College mom Ely McClelland working against the odds

Juan Zuniga-Mejia

FEATURES EDITOR 

Most Whittier College students understand the rigors that the liberal arts college requires, but some face more responsibilities than others. Second-year transfer student Elysa, also known as Ely, McClelland has faced her Whittier College journey as the mother to two-year-old daughter, Madison (Madi) Quintana.

When McClelland first found out she was pregnant, it was when she still lived in San Diego, studying Child Development and Elementary Education at San Diego City College (SDCC). Due to an abdominal pain she was feeling, she visited Kaiser Permanente for a check-up. It was then that the nurse informed McClelland she was pregnant. “I just started laughing. I was like, ‘No, no, no, I’m not. Because I’m on the pill. And I take the pill every single day at 9 a.m.,’” said McClelland.

  Even though she had alarms set on her phone to take her pill every morning, there was one thing McClelland was not aware of. Before New Years of 2016, McClelland got sick and was put on Amoxicillin, a penicillin antibiotic. However, she was not informed that the antibiotics could affect her birth control pill, something the nurse explained after informing her she was pregnant.

There she was, barely 21 years old, and pregnant. “I started crying,” said McClelland. “I was like, ‘How did I — obviously I know how this happened, but how?’” Ensnared by shock and disbelief, McClelland had to face her fear and panic about how her partner, the father of the baby, would take the news. It had only been two months since McClelland had started the long-distance relationship with third-year California State University Fullerton student Andrew Quintana. So, when Quintana got home, McClelland called him.

“Honestly, I think he had the best reaction I could have hoped for,” said McClelland. “I could tell he was as afraid as I was. I think a part of me was just afraid that he’d be angry, but there was no anger. His first question was, ‘Well, are you okay? How are you feeling?’ and I was like, ‘I mean, it would be better if you were here.’”

That weekend, Quintana came down to San Diego so they could discuss their options together. They knew they had to confront their parents and discuss how their long distance relationship would affect the life of the baby. “We told each other that no matter what we decide — whether we go through with the pregnancy or decide to terminate — it’s going to change our relationship,” said McClelland. “If we decide to terminate, and if there is any hesitation from either side, that could turn to resentment later. I didn’t want that for either for us.”

McClelland started to read up about the development of pregnancy, and when she was learning more about the child growing in her, she described her reaction as, “Wow, I’ve never seen you, but I just feel this connection with you, and I can’t imagine not having you.” Having decided to go through with the pregnancy, the couple’s first plan was to have McClelland stay in San Diego, and Quintana would visit on the weekends. They both came out to Quintana’s immediate family, telling his dad and stepmom about the pregnancy. McClelland told her immediate family first, but she did not want the rest of her family to know. “I didn’t want anyone else’s voices in my head when it came to making that decision, which is why I kept it to myself.” McClelland did not want too many people’s opinions to sway her final decision until she was fully, undoubtedly ready.

Next to her immediate family, McClelland had a few friends in San Diego who supported her during her pregnancy, and, in particular through a situation with one of McClelland’s biology classes at SDCC. “I had awful morning sickness my first trimester . . . just nauseous twenty-four-seven . . . I don’t know why they call it morning sickness, ‘cause it strikes you any time of the day. It doesn’t matter if it’s morning, or evening, or in the middle of your bio lab.”

McClelland’s biology professor warned possible pregnant students they would be working with a chemical that was dangerous for them. After voicing concern to her friend and lab partner, McClelland went to the professor. “[My professor] had told me, ‘Make sure you drop the class in time.’ She didn’t think I would pass because I was pregnant,” said McClelland.

At the time that it happened, she did not give it much thought. Later on, she was not sure if it was alright for a professor to tell her that. Her friend told her that it was not okay and to go to the Dean of Students. However, McClelland decided to accept it, not wanting to stir up any trouble. “I think that’s kind of how I’ve changed now. Because if someone said that to me now, no question about it, [I would] definitely get that taken care of. Back then, I was just like, ‘it’s fine.’ I didn’t want to draw attention to it.”

Quintana’s mother talked to him about both being new parents. She knew the stresses McClelland would face if she was alone five days a week in San Diego, with Quintana only being able to visit on the weekends. There was the worry that there would be little bonding time. Quintana’s mother invited McClelland to live in her house without paying rent until they were able to get on their feet. After McClelland earned her associate degree from SDCC, the couple then moved to Whittier in December of 2016.

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After Madi was born in October of 2016, McClelland took a year off from school to take care of her. “She was so small still,” said McClelland. “I thought, if I [could] enjoy this year of her growth, and pause school for a little bit, then I would love to be able to do that . . . I think that’s what makes me and her so close now. I still have never been so away from her, at night at least.” McClelland’s first day of class at Whittier College was the first time she had been away from Madi since her birth. “I think it was more emotional for me than it was for her. Where she was like, ‘okay bye.’ I was like, ‘oh my god, I’m leaving my baby.’”

McClelland felt worried about coming to Whittier in the Fall of 2017. “I was really afraid coming into Whittier because I was coming from a community college. I was a little older than some of my peers, and I was also starting university-level education, so, it was very intimidating coming into it,” said McClelland. Working as a full-time student and a full-time mom has been a difficult challenge that has sharpened McClelland as “a better student” than before she was a mom. Over her time at Whittier College, she has managed to build a partnership with her family and herself in order to get her work done.

McClelland found it challenging to “turn the mom off” at school. McClelland communicates to her professors in advance that she needs to have her phone on the table, and be aware when it goes off, in case there is ever an emergency. “Sometimes [my thoughts] immediately go to a dark place, like, ‘Oh my God I need to leave.’ Fortunately, that has never really happened, but I’ve really had to learn to prioritize my work.”

McClelland has not been facing being a college mother by herself. Some of the support she gets is from Quintana’s grandparents. His grandparents plan around her class schedules to watch Madi while she attends school. Even so, McClelland does not take this for granted.  “Madi is amazing, but she is tiring, because she is two, and has energizer bunny energy,” said McClelland. This is why she makes sure there is a day in the week where she does not bring Madi to her great-grandparents’ place.

Quintana also makes sure McClelland does not stress over being the provider of their home today. He tells her, ‘Eventually you will be [the provider], but you can’t get there until you finish school.’ McClelland said, “It’s great that he has that mentality because it takes [off that] pressure off I’ve put on myself.” Quintana helps McClelland by taking Madi out and giving her that time during the weekend to get work done before they come back home. Between him, his parents, and his grandparents, they all take turns in supporting Madi’s growth and McClelland’s education. Even McClelland’s mother offers her accumulating vacation time to come from San Diego to Whittier. “I could not do this on my own. This support that I have allows me to focus on school when I need to,” said McClelland.

Since McClelland can be gone all day, Madi will want to spend time with her. “She just wants to be right next to me, and there’s this struggle that I have where [I think] ‘Do I tell her no and [have her think school] is more important than her? Or, [do] I do this [assignment] later and focus on her?’ There’s that struggle,” said McClelland. Though the divide between student and mom can tug at her, ultimately, McClelland knows where her priorities will always fall. “If I had a final, and she had to go to the hospital, I’d be at the hospital.”

McClelland shared that she has the habit of suppressing feelings, especially for Madi’s sake. So, when the pressures of school, work, her Education observation hours for class, cooking dinner, attempting to stay fit, homework, and other stresses all Poets are familiar with, McClelland can reach a breaking point. There have also been times McClelland cried in front of Madi. “She will climb on my lap [and say] ‘Mommy’s sad,’ and she’ll hug me [and say] ‘I love you Mommy,’” said McClelland. “I think [stress is] intensified being a mom, because you have all this stuff to do. It’s piling up on me. But, I know there are other parents who are college students who don’t want to use the excuse of having a child for not being able to do their work. I don’t look at it that way. This is just something about me that makes it a little more challenging to have a deadline from a Tuesday to a Thursday.”

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In the long run, the person that makes everything worth the struggle is her daughter. “Having the little person in my life [who], no matter what I’m going through, she turns things around,” said McClelland. “When I’m too stuck in my own head, she’s — for a two-year-old — very empathetic.” Madi will ask her mother to color with her, and that brief 10 to 20 minutes of a break is what McClelland usually needs to reassess and focus again.

Madi has made McClelland a fighter, not just for what she needs and how she should be treated, but also grounded her from being that care-free stereotypical girl in the bars and clubs. “I’m not going to argue with someone over something stupid that I don’t have the energy to [deal with], . . . but if there’s a situation that . . . affects my entire little family, I guess the ‘mama bear’ comes out,” said McClelland. “That’s definitely a thing I’ve seen in myself that I’ve never seen before, just how defensive I get for [Madi] where I will not let anyone say anything [bad] to her, or do anything to her, or question how I parent. I shut it down immediately.”

For the future of her family, McClelland hopes that she and Quintana can be homeowners. As for children, McClelland said, “At least right now, I don’t want any more. I love my child, but I can’t imagine another one running around.” McClelland would like to continue to raise Madi in Whittier, saying the city is a great place to raise a family. As for marriage, she says the idea has “always been on the table” and that she and Quintana know it is going to happen, it is just a matter of when. Having lived together for two years now, the couple has learned more about the other and how to work as a team to raise Madi.

McClelland has advice for new moms, college moms, young moms: “Don’t let any person make you question your parenting, who you are as a parent, because you are going to school [to] better your future and [your family’s] future. Don’t guilt yourself too much. In the end, it’s going to make your child’s life better.”

By accepting all the help she could, McClelland has been able to experience first hand that it truly takes a village to raise a child. She aims to earn her Bachelor’s degree in English Literature this May of 2019.