The tenth week of my pregnancy was my seventh week of morning sickness, and by that point my children had watched such a mind-numbing amount of television, I felt something had to be done. I was not yet equipped to care for them without the assistance of Netflix, but I wanted to at least up the level of culture and artistry. Curious George needed to advance to something a little more Sundance. I turned on the documentary, Planet Earth.
My children learned something about Antarctica, hopefully; I can’t be sure. I was transfixed by the male Emperor Penguins. They are given the task of becoming a living nest for their eggs. These incredible creatures must create a shelter for their offspring by balancing their eggs on their feet, then covering the eggs with a layer of their skin. Father-to-be penguins must survive like this for months, without food, in what has been described simply as the worst weather conditions on our planet (we’re talking about windchill as cold as -76F, and blizzards raging at 124 mph). All I could think as I watched them shiver in the unimaginable cold, their heads down, resigned and focused, their bodies close because it is their only defense against the merciless weather -- was, trade you.
This is when I knew I was at my sickest.
My last pregnancy saw me in the same shape. I was sick from about week 7 to week 14, so I saw this coming as soon as that faint second line appeared. Still, my husband and I spent the months before I became pregnant praying against morning sickness. I spent the months before I became pregnant Googling against morning sickness because I am weak and this is what I do. I was registered for a writing conference out of state that would fall during what could be the start of the roughest period of nausea, and I was desperate to know I might dodge illness this time. There were moms online who reported feeling sick in their first pregnancies with no symptoms in subsequent pregnancies, but they were few.
I got sick. We traveled to the conference, my husband acting as enthusiastic coach and parent of three (we have two kids). I experienced a break in the clouds while we were away. I walked from the university to a coffee shop, I ate meals with other attendees, I lived like a human. The day we headed home I turned back into a pumpkin. I threw up in a rental car, moaned through most of Nevada, and crawled to the couch as soon as we hit the driveway. I didn’t resurface for over a month.
As my sickness increased, so did my interest in psychological thrillers, both in fiction novels and films. I'd never cared much for the genre before but suddenly I couldn’t get enough. Give me all the family secrets and double lives you can cook up. Psychological thrillers, I learn, turn best on an unreliable narrator. My interest now makes great sense to me. Is that not what I've become in this family? An unreliable mother? What are mothers to small children if not the narrator of the world? I can no longer be trusted though. One day I kneel to fix my son’s shoe and he points to the couch and says, “No, you go back there, dad will be home soon.” No one believes I can do anything because I've shown this to be true.
My toddler’s diaper is fresh, my son has on warm clothes, both their bellies are full. In my emptiness this is all I can offer them. To my husband I offer nothing. As soon as I hear the rustle of his key on the door I lurch to my place on the couch. I cover myself with blankets and I recline. He takes over. I eat dry cheerios and try not to weep. I gag over the sink. I leave the room when he microwaves his leftovers, the smell forces me out. One night, nine weeks in, he tells me the hardest part has been not touching me. I don't mean sex, he says, I mean just touching you at all. He's right. I am untouchable in the worst way. That night in bed I reach for his arm and bring it to my body. He rests his hand on my left shoulder but I move it to my stomach. It hurts most there.
One day a few weeks after my first miscarriage I stayed home from work and sat in the floor in the middle of the house and searched the internet for celebrity miscarriage stories. I think I was afraid to go out, to face my brand new coworkers and brand new clients who all (ALL, unfortunately) were told of my misfortune because of the surgery that took me out of commission for a week. I didn’t know how to hug so many strangers or fake smile for so many greetings, or say thank you one more time. So I sought women who had it even worse than me. I was dreading conference calls and meetings over coffee. I fortified myself with women who faced red carpets, press junkets, the release of a summer blockbuster.
In this situation though, this Knock Out by morning sickness, I craved familiarity. I was desperate to know I would get better, that I would bring food to my lips again, that I would live a life off the black couch that now bore a permanent imprint of my shriveling body.
But I don’t know a whole lot of women in my real life that have been hit so hard. So I went back to the town square of the planet, the internet, and hunted for personal blogs of everyday moms who’d been through this. I didn’t trust celebrities. Not with their access to personal chefs, and home visits from acupuncture therapists, personal assistants who could keep their lives running while they vomited for a few months. Nope. I wanted moms in California like me who battled soaring temps while feeling sea sick. I wanted to know how regular moms in New York City navigated urban life while feeling so crummy. Are there good places to barf in Central Park? How about Nebraska? I had to find out.
After about the twenty-fifth blog I admitted the truth. I was looking for an answer. For a cure. I didn’t trust Hollywood to provide an answer I could access or afford. I put my faith in moms closer to my tax bracket and lifestyle to lift this burden from me.
None of them could. Through their writing about toddlers watching too much Dora and Doc McStuffins, leaving the room during dinner, throwing up in the drive thru at Chik-Fil-A, the message became clear. Some said to drink kombucha, some said to get an IV. No one said they found an answer. They found some relief at best, but no cure existed. I had to do this. I had to walk through this. Help was not on the way.
But then, through sheer accident, I stumbled upon a little pill with a plan. Have you ever heard of a mom named Kim Kardashian?
People throw a lot of shade at Mrs. West for being fake, scripted, surgeried, photoshopped, and out of touch with reality while on a reality show, but I beg to differ. I think the real beef people have with Kim K is her unabashed honesty. We know a whole lot about Kim, a whole lot about her body, her family dynamics, her wedding, her interest in fashion, and where she got a smoothie today in Malibu, and not just with thanks to the paparazzi. For better or worse, Kim chooses to share a lot of her life publicly. And one area where she has been consistent in her honesty policy is her pregnancies. I didn’t want to hear how millionaire stars dealt with morning sickness but then Instagram recommended a picture for me of Kim holding a little white pill (recommended I am sure because I had searched #morningsickness every day looking for a breakthrough). I couldn’t help but listen to what she had to say.
Kim Kardashian is a celebrity ambassador for the prescription drug Diclegis, a prescription medication used to treat nausea and vomiting in pregnant women. I called my doctor that very day and asked first for her opinion, and then a prescription.
That still takes me aback. I am half-horrified, half-humored. Me, the firmly no-drugs-during-pregnancy type. Me, the person who would probably put a Band-Aid on a shark bite if it meant not being given pain pills or antibiotics while pregnant. The person who follows all the rules, who sticks the Off Limits Food list to her fridge and wonders if my prenatal vitamin actually does have enough iron. Me. I started taking a pill because Kim Kardashian said it worked for her.
It didn’t work for me. Not really. The first day on the drug I woke up looking like a jet lagged Kurt Cobain. I felt bone deep exhaustion, light-headed, and still nauseated. Three weeks on Diclegis, the miracle drug everyday moms and celebrity moms alike endorsed, it was doing nothing for me. I still felt sick. I still got sick. I still ate so many heaps of ice chips I finally cracked a tooth.
There is a bottle of Diclegis with my name on it resting on a shelf at the pharmacy. I never picked up the refill my doctor prescribed. I pulled my blanket over my head, rubbed my aching tooth, and dreamed of Antarctica.
I threw up at an airport and I threw up in a van. I threw up in a single stall bathroom at my favorite restaurant after eating all of nothing. I didn’t want to go, to ruin my favorite place with my illness, but my husband’s hospital planned a welcome dinner there, and as the new Fellow he was one of two guests of honor and I thought I would be okay if I just sat very still and sipped water. I ended up being awkwardly absent for a good chunk of the evening and puking so loudly the line outside the bathroom cleared. I threw up in grocery bags and a couple of times in the shower. My kids watched me throw up in the sink. I had lost 13 pounds when I stopped weighing myself. I could not keep my pants up. In the final breaths of a hot, hot southern California summer, I trembled with chills under the heaviest blanket we own. I missed my son’s music class week after week. I found a YouTube video of Susan Sarandon reading Goodnight Moon, my daughter’s favorite, because I was too sick to read. She now prefers Susan’s rendition to mine and I am forced to imitate. On a good day I was well enough to do some light cleaning and I started by wiping the cracker crumbs from the couch where I’d made camp. I noticed two small holes, like snake bites. I brought my face nearer to the dark leather and saw there was not in fact any puncture, but instead wear. Worn spots. I wore the leather off our couch in two distinct places. My head spun. That’s a lot of time on the couch.
I am not asking for pity. I am not asking for empathy. I feel acutely aware of all the women who would trade places with me, who would do better than me at cherishing the gift of pregnancy no matter the cost. I prayed for this child, and I puked for this child, and if you are wanting to tell me suck it up Buttercup, well you’ll have to wait for me to finish telling myself.
What I’d really like is some applause. Not for me. There is no reward for bare minimum and I lived just shy of that mark. No, when I review just how sick and frail I became I don’t want special recognition. I want a cheeseburger and onion rings. But I think of my husband, who carried this family through. I can’t overemphasize the amount of nothing I did for nearly three months. I did not clean a dish, sweep a floor, or promptly respond to a text. I did not write one sentence. I did not do one load of laundry. I folded nothing. I did not drive. I did not get the mail. I gave not one bath, and the number of meals I served to my kids has to be under 20 because my husband did his best to come home for lunch in order to get food in front of them. Short of stuffing my feet into fuzzy pajamas along with theirs, this man did everything possible for me and our children.
People think I’m bragging maybe. That I am saying the predictable, precious thing. It’s not that. It’s this: I won’t always remember in such agonizing detail how miserable I felt. But I’ll never forget how much the man I married did for our family.
I am driving again, at last. The day is clear and cool and people have pumpkins by their front doors. I don’t feel great, but I am myself at least. My children sing in their car seats behind me and out of the blue I think of Psalm 139. Starting in verse 13 it reads: For you formed my inward parts; you knitted me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; my soul knows it very well. My frame was not hidden from you, when I was being made in secret, intricately woven in the depths of the earth.
Does that mean I have spent the last weeks closer to the hands of God? There is no known cause of morning sickness. Some people blame hormones, some say it’s instinctual aversion to harmful foods, new research suggests the culprit may be the bacteria helicobacter pylori. But I wonder now, as I drive my singing children on a clear day, might it be the brush with the divine? Men have fallen at the sight of angels; encounters with God are marked by the words do not be afraid. So if God is knitting a life inside my body, should I not feel something? If the maker of the universe has made within me one human soul, should I not be shaken?
I pull up to a red light. The smell of the food sitting next to me does not make me want to retch. Now that I am at the top of this brutal climb, I’m left with a question I cannot answer. Not yet.
Do I have the fortitude to be shaken like this ever again?