Gabrielle Union on Kaavia and Zaya Wade: ‘Do Whatever Works For You’

Along with her basketball god husband, Gabrielle Union has emerged as a voice for unconventional, blended families.

by Donna Freydkin
Originally Published: 

Gabrielle Union is famous and, more specifically, famous enough to push through the book deal of her choice. She could have gone to any publisher and come out with a ghostwritten ode to self-actualization or a self-serving roman a clef about shattering glass ceilings. Instead, she wrote about her experiences as the stepmom of a transgender child, the new mother of a baby delivered via surrogate, and the daughter of a social worker who adopted three kids post-retirement. Welcome to the Party, a picture book that follows 16-month-old Kaavia James Union Wade through a day, is Union’s love letter to unconventional families and it arrives just as Union has started to attract attention — some good, some not — for her own.

Writing a book centered around her youngest was a way for Union and her husband, retired NBA All-Star and all-around good dude Dwyane Wade, to directly address the reality of their family. Union suffered close to a dozen miscarriages before Kaavia arrived. Wade’s daughter Zaya (from an earlier marriage) is transgender and out. They’re a blended family in every sense and totally matter of fact about all of it. Union, perhaps best known for playing an acid-tongued anchor on BET’s Being Mary Jane and a take-no-prisoners cheerleader in Bring It On, didn’t set out to be the voice of unconventional households, but she’s happy to do it.

“There’s not one way of doing something,” she says with a laugh. “You do whatever works for you and your family and your life.”

Union spoke to Fatherly about letting your kids sink or swim, the headaches of mommy shaming, and why using the bathroom solo is overrated.

Your daughter is 16-months-old and already blowing up Instagram, which is understandable because she is absolutely adorable. Congrats on that..

That’s so funny. She literally just didn’t let me go poop. So we just pooped together. Yeah. Two seconds ago.

I’m guessing at least some of your daughter’s followers would tell you that was bad parenting. How’s the celebrity parent shaming going?

I’m surprised by the sheer amount of judgment, about how one mothers, and this idea that there’s only one way to do it right. It’s like there’s this desperate need for everyone to do the same thing and that anything else is somehow wrong and needs to be attacked. That’s not just on social media, by the way, but in normal life. There’s a lot of eagle-eyeing and nit-picking. But there’s not one way of doing something. You do whatever works for you and your family and your life.

There’s just so much unsolicited advice and commentary.

What’s been the most surprising thing to you in your first year of new motherhood?

The joy that I get from the most random things. Before I had Kaav, I wouldn’t have even noticed certain things. Now I get so much joy from seeing certain things through her eyes and watching her discover things and watching her become this very independent, fearless person. When it’s your kid, it’s very interesting.

You’ve got a reputation for having your head screwed on straight. I can’t imagine you give much of a shit.

I don’t care. I’m too old.

Why bother with that? You know that publicity is a double-edged sword.

Our road to adding Kaav to our family was so fraught with heartbreak and disappointment and pain. We wanted there to be a celebration and a welcoming of sorts that gives people the space to want to cheer on her arrival. Our family expansion was in a non-traditional way. There’s not always the words for that. We wanted to make sure our daughter knew she was wanted and welcomed and celebrated and this book was a perfect extension of that.

There’s not a lot of literature that celebrates non-traditional family creation. It’s giving you the space to celebrate it and claim it.

This also feels like a tribute to your stepdaughter.

Years ago, Zaya was very clear with us that she was gender-nonconforming: ‘I want access to everything that the world has to offer and not just what I am steered to based on gender.’ Once you learn that, it’s hard to unlearn that. We wanted to make sure Kaav’s clothes aren’t gender-specific. She has a variety of clothes she can wear and we’re not shaping her identity. Her nursery is not gender-specific. We’re allowing her to be who she is or whoever she’s going to become. As a family we keep each other in check that way.

Also, becoming LGBTQ advocates, we’ve learned the importance of chosen families.

Zaya has shown remarkable poise while facing bigotry. How do you raise kids who know their self worth?

Part of it is getting out of my own way. Your instinct is to put bumpers on everything so they don’t hurt themselves and don’t have any discomfort in life. You give them everything you didn’t have. Part of what makes you and shapes you is hitting your head on something and falling down and experiencing adversity, whatever that looks like. Who you are as a human being is forged in the fire. For me it’s about being OK with that and not trying to pad life. It’s more about us than it is about them.

Presumably you’ll take those lessons and apply them to raising Kaav.

Someone was talking to her the other day and saying, ‘Ok, sweet girl.’ I overheard that. I get that it’s just encouraging her to be nice and be sweet. But this wasn’t a sharing situation. She was being told to make life easier for others by being nice or sweet. In my head I’m like, Fuck that, Kaav, do you.

I don’t want her to shrink herself. I don’t want her to round out her edges or shape-shift for someone else’s comfort. You start that as a baby and by the time you need to have a spine, you’re so used to shapeshifting you don’t know how to take up space. It’s more about me unlearning that stuff and not saddling my kids with stuff that’s going to make their lives more complicated. We want our lives to be easier and a lot of times what makes our lives easier is when people do what we want versus what is best for them in a reasonable way.

Now that you’ve been home, what’s been the biggest change for you as a parent?

Really getting to know our kids. Even with Kaav, I sometimes go to work before she wakes up and don’t return until after she’s gone to sleep. Other than set visits, I don’t get to see her that often. Same with Zaya. In the times we have with them, they’re giving us the version of themselves they think is the most palatable. Now, during quarantine, we’re really getting to know our kids completely. Now it’s us all together all the time.

If your daughter could fast-forward through all the years of insecurities and rejection that we all face, what would you want her to know now?

You deserve peace, joy, grace, compassion, understanding. It’s your birthright. You’re worth it. I don’t think we tell people that enough.

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