What Hyperemesis Says About You: A Reflection on Hyperemesis and Society

I received permission from the author of that article I mentioned back in my “Add physical Pain to the Mix” Post, to share her words.

She is currently working to add research and cites into the article as well as translating it into Germany. She comes to us from Austria!

Her words very eloquently provide a glimpse into why HG women are perceived, treated and disregarded. I think it’s a great read, raises a great issue and is throughly thought-provoking.

What Hyperemesis Says About You: A Reflection on Hyperemesis and Society

By: Nicole Forbes Wagner
I know what hyperemesis means to mothers who suffer from it. After struggling through one pregnancy (of which my son was born nine weeks early) and currently struggling through my second pregnancy (of which my soon-to-be daughter is due anytime now), I am well aware of just how devastating and difficult an illness it is for mothers. I also know about how hard it is on husbands, partners, siblings and families and how much they suffer alongside us. The rarity of the condition, juxtaposed with the commonness of morning sickness, makes it hard for others to understand just how awful it really is. We mothers and families come to terms with it and learn to cope however we can. In any case, we know what hyperemesis means for us.

Chances are that you will not have hyperemesis or even know someone who does. Nonetheless, hyperemesis is a condition that reflects quite strongly on how society feels about women, pregnancy and motherhood. Throughout my fight with hyperemesis I have been awed, astounded and ashamed at friends and families’ reactions to the illness. While many sufferers will tell you of amazingly supportive husbands and families, most sufferers also share their stories of being “crackered” Although often well-meaning and without malice, it is constantly surprising to me the number of individuals whose comments make me cringe. Upon further research and investigation, I have noticed that these comments tend to reflect not on me as an individual but more on my role as a pregnant woman and mother in society. Just as hyperemesis can challenge a woman to overcome, I challenge society to reflect on how to overcome the following underlying beliefs about women, pregnancy and motherhood.

Belief Number One: Being skinny, even in pregnancy, is desirable and should be valued no matter the cost.
“Oh, but you are sooo skinny!” exclaims a colleague when hearing of my condition. After losing 15% of my body weight in 12 weeks due to constant and gut-wrenching nausea and vomiting, this is the kind of comment I consistently heard. It amazed me that while I threw up blood and could not remember the last time I held down even the slightest bit of food, most women seemed actually envious of my condition. I could not expect any sympathy but rather, I watched as most women stared with green eyes and gave me the look like I should be grateful for it. We live in a society where being skinny is so desirable that even while trying to grow another human being, skinniness is preferred. As my pregnancies developed and I battled to keep myself and my baby healthy, I was “comforted” by those around me with the constant reminder about how little I was and how small my belly was. As if the fact that I could not gain weight should make it alright that I do not remember what it feels like to not be sick. As if a healthy pregnancy is not something I should want if it can mean that I lose those nagging pounds. As if it was ridiculous to want to get better if it meant that I would gain weight.

“Well at least you will not have to worry about losing that baby weight!” laughs a friend who without realizing it, reveals just how absurd we are about weight in society. Ironically, most women who have hyperemesis have to go out of their way to prove that they do not have an eating disorder. During one of my hospitalizations during my first pregnancy, I remember pouring my heart out to a psychologist called in with whom after speaking with me, actually apologized to me for having been made me speak to her in the first place. When medical knowledge fails to explain the reason for morning sickness to such an extreme, naturally it falls to the psychological as we women must just be nervous about pregnancy and of course, the weight gain that comes with it. Sadly, as long as we continue to value skinniness over healthiness, hyperemesis will continue to be overlooked and under-treated for thousands of women around the world. We cannot let be okay for women to suffer like this in pregnancy simply because it translates to looking better in the eyes of society.

Belief Number Two: Pregnancy is an absolute miracle that can only be treasured and enjoyed.
While the value of skinniness goes a ways in explaining why hyperemesis goes so ignored, it does not fulfill the picture. Part of what drives the lack of treatment and care is the belief in the absolute miracle and beauty of pregnancy. I do not, for an instance, believe that pregnancy is not a miracle. On the contrast, most women with hyperemesis (especially those of us willing to go through it for multiple pregnancies) are well-aware of the miracle that is growing a life. I am awed at every ultrasound and amazed that despite my complete starvation, my baby continues to thrive and grow each day. It is an absolute miracle. However, this miracle does not have to mean that I must love the suffering and devastation that it causes to my own personal health. I do not have to treasure that I am sick over ten times a day. I do not have to enjoy the loss of enamel to my teeth and the loss of my normal life because I am so sick. I do not treasure the fact that my son now makes puking noises each time I head to the bathroom and tries to slam the toilet lid on my head as I get sick because he wants his mama to play with him.

Yet so many people, even those within the medical community, seem appalled when I mention that I am not happy with my pregnancy. Now on nine months of being sick every day, I get scowling and dirty looks when I mention that I do not want to name the baby because I feel like it would be like trying to name food poisoning. I cannot count the number of times that I have been told that I should be bonding with the baby and the creeping feeling of guilt rushes over me as I realize that I simply cannot. So on top of feeling physically awful, most women with hyperemesis are made to feel psychologically inferior for not being happy with the fact that we are truly ill. Would we tell a cancer patient that they should name their tumors and bond with their nausea? When we deny women with hyperemesis the right to even feel bad about being ill, we deny them the right to feel as though they deserve to get better. If we can acknowledge that pregnancy is a miracle while also acknowledging that it can be harrowing for some women, we can begin to find ways as a society to help cure hyperemesis. Until then, our belief in the pure positiveness of pregnancy serves to lead some women with the condition to go untreated, even occasionally resulting in their deaths.

Belief Number Three: Motherhood is suffering and women must suffer in order to be a mother.
“You know, women used to die in childbirth all the time and still do in third world countries.” After all, what is motherhood but suffering. From the pregnancy to the childbirth to the years of sacrifice, motherhood in our society means that women need to suffer in order to enjoy their natural gift of growing life. We do not, however, expect such sacrifice of the men in our society when they become fathers. On the contrast, we are told that we should be grateful if we have an active and caring father-figure for the children that we so painfully produced. For most women, the expectation is that pregnancy, childbirth and motherhood must equate to sacrifice and a good dose of pain. When that good dose of pain is a whole lot more, however, it is just added to the list of things that mothers must go through in order to produce life. After all, why should I feel bad if it means that I will get to hold a baby in nine months?

It astonishes me how often people comment on how I should not mind being horribly ill as long as the baby is okay. During both my pregnancies fighting with hyperemesis has also meant fighting with doctors to treat not only the baby, but also the mother. In general, as long as the baby continues to thrive most doctors saw my condition as inconvenient and irrelevant unless it threatened the life of the baby. Since the human body is made to tolerate a great deal of suffering when it comes to continuation of our species, such threats are rare. The fact remains though that many women with hyperemesis have lost babies as a result of their illness, especially since it tends to go untreated or undiagnosed. Some women lose their lives in the battle as well. Nonetheless, hyperemesis is regarded as a small and insignificant problem when it comes to the gain of a life. While I am willing to accept some suffering in order to produce a baby (though a painless childbirth sounds terrific!), I am not willing to accept the lack the treatment for women suffering with hyperemesis simply because a baby is the end result. Motherhood should never have to mean months of starvation, sickness and/or death, no matter how common it tragically is for women around the world.

These three beliefs are my reflections on how society views women, pregnancy and motherhood. Keep in mind that they are just that- beliefs- and you do not have to necessarily agree with them. I write these because I have faced, and read of many others around the world who have also faced, the realities of hyperemesis and the challenges it presents. I wholeheartedly believe we can find a way to put an end to hyperemesis. I believe that if we are able to see past these misconceptions about women, pregnancy and motherhood we will be able to have both healthy mothers and children. Ultimately, I believe that when we accept hyperemesis for what really is and treat it accordingly, we can put an end to needless suffering. I believe we mothers deserve it and call on you to reflect about how to stop hyperemesis from robbing another mother of the chance for a happy and healthy pregnancy.

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4 Responses to What Hyperemesis Says About You: A Reflection on Hyperemesis and Society

  1. Diana says:

    Nice thoughts! 🙂

    Not sure if this fits in with your overall theme, but I would add #4: “Hyperemesis is no big deal. Get over it.” This, of course, is just because most women have some form of morning sickness, so when they hear of hyperemesis, they just think “Oh, it’s just morning sickness that’s a little worse than mine…. so big deal. Get over yourself.” That’s where a lot of hurtful comments come from:

    – Go for a walk, get some fresh air (worked for me, so it will work for you).
    – Stop thinking about yourself.
    – I didn’t complain so much when I had morning sickness – you’re just a big baby. Stop complaining.

    Etc. etc. etc. It’s hard to conceptualize hyperemesis when one has only experienced HG, so the overall societal response is “It’s no big deal.”

    Thank you for writing!

  2. Ashli says:

    Oh the comments are so flabbergastingly offensive as to eventually become ultimate hilarity. But only in a driven-so-utterly-insane-by-the-cruelty-and-injustice-that-I-am-now-cackling-like-a-mad-woman way.

  3. Ashli says:

    Saw a bumpersticker today that said “Birth control is for sissies.” Umm, yeah…”sissies” and people who sustain about a year’s worth of what can be a life-threatening illness related to pregnancy! LOL! The sticker was created by a woman with 8 children who is tired of others making offensive and cruel statements to her about her choice to have 8 children. So it was a tit for tat thing.
    We can come up with zingers or we can support one another and regard outrageous comments as unpleasant occurrences that serve to make us more compassionate.

  4. Rose says:

    Clearly this is intended for those who don’t already know about it, but if you need more information about hyperemesis, as a survivor with family and friends who needed this site badly, please visit

    http://www.helpher.org

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