In the spring of 2002, I was finishing my junior year of college at a notoriously hippie-dippy party school in the mountains of North Carolina. At 21 years old, I’d spent years looking for something to numb the hurt of a messy and damaging childhood. Even though I’d grown up in the church with a mama who loved me well, I couldn’t escape the adverse effects of my family falling apart when I was in middle school. My heart was like a stew with meaty chunks of trauma and four varieties of immaturity floating in a soup of survival mode. College life introduced me to the flavors of drugs, drinking, and attention from men as everything came to a boil.
In the sunshine of a crisp April morning in the Appalachians, I smoked my last cigarette. I knew it was my last cigarette because I knew I was pregnant and once I took a test, that was it. I’d been in denial for weeks, convinced it was only PMS. I couldn’t remember my last period, but it seemed long overdue. My boobs were so huge and sensitive that putting on a bra was a production of wincing and moaning. As acceptance set in and I looked at the evidence, a test seemed like a necessary formality.
I walked across the highway to the drug store and bought a pregnancy test. I played it cool with the clerk. I told her the kit was for a friend—that she was too embarrassed to come in and buy it herself. When I got home I peed on the stick and then couldn’t bring myself to look at it for nearly 20 minutes. My roommate was asleep in the next room, but once I got up the nerve to turn the thing over, she was startled awake by a shrieking F-bomb.
“What!? What’s the matter?!” She stumbled into the room, brushing the hair back from her sleepy face. I threw the stick on the floor and started crying,
“No! No, no, no, no, no!”
She hugged me and didn’t say much. What was there to say?
I called my older sister to get her advice on how to tell our mom. She told me to come to her house in another town. She said she’d take me home to Charlotte the next morning and we’d tell our mother together. That evening my sister and her husband made sure I knew my “options”. I told them that my options were parenting or adoption. End of discussion.
“Just hear us out. You’re only 21. You have your whole life ahead of you. You have to be sure about this.”
As I listened to them talk me through the reality of my situation and tell me that this could all be over if I wanted it to be, I sobbed and pleaded with God for answers. For a split second I did just want it to all go away. As quickly as the thought entered my mind I became nauseous with indignation. Abortion was NOT an option.
“I’m having this baby.”
The drive to my mother’s the next morning felt eternal. At first I was completely stoic. We were almost to Charlotte when the tears started flowing. I couldn’t stop crying. As we got closer to home my sister called our mother.
“I’m bringing Tia to the house. Can you meet us there?”
My mom sped home from work at 11:00 am on a Tuesday. She came rushing in the door and the instant she laid eyes on my tear-stained face, she knew. “You’re pregnant, aren’t you, Sweetie?” All I could do was sob in her arms.
“It’s okay, baby. We’re going to take care of this. Everything is going to be great, you’ll see.” She reassured me until we both fell into bed, emotionally exhausted.
After finishing the last few weeks of the semester I moved back home with my mom where I encountered a loving reception from the Church I’d grown up in. One special friend of my mom’s who had known me since I was nine years old gave me card that read, “Be happy, Tia. Your baby is already loved.” I think that card was from Jesus himself. The words wrapped me in acceptance. Knowing her stance, and hearing words of support from other families in the church took the sting out of the humiliation of my growing bump that lacked the legitimizing left hand accessory.
For a few weeks I talked and prayed through whether or not I would parent the baby. My gut had told me I would be his or her mother from the moment I knew I was carrying. The catch was how I would be able to support myself and a baby without any involvement from the father. After some discussions with family friends, I decided to go to nursing school. Nursing had long been an option in my mind and my mom had always encouraged me to pursue it. Until that moment I’d never had the motivation or incentive to put in the hard work. Now it seemed the secure career path that would provide options for shift work and keep childcare simple as long as I lived with my mother.
While I awaited acceptance into a clinical program, I got started knocking out the few prerequisites I lacked. My due date fell over Thanksgiving weekend, so I negotiated with my professors to be allowed take my exams early. I wanted to be finished before I delivered. Little did I know, my baby girl would not arrive until mid-December! By the time she was born, Thanksgiving was long past and Christmas was coming quickly.
That time of waiting was incredibly sweet as I imagined poor Mary, in my condition, riding on a donkey. Just… ouch! Each morning as I sat in my rocking chair reading and praying, I began to understand the anticipation of Emmanuel like never before. The thrill of Hope took hold in my heart and I knew that we were going to be alright.
When my daughter was 6 months old I entered a nineteen-month clinical rotation that would earn me the right to test for a license as a Registered Nurse. During that time I worked the night shift as a technician in the hospital pharmacy. On the days I wasn’t in the hospital doing clinical rotations, I studied and catnapped while my daughter napped or played in her playpen. I could only afford to have her in daycare on the days when my mom was working and I had to attend clinicals. I would often go up to 30 hours without sleep. When we become mothers we become capable of enduring far more than we could have ever imagined for the sake of our children’s wellbeing.
I made it through those 19 months by the strength of God alone. Nursing school was the most stressful time of my entire life. I was dependent on my Father for my every need. And He never failed to provide. Subsequently, that season of my life brought the greatest intimacy I’d ever experienced with Jesus. He was my partner, my best friend, my confidant, and my provider. Jesus became my everything. When I crashed into bed each night (or day), I could feel my Savior resting there with me, so close and so sweet.
In September of 2004, three months before graduating from nursing school, I sensed God giving me permission to think about men again. My daughter was one-and-a-half and I really needed to focus on my studies. Besides, I’d been so wrapped up in a romance with Jesus for the previous two years that I hadn’t thought much about dating or finding a mate. After hearing a success story from a close friend in my Bible study, I quietly joined match.com and met a man I couldn’t have even dreamed of. He was cute and outdoorsy, he loved Jesus, he played music, he loved kids, and the list of amazingness went on and on. The moment I saw his profile I knew he was my husband. We married six months later.
It’s now been more than 15 years since that April morning in the Appalachians. In that time my husband adopted my daughter and we had another little girl not long after we married. I spent five years working as a maternity nurse where I fell in love with women’s health. That love was fostered even further by a shift in my career in 2009 when I began working for a family non-profit based in rural Kenya.
Deeply motivated by my own experience, I’m now leveraging my position of privilege to help start a new organization called Flourish Kenya that prevents and supports unplanned adolescent pregnancy in rural Kenya. This new endeavor comes after working for 8 years in the global development sector and never finding any education or prevention oriented programs in an area where the pregnancy rate is as high as 40% in 11-16 year olds.
I was given every opportunity in my hour of need, but in the most remote areas of Kenya, girls are driven into child marriage, unsafe abortion, and even suicide. I'm using my story to help change theirs. God has used my most dire moments to craft a vision and purpose for my life that I never could have conceived on my own. As I work on the board of directors for Flourish Kenya, I’m also launching live events for women called COLLECTED. These events are crafted to create space for women to move forward in their own unique assignment.
No matter what our circumstances may be, we must always remember that God is going to leverage our every moment for His glory. We are each strategically placed and called to boldly promote the Kingdom of God in whatever role we’re assigned to, season to season. May we stay submitted to His authority in our lives and step boldly into our calling as mamas, servants in our communities, and ministers of the Gospel to the nations.
Tia McNelly lives in North Carolina with her husband and two daughters. Her little piece of the internet can be found at tiamcnelly.com where she blogs about hearing from God in everyday life. Tia is also the featured speaker at Collected, customized workshops for women. These live events empower communities of women all over the world to walk in the fullness of their identity with purpose and passion. With a background in maternity nursing and non-profit management, Tia is honored to have a seat on the board of Flourish Kenya, a non-profit organization that prevents and supports unplanned adolescent pregnancy in rural Kenya. (Photo credit: allisonkeel.com)