Philadelphia-based attorney Zakiya Barnett was at a friend's apartment in New York City when she felt that all too familiar cramping.
"I started spotting and was like, 'Oh man, this is going to happen,'" she recalled. Just days earlier at her 10-week appointment, her doctor had informed her that this, her second pregnancy, was also likely to end in a miscarriage. "They heard and saw the heartbeat, but it was weak," she explained. "The doctor told me, 'We hear a heartbeat today, but next week when you come in, we probably won't.' I came to terms with it."
So "at two, three in the morning," she detailed to Sheinelle Jones in the journalist's Dec. 19 MSNBC documentary Stories We Tell: The Fertility Secret. she crept to the bathroom and allowed nature to take its course. "I had a miscarriage," she shared, "and went to one of my best friend's baby showers that same day."
The statement left Jones floored—and not just at Barnett's unfathomable strength. "She's one of my best friends," the Today co-host marveled to E! News. "I had no idea."
Fertility struggles and pregnancy loss are the sort of topics people don't often feel comfortable discussing "even when we're the dearest of friends," said Jones. "We don't tell each other what we're going through sometimes."
Which is why the longtime Today anchor was so eager to embark on the "passion project" she first dreamt up during quarantine, the extra time at home making her want to stretch her wings with her first-ever executive producing gig.
"So many of my friends behind closed doors are having trouble," she noted, estimating that in her circle of 20 or so friends "eight or nine" are dealing with some form of fertility problems. "And people would never know. Because they're still kicking butt in their jobs. They're going to the gym, they're going to the church."
She's watched as the veil has been lifted ever so slightly, helped in part by celebrities speaking out about their own pregnancy loss, surrogacy, egg donations and the myriad other methods they've employed to build their families.
"My own cohost Dylan Dryer was very open about the fact that she was dealing with secondary infertility," Jones pointed out. "The only piece I felt was missing were women of color. I felt like, 'Okay, I'm going home and I'm talking to my girlfriends and I know they're having issues,' but in the coverage, I felt like their voices were missing in the larger public conversation. So that is why I was intentional about bringing in my own circle of friends. And my prayer is that their stories will not only resonate with women of color, but will resonate with all men and women and families."
The five women's tales are a poignant blend of heartbreaking, inspiring and empowering.
There's Zakiya—now a mother of two young girls—who recounted how "some of the excitement and carefreeness and joy that you think of about being pregnant" was stripped away from her as she spent her third pregnancy worrying "every day" and "praying" that she didn't have a third miscarriage: "I remember saying, 'God, just, I can't.'"
Washington, D.C. resident Joy detailed how the surgeries she'd endured to remove fibroid after fibroid had ravaged her body so much that "the doctor initially said, 'I don't recommend that you even try to have a baby because of the risk that it would pose to you.'"
And Miami-based Ada opened up about the diagnosis of "stage four endometriosis, diffused adenomyosis and multiple fibroids" that kick-started a 10-year IVF journey that left her reconsidering what her happily ever after might look like.
"There's this misconception with infertility that you should always be heading in some direction and it should end with a child," Ada explained. "I'm okay with where I am now—that this is what is for me. It just seems like now we're doing life and it's a good place to be."
Of the messages that have flooded Jones' DMs a full week before the special had even aired, those are the ones that have stood out—the women who have thanked her for validating their own journeys that didn't necessarily lead to a burgeoning belly.
"I've gotten a lot of messages from women who have decided to adopt," she said. "I'm so happy because I wanted the point to be clear that this is not just about having a baby and some final destination. It's about the journey to get there. And so whether you decide you still want to fight to have a baby or you decide that maybe adoption is for you or you decide that maybe you don't want children at all, it's all okay. And there shouldn't be any judgment."
For Jones, "This isn't some documentary about how to have children. It's about the conversation that I hope we start to have."
Conversations, really, because Jones' hopes for this special are three-fold.
First, she's out to remind women that they are not alone, that fertility is a heartbreakingly common struggle. "What I underestimated was that for some of these women, they felt broken," explained Jones, herself a mom to 12-year-old Kayin and 9-year-old twins Clara and Uche. "They're these beautiful, confident women who don't feel whole. I did about nine or 10 hours' worth of interviews with these women and I just was blown away by these women who have had to talk through how to feel whole."
But she also hopes to spark some chatter that is long overdue about why some issues remain unsolved ("One of the girls said, 'Look, we can put a man on the moon, why can't we figure out why women are getting these fibroids?'") and why others often aren't discussed until it's far too late.
"So many women say they just wish they would have known sooner that they were going to run into trouble," noted Jones. "So whether it's a girl who is a teenager and she has horrible periods and she's cramping and she just kind of sucks it up every month. Or a woman who has fibroids and she continues to have surgeries, thinking that she's making it better. There are all sorts of women who do things in their twenties because they think it's the right thing to do and then they don't find out until their thirties or even early forties that they may be having challenges."
While Jones is hoping to make a push for "women to be their own advocates or mothers to advocate for their daughters if something doesn't feel right," her dream is for a more systemic overhaul.
"A goal that would just be amazing one day and it's not going to happen overnight, is to change the construct of how we handle fertility and young women's health," she said. "Quite often women don't know they have endometriosis or women don't know they have some of these heavier problems until a bit later. I just wish there was a way to have these conversations earlier."
Jones knows she's not going to discover a cure for fibroids or explain why endometriosis affects some 10 percent of women "but I can be a storyteller," she said. "And maybe if we can just sit back and listen to these women and their stories, then we can move the needle so that doctors or specialists can step in or, frankly, funding for maternal health and research for where fibroids are coming from."
Throughout the process, she's kept cohost Hoda Kotb's words in the back of her mind. "Hoda always talks about how Mr. Rogers says in moments of crisis, look for the helpers," Jones explained. "And so for me, I think so many women are in crisis and they're facing this heartbreak and I want to be a helper. This is my way of being a helper."
Stories We Tell: The Fertility Secret airs on MSNBC Sunday, Dec. 19 at 10 p.m.
(E! and MSNBC are both part of the NBCUniversal family.)