This is a piece I’ve wanted to write for awhile. I needed the writing bug to bite me because morning sickness is one of those things that when it is at the forefront of your mind, you’re not really allowed to talk about it. It’s typically part of a pregnancy’s first trimester, a time when you’re keeping a big secret and often suffering in silence. But, it really is a story that needs to be told.
I’ve now been through three first trimesters with very different experiences. My first was far by the worst, my second was manageable/stereotypical, and my third brought some new challenges. It all reinforced how lonely the first trimester is, and how there is really a lot unsaid. I’ve talked prior of the anxiety that goes along with miscarriage stories and rates swirling around social media, and the pressure we often feel to make it through those first twelve weeks. The whole beginning can be so uncertain, and so scary, and I get why people are afraid to share their news in those early days. I had the anxiety. I could hide the anxiety. But the morning sickness–all those physical changes your body goes through in the beginning–that part for me was tough. It adds so much pressure to a woman, especially one going to work everyday, and sometimes it is just impossible. Now, whether we should be hiding our mental and physical pains out of fear of loss, or whatever the reason, that is a story and topic for another day. Right now, I just want to shed some insight on what some women are going through, as not all morning sickness is created equal.
There are without a doubt varying degrees of morning sickness. Just like with labor and delivery stories, and experiences throughout an entire pregnancy, no two journeys are identical. (I have no experience with HG, or Hyperemesis Gravidarum, which is an extreme form of morning sickness that includes excessive vomiting that can lead to dehydration, hospitalization, and fluids, food and medication being administered intravenously. I am not a doctor, and that is thankfully not something I suffered from, so I am going to talk general morning sickness. If you ever have HG concerns, contact your doctor as with anything I write about.)
When I was pregnant with my first, I didn’t realize there were such varying degrees. I went into the whole thing with the idea formed by random stories or what I had seen in movies. No one close to me had ever been pregnant. I lived in another country (England), and had no intention of sharing my pregnancy earlier than 12 weeks. So there I was. I was in outside sales so rarely in an office, and the majority of my friends and family were back in the States. It was almost an ideal situation in the aspect that I could conceal the pregnancy without making up lies. I had friends hide their pregnancies by saying they couldn’t drink because of medication, that they were still hungover from the night before, and I’ve definitely had my husband drink my alcoholic beverages down for me. Lying is never a great feeling, but, it’s what we think we need to do to avoid a high chance of a sad conversation down the road. I just lived my quiet, pretty isolated life in London, happy to be pregnant, but SO bloody scared. Baby number one is magical, but gosh your head fills with so many thoughts and so may questions about how your body and life are about to change.
The only person I told was my sister since she and I had travel plans together. She and a friend flew from the States, and I flew from London meeting them in Paris, and then a week later in Italy. In Paris, I didn’t feel pregnant. In Italy, I started to feel a little nauseous. I knew enough to expect that, and blamed a lot of it on excess sun, long drives from Florence through Tuscany down to Rome, and some narrow and windy roads. At the end of our trip, our luck and my body took a turn for the worst.
We stopped in a beach town called Santa Marinella to use the bathroom before we reached the final destination of our Italian road trip, Rome. We left our car on a busy side street, locked, with no luggage visible, grabbed a water in a cafe, used their bathrooms, and headed back to the car. In that fifteen minutes, someone had smashed our driver’s side window, popped open our trunk, and robbed us of all of our luggage. Work phones, computers, iPads, jewelry, clothes, souvenirs, books, toiletries, chargers, and our passports. Literally everything was in the trunk. We always use hotel safes, and are typically on high alert, but for this quick bathroom trip, we thought we would be okay with a locked car in daylight. We were wrong. We all had just small crossbody bags on us, with not much more than a cell phone, a credit card, and a driver’s license on each of us. I was wearing a blue beach dress that didn’t even include a bra. The police were useless.. The rental car company was useless. We drove with sunglasses on so the glass wouldn’t get into our eyes and arrived in Rome at dusk.
We had a depressing dinner full of phone calls trying to sort out flights and passports and insurance, borrowed some phone chargers, bought some toothbrushes and Italian prenatal vitamins because mine were in my suitcase, and had a miserable night in a bad hotel. The next morning, we all got our passports rather quickly from the American embassy. My sister and her friend were able to make it to on their flight out of Rome no problem. They dropped me off at the British embassy, and I expected to be headed to the airport not too far after them. Since I was going back to London, I needed a copy of the resident’s permit attached to my spousal visa. This is where I learned that unless you’re a British citizen, the U.K. government is in no rush to help you. The U.S. actually offers emergency visas for non-permanent residents, but the U.K. does not. What does this have to do with morning sickness? Well, I’m just setting the stage for where I was, and my headspace when things really started to ramp up for me physically.
I had to apply for a brand new resident’s permit. I was pregnant and alone in a foreign country with nothing but a cell phone, beach dress, credit card, toothbrush, and prenatal vitamins. The embassy could not give me a timeframe for my card to arrive, and I was applying ahead of a weekend and a random Italian holiday. I paid for expedited everything, but still had to wait indefinitely. My husband at the time was on a climbing trip. I had called him after the robbery wailing while he was precariously perched on part of the Matterhorn mountain in the Swiss Alps. He used what cell service he had to find me a comfortable hotel. I headed there for what would be a 12-day extension to my visit to Rome.
Normally, twelve days in Rome wouldn’t sound half bad, but this was right when my morning sickness was starting to kick in. There was nothing enjoyable or cultural happening. It was 90+ degrees, all I could smell was Italian food, urine, and diesel, and it took everything in me to leave each day to get supplies. I needed bras, underwear, a cell phone charger, books because all of the television was in Italian and I barely left my room though reading hurt my head, a bag since the plastic grocery bag was starting to get weak, all the necessities. Each morning I ate fruit and a Nutella packet from the buffet, laid in the dark for a few hours, forced myself to walk to the Hotel Hassler for a club sandwich since Italian food was now a trigger, bought a couple things, and headed back to bed for the rest of the day. I was on repeat until I got a call from the embassy. My husband was able to fly down to Italy from Matterhorn for one weekend to keep me company before he had to be back in London for work. We tried to have a good time at the Vatican because when in Rome, but I was miserable. So nauseous, so thirsty. Brushing my teeth made me vomit. And this dark, twelve day period was only just the tip of my morning sickness iceberg.
I landed back in London feeling depressed, weak, dirty, and oh, so tired. I had hoped that being back home with my things and my husband and my bed and my cats would sort of snap me out of it. It didn’t, as I was about to experience what I would classify as severe morning sickness. It was beyond nausea. Yes, everything made me feel sick, and, yes, I lost weight my first trimester. But it was such a full body experience. I basically lived off of frozen fruit since I needed the hydration just as much as the sustenance. I remember my mouth becoming raw from a bucket of acidic frozen pineapple, but it stopped the pain and that feeling you get just before vomiting. I’ve never had a migraine, but I’d imagine I felt something close to it during that period. I was paralyzed on my bed or the couch, and any journey to the freezer to get more fruit required pit stops on the floor. My head hurt, my eyes hurt. Moving my head a fraction to the right hurt. It was like the most severe hangover I’ve ever had that just wouldn’t end.
My husband felt for my suffering. One day, he sent flowers to our apartment, but when the doorbell rang, I just couldn’t move. I remember this day so vividly because it was the day I thought I just couldn’t handle pregnancy. After hours, I gathered the energy to walk down the stairs, pick up the delivery card, and find out where the delivery had been dropped. Luckily, they were accepted just a door over by a friendly neighbor. Hair greasy, hunched over and frail, pale, weak, and slow, I walked out my door and knocked on her’s. She answered like a vision from a fashion magazine. Hair and makeup done, amazing cocktail dress, and the highest heels. She was headed off to Italy that same hour to go get married in a lavish ceremony very reminiscent of George and Amal. I apologized for the interruption, she handed me my flowers, and I told her that I was pregnant and the flowers must be from my sweet husband.
She excitedly said, “Oh, me too!” She was already the mother to a teenager from a prior relationship, had a toddler, and now one on the way with the man she was marrying that very day. And, she was a pregnant goddess.
“How do you look so alive? I feel terrible,” I asked. And her response left me feeling completely inadequate.
“Oh, I feel awful, but I’m just keeping it together.”
You, see, as mentioned above. I didn’t have many data points. So those words really sat with me. I thought every woman felt this way and that I just couldn’t hang. Now, three pregnancies in and only one experience so severe, I can wholeheartedly say, she did not feel like me. And there was no keeping it together or hiding what was going on with me at that time. But, herein lies the problem: first trimester ailments–whether mentally or physically–are not as often talked about. I took to Google to look for something that made me feel seen. And, I found it. A story of a happily married woman that had an abortion because her morning sickness was so severe. To a lot of people, that story may sound messed up. But, during that time I was actually thinking a miscarriage wouldn’t be the end of the world, and that if I had one, I was convinced I wouldn’t want to try to get pregnant again. Those were heavy thoughts, and another woman’s heavy story was really, really comforting. A perfectly polished pregnant woman claiming she was just as sick but stiff upper-lipping it was not helpful.
A lot of other things said to me were not helpful, but they came after the morning sickness subsided. No one really knew my struggles but my husband, and he wasn’t feeling what I was feeling, and the whole idea of pregnancy and what goes along with it does not always come easy to partners. That neighbor was really the only additional person I told. We waited to tell our family in the States and my employer and coworkers until after that twelve-week mark.
My boss later told me it all made sense and he apologized when we did not have a pleasant meeting together. I only saw him once that trimester since I was an outside sales rep, and he was understandably irritated by my lack of communication the two weeks prior which had followed my extended and indefinite stay in Rome. None of it was ideal for an employer, and while I wanted him to understand that I was a sick, lonely, pregnant woman stranded in another country with nothing, since it was all a secret, all he saw was a girl with a credit card living her best life in Italy with no responsibilities. I was combative during our meeting since I was just so annoyed that I had to drive in gray and rainy English weather up an hour-and-a-half to a rest stop Starbucks for a cuppa that was over that day’s daily caffeine allowance.
Once the cat was out of the bag, all was forgiven, as I find people in the U.K. much more tolerant to pregnant women and parents, as a whole. When at the home office, I watched pregnant women say they weren’t feeling well and get to go home without their pay being docked. I also saw parents leave at all hours to pick their kids up from school, bring them to the dentist, whatever, and no one complained, talked about a lack of commitment in the workplace, or ever require someone to use PTO. It was pretty incredible.
So, while my boss connected the dots, a lot of other people were so far removed from me, living in another country and all, that I never felt understood. I felt like I suffered with something that no one would ever take seriously.
Everyone asks “So how are you feeling? How was your first trimester?” And you try to explain it, but you can’t. If you’re lucky, after your first trimester that chapter is behind you. There really is no need to drone on and on about how miserable you were so you say something like “I had really bad morning sickness, but feeling a lot better now.” And then you get a responses like “They should really call it ‘all day sickness’!” and then the conversation turns to if you think it’s a boy or a girl.
Occasionally though, you get the empathy you need from someone who has been there. You hear it in her voice, you see it in her eyes, and you just know. This was a road that she, too, had walked down. And, those little connections make you feel less alone. You learn that you weren’t weak or an unfit pregnant woman, it’s just that not all morning sickness is created equal.
I’m really lucky I didn’t have morning sickness to that extent with my second or third pregnancies. My second was very stereotypical. By that, I mean what you see in movies, or what you hear when chatting with other moms. It’s still not fun, and this is not meant to take away from anyone’s unique experience, but I definitely wasn’t bedridden or dreaming of miscarrying. My third pregnancy was a little more tough as it lasted into my second trimester, and I was extremely hungry at the same time as being so nauseous. My boy pregnancy had my brain and body being pulled in two very different directions. But, again, nothing compared to baby number one.
So, that’s my story, and take from it what you need. If you feel sick and weak and alone and inadequate, know that you’re not! Not many people speak in real time in the first trimester, but I promise you, so many others feel like you might right now. I also promise you that this will pass, and it doesn’t mean every pregnancy is doomed. If you’re not struggling right now, let this be a reminder to have compassion. Not everyone is having an easy go, and understanding goes a long way. And, don’t think you ever know how easy or hard someone had something when you weren’t around to see it, feel it, tend to it, or experience it. Every journey is so very different, all concerns and feelings are valid, and hopefully, we can get to a place where first trimester struggles aren’t bottled up, but instead heard and supported during the time moms need it most: when it’s all actually happening.