Who do you picture when you think of the strongest person you know?

Two months ago, I pictured someone who could balance everything. Someone who could somehow do it all, who was tough. Someone who could wipe their minimal tears away and pull themselves up by their bootstraps.

Not me.

Before working as a photojournalist on The Voices Docuseries, I was terrified of getting pregnant. With my husband pursuing his M.A. and Ph.D. for the next six years, our financial and logistical situation has often left me crippled by the fear of getting pregnant.

Unplanned pregnancy is a scary thing.

I would sit and ponder details frantically but feel so incredibly weak. I wasn’t capable. I feared I wouldn’t be able to rise to the occasion. I didn’t feel strong.

Then, I joined a team of 9 creatives to interview over 130 strangers about unplanned pregnancy.

On the first day of shooting the documentary, I stood face-to-face with a woman in Phoenix, Arizona. I learned she was my age when she first found out she was pregnant. Her boyfriend at the time had ditched, and she was alone. She was terrified.

(Watch her full story in the first episode of The Voices Docuseries, entitled Dreams.)

As a 22-year-old student, this woman wound up back under her mother’s roof, raising a baby with the help of her grandma. Her grandma would come knocking on her door at 7 am, expecting her granddaughter and great-granddaughter to be dressed, fed, and “on the second set of bottles.”

She welled up as she told us that she wouldn’t have made it through without her grandmother’s push to grow up and embrace the new responsibilities of motherhood: “She was the rock in my life.” That day, twenty years later, she told us she had officially decided to go to law school.

When we asked about her daughter, she beamed as she shared that her daughter had just graduated from college with honors and was pursuing her MBA that fall.

That day, twenty years later, she told us she had officially decided to go to law school.

Throughout the trip, we got to approach so many people through their adorable dogs. That’s how we noticed Cindy walking her tiny, decrepit dog in downtown Portland around midday.

“That was a long time ago,” she said as she cuddled Sweet Pea to her chest.

She was scared when she found out she was pregnant and stuck in the middle of a love triangle. Her boyfriend at the time was in jail, and the father of her baby wasn’t interested in sticking around.

Despite the lack of support she received from both men, Cindy somehow maneuvered three jobs to come up with the money to provide for her children.

Acknowledging the mistakes she made, she shared her journey seeking counseling and dealing with her pain. By accepting help, she maintained an optimistic frame of mind. She kept working hard even in the midst of what some might say is a hopeless situation.

We then asked about her son. She welled up, looking somewhere we couldn’t see, and told us that even after everything, they don’t speak. She longed for her son’s love, but life got complicated. 

“It’s been a hard and rough road, but I’ve still got a smile on my face and I still wonder what God’s got for me next cause I know it’s gonna be good.”

(Watch her full story in the third episode of The Voices Docuseries, entitled Strong.)

Reflecting on how much she had lost throughout her years, I remember Cindy’s tearful face smiling with bitter-sweet hope for the future. 

As the journey up the coast went on, my heart felt this overwhelming mixture of hope and deep sadness. These stories were so difficult, and yet the souls sharing them were so empowering.

I sat on the plane heading home, realizing how different I had become in only ten days.

I realized that being strong isn’t really gritting your teeth and getting through. It isn’t pulling yourself up and holding back tears. It isn’t keeping things in or harboring your emotions. It isn’t even being tough.

Being strong is admitting you don’t know what you are doing all the time. It’s being humble and accepting help. It’s letting others create a support system around you, to love and empower you.

Being strong is letting your failures propel you forward, acknowledging that you will fail from time to time. It’s allowing major adjustments to change your life, but not confine your life. It’s choosing to keep smiling, even in less than ideal circumstances; but still letting yourself mourn the difficult things too.

Unplanned pregnancy is scary. But it’s not just scary. It’s many things.

If they can go through their difficulties and still keep pushing forward, then surely I can too. And, I think, so can you.

But after seeing so many resilient people walk through the very thing I fear, I have hope. If they can go through their difficulties and still keep pushing forward, then surely I can too. And, I think, so can you.

The Voices Docuseries, created by Voices for the Voiceless, is a documentary series that tells the true story of unplanned pregnancy in America. The product of 130+ interviews with strangers, each episode in the series explores major themes like isolation, shame, support, and strength. Watch the documentary.

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