Gabrielle Union on Battling Infertility, Mommy Guilt and Using Her Voice to Give Light to Hidden Pain
“I need a cocktail right now.” It’s almost two on a Wednesday afternoon, but Gabrielle Union has been up for hours—“My day started yesterday”—and this, a working lunch, is the first chance she’s had to chill out in weeks. Union’s been busy doing press for the movie The Public; starring in her Bad Boy spin-off series L.A.’s Finest, opposite Jessica Alba (out May 13); filming America’s Got Talent (premiering May 28); and developing a number of projects with her production company, I’ll Have Another. Her personal life is just as hectic: Her husband, Dwyane Wade, just played his last NBA game with the Miami Heat and is facing a new phase of his career. And of course, there’s the baby: five-month-old daughter Kaavia James, whom Wade and Union welcomed via surrogate in November. A baby who, just last night, kept Union up until the wee hours “screaming like I was torturing her.
Kaavia is having one of those phases when she just cries, no matter how many times and ways you try to soothe her. “She’s like, ‘Fuck your sleep. Fuck my sleep.’ It’s annoying,” Union says jokingly. The new mom went through the whole checklist—Does she need a change? Is she hungry?—before coming to terms with the truth: The baby just had to cry. “I’ve gotten to the point where I’m OK with her crying,” Union says. “I’ve just gotten used to it. You know, on the airplane they’re like, ‘You’ve got to put your mask on first.’ But the guilt of feeling like there’s nothing else I can think to do….” It’s hard to accept that uncertainty, that she doesn’t know the “unhappiness or discomfort or whatever it is” that makes Kaavia scream. It makes Union feel frazzled, like she wants to wail as loud as Kaavia. “I don’t even know if I’m feeling guilt or fear or exhaustion,” Union says. “I don’t know. I feel nuts.”
So we order margaritas.
It’s not that Union is new to the role of caretaker. Kaavia joins Wade’s sons—Zaire, 17, Zion, 11, and Xavier, five—and nephew Dahveon, 17. But there is a learning curve to the demands of a newborn. “When they say that everything changes, I assumed not me,” she explains. “I thought, I’m not going to be like the others! And…I’m like the others.” Union says parenting can sometimes feel like Groundhog Day. “Nothing major happens and you’re like, ‘This can’t be it.’” Other days are challenging, of course. Those are offset by the good days, the moments she describes as “joyous, like everything is a revelation.”
Union has learned that being a mother in the public eye can serve as a test or a relief, depending on the day. “Part of the journey is being OK with how others—specifically moms—are viewing you, judging you, praising you,” she says. And it’s that one negative voice, even among “the chorus of positivity,” that she’ll latch onto and hold with her for the whole day. “You feel raw and exposed and vulnerable.”
“So much of the Instagram life is creating these perfect illusions, right? People have kids—even through surrogacy or IVF or whatever—and the kids just appear,” Union says. “Rarely do we hear how. What was the journey? Without understanding what got to baby, it feels like easy and overnight. And that’s not the case.
But whereas others might react to those feelings by retreating and protecting themselves, Union leans in. In the age of the illusory Insta-perfect facade, she knows copping to her lows is just as important as exulting in the highs. Many of those highs are cataloged on Instagram, where Kaavia has her own account (@kaaviajames) with more than 620,000 followers. The rare times her mother can get her to smile for the camera serve as a prize; her inquisitive scowls, which Union often hashtags #shadybaby, give a peek at the strong woman Kaavia might become. The lows are in the open too—which is why Union’s posts are flooded with women thanking her for sharing a tale that often gets lost: infertility. “So much of the Instagram life is creating these perfect illusions, right? People have kids—even through surrogacy or IVF or whatever—and the kids just appear. Rarely do we hear how,” Union says of why she and Wade decided to be open about their struggles. “What was the journey? Without understanding what got to baby, it feels like easy and overnight. And that’s not the case.”
To bring Kaavia into the world, Union faced a seemingly infinite cycle of dismissals, misdiagnoses, and nine miscarriages before a hormone specialist finally diagnosed her with adenomyosis, a condition that occurs when the endometrial tissue grows into the muscular wall of the uterus. For a time—in her twenties, when she was trying to find out why her periods were irregular and was not getting answers—Union declared she didn’t want children. Now she understands she was protecting herself from the fear that she couldn’t have them. “I wanted to create a big enough cushion emotionally, defensively,” she says.
Union’s own experience with infertility helped her understand that not being able to have a baby can be surrounded with shame. “Nobody was really open when I had questions,” she says. The process was like an “underground railroad of fertility”—a complicated, secretive ordeal that few people, and even fewer people who looked like her, were talking about openly. This despite the fact that approximately one in 10 women in the United States aged 15 to 44 has difficulty getting or staying pregnant. And though women of all races experience infertility, white women are more likely to get treatment. “The only reason I heard about certain doctors or treatments or new technologies or new procedures—whether that be diet or Eastern philosophy—was through a whisper network, and mainly from women who did not look like me or who had a very different journey through life than I did.”
The eventual diagnosis meant having a baby would be exceedingly difficult, which led to Union and Wade’s decision to conceive via surrogate. Even now, though, Union admits that sometimes she still feels a sort of FOMO about not carrying her child. “I’ll see a pregnant woman and I just feel like, Damn, you know? I’ll ask myself, Would my relationship with her be different?” Eventually the feeling subsides. “And then I go home and have a whole-ass baby.”
Union hopes that sharing her experience will help remove any shame or isolation for others. “I would never say that I’m giving anyone permission, but sometimes it takes somebody doing something to be like, ‘Oh sure, I can talk about this. It has no bearing on my value, my worth, the validity of my motherhood journey,’” she says. “So I try to be as open as possible. I’m telling people the water’s warm. Dive on in.”
This isn’t the first time Union has shared so much personal pain. In her 2017 memoir We’re Going to Need More Wine, she revealed the details of her assault at gunpoint when she was 19. It happened in the Payless store where she worked. “After I was raped, I didn’t leave my house for a whole year unless I had to go to court or to therapy,” she writes in the book. “Twenty-four years later, fear still influences everything I do.
Opening up about that secret was hard enough, but it came with a difficulty she didn’t expect: On the tour for the book, women flooded her with stories of their own traumas. Union began Skyping with her therapist daily to cope with the emotional exhaustion. “It just felt like a never-ending loop of evil and horrific pain and trauma,” she says. “You’ve created this safe space, which is awesome, but it’s almost like you’re just….” She trails off for a second before clarifying, “I’d start the day off like an empty pitcher. And little by little, eventually my pitcher runneth over. At a certain point I don’t know what’s mine and what’s yours and other people’s. It all just feels like you’re drowning in plain sight and everyone’s looking for me to save other people.”
Given how emotionally drained she felt from sharing so much darkness, it’s understandable that Union would choose to share so much of the light Kaavia has brought into her life. Union feels that, for some of her fans, Kaavia represents more than just achieving a sought-after goal, this one of motherhood: She’s proof that joy can stem from years of sorrow. “When you share so much pain and grief over the decades that I’ve been in this business doing press, you’re kind of just like, ‘I want to share some fucking joy,’” she says. “She brings me joy.”
Union, born in Omaha, is an outspoken black woman in the world living in 2019. And as a black woman in Hollywood, Union feels a responsibility to share more of herself in a number of different ways—she recognizes she has a platform and that people will listen. The pressure she feels to be a voice calling out injustices is both gratifying and draining. “Sometimes that is like, ‘Yeah, let’s fucking burn this motherfucker to the ground!’” she says. Other times, “it can be crushing.”
Still, Union is finding ways to change Hollywood. That includes L.A.’s Finest,her upcoming series that continues the Bad Boys franchise. The show was in part her idea; she kept talking with friends and her manager about what could have happened to Sydney Burnett, the somewhat inept DEA agent she played in Bad Boys II who continually had to be saved by either her brother or her lover. They thought the narrative could be updated, so she took the idea to Jerry Bruckheimer, the film’s producer, who told her, “That’s a fucking show.”
L.A.’s Finest, available on Charter Communications’ Spectrum Originals, picks up 15 years after Bad Boys II, with Syd now working as an LAPD detective alongside her partner, Nancy McKenna, played by Jessica Alba. Alba had just given birth to her third child when she was approached about the role, so she was hesitant to take on a demanding network show. Her respect for Union’s hustle, and the network’s responsiveness to Alba’s needs as a mother, changed her mind. “I know how hard it is to be successful in this business,” Alba says. “So many people are talented and gorgeous and the next thing that everybody wants, to be able to push through the noise and find your own path, is a feat. I respect that Gabrielle has been in this business for so long and found her way. She produced and helped develop and create this show. That is so cool.”
It was important for Union to have the opportunity to make Syd a fully realized character who has a full backstory, mythology, and mysteries. “I wanted her to have a very full sexual life, like Mary Jane,” Union says, referring to Mary Jane Paul, the role she played on BET’s Being Mary Jane. “I wanted her to have more sexual fluidity than any character I’ve ever had.” In short, L.A.’s Finest is about complex, deep, and sometimes flawed women.
Now that the new season has wrapped, Union’s next career chapter is all about using her platform to lift others up. Yes, her role on America’s Got Talent is to judge others, but she says she gets a thrill from telling contestants yes. “Part of what makes me cry is people’s visceral, emotional reaction to hearing a yes,” she says. “Even if I’m the only yes and the rest are nos and they’re still not going to go through, you’re just someone saying, ‘I believe in you. I see you. I get what your genius is, even if nobody else does.’”
Similarly, with her production company, I’ll Have Another, her sole focus is giving people an opportunity—and getting them paid. “I think people thought I was just going to make shit that I wanted to put myself in,” she says. “But I’m already on a show. I don’t need all the jobs. I’m straight.”
Instead she’s looking for projects with unique voices that she doesn’t see anywhere else. Specifically, telling the stories from those who’ve been overlooked—the stifled, the silenced, the writers who can’t seem to make it out of the junior ranks in the writers room. She became obsessed with being a super-champion for others, an endeavor she admits is exhausting but that also, she says, “gives me wings.”
This is where she sees she can make change: by creating the kinds of roles and writing positions she wishes existed in her twenties. “When the script for the pilot of Scandal came out, every black actress wanted it because there was nothing like it,” she says. “It was it. I’m trying to create that same feeling, but a bunch of those. There are so many different creators of color who are creating amazing content, and I want to be a part of that.”
“With my production company, I’m trying to give voice to all the things I wish I’d had sooner,” Union says. “I want to create the scripts I want to do. I want to have wild success. And I want to have epic failures, that’s a part of it too.
She’s more interested in creating content that audiences actually want to see than pleasing Hollywood. “I’m not here to serve Hollywood,” she says. “I’m not here to serve the one percent. I’m not here to serve the Talented Ten. At the end of the day, I’m Nickie Union from Omaha, Nebraska.”
I ask how Nickie Union—a woman trying to change Hollywood for Kaavia, for you, for herself; a woman who gives and gives until her pitcher runneth over—practices self-care. She takes a long time to answer. “Right this second? That margarita,” she says with a laugh. Oh, and a few other hacks. “My group chat,” she adds. “This morning I burned some sage, I stared at my vision board, I made a playlist on Spotify, and I gave myself five fucking minutes.”
This interview was facilitated and transcribed by Ramou Sarr