Stop expecting women to suffer


I was chatting to a co-worker yesterday about morning sickness and hyperemesis. She’s had two kids and suffered with both of hers. She mentioned how she felt dismissed a lot of the time because the baby was healthy. This really struck a chord with me because I had very similar experiences. When I was at my worst with HG, I would often have conversations – with health care people and just people generally – that went something like this:

Me: I can’t eat, am losing weight, throwing up 24/7. I’m really suffering.
Them: Oh, but I’ve heard that severe morning sickness doesn’t affect the baby.

GREAT?! I mean obviously I’m really happy that HG hasn’t affected my baby. But, since becoming pregnant, I haven’t been reduced to just a vessel to house my baby. I’m still a fully functioning, adult human being and, when I was suffering, it was simply not enough to be told I should be grateful that my baby wasn’t.

To be clear: I would not have minded the comments if I had felt that the same level of care/concern was being given to me also. But I didn’t feel that way at all. I felt as though I should suck it up and stop being such a wimp. Why? Because of this idea that suffering from morning sickness is NATURAL.

I’m actually beginning to really dislike the word ‘natural’ when it comes to pregnancy. There are lots of things in this world that are natural but are also really shit. Cancer, viruses, tsunamis. That doesn’t mean we go “OH HEY THIS IS NATURAL, JUST DEAL WITH IT”. Yet this is what we do with extreme morning sickness. There are drugs that are totally safe to take for HG yet the stigma around pregnant women taking medication is still really pervasive (at my first attempt at getting medication, the comment “Have you not heard of thalidomide?” was dropped). The general consensus appears to be that women should just suffer through it because pregnancy is natural ergo everything related to pregnancy is natural, so JUST DEAL WITH IT, WHINING WOMEN. People get so (hypocritically) worked up about pregnant women doing anything that could potentially harm their unborn baby. But women have the right to not be harmed either. I have the right to be able to continue living my life without having to stop everything for two months of it so I can vomit constantly, be unable to eat or walk around and lose 10kg. “It usually only lasts till 12 weeks” is not a reasonable response. It shouldn’t be happening at all.

No one knows why morning sickness occurs. We should know why. More research is needed but it doesn’t happen because people are too shit scared of sounding like they don’t mind putting babies’ lives at risk. And, obviously, I’m not advocating that – but what I am advocating is remembering that, for every baby, there is a mother there too who needs support and has the right to not suffer. If you think I’m exaggerating then have a read of this report by Pregnancy Sickness Support and BPAS suggesting that around 15-20% of women with HG terminate their pregnancies. This is completely catastrophic. No woman should have to terminate a wanted pregnancy because they feel so unsupported and alone in their suffering that they cannot continue.

This mindset toward pregnant women affects everything, I’m just using HG as an example because it’s relevant to me right now. But what about giving birth? Or breastfeeding? Women are pressured to continue breastfeeding not matter what – even if they’re bleeding and in terrible pain and their babies are losing weight. Of course, breastfeeding is the best course of action (duh) but only if it’s working. If it’s not working then it should be completely acceptable to explore other options that DO work for mum and baby without mum being made to feel like she’s not putting baby first. And it’s up to each woman to decide what works and what doesn’t, and damn all the haters.

There needs to be a sea change in our approach to pregnancy as the pendulum has swung too far away from supporting women. There is something inherently, nastily sexist about this – as if women’s lives are more expendable and we should be expected to suffer more. If there was a condition that affected men as commonly as it did women (HG affects around 1-3% of pregnancies – that’s at least 10,000 women every year in the UK), there would be far, far more support in place. And no man would be made to feel guilty for simply not wanting to suffer. I’m not sure how to effect this change but it needs to happen yesterday.

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The importance of mental health (and not taking it for granted)

Moi! Happy!
Moi! Happy!

A couple of people on my online HG support group have recently been asking about mental health and how this can suffer when HG is at its worst. HG brought me as low as I think I’ve ever been in my life. It’s strange because, at the time, I don’t think I realised it. I just felt hopeless, miserable, listless and, worst of all, really useless. I felt like I was a burden on my entire family and that my poor husband of two months must have been regretting marrying me. Waking up in the morning was rubbish because it meant feeling listless, purposeless and unhappy all day only to fall asleep and do it all again the next day. Worst of all, despite the fact I was pregnant, I felt like there was absolutely nothing to look forward to because everything seemed too difficult and awful.

It’s quite scary to look back now and reflect on my mental health at this time, because I’ve never felt that low or devoid of purpose before. I felt as though nothing in the world could bring me pleasure, and that’s a really dark, sad place to be. But, there was another part of my brain that, somehow, seemed to believe that this was because of the HG – and that no matter how awful I felt, it wouldn’t be forever. Once I started to feel better, slowly the cloud started to lift.

On Friday, I went out for a couple of (non alcoholic) drinks with my husband and it was wonderful. We went to Skylon on the Southbank and I enjoyed the views and soaked in the atmosphere of all these busy, working people getting on with their lives in a way that I hadn’t been able to for the past couple of months. I enjoyed it; I remembered what it was to take pleasure in experiences, in seeing people, in contented moments.

On Saturday, Mr Bug made breakfast and we sat enjoying the sunshine from the window. We watched the Rugby World Cup Final and I cheered on the All Blacks. On Sunday, we drove to see my brother and his wife and had an amazing roast dinner at The Three Compasses. There was lots of laughter, silliness and I even managed a sublimely gorgeous gluten free brownie for dessert. Last night, I put some candles on and we sat on the sofa to watch a couple of episodes of Homeland (Season 4 is awesome!) and Downton Abbey.

I enjoyed every moment of this weekend. I wanted to get out of bed, I wanted to see my family and hang out, and I even enjoyed watching the rugby(!).

I don’t want to come across as trite or cliched but this experience has given me a new found respect for the importance of mental health and, also, for those who suffer with mental health issues and keep going. I’m not sure I would describe myself as depressed during HG but, looking back, how I felt was frightening. I don’t know how you feel like that and keep putting one foot in front of the other; keep DOING things when you don’t want to do anything at all. I’ve read a few blog posts recently about people’s struggles with PND and similar. Struggling through that is actually kick-ass because it must feel impossible when your own mind is against you.

For me, I’m glad that I’ve re-discovered pleasure in life. The memory of feeling so awful is slowly fading and I’m getting back out there, especially as the HG continues to lift. I will never take my enjoyment of things for granted again.

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What’s Hyperemesis Gravidarum like? Part 3

What made HG a million times worse was the lack of support from GPs and nurses that I came across at the start. I’ve since met a GP who took HG, and me, seriously but I know from other HG sufferers that unsympathetic healthcare practitioners are more common than they should be. My first GP signed me off but kept saying “Morning sickness is hard”. This was not morning sickness and the majority of pregnancy women thankfully do not have to go through this. But for the ones that do, a little more understanding is needed.

There is medication HG sufferers can take – most to either help the nausea, vomiting or both. But, like EVERYTHING you do as a pregnant woman, the whole world will have an opinion on it and condemn you somehow. I had begun to take medication at 8 weeks until my symptoms worsened and I found myself at my healthcare centre talking to a nurse who was VERY disapproving of medication during pregnancy and asked me if I had ever heard of thalidomide. Frightened out of my wits that I was going to have a two-headed baby, I stopped the medication and didn’t try any again until I met a much more sensible GP when I was 14 weeks. Unfortunately, this meant that during the worst period of HG, I wasn’t on medication that could have helped me.

My lifeline during HG was found online. In particular, I found a very active thread on mumsnet for women suffering from HG. I went from feeling like the only person in the world suffering like this to realising there were lots of us. And there is strength in numbers. During my darkest days, it was a comfort to know that other people understood and had been through this. I wasn’t alone. Realising this gave me strength when I most needed it and, to all of those women, I can’t thank you enough. They are one of the reasons why I am blogging about this now – I don’t want anyone else to feel alone and isolated with HG. That’s not fun and it’s not necessary. You are part of a group of awesome fighters. Welcome.

For more posts on my experience with HG, check out my Hyperemesis Gravidarum tag. Thanks for reading!

What’s Hyperemesis Gravidarum like? Part 2

As I mentioned in my last post, I wanted to shed some light into what having HG is actually like, as I’ve noticed a lot of confusion and misunderstanding about the condition. Everyone’s experience of it is individual and I’d love to hear from some fellow sufferers too. The below are my key takeaways.

  • HG is like having the worst hangover in your life coupled with food poisoning. But it never stops, it just goes on and on and no matter how many times you throw up, the nausea doesn’t go away and you never feel better.
  • HG is hugely, horrendously isolating. At my worst, all I could do was lie in my bed because moving, talking, watching TV made me vomit. I couldn’t tell my friends because I was so early in my pregnancy (although with close friends, I had to) and I couldn’t go to work. I didn’t leave the house for about 6 weeks except to go to the hospital/GP. I had no social life, no work life, basically no life and the only people I saw were my wonderful family who kept me sane.
  • The vomiting is crap. Crap is an understatement. The worst are the days when you’re SO exhausted that getting to the bathroom – dizzy, ill, knackered – seems like a mission to Mars and, once you’re there, your stomach heaves with nothing but bile and you can’t hold your head up because it’s too heavy. Vom in hair is gross, trust me.
  • The nausea is also debilitating because, on the days when I wasn’t vomiting as much, the sickness was so bad that I physically couldn’t push food past my throat. I was STARVING but everything made me retch.
  • Not eating and drinking properly means I was exhausted. I couldn’t stand up or walk around on my own because I was so dizzy and weak.
  • My relationship with food became a total nightmare. Every day was a challenge of trying to figure out either (1) what food I was likely to keep down or (2) what I wouldn’t mind throwing up again. I would wake up in the morning and feel a sickening sense of dread that, today, the whole cycle of drama would repeat itself again.

It’s a nightmare. It does, slowly, get better but those weeks when the symptoms are bad are a constant battle of endurance and, also, mental strength. I was very lucky in that my Mum, who lives abroad, stayed and looked after me throughout the worst of it. Between her and my husband, I had people to keep me company, a real lifeline when you have HG.

Today, I am 15+6. The nausea is bad today but I haven’t thrown up for a couple of days. Take that, HG.

What’s Hyperemesis Gravidarum like?

I’m not going to lie, writing about my experience with Hyperemesis Gravidarum is tough. However, I think it’s important to write about because it’s more common than I think we realise. My main aim for doing this (and setting up this blog) is to let other women know that pregnancy can be really hard, and that that’s OKAY. I’ve had lots of well-meaning comments about how sad it is that I can’t ‘enjoy’ my pregnancy and that I should be ‘blooming’. Not only did I feel awful because I had HG but I also felt like I was Doing Pregnancy Wrong. I wasn’t. Millions of other women aren’t, either. It’s just, sometimes, pregnancy can be really, really hard and women who get through it are superstars. That’s it.

It’s difficult for people who haven’t been through HG to understand what it’s like. What I can say, at nearly 16 weeks pregnant, is that the last 10 weeks of my life have been THE hardest, most difficult thing I’ve ever been through. In context, I’m quite a healthy person; I have never been in hospital, never broken any bones. The worst illness I can remember having was tonsillitis. So, this was my first experience with a condition that was truly debilitating and truly, in my view, life-altering.

My HG symptoms started at 6 weeks, with severe nausea, while on honeymoon in the Maldives. Instead of swimming with dolphins and chilling out on sunloungers drinking (non-alcoholic) cocktails, I spent the majority of the time lying in bed unable to move. It wasn’t quite how I’d pictured it but, hey, that’s what HG does. The nausea was severe enough that I was limited to eating only a few things: bread, water, clear soups, etc.

At 8 weeks, the vomiting began properly. I spent hours, days in bed not moving because, if I did, I would throw up. I lost about 8 kgs and became so weak and listless that getting from my bed to the sofa was the most effort I could manage in a day. I was dizzy all the time and dehydrated because keeping liquids down was difficult. The days varied from moderate – when I’d throw up a couple of times – to bad – when I’d vomit everything up.

At 14 weeks, the vomiting began to lessen. I’m now nearly 16 weeks and am vomiting maybe once every couple of days. The nausea hasn’t gone anywhere, it’s constant from the moment I wake up to the moment I sleep, although the level of nausea goes up and down during the day. I still have to watch what I eat but I can eat a lot more than just bread and water now. I have left the house to see family and go shopping but I have to be careful as pushing myself too far can exarcebate the HG and make it worse again – my biggest nightmare. I’ve been off work for 10 weeks.

My HG isn’t as severe as others have experienced it. I had ‘better’ days when I could keep things down and I managed to avoid being hospitalised. But, even so, the impact it has had on my life has been profound. If you have or are suffering, then please know it’s not your fault, there’s nothing you can do and you should not feel guilty. All you have to do is get through it and, if you do, you’re awesome and I salute you.