Gabrielle Union Talks Vulnerability, the Asterisk Beside Her Mom Title, and Raising Her Girls to Fly

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Gabrielle Union Talks Vulnerability, the Asterisk Beside Her Mom Title, and Raising Her Girls to Fly

Gabrielle Union is mom to an adorable toddler girl who has her facial expressions and her husband, Dwyane Wade’s, entire face. Still, the actress questions the long-term impact her surrogacy journey to motherhood will have on her daughter and husband, an NBA legend.

Kaavia James was never in my body. I could not nourish her, and she could not find safety there,” Union shares in her second memoir,  You Got Anything Stronger? which hits bookshelves today. “We met as strangers, the sound of my voice and my heartbeat foreign to her. It’s a pain that has dimmed but remains present in my fears that I was not, and never will be, enough.”

Union says she views her inability to carry Kaavia as an asterisk next to her title as mom, and she wonders if it “put a ceiling on the love my husband has for me.”

In a recent, on-camera Zoom interview with BLACK ENTERPRISE, Union says she embraces “radical transparency” as the path to heal from heart wrenching and traumatic experiences, and wrote her book to pass along lessons she’s gained from being vulnerable, which she calls her “super power.”

Gabrielle Union Talks Vulnerability, the Asterisk Beside Her Mom Title, and Raising Her Girls to Fly

Like a good girlfriend, Union dishes truthfully because she doesn’t want other women to feel alone, whether they are going through their own difficult journey to motherhood, fighting for equal treatment on the job, respect at home, or striving to achieve balance, the very notion she dispels as a “mirage,” arguing that the system is “rigged against women.”

In this book, women will feel seen. And men will learn.

BE: I was a pool of tears when you went through your journey with In Vitro Fertilization (IVF) because I saw some of my story in what you shared (although I went another route). You permitted me to release some of that. It can be a painful journey and one (as an African American woman) that we oftentimes just deal with by ourselves. And so to me it was very brave and courageous of you to put all of that on the line. Why did you want to share your personal story?

Union: I’ve found that throughout my career and anytime I’ve had the opportunity to have microphones in my face, when I choose to use that time in front of the media, in front of the public to share all of my truths, it creates community and people feel seen and less alone. Specifically when it comes to fertility. Women in general don’t talk about it. But Black women specifically we really don’t talk about it.

And when I needed help and resources and people to connect me with doctors and specialists … none of them were Black. And that hurt. It hurt not having more Black women, or Black families as resources, as examples.

I just felt like if I can heal enough and I can go through enough therapy so I can speak about this journey with full transparency and complete honesty, hopefully … it builds more community and people can start asking each other more questions. So I try to be as thorough and as transparent about the whole thing—the medical part, the emotional part, the physical part—so people just have an idea of what the hell is out there, what the options are, what those options actually look like in a real-world kind of way.

There are so many of us … who just feel like we’re drowning in plain sight, and people are just walking by us, looking at us, and they’re just holding the life jacket. They’re not throwing it to us. I don’t ever want to feel that, and I don’t ever want to be so imprisoned by shame or embarrassment or humiliation … that I’m one of those people who has a life jacket, but I don’t feel comfortable enough to toss it to somebody.

That comes with an obscene amount of therapy (laughing) and a lot of healing but it started with ‘ma’am, stop lying to your damn self’ …this fear of being judged, of being open and of being completely vulnerable. But once I finally got over myself, I started really leaning into radical transparency, that’s when the major shifts started happening, and my world didn’t come to an end. It got bigger and better.

Hopefully, through this book, it opens up more conversations … with each other, with our doctors, with educators, with our spouses, with our significant others, with our family members/friends about what this sh*t really feels like and what’s really happening. Generally speaking, we don’t.

Gabrielle Union on Motherhood

BE: You wrote in your book that you feel like you’re a mother with an asterisk beside your name because of your path to motherhood (surrogacy) as opposed to actually carrying a child. Do you still feel like there’s an asterisk there, in terms of how you view it or how other people look at you, or both?

Union: Both, because you don’t really know. People aren’t that evil where someone is going to share with you —certainly not someone that you love, hopefully—that … it’s just the same. It’s all about making sure the child is here and loved and healthy and happy, blah, blah, blah.

I for sure know there’s an asterisk because people like to leave evil comments but yeah, it’s something that’s in the back of your mind that we rarely give words to or time for or space for. And getting to the place of realizing that, articulating that, doesn’t make me a bad person. It certainly doesn’t make me a bad mother for being honest.

On the Challenges of Producing Book Number Two

BE: Was this book always planned as this progression in your memoir from the first one, four years ago, to where you’re at now?

Union: No, hell no. The first one was terrifying and I left out a lot of chapters when it came time to deciding which ones were going to make the book. I had to be honest with myself that if I’m not ready to speak about everything that I include in this book, with the press and on this book tour, than I’m not ready to include it.

Over the course of the last four years and going through the surrogacy journey, you know the whole fertility journey and all of the things that have happened to me in the last four years, and a lot of therapy, I felt ready. I gained a lot of perspective. So those chapters that I had written that I just didn’t include (in the first book), I revisited and (asked myself) what do I want to say today—four years later—as I’m either on the other side of it or figuring out how to actively and effectively deal with it. What do I want to say?

And yeah, I guess that throughout the pandemic … we’re so isolated, and some of our challenges, especially the internal ones—the mental health challenges—the fears, just got exacerbated in isolation. I wanted to be able to throw some more lifelines and make a big impact, so that’s what I was hoping for.

But no, it was absolutely not the plan (laughing). I had to just see how I felt after the first one with the things I did share and the response. The book tour for the first book felt like a revival. At every stop, there would be some chapter that somebody really related to and it would just take us in a different direction and the joy and the release and the healing that you could feel at each venue, at every stop, I was like OK, this is something and if this is all coming about because I’m honest … I’m not even healed enough to share my whole thing, this is just the chapters that I felt comfortable with, and this is the response?

Um, OK, now I have to commit to doing the emotional work and the therapeutic work so I can be radically transparent because truth leads to community. Lies lead to isolation.

BE: That’s deep and so true. It takes a lot to get there, though.

Union: Yeah, well if someone says, ‘How are you doing?” and you say “Oh, I’m fine” and you’re not, the person who asked may have been going through something. Now that’s a missed opportunity because they don’t want to respond with ‘well let me tell you…’ It just kind of closed a door. But if we get to a place of what’s the worst that’s going to happen to me if I tell the truth? And if the worst thing is it builds community and it opens doors for people to feel like they are safe with you and you are safe with them, that’s a win.

On Black Women Moving the Needle Forward

BE: What steps can Black women, in particular, take to get to where you are?

Union: First, understand that we are not the worst things that have ever happened to us. We are worthy. We are deserving. Pain is not our birthright. We were not put here to be trauma mules for anybody. And that being transparent can be salvation. And that asking for help does not make us weak. Asking for help or acknowledging that, OK, maybe this is a challenge that I need to call in some reinforcement (from people) that are trained in this doesn’t make me weak, doesn’t make you stupid, doesn’t make you less deserving of, it just makes you human in need of some help, which we all need.

And then, we’ve got to deal with our feelings about telling a complete stranger all of our tea because most of us are raised you don’t talk out of school about anything. But part of that is because we’re talking to people who don’t value our privacy and don’t respect our boundaries versus a therapist who has to take a vow, who is committed to protecting your privacy, and who is trying to give you a plan of action so you can start combatting some of these challenges.

And it’s safe. But it’s also like dating, and that’s OK. If you want a Black woman therapist in your area, there are resources and references in every major city where you can find a Black woman that you can vibe with, that can truly, truly help you get to the light on the other side. But, if at first try you don’t really feel like it’s a great connection … it’s like dating, swipe right or swipe left. They’re OK. They’ve been rejected before. They’ve been broken up with by a client. It’s OK, try the next one but don’t give up.

You don’t have to be everything to all people and certainly not to your therapist. And that’s the difference between talking to a trained professional versus a family member or a friend or even clergy, who may or may not be trained in dealing with all of the kind of trauma and harm and challenges that we face as Black women.

And, I know in the pandemic, a lot of free and local therapists made themselves available and continue to do so. So, if cost is a challenge, there are solutions. If you physically don’t have an hour plus with traffic to get to a therapist, Zoom or Facetime. You don’t have to leave your house. How often do you get to just talk and somebody listens to you and they ask you probing, great questions and you’re not being interrupted? It’s a gift. Give that gift to yourself because you’ll feel a lot better.

On Embracing Zaya and Being a Supportive Bonus Mom

Gabrielle Union and family (Instagram)

BE: How did you evolve into this bonus mom who was immediately ready to embrace Zaya’s full truth? Some people never get there, or it takes them a very long time. In the book, it just seemed like from the jump, you were there.

Union: I had to be for my child. I don’t ever feel like I have the luxury of the kind of ignorance that could lead to harm, certainly when it comes to children. So I had to figure it out fast.

(We) came up with a village that is large enough and adequate enough to help her on her journey because in reality, no one in this household has done the same walk. There’s a gag of Black women in this village, but none of us would have had the same walk that Zaya has, so you don’t want to talk outside your mouth either. It’s like, ‘I’m a Black woman, you’re a Black woman, this is how it goes.’ We needed to … unlearn a lot of the things that we just accepted as just the way life is … a lot of the toxic masculinity. What is gender norms and roles, gender expression, what makes a good woman? All of those things we had to unlearn because it’s just a different journey into womanhood. And we didn’t have the time to fight it, you know?

And also, we don’t want to fight her identity and who she is. She’s beautiful and glorious and amazing and smart, and why would I ever do something that puts shackles on her and stops her from flying?

So, I had to figure out how to give her more wings … even bigger wings than the ones that she has, but in the same way that a lot of white parents have to approach or should approach transracial adoption. Am I doing things that are going to benefit my comfort, where we live, what schools, who we socialize with, or are we doing the right things for this child and making sure this child’s needs are met?

BE: It just seems like from the very beginning, you gave her the wings to fly. And this has just been a beautiful thing to watch. So I applaud you for that. You and Dwyane because I think for a Black man even kind of more so, or just as much, to be as open and accepting, it was really a great thing to see.

Union: A lot of parents of children in the LGBTQI community literally say, ‘I don’t know how to love them.’ But especially in minority communities, we are so conditioned that you have to assimilate in order to be OK and safe. You’ve got to do all these things to survive the white gaze and to make sure white people are not uncomfortable and that they’re validating you so you can move up and you can be successful but you’ve got to do all of these things.

You’ve got to shift shape constantly for their comfort, and then that carries over into how we parent. And the rejection of anything that we feel makes us run afoul of complete assimilation where we might be rejected or we might find ourselves in harm’s way and we project all of that onto our children thinking it will keep them safe. If you’re just like me, you’ll be safe. But even when we dive deeper into colorism, this notion of ‘oh I’m so dark, ain’t no way I’d be with someone else this dark. You know I gotta lighten up the bloodline.’ For what? And it’s because I feel like the lighter you are, the lighter my children are, the more opportunities they’re going to have.

BE: And the safer they’ll be.

Union: And the safer they’ll be. And they’ll be out of harm’s way because they’ll be closer to, you know, Eurocentric ideals of whatever. But when you start to really disinvest from those notions, it creates more freedom and you can start to be like, who am I? And who could I have been if I hadn’t centered the white gaze, white comfort, white validation? What could I have been? And now that I see it, who can I be, and what kind of parent do I want to be? If I do subscribe to these things and I don’t center them in all of my decision-making.

And yeah, it’s been a challenge to get everyone in our village on board. We have a large village from the midwest. D’s family is from the South Side of Chicago; I’m from the North Side of Omaha. His mom’s a pastor. My mom teaches catechism, so we come from religious families and reimagining who we can all be and that we can all be loved, seen, and nurtured, and cared for, and protected. We’re all deserving of these things because we’re here, and you don’t have to force anyone to be something that they’re not.

On Shady Baby and Keeping Dad at Bay From Social Media Posts

Kaavia James (Instagram)

BE: Kaavia James is a joy. I’m curious about Shady Baby, how she was birthed, and do you write her social media posts?

Union: I do all of it. D had exactly one chance, and he did a tribute post to himself, and it is not what her Instagram is for. If you go back to the beginning, the second or third post, and it’s like ‘my dad scored …’ whatever it was. And I’m like, OK, never again. We’re not doing this. So yeah, I’ve been doing her captions.

BE: I read her IG to laugh, to get away. Her pictures are adorable, her expressions are hilarious, but I just think you seem to really tap in and capture all of it brilliantly.

Union: That’s exactly who she is. And she came out that way. It’s nothing that we shaped. We don’t mess with her to get her to make weird expressions; that’s just who she is and has been very consistent, literally since she arrived.

She arrived to us via gestational carrier, and she is truly the best parts of both of us. While she has his whole face, I will admit, all of her facial expressions and how she speaks and some of the phrases that she says, it’s all me I like to think.

BE: Her independence is you.

Union: I’d like to think, yes. My husband would probably say—no, that’s me too. She’s literally, she’s just a joy. It’s weird. I’m sure every parent would say they’re all joys, but they’re really all not. It’s a lot about parenting that is just monotonous, and it’s like, all hell has broken loose just as soon as I’ve gotten used to the monotony, but she’s just a legit joy whether she’s in a good mood or bad mood, it’s just kind of all funny. She’s just funny. Like she could do standup.

And throughout the pandemic, we moved my mom—and my mom at 60 adopted three children and she’s 74 now—we brought her to L.A. and my niece to help her. And we brought D’s mom and a lot of our village into L.A., so it’s just a lot of us every day, all day, just laughing and cracking up, you know and learning from her. Just being tickled by her.

She is a child of the village. People always ask if she is a momma’s girl, daddy’s girl. I think she’s more of a momma’s girl than a daddy’s girl, but she’s very much a child of the village. Like she has great relationships with everybody, and like separate relationships … they’re all very different.

BE: What is the biggest takeaway you want people to grasp from this book, and do you know if there will be another? Is this going to be a three-part memoir?

Union: We’ll see what happens over the next few years. I didn’t really leave anything out … but I have to experience more life and see if in a few years if I have more I want to say. We’ll see where life takes me.

(There’ll be) more children’s books for sure in the Shady Baby universe. There’s a thousand stories we could explore with Shady Baby and we have picture books that are coming out for welcome to the party, accompanying materials for those books.

Maybe I’ll try my novel. We’ll see.

BE: Do you have any great takeaways? What I took away was your honesty and willingness to be vulnerable. Even the stories; one story where you didn’t speak to Dwyane for several days because one of his friends, whom you don’t like, came over. You tackled the situation when you two were separated and the child that was born out of that. I’m wondering what you hope people grasp from this book?

Union: Radical transparency won’t kill you, and sharing your truth can lead to salvation. And you don’t have to hold all of it, especially the things you didn’t create yourself. You are not the worst thing that has ever happened to you. Being vulnerable isn’t an invitation for harm.

Vulnerability is your superpower, and in talking about the journey of our relationship and my fertility journey, they all go together. So to leave out that part, which, as painful as it may be – 98% of it I don’t talk about because it involves too many other people other than myself, and that’s not fair. So I included the emotional impact of that on my fertility journey and the emotional impact of that on my decisions. The fertility decisions that I made. Because as we’re all faced with challenges, we all have a past, we all have those secrets, those things that we don’t want to talk about, but that truly color our decision-making processes and how we move in the world. And so for someone to know me—and my hope for this book is for people to truly understand me better—hopefully, they can see themselves reflected.

I would be lying to myself and to everyone else if that wasn’t included because that was for sure part of my journey. And it impacted my decision-making. And I owe it to myself to let that go, you know, and not feel like it’s some big thing that has the ability to take me out because it doesn’t.

Dawn Onley is a freelance writer based in the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area.