What if I told you that there was a health condition that can cause nausea, vomiting, dehydration, electrolyte imbalances, depression, malnutrition, kidney failure, gastrointestinal bleeding, and even death? This condition is extremely common, so we make jokes about it and even discourage people who have it from seeking medical care. The condition? Morning sickness. As someone who has had both morning sickness and a more severe condition called hyperemesis gravidarum, I think it's time to start taking morning sickness seriously.
According to the Mayo Clinic, most pregnant people will experience morning sickness — the common name for nausea and vomiting during pregnancy — which, despite its name, can occur all day long. It's so common that pretty much everyone has heard about it, and most pregnant women, including me, expect to throw up at least once during their first trimester of pregnancy. Most women like me do not, however, expect morning sickness to be so debilitating, and for their symptoms to be passed off as pregnancy fodder.
I mean, whenever someone gets pregnant in a movie they throw up a few times, experience what appears to be a bad hangover for a few days, and then they go on to have uneventful pregnancies until they deliver their always healthy babies. So when I was hit with morning sickness I had no idea it would make me feel like I had a bad case of food poisoning for weeks on end, or prevent me from eating most foods, gaining weight, and even making it to work some days. It impacted my life in so many ways, and I was completely caught off guard.
Worse, though, was how people minimized my illness, telling me it was "just" morning sickness and assuring me that it was a sign of a healthy pregnancy. I remember thinking that I felt decidedly not healthy in that moment, and someone saying "just" didn't magically diminish the debilitating nausea and vomiting I was being subjected to.
People didn't understand, though, so they offered up the same ineffective home remedies that have become the stereotypical "treatments" for morning sickness, including ginger ale, acupressure bands, and crackers. When my midwife recommended prescription medications, I was too scared to take them. After all, it was "just" morning sickness. I could "suck it up," right?
I love my kids, don't get me wrong but after that experience I will never get pregnant again.
No one told me that morning sickness can be serious, though. According to the Mayo Clinic's website, morning sickness can lead to dehydration, which can end up hurting the pregnant woman and the fetus. And if you're unable to get your morning sickness under control, the Hyperemesis Education and Research Foundation notes that you may actually have Hyperemesis Gravidarum (HG), which can be severe and have irreversible consequences.
Over the course of my next two pregnancies I learned, first-hand, what HG was like. I needed medications, IV fluids, and hospital stays to stay even somewhat functional, and well beyond my first trimester. Some days it was so bad I honestly wanted to die. I’m not alone, either. According to a study published in the British Journal of Midwifery people with severe morning sickness (about 30 percent of pregnant people) will have depression, thoughts of suicide, and even terminate their pregnancies as the result of their relentless symptoms. I love my kids, don't get me wrong but after that experience I will never get pregnant again.
So, why do we, as a culture, minimize a condition that impacts so many pregnant people’s lives in potentially serious ways? I expect that it has something to do with the way society systematically minimizes so-called "women's health" conditions. In large part, I expect the way we joke about and refuse care to women suffering from morning sickness is direct result of sexism. As Harvard Health reports, women, generally speaking, receive a lower standard of health care than men, have our pain and symptoms dismissed by health care providers, and even frequently get misdiagnosed for conditions that manifest differently in men.
When you are a suffering from a health condition directly related to your pregnancy, it can be hard to speak up and get the help or support you need without feeling like you're being judged or your ability to parent is being called into question.
When you consider that morning sickness almost exclusively impacts women, it's easy to see how gender bias might play a role in how we downplay its severity. I will never forget the male emergency room doctor who refused to give me IV fluids when I was dehydrated due to intense morning sickness, because I "should just have something to drink." I hadn't kept anything down in three days, and his choice to completely dismiss my symptoms or a specific course of treatment nearly broke me.
To compound this problem, our culture often expects moms to sacrifice everything for their kids — including their health. When you are a suffering from a health condition directly related to your pregnancy, it can be hard to speak up and get the help or support you need without feeling like you're being judged or your ability to parent is being called into question. You don't want people to think you are a bad mom, especially before you've had your baby.
Employers aren’t taking morning sickness seriously, either. On May 14, 2018, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) filed a class action lawsuit against AT&T Mobility on behalf of pregnant employees, including Katia Hills, a retail employee who was fired because she missed too much work due to her morning sickness and other pregnancy complications. Because they have a points-based attendance policy, a few days of trying to cope with nausea and vomiting can add up. The ACLU believes that their policy constitutes pregnancy discrimination, because it penalizes women for a pregnancy-related disability, and are fighting back as a result.
I think it's time we collectively start taking morning sickness seriously, and stop minimizing yet another women's health condition that can seriously impact lives.
As someone who had something similar happen during my last pregnancy, I can totally relate. My extreme nausea and vomiting during my last pregnancy made it impossible to work as a fitness instructor. My boss was understanding and supportive about me taking time off, but I found out that having to take time off early in my pregnancy would result in me having to quit my job when my baby was born, all due to an HR policy. It made me feel like I had to choose between having a healthy pregnancy and having a job; an unfair choice for any soon-to-be parent.
Like many women, I ultimately made it through my experiences with morning sickness and HG, but not without feeling totally diminished and defeated. I think it's time we collectively start taking morning sickness seriously, and stop minimizing yet another women's health condition that can seriously impact lives.
If you have severe morning sickness or HG, you don't have to suffer alone. Tell your health care provider, get treatment, and visit the Hyperemesis Education and Research Foundation for info and support.