Ask any Black woman if she’s battled some sort of fertility issue or knows another Black woman who has, and her answer will likely be a resounding “yes”. From miscarriages to back-to-back failed IVF treatments and beyond, for so long, many Black women have battled infertility privately, only speaking about it with their doctors, partners and maybe a close friend or family member. We rarely see a group of Black women gather just to be vulnerable about their own fertility journeys. That’s likely because opening up about something so difficult and painful things isn’t easy to do, and certainly not for a primetime television audience.
This is precisely why TODAY Show co-anchor Sheinelle Jones is so proud to bring her documentary, Stories We Tell: The Fertility Secret, to primetime television this Sunday—a historic first for a conversation like this, with Black faces having it. The project, which is Jones’ directorial debut, shines an intimate spotlight on her close friends’ heavy experiences with fibroids, endometriosis, in vitro fertilization and even egg-freezing.
We sat down with Jones to discuss how such a special project came about and what her hope is for those women who plan to watch it on Sunday night.
ESSENCE: Why this project, and why now?
SHEINELLE JONES: That is a really good question. I have been quietly soul searching about this issue for years. For years, I have watched some of my closest friends struggle and have surgeries in the fertility space. I can tell you, gosh, all the way—I’m 43 now, going back to my mid-twenties—I was with friends who were having surgeries on fibroids, and at the time, we just thought they were doing what they had to do so that they could move on with their lives. And now, it wasn’t until decades later that we realized a lot of those surgeries were affecting their fertility. When I was early in my career, there were a lot of women in my life who we just assumed, okay, we’re going to go to school, we’ll find Mr. or Miss Right, we’re going to get married, we’re going to have a kid or two and everything is going to be the fairytale. Then you slowly but surely realize that that fairytale isn’t necessarily the case for so many women. I wanted to tell their story.
ESSENCE: How did it all come together?
JONES: Look, I do the third hour on the Today Show and that’s certainly a place to tell stories, but I wanted to be able to explore it a little more and a bit more in depth. So I just took it upon myself. I asked some of my girlfriends if they would be willing to come together and have a conversation openly and honestly. When I first interviewed them, they flew into New York city, we all got COVID tested, and we didn’t know where it would land or where it would go. We all just felt like it was important to start having this conversation.
ESSENCE; And now that conversation is happening on primetime cable television!
JONES: When I first started this, I never dreamed it would ultimately end up on primetime. It would’ve been amazing but at the time I couldn’t even see that far. I just knew it was important to try to document their stories. And so, this is definitely a dream come true. Our hearts are in the right place and we are just praying as a group of women that it resonates with not just folks here in this country, quite frankly, but there are [also] women all over the world who’ve been dealing with IVF, fibroids, endometriosis, surrogacy and egg freezing. And, a lot of women are dealing with this behind closed doors.
ESSENCE: Why do you think these conversations have been secrets among Black women?
JONES: It can be an isolating experience because unlike, let’s just say, goodness forbid you have a death in the family, you can tell people and people will understand. You could take some days off work. There are even greeting cards for it. But if you’re dealing with another loss of this kind, quite often you’re tucking the secret and you’re moving forward with your life as if nothing is wrong. I feel like that starts to take a toll on women. There’s this narrative that, and we’ve embraced it over the years, I’m a strong woman. We have to be strong. Your mother and your mother’s mother, they tell you have to be strong, But we also have to be honest with ourselves. Because I think sometimes if you’re so strong, it could be a detriment to your mental health and wellness. I think we need to change that narrative and rethink how we even view the issue. I think talking about it and coming together and having these conversations, that’s strength to me.
ESSENCE: Who would you say this project is for—the women who’ve felt shame, who’ve felt misunderstood or who’ve felt broken by these experiences?
JONES: I have so many people I’m hoping to reach. One of the girls [in the documentary] as you’ll hear, has been struggling since she first got her period as a teenager and she has been hurting every month for decades. I’m hoping that I can reach a mother and a daughter, whether they’re in St. Louis, whether they’re in Des Moines, whether they’re in Wichita, Kansas or Dallas. If that mom says, “You know what, let’s go talk to the doctor. Maybe you shouldn’t be hurting every month.” Maybe it’s because she also hurts every month and just thinks that it’s normal. I’m really hoping that our mothers and daughters will start to have these conversations too. I also hope to reach women who are dealing with each of these issues. As a mother of three, I think that we almost get lost in that circle of just trying to move forward and a lot of us are juggling careers and our families, but we have to be our sister’s keeper.
Tune in to Stories We Tell: The Fertility Secret on Sunday, December 19th at 10 p.m.