In the early spring of 2013, I became so ridiculously dizzy and nauseous that I knew I was either pregnant or dying. It was kind of a mix of the two, as it turns out. By six weeks pregnant, I was vomiting multiple times a day and was so weak that I could barely move from the bedroom to the bathroom without spilling puke between my fingers on the way. Well-meaning friends, family and doctors suggested everything from drinking syrup to calm my stomach to anxiety as the cause. But when I became pregnant and even sicker with my second daughter, I had a name for the horrible symptoms I was experiencing — Hyperemesis Gravidarum (HG), which translates from Greek to the very literal “excessive vomiting of pregnant women.”
Potentially life-threatening to both mother and baby, HG occurs in only up to two percent of pregnancies and had its 15 minutes of fame when Kate, Duchess of Cambridge, first suffered from it with her son. The whole world seemed up in arms about the legitimacy of diagnosing morning sickness as a “disease of pregnancy” as it’s sometimes called. Indeed, morning sickness is pretty normal, but the symptoms of Hyperemesis Gravidarum are not. Within the first three weeks of the onset of HG, I’d lost 15 pounds along with my ability to perform everyday tasks, including caring for myself.
Thanks to round-the-clock care (shout out to my husband, my mother and my mother-in-law) and a combination of prescription and over-the-counter drugs I now have two amazingly healthy, beautiful little girls and in complete hindsight can finally say I would do it all over again if I had to.
But I mean, let’s be real.
Hell to the no. Because for those experiencing HG, every second is complete and utter misery until the symptoms of extreme nausea, vomiting and abdominal pain subside, which for some very unlucky women isn’t until after delivery. Post traumatic stress is not uncommon in women who’ve experienced Hyperemesis Gravidarum, and adding to the physical and emotional agony is a chorus of questions and answers you never actually asked for, like...
1. “You should try ginger.”
Vomiting ginger in any form is exactly what it feels like to be a dragon.
2. “It’s probably because you were unhealthy before you got pregnant.”
Look, personally, I’ll admit that my diet before conceiving my first child consisted mainly of Lucky Charms and cough drops, and I never wore a helmet when I rode my bicycle, but many mothers who’ve battled HG had perfectly grown-up palettes before becoming pregnant, worked out regularly, meditated, prayed, respected their elders and still ended up bowing to the porcelain god for months on end.
3. “Yeah, ugh, morning sickness is the worst.”
HG is really, really not morning sickness. Comparing morning sickness and HG is like comparing a bird bath to the ocean. Sure, OK, there are some similarities like the presence of bacteria and H2O, and you shouldn’t directly drink from either, but the magnitude of one is much, much, much greater than the other. HG feels like you’ve sacrificed your body and mind for the sake of a parasite that’s eating you alive and death would be preferable to your current existence.
4. “You should be gaining weight at this point.”
5. “It’s all in your head. If you stop obsessing over how sick you feel you’ll feel a lot better.”
Just as the flu isn’t all in a person’s head, neither is Hyperemesis Gravidarum. Though the verdict is still out on what for sure, definitely, absolutely causes HG, there are many legitimate theories, none of which suggest that women hold the mental capability to turn it off.
6. “Just nibble on crackers.”
This IS good advice for actual morning sickness. Eating something right away in the morning or as soon as you feel sick will help stave off some of the queasies associated with first-trimester nausea because it helps to balance your blood sugar. But crackers for an HG mom are basically the equivalent of puking up cement. It’s pretty, um, thick.
7. “Have you tried getting out for a walk?”
If you can even think about walking for pleasure then you probably don’t have Hyperemesis Gravidarum.
8. “Medicine will kill your baby.”
Unless you are planning to teach your toddler how to set off fireworks or you've asked your 4-year-old to drive down to the store and pick up some milk, ignore any and all people who suggest that any decision you make for the betterment of your family is going to kill your baby. Those people can go to hell and take their virtues with them.
To HG moms everywhere: TAKE THE MEDS.
Moms battling HG with meds know that they’re not a cure, they don’t take away the vomiting and nausea, but they do take the edge off, even if only for a few fleeting moments a day — just enough to give you shiny ray of hope that you’ll make it through the night and that alone is worth it.
Also, on a personal note, I took several different medications during my second pregnancy while I was still breastfeeding my first baby, so all three of us were pretty well medicated and we're just fine.
(If you're dealing with HG and have a doctor who is hesitant to prescribe an anti-emesis, find a new one. Visit the HER Foundation Facebook page for assistance finding an HG-friendly care provider in your area.)
9. “Are you doing this on purpose? For attention?”
Yeah, because I’m peeing my pants while puking for funsies.
10. “Ugh, I wish I’d been as small as you when I was pregnant.”
While I’d once daydreamed about growing a little babe, I found myself struggling to keep my sweatpants up over my hip bones. I know that realistically motherhood and pregnancy is a special and unique experience for each woman, yet I still can’t help but to feel jealous of my perfectly round, glowing friends, announcing pregnancies and genders and posing with love in their eyes as they cradle their baby bellies. HG steals that magical time of emotional preparation that comes before motherhood. Instead, you’re just surviving in total fear of what’s going to make you throw up next.
11. “This is totally normal.”
I mean, yeah if you consider throwin’ up blood while you black out just another day in the life of being preggers, sure, totally normal!
12. “Just think, this means your baby is growing healthy and strong!”
I’m totally guilty of dishing this one out. It just seems like the most comforting thing to say when someone you care about is projecting their stomach bile at about 80 miles per hour (not scientific). In truth though, while most HG babies are born perfectly healthy, the condition can lead to pre-term birth, a malnourished fetus and an increased risk of emotional and behavioral disorders in childhood.
13. “Are you hungry?”
Cue the tears.
14. When can you hang out?
HG is lonely, but even more than that, it's debilitating. To put it in perspective, some of the medications prescribed to treat it are also used to help patients going through chemo. Thus, the social life of an HG mom is temporarily reduced to Facebook likes as she drifts in and out of consciousness in the same clothes she’s been wearing since last weekend.
15. “It’s all worth the outcome.”
This one probably caused me the most grief and guilt during my two pregnancies. I am blessed. I won’t argue that. Babies are amazing, and, hold on — let me hike up my high-waisted, mushy gushy mom pants here — parenthood is the most life-affirming journey I’ve ever embarked on, and giving birth to each of my daughters was a seriously powerful and, dare I say, magical experience. There are moments when I look at my kids and I feel that finally, the world has stopped spinning and all that’s left in the universe is the love in my soul that exists for these two extraordinary beings.
But motherhood can also be really hard at times. For some of us, it’s the subtle loss of identity or the everyday hustle of providing for our babies then watching them grow away from their constant need for us. Yet for others, it’s even more complicated — months of sleepless nights in a fluorescent NICU, circumstances that stretch far beyond HG’s 40-week reach.
And maybe that’s the gift of Hyperemesis Gravidarum, the forewarning that being a mother is not always happy, that sometimes it’s quite difficult and there are times where it feels that your life is being ripped away from the inside out for the sake of a beautiful, and totally worthwhile outcome.