressure around me to have an abortion felt heavy. It felt like the only way out of this mess but still I held onto this strange, subtle underlying fragment of joy in my heart for what was happening inside my body. It was a glimpse of the joy that every mother must feel when she sees that test result after months (or years) of trying for it. I envied the women who’d felt it under the right circumstances. I wanted only to feel that joy, to be consumed by it, to rest in it. All I wanted was to go back and have done it right: the degree, the job, the man, the ring, the wedding and that damn test result. But going back sounded wrong too. Running away felt wrong, which is why the date I set for the abortion that following Thursday felt wrong. When I thought of it, I felt an emptiness I couldn’t bear. When I felt it coming on, I wanted to ignore it, bury it and not let myself wrestle with it. Because in it, I felt loss and despair unmatched to the kind I already felt. It was as if I was experiencing a glimpse of the grief I knew I’d feel if I made the choice to end my pregnancy.
It was a choice I didn’t want to make but felt I had to, until the morning before I was supposed to take that pill. It was the Wednesday after I’d found out. The 22nd of February.That morning, five days after I received the news, I ran into a friend whom we hadn’t yet shared the news with. Wrapped up in my own fear, I hardly made eye contact - worried I’d just break down then and there and cry uncontrollably. He made eye contact with me intentionally and blurted out a sentence I didn’t expect and would change everything:
“You guys can do this.”
Confused by how he knew, I proceeded cautiously, “What?” He responded, “You can do this. And, heck, if you don’t want this baby, I’ll adopt it. But you can do this.” The blood rushed to my head and I broke into a sweat. It was as if the door I had pulled tightly shut had been ripped open again. It was the first time I felt courage to make the decision that deep down I knew I needed to make. I dropped all of my bags and fell down on my knees, ready to puke. After a few minutes, I left for work still wrapped up in fear but with a new energy to find my way out of it.
I had a 9am coffee set up before work began (something out of the ordinary) and as this person and I spoke about business I knew my eyes were glazing over and it took all of my energy to put on a normal face. I’m a terrible liar. There was something inside of me desperate to tell someone who knew better. Someone who would take me under their arm and tell me everything would be okay. I knew if I got this person to get the news out of me then he could give me the strength I needed.
“What’s the scariest thing that’s ever happened to you?” I said, interrupting our usual conversation about work matters. He listed a few things, one including a close-call pregnancy scare with an old girlfriend. As we walked out of the cafe, he asked, “Are you in one of those situations, Alexa?” I stared at him, unsure that I should tell him the truth - afraid of what telling him might mean. Would I be filled with shame if I shared my secret? Would I be bound to make the decision he thought I should make? Should I try to carry this weight all on my own? I have always struggled to divvy up some of my load to my friends. I shrugged and tears filled my eyes but I turned so that he couldn’t see.
What I didn’t know at that time is that shame is left powerless when we speak it. Shame is dismantled when we share it with the ones who care about us most. Reading Brene Brown’s book, “Rising Strong,” a year earlier had taught me everything I needed to know about crippling shame. I was filled with shame for the mistakes I’d made, the carelessness of my actions, for driving myself to this fork in the road. I hated myself for having made the decisions that bore me this consequence and I would have done anything to undo it all. Except that really, undoing it wasn’t a fix-it for me.
I was unable to close my mind off to fully thinking it through (a need to carefully think things through is a consistent characteristic of mine) and I knew deep in my heart that my body was doing exactly what it was supposed to do. I saw it on the ultrasound. It was already creating room for this little one to grow. She was just a mass of tissues but I knew that’s how all babies began. It was just the beginning. This was a life that already had its own unique DNA and the potential for tiny hands and feet. It was a couple weeks away from a beating heart and a few from fingernails. And it was that potential that I couldn’t stop thinking about. I knew this living tissue’s potential was fixed without natural complications. It was the potential that ultimately convinced me that it was indeed life. I knew with all of my being it was. And with that, I couldn’t find it in myself to throw it away.
“You’re probably not,” my coffee shop friend said to me across the table. He meant that I probably wasn’t pregnant.
All I could muster in response was, “I don’t think, I know.”
Immediately he came around the table, placed a hand on my shoulder and with so much joy, said, “Alexa, there’s a baby inside of you!”
I immediately broke down in tears. He was pulling out that inkling of joy and magnifying it. For the first time in seven days, someone responded to my scary surprise pregnancy with the joy with which we respond to all other pregnancy announcements. His eyes filled with genuine excitement, he smiled and I smiled back - for the first time allowing myself to exhale with the news that a baby was really beginning to grow within me.
His joy was the resounding joy every woman deserves to hear when she shares this news. Despite imperfect circumstances, there was life beginning (not ending) and that alone was cause for celebration. He dismissed my shame not seeing my pregnancy as a problem but something to be excited about. He pulled the joy buried inside of me. The joy that immediately got weighted by the logical part of myself - the part that told me life was over, my future finished, that my family and friends would turn their backs on me. The joy overcame every bit of fear that filled me: I can’t afford this, I won’t hold a job, I won’t find love, I’ll have to give up everything. Instead, it turned my insolvable, absolute statements into questions: How can I do this? How will I tell my parents? How will I accept this new reality? And instead of flight, I redirected to fight mode that filled me with a new mantra: I can do this, it’s just a matter of how.
We finished talking and I called the women’s clinic, cancelling my abortion scheduled for the next morning. I went with my gut and made the decision on my own. Still filled with fear, I was also filled with immediate peace. I knew with all of my being that it was the right decision. It was this simple: I was pregnant and I was going to take accountability for it.
Part 4: The Rest of the Story
Part 4: The Rest of the Story
What I can tell you about this part in my journey is that I accepted and planned to raise Renley on my own. I was very aware and accepting that I was going to be a single mom. I felt abandonment like I’ve never felt it before and I crumbled within the aloneness of it all.
A friend came with me to see the first ultrasound and another friend came with me to see the second, when I saw Renley’s tiny profile for the first time. Other parts of this story are omitted purposefully; I will always remain true to my side of the story and respectful to the part that isn’t mine to tell. In the moments that we face these sorts of life-changing decisions, we don’t know what we want, and I’ll always remain empathetic to that. I don’t look back with bitterness; I look back with gratitude. I’m proud of my courage to say “Yes” because that’s all that really matters now. Without the choice I made, Renley wouldn’t be here to light up our lives.
In May, Tom and I got back together to try and make it work for Renley. It was a hard summer, wrestling with the unknown and accepting what this would mean for the future, and by August I decided I’d be most emotionally supported if I moved home to be near family. In October, Tom followed me back to Chicago and weeks later, Renley arrived. In January, I broke things off we him. I felt we were two very different people with different perspectives of life and the world, and that our happiness as individuals mattered more for our daughter than a forced relationship. Still separated, Tom uprooted his life in California and moved back to Chicago in August to be closer to Renley and I. We are great friends now and he’s a wonderful father to her and co-parent to me. I’m grateful every day that we put Renley before ourselves.
You will learn much more about my journey and what I worked through in the pages of this site but I want to wrap this story up with this:
When I look back on February and the difficult year that ensued, I can't help but think about all the meaningful events that happened in the four weeks leading up to that day and in the month to follow. Just four weeks before that test, I hosted the snapchat story of a pro-life event celebrating the dignity of every human life - from conception until old age. Signs reading "choose life" bounced up and down in a sea of thousands laughing, smiling, celebrating in hope of protecting every vulnerable person who can't fight for themselves. The day after I learned the news, I got an out-of-the-blue (not like her) card from my mother who wrote, "Just remember that God is in control and all will turn out well." It was random and without context and when I asked her why she wrote it, she couldn’t remember. It was as if she knew before I even had the chance to tell her. The Monday after, when I arrived to work, the most recently published weekly issue of the organization I worked for was sitting on my desk - its cover bright pink. It read, "Pro Woman. Pro Life." I didn’t see it the day it came out because I was working from home but on it, it’s publishing date printed: February 17, 2017. I nearly crumbled at my desk when I read it. With an abortion scheduled that Thursday, it haunted and challenged me. And in the weeks that followed the day I was supposed to take the pill, it remained on my desk, lifting me up. Two weeks after, my parents were scheduled to come out for the first visit to LA since I moved. God knew I needed them and I was able to share the news in person (a gift). And in the weeks that followed, my true friends surrounded me with insurmountable love. A love like I've never felt before. When I told a close friend around my 12 week mark - a friend who was six months along in her own pregnancy and whom I wasn’t sure would take the news well - she embraced me and cried tears of joy. In that exact moment as we hugged, I thought of the bible passage about Mary and Elizabeth. When Mary shared the news of her pregnancy with her friend Elizabeth who was six months along on her pregnancy, Elizabeth embraced her, her baby leaping with joy in her womb. The parallelism still makes me break down. I had a friend with me on this journey of pregnancy, I wasn’t alone - just as Mary wasn’t. This friend would go on to support me to this very day - our daughters becoming best friends. Over the course of those ten months, people came out of the woodwork to love me. People told me stories of their own experiences, people I hardly knew reached out to tell me they were proud of me and that they were there if I needed them, women who were facing their own unplanned pregnancies reached out to tell me I had given them strength to say, “Yes.” I was floored and overwhelmingly humbled.
With all this love, it was as if God was preparing me for that groundbreaking moment and walking alongside me every day after it. I look back in complete awe. Maybe these events gave me courage to make the decision I did and to carry on after. Maybe they're all coincidence. But I don't like to think so. I think God was there all along, telling me over and over that I wasn’t alone. That I needn't be afraid. That I could keep going and that things would be okay. Little did I know, February would mark the beginning of something so beautiful.
On the day before my 24th birthday in May, when I cut the gender-reveal cake and pink frosting covered the knife, it all hit me. A girl. The pink magazine. A life that was never meant to be cut out. In the mixture of fear and tears of joy in celebration, I became aware of the little girl inside of me who never knew such love. And in my womb, a little girl the size of an avocado grew - not knowing at the time that she would teach me all about love. Smothered in hugs from family and friends all around me that day in the month that Catholics celebrate Mary, I recognized that my family never did abandon me like I feared. That the friends who cared most about me stood ardently by my side. That life, with every birthday that would pass, would surely keep on keeping on. It was first of many moments in my journey that I thought: this was His plan all along. And I would never, ever be alone in it.
For those of you facing a similar experience or comforting a friend who is:
If you’re pregnant, I want to say Congratulations! No matter your circumstances, you deserve that response because your life, right now, is changing in the most beautiful way. Knowing what I know now, my heart leaps with joy for you. And even if you don’t quite feel that joy yet, I want you to know that this journey that’s beginning is so, so beautiful and life-giving (literally and figuratively).
Please know this: because of the choice I made, I write from a perspective of You can do this. I want you or any friend you know who finds themselves in these shoes to know what my friend told me that Wednesday morning: “You can do this.”
It is not an easy journey, I’ll always be very honest about that, but it has been the most rewarding journey of my life. It’s been a journey of forgiveness (of myself and others), empowerment, understanding, growth, and strength. It has made up every fiber of who I am today. All of this said, I would never judge another woman for making a different choice than mine nor do I ever intend to make a woman feel that my choice was braver or stronger than the one she made or chooses to make in her future. I have close friends who came to me with their stories of abortion after I found out I was pregnant. When they shared their experiences with me, I didn’t look at them through a shame-filled lens; I knew exactly where they’d been and knew I could have just easily made the same decision. I know the pain, the darkness, the indescribable fear that takes over. I know, with tears in my eyes, the unbearable hurt, loneliness and lack of control that a woman feels in this moment. The single most important motivation for all of this story-telling comes from empathy and wanting to share a simple message: you are not alone.
My boss says something repeatedly that rings true for me, “God gives us what we need, not what we want.” If I hadn’t gone down the road I did, my life would look a lot different than it does now. Perhaps it would be easier, yes, but I don’t think I could have run away from it completely. I would have had to faces my vices eventually; pregnancy and motherhood just put me on a fast track. I often ponder what life would have been if I’d made the decision to end my pregnancy. Knowing myself well, I’m almost certain I would have lived with wonder of what if. In a way, I think when a woman’s body opens up a place for a child to grow, the rest of the body including the brain also opens up a space. And when a baby is born, despite how you initially bond or if you choose to place it for adoption, that space in body and brain alike is filled. Like an endeavor fulfilled. I believe in the geniusness of a woman’s design and I have profound respect and gratitude for our ability to magically to bring new life into the world. In my experience becoming a mother, I believe this with my whole heart. And I believe that life is always a gift, not a burden - despite what obstacles exist. I also believe that adoption (something I did consider early on) is the most beautiful and sacrificial thing I can imagine. I think the women who move forward with their pregnancies with the intention to bring the world new life and give that baby to a loving family who can give it the love and security he or she deserves is pure heroism.
I’ll leave you with this: If there’s a little fight in you, take it and run with it. And if there’s no fight at all, dig it up because it’s always been within you. You were made for this. You don’t need to feel ashamed. You don’t need to feel alone. You can do this and I’m with you on this journey.