Can you turn a teenage pregnancy into an incredibly fulfilling life and career? Oh yes, you can!
Join me today as I interview super successful career woman Cha’Lea Stafford as she shares her journey from troubled child to teen mom to totally transformed, happy and fulfilled.
If you’re struggling to make something of yourself, stuck in a situation where it feels like you’ll never get out then this is definitely a binge-worthy episode.
FULL TRANSCRIPT BELOW
Dee: Today I am so excited to share the story of today’s guests with you. She was born to a drug-addicted mother, got pregnant at an incredibly young age, and now she has managed to create a life she could only have once dreamed of. So, so excited to welcome to Cha’Lea. Hey, Cha’Lea, why don’t you tell us what your favourite movie is and why.
Cha’Lea: Great question and a hard one too. So thank you for having me on. I am so excited to share my message with the audience, and when I get to thinking about what my favourite movie is one of the movies that come to mind is the Pursuit Of Happyness. That’s a movie that I watched with my son, and it was a movie that was an opportunity for us to open a very big conversation about what the pursuit of achieving our dreams, whatever that is for us looks like, when you’re relentless and you’re invested in it.
Dee: Oh, I watched that. All right, so I’ve watched that movie before. I think I watched it once and Will Smith, in that show, he went through so much. He had a son. He was homeless and he had no job. He had to really push through and show everyone around him, that he was worth them investing in him. So what is the biggest message that you took away from that movie?
Cha’Lea: So much but I think that when the impact of the story that you want to create and who you want to create it for is your North Star, it doesn’t matter how low you get, or how many challenges you have, you will overcome them all.
Dee: Wow, I love that you’re such a positive person, but I know that life hasn’t always been easy for you. So, why don’t you tell us about your childhood? Where did you grow up, and what was it like as a child?
Cha’Lea: Very big question there. So I actually grew up- to kind of give you some background or before me coming into the picture. My parents grew up in the generational vicious cycle of poverty, fixed mindsets, and really emotional neglect and abuse within their own families. It stemmed generation after generation after generation and my mother was the youngest of them. She was about one of sixteen children at the time.
As you can imagine there’s some pressure on their family. My father was navigating and understanding who he was and overcoming some of the neglect and abuse that he experienced in life. He and my mother both were really numbing their feelings, not knowing how to express what was going on and the pain inside of them. It all led to the circumstances of my experience growing up once I officially came into the world.
I came into my father being a drug addict, and my mother suffering from depression. They were on multiple bad relationships, one after the other because they didn’t have the tools and the strategies to really understand how to navigate this internal battle that was going on within them because of the pain that they were suffering through. And they didn’t have the tools to pass it on to their children either.
Unfortunately, this meant that we experienced quite a bit of trauma, including when my dad was a drug addict. There was nothing. He would go to any lengths to get his addiction satisfied, even including taking me and coercing me to steal for him at the store. Next thing I know is I’m being dragged by my dad and we’re running and he’s going on the run and police are chasing us.
This was an elementary school, and he was violent with my mother at times, because of his addiction. He was also violent to my siblings and pretty much robbed them of their childhood. We really hit a crossroads when one night, kind of hit the worst that we had experienced and that was when my dad attempted to murder my mother in front of me. I was eight years old, and I witnessed it all. I had to make the call that would go on to incarcerate him.
That would start our journey for my mother, as a single mother to five kids, and my oldest sister, unfortunately, didn’t have the tools to help her, and she got pregnant very young and left the house. My younger brother was incarcerated as a teenager as well, trying to overcome some of the pain and they because they couldn’t find ways to express it, unfortunately, didn’t end up on the right path. He also didn’t have the support system around him nor the tools he needed.
So here I was left with a decision to make as I looked around and I saw the immense amount of pain that we were going through, and some of the things that my older siblings were feeling. I had a choice to make and it was a difficult choice to make and one that typically a child is not ready to have to make, but I knew that in order for me to survive what was going on I was going to have to filter the experiences that were happening around me and stop the expectation of my mom being this you know mother from, let’s say, the TV shows that we watch and her being this idea of a mom’s fantasy that I had so to speak in my head as well as for my father. I had to let that go I had to detach in a healthy way.
I had to understand that they were who they were because of their experiences and mine were at the point where they were being shaped and I got to choose how I defined those experiences. So I started working since I was twelve to help support the family. I became my mother’s husband and a father to my siblings. I was very committed to the fact that I was going to change the generational cycle. That I was going to change the path that our family was going down. Our pain wasn’t going to be in vain.
Dee: Wow. Wow. You went through a lot. Um, I’m not normally speechless but wow you went through so much at such a young age, and I really want to ask you what was going through your mind when you were seeing your father attacking your mother? I can’t imagine.
Cha’Lea: Sure. Shock. Nobody thinks that you will ever be in a position to have to see and process what’s happening. You really don’t know how to. You don’t have the tools inside of you as an eight-year-old to really come to terms with what that means. All I knew is I wasn’t ready for this. I wasn’t ready to know how to respond. I wasn’t ready to know what to do but I just knew I had to do what my gut told me and that was pick up the phone and have to say that my dad is attempting to kill my mom.
Dee: That sounds like so much to put on a child at such a young age, and I don’t know exactly what’s going on with you, but can you tell us what was going on during that interim when you had to be like your mom’s husband? What happened?
Cha’Lea: So much. So much. I mean that was kind of really the start to a domino effect of things that happened there. We didn’t have a lot of basic necessities growing up. There were times when we didn’t have food, we didn’t have water, we didn’t have electricity, we didn’t have the opportunity to buy back to school clothes and we were relying on the kindness of strangers for Thanksgiving and Christmas. We received those black bags and that would be our holidays, and I was just so committed to making a difference and helping however I could. But my mom was struggling and we came to a point where she was going to lose the house to a foreclosure if she didn’t do something quick.
Her choice at the time was to rent the house out as soon as possible and for us to leave. And in order for that to happen, she had the help of a friend who said she could give her one-bedroom to stay in but there wasn’t enough room for all of us. So she made a difficult decision to have to give me up to my grandmother for a bit of a timeframe so that she can get back on her feet, and we can get the house caught up and then hopefully move back in soon.
In that timeframe, I essentially went to go live with my grandmother and, without knowing, she gave me life in those moments. She fed me three times a day for the first time, and I was told to play outside. That was hard to process. It was hard to really know how to be a child without the worry of what was going on in the world outside of you. It was the first positive relationship that I experienced. She gave me hope to really think beyond the timeframe that I was going on, and she rolled out a red carpet every time she talked about her granddaughter right there. Just so much love and pride and affection that she had for me and it really fueled me so that I could continue on what would be the path ahead of us.
Unfortunately, some years down the road, I never thought that what would come to happen, would happen with my grandmother. Her destiny was different than what would come to be my mother’s. My grandmother was violently murdered in the house that I grew up in, and I lost her to a hate crime. Some random guy broke into her house and took her life for no reason other than the fact that he just hated women and targeted her along with a few other people who were victims. That was a difficult moment in my life and one that I essentially, wasn’t ready for either. But it challenged me spiritually in so many different ways.
I eventually ended up moving back with my mother, and we were back in our house. I was determined that I was going to find a way to do whatever it is that I couldn’t, and I found outlets in the wrong way trying to find meaning in life. I was the kid who skipped schools. I skipped school and I got into fights and hung around with the wrong crowd. But I still managed to pass all my classes, and I never had any issues in school. It was me trying to find meaning but not necessarily knowing how to, and eventually, the cycle caught up to me, and at 15 I got the news that I never thought that I would get one that I wasn’t ready for either.
That was that I was pregnant and in this moment in my world really came crashing because I was thinking how in the world am I going to change anything, with no job, no skill no money, nothing?
And I was terrified.
I didn’t want my son to be a statistic. I didn’t want our story to be in vain again. I didn’t want it to be, “there goes another family”. They’re just broken and that’s just what happens if we were going to go through everything that we had to grow through. It was going to count for something. I didn’t know how but I did know that I was determined to carry out that impact one way or another. Now I had to pave the path for the next generation. And in doing so, I knew that I had to get a job.
So at 15, I went back out there to get a job with a baby on my hip. I went applying with him, and I ended up becoming the first in my family of six to graduate high school. I figured out how to navigate college, which was extraordinarily scary for me, but I graduated from college and then I’ve been working ever since I was 12. It taught me a lot and it led me to the point where I was very fortunate that by 18 I was leading a half a million-dollar medical practice.
At 23, I was the first female Latina Millennial Executive to sit at the executive table at a multibillion-dollar pharmaceutical corporation. I was leading national sales teams both regionally and locally to, and I was making well over six figures. My career continued to grow and I went on to work for an international pharmaceutical consulting firm. I did this for 11 years.
I had the opportunity to lead sales teams and grow organizations through their most critical assets and that’s their people, and I really enjoyed the process. I found that I was so blessed in my career because I had phenomenal mentors who happened to be my bosses.
I worked for companies that allowed me to really test the waters, make mistakes, figure things out, and achieve success. And it gave me the perfect playground, to really grow as a professional but also really learned a lot about myself through my career in terms of things that I noticed within me, to help me evolve in my self-awareness internally and externally. And I got to a point where I had to make a decision about what I wanted to do next, and I ended up launching a leadership development firm.
Dee: So wait, you went from being a teenage mom. Going to job interviews with a baby on your hip to leading a multimillion-dollar company and doing fantastic things that even I would not even have thought possible for a teen mom like yourself. But there are so many women whose stories, they don’t exactly turn out like yours did. They don’t go down the same path. So what decisions did you make that you can tell everybody else here, that kind of led you to where you are right now?.
Cha’Lea: Sure. There’s quite a bit that I attribute to that. I learned early on, noticing what was going on with my parents that they suppressed, a lot of what was going on inside of them. They didn’t want to feel the experiences so they found other ways to hide that whether it was through alcohol, drugs, relationships, whatever you call it. I said it doesn’t matter what it is that I’m going through I’m going to feel it and I’m going to be open about it. I’m going to seek all the experiences that make me feel awkward, that make me turn red, that get my heart going, and I’m going to go after those things if it serves my growth.
So I took on so many opportunities that I was not ready for, that they were going to make me feel like I wasn’t an expert in. I was going to get nervous and my heart was going to start beating in my chest and my palms would get sweaty but I was like, you know what, if it makes me grow on my journey, I’m going to connect it to that growth or whatever strategy, it is that I’m doing. And I would raise my hand and I would say I want to do it. I would go up and take whatever challenge it is that it was coming my way and I connected it all to my big picture in life. I never knew exactly what I wanted to do but I knew what the vision of that impact felt like. And so I followed that. I had my own plan for my own leadership, so to speak, and I allowed myself to continue to use the challenges around me to fuel my growth.
Dee: So throughout your whole leadership development journey and your growth, as a person, as a woman as a leader, what is one thing that happened to you that you did not expect and what exactly did it teach you?
Cha’Lea: Oh, that’s a great question. Um, there’s a theme that I’ve thought about in my life quite a bit, and that theme was, I wasn’t ready for many of these situations. Even as I grew in my career and I got more responsibilities. Each time I received a promotion or, I had an opportunity I thought I’m not ready. I don’t feel ready. But though not being ready, I took it on still, and I put myself out there. And there always came opportunity and growth for me in that.
I would say that for those who go throughout their lives, and I know at one point it is guaranteed you will experience some form of adversity and challenge. It may not be to the same extreme, but it is its adversity, It’s your challenge. It’s your story. It’s your pain. It’s your hurt. And when you do have those moments there’s so much to dig into there to help foster your insight about who you are and what story you have yet to fulfil. Listen to that. Lean into it and understand it through the right filter. A healthy filter. And it can take you to places that you never would have imagined.
Dee: I love how in spite of everything that happened all that you’ve gone through, you still see the positive. There are millions of people out there who would actually benefit from having that outlook on life. I also love that even though you didn’t know the exact end goal, you still had a vision for yourself. You had goals. You had dreams. You had things you needed to do, and keeping that image in your mind all the time, kept you going, even when things got tough.
Having a child, working as a young mom can be hard. Your story is incredible and I am dying to know what is your big “why”? What is the big thing that keeps you going? Each and every day. I have a big why but I want to know what is yours?
Cha’Lea: You know, I’ve thought about this for quite a while and I think that “why” evolves with what season of life that we’re in. It’s more so about the impact that I look to create for making our change in the next generation that’s coming before us- for my son, my nieces, my nephews. That they could have someone to say they went through this challenge. They stepped up. They felt it. They know what it’s like. They know what it’s like to apply for school. They know what it’s like to apply for your first job. They know what it’s like to fail. They know what it’s like to have all these experiences. I wanted to fill my experience bank because I knew that as a family in our generation we lacked that.
The more experiences that I could have, even the one that I failed in, they came with an opportunity or a lesson to serve our growth. And the more that I could feel that, the better it was but my “why” isn’t necessarily what drove me in life because there were many low points. In my low points, my why didn’t help. When I had my second child I experienced postpartum depression for the first time. With everything that I went through in my life, I had never experienced that before. And my “why” didn’t help me there. My understanding of all my accomplishments didn’t help me. What truly has helped me in the lowest points in my life was really understanding what our emotions mean.
So many times, especially as women we tend to hear “Oh, don’t be too emotional” or “Don’t be this”, but really what we’re saying is, understand the difference between constructive and destructive emotions. Understand what something actually means and what it doesn’t through a healthy filter. And I think for me, even going through that moment of postpartum depression with my son, it was a very spiritual moment because it was, I believe innately, my body’s way of saying, “Hey, listen, something’s not going the way that you want it to go.”
You can’t ignore it because our bodies will tell us something even though we’re telling ourselves something else. Really listening to that and digging into it really helped me better understand what comes next, and how to get out of that and how to move forward. And I think a lot of times, as women especially, we experienced this with anything that we’re going through we might feel like we have imposter syndrome where we may feel like we don’t have a seat at the table, really understanding the core of our emotions and what they mean has been a game-changer for me and that’s something that you don’t hear about.
Dee: That’s very true because it’s definitely something you don’t hear about very often. Like how many times have we really heard of women being told to fit into a specific mold or having to bottle up how we feel if we want to be taken seriously? A lot. So many times as we go through life we don’t really get the chance to understand who we are, to understand our emotions and what it means to be a woman, to be human. And you’re right in saying that there are times when we need to dig a little deeper, to truly understand who we are and where the heck we’re actually going in this life.
Cha’Lea: Exactly. And you see in that moment what I ended up learning about myself is in the timeframe of after I had my son and not been working for so long because I took a break to be with him. I wanted to, but at the same time, it gave me this internal pressure, and I was starting to believe that my career was stalling. And I started to realize how much of my validation and who I am, I attributed to all the successes and that was not constructive for my growth. So if you fast forward to me noticing these behaviours and these patterns and really questioning and challenging what they meant.
I came to a point in my career where I said you know what, I’ve started to have these strong values family means everything to me. My goal is to be a conscious parent and to have a healthy marriage with my husband and for us to put our family first and be intentional with what we do in our lives not just through our career. I noticed that at one point in my career when I was working a lot, I started to cross that line or that boundary that I had with the value of being with my kids and spending time with them. I was working all the time it’s almost like I became a workaholic. I formed my own little mini addiction where it was coming at the cost of how much time I was spending with my family and I had to check myself.
At that moment I said, you know what, I’m going to challenge that feeling and you’re going to sit in it. So I was at the height of my career. I was making the most money I had ever made. I had a very comfortable position where I was no longer travelling I used to travel three days out of the week, and I was working from home I was making a lot of money and I said, I’m going to quit. I’m going to quit my job. I’m going to leave my six-figure salary. I’m going to leave the titles. I’m just going to detox and I’m going to sit in what it feels like to just be Cha’Lea naturally and not someone who’s doing ABC and D, but SCha’Lea who’s doing nothing.
Dee: And that must have been an incredibly scary time for you because I know that for me when I was younger, I used to tie my work into the things that I had accomplished. So, I used to be super competitive because I needed to win every single time. Without those trophies medals or the validation that came with them, I was nothing. I was less than nothing. And it must have been such a struggle to have to sit in those feelings, in that state and do nothing, all while trying to wrap your head or your mind around who you were at a deeper level. What exactly did you go through while you were sitting in that mess of a situation?
Cha’Lea: Yes, so much and it’s still a process. I think that whenever you go through any form of trauma we really just question our own selves. It doesn’t go away completely. It always has ways to resurface, and we have to notice when they do and notice how to challenge those moments to get to the next right. It’s not an on and off switch, and I thought that for me it was, and I started to realize that it really wasn’t. There was more in my subconscious and I had realized that, and I said you know what, I’m going to go to a networking meeting and when they go “Hey Cha’Lea. What are you doing? I’m gonna be like “nothing”, absolutely nothing. As a matter of fact, I sit at home and eat potato chips. And I don’t know what I want to do with my life”.
Oh my gosh, you are living the life. You sit home, eat chips and relax. Wow!
Cha’Lea: Which wasn’t true because, to be honest, in the first few months, all I could do was research like how I’m going to launch a business. I’m going to read all these books and I’m going to do this. I still had this agenda. And I had to catch myself having this agenda that was still in a way, that was destructive. This way I had formed this identity in, and what I accomplish. So I had to continue to notice it and say “look, there you did it again Cha’Lea. You’re telling yourself a lie about what you’re doing, but you’re really not”.
So, I stood in it and I sat in it as long as I possibly could. I went through some of the most beautiful moments evolving and learning so much about the human psyche and our human potential, and why these things even formed, to begin with and what we need to do to move forward. I honestly feel very blessed to even have had the opportunity to do that because I know that for some of us we can’t afford to do that. So if I was going to be blessed to be able to do this, then I wanted to make it count. And I wanted to make sure that if somebody else would go through this, that I could have the wisdom to guide them through those moments by really challenging myself to sit in it.
And you know what happened is the first three months? I would lie to myself and say I wasn’t doing anything but I really was. Then the fourth month I did a little bit less and in the fifth month I did a little bit less and then I just started to learn to be with myself and understand how my values were t driving me. I needed to get back in line with that and that’s really where I was the happiest and understanding, just who I was has nothing to do with any of that.
Understanding why we formed this ego in ourselves so to speak because it’s the ego that wants to be validated. It’s the ego that essentially wants to have everyone say you’re doing great and now you’re worth it. But I now can know I can sit in that and I could be nothing and I can be completely happy with who I am and what I’m doing.
Dee: So knowing everything you know now, you’ve been through a lot. You’ve definitely had an incredible journey for I must say so, you fallen down and gotten back up, even when it was difficult. If you could jump into your very own time machine, turn back the clock and talk to your past team self, what exactly would you tell her?
Cha’Lea: That’s a great question. I would tell her that this is only a small piece of the bigger portion of her life. That she’s on a roller coaster. That while it may seem that there’s a lot of bad coming from it. It’s later gonna give her the opportunity to bless many people and to just hang on for the ride. It’s only a short ride. And I’m tall enough.
Dee: And you’re tall enough.
Cha’Lea: And I’m tall enough.
Dee: I love that. I love that you are such a sweet sweet person I love, love that. And I know that many people here are probably wondering like, “Where can they connect with you and where can they talk with you more and get to know, Cha’Lae?”
Cha’Lea: Yes, I would love to connect with everyone you can find me on LinkedIn or Instagram. Through my name. My parents wanted to make networking very difficult for me by giving me that name, but it’s a great icebreaker, it’s spelled C H A L E A. And my last name is spelled, Stafford.
Dee: All right, and I’ll include all of the information in the show notes. My final question for you show you is this for all the women who are out there listening to this show, whether it be now, 10, 15, a million years from now, what is the one crucial piece of advice, you want to pass on to them. What exactly do you want them to know for themselves?
Cha’Lea: You are a leader. Right now it is happening. Whether you feel that you are or not. Whether you feel you’re leading effectively or not, you are leading and you have the potential with what you have now before any accolades, any titles, any pay, what you do now matters. Your leadership is beyond your career. It’s a lifelong journey.
Really sit down and establish what your leadership development plan looks like for every phase of your life because your life comes in phases and seasons. And where you are now it’s not where you’ll be in five or 10 years, you will evolve. Make sure that you make it count so that you can live inspired, and you can live creatively and in purpose.
Dee: Thank you so much for that I had so much fun talking to you. You are a sweet intelligent and high-level person. And I know that your story. This episode is going to help every woman listening because it will encourage and challenge them to believe that no matter how far away they might be from the life that they’ve always dreamed of having, they can still make it.
There is still time to do things with their life if they just keep going. Thank you so much for coming on the show. I so want to be like you when I grow up. And for all the women listening. You never know how strong you are, and how much you’ve done in your life until you look back, see how far you’ve come. And all the challenges you have overcome.
This is Dee and you have been listening to She Is A Mess.