One of my sisters had described first trimester sickness as such: Imagine drinking a bottle of vodka and then boarding a transatlantic flight. On the plane, you drink two bottles of red wine and do not sleep, eat, or consume water. Upon arrival eight hours later, you learn that your luggage is lost and you’ll have to wait in the stuffy baggage claim for an indefinite amount of time. That moment, standing around with severe jet lag and an otherworldly hangover, is morning sickness. And it lasts for at least 14 weeks. And there’s not exciting trip to Europe on the other end. Not even a “but it’s Euuurrrroppppe!” cigarette.
My mother and two sisters had punishing morning sickness for all of their pregnancies. In our family, pregnancy announcements are not exclamations of joy, but pleads for someone (anyone) to put the expectant out of her misery. I knew I’d be in for a doozy, but luckily I had my green-faced sisterhood to help guide me in how best to throw up in public (potted plants).
At five weeks pregnant, I traveled from icy, sleety Nashville to sunny, perfect California for a two week solo vacation to visit family and friends. I really wanted to keep the pregnancy a secret. Five weeks is very, very early and risky. You can’t even take a pregnancy test until four weeks, which means that you were already two weeks pregnant at the time you conceived. The fetus is also two weeks pregnant at the moment of conception. And now that you have read this, you, too, are now two weeks pregnant.
My plan was to fool all my friends and pretend that I was on some post-holiday January detox from booze and caffeine. Honestly, no true friend of mine would ever believe that line, but you never know – friends can be real dumbasses!
As soon as I landed, I started to feel off. I could smell the airport Starbucks 100 yards away, and it was gross. I had a headache and sharp stomach cramps. My gum tasted like butt. As I waited in baggage claim, I was reminded of my sister’s description of the transatlantic flight. I was F’ed.
I also quickly realized that the ever-presence of nausea left little energy for anything else, like common courtesy and vocal noises that weren’t just really long moans. Needless to say, I spent my vacation kinda being a dick:
I threw up after five minutes in Muir Woods and blamed it on my friend’s driving. So many wild turns! I waved off a cup of expensive single- press coffee that was lovingly brewed by my hostess. Ugh, so trendy! I wrapped myself in a fleece blanket, spread out on a couch, and fell asleep (while groaning) in the middle of a 30-person Super Bowl party. I think I had a bad Sprite, guys. I threw up in everyone’s showers and openly complained about the quality of their air mattresses. I told a wonderful couple that their living room was so cold during the night that I felt like Jack at the end of Titanic except that he was lucky because he got to die. (A simple “good morning!” would have sufficed). I ate my all my friend’s daughter’s prepared meals because kid food made me feel like a non-pregnant kid again. I was a guest on a terrific comedy podcast in LA and spent the whole time being hilariously silent. I rejected a slice of raw goats’ milk cheese (a pregnancy no-no) at an Oakland farmer’s market because, ew, I don’t eat raw food. I’m not sure what that statement even means, but my dear friend – who has seen me eat every kind of cheese under the sun for the past 10 years – didn’t question it because she is a respectful person who didn’t have the fury of a thousand thumbtacks brewing in her loins.
In retrospect, I should have just told everyone what was up, requested discretion, and demanded they leave me alone while I lay on the sweet cool tiles of their bathroom floors. Some friends straight up guessed that I was pregnant while others just thought I had a case of the January Crankies. A friend would later admit that he thought I was in a state of severe depression/anxiety and wasn’t drinking because of all the meds I was presumably taking. I ended up telling one of my sisters in person because she said I looked like a ghost who had died. Then she said something that I actually found offensive: Apparently, the sickness doesn’t even ramp up until eight weeks. I had barely scratched the surface of what was to come. I left California physically repulsed by its beauty and warmth. I trashed the lovely sweater I wore during the trip because its smell reminded me of a time when I was reminded of a thing that made me vomit.
Back in the privacy of my own home in Nashville, I let the sickness overcome me. I was not working, which ended up being a huge blessing. I couldn’t enter the kitchen because of gag-worthy smells. Nate brought home pony kegs of salty Matzoh Ball soup from Noshville. The tattered sprigs of parsley floating in the broth were the only green vegetable I consumed for 14 weeks. I devoured packs and packs of Unisom, an over-the-counter anti-nausea medicine that made people really drowzy (or dead, I can’t remember) so they rebranded as a sleep aid. I got a prescription for Zofran, a medication that chemo patients sometimes take to combat nausea. I stopped brushing my teeth because my dentist warned that brushing after vomiting would spread the acid and strip the enamel off my teeth. I didn’t floss because I’ve always been too cool for that nonsense. I threw up into my lap while driving to CVS to get more Unisom. My doctor told me that any calories I could keep down were good, even if they came exclusively from fried chicken skins, melted butter with salt, and Twix bars. They did.
If anyone was suffering more than I was, it was my beloved husband. The sickness wore on for at least eight more weeks, during which time he wrapped me in blankets, kept our house spotless (any stray hair on the floor would send me retching), and held my hand as I navigated my way, slowly, back into the loving fold of Chipotle. He also had the very difficult task of making up excuses for my absence to our group of close friends, whom he saw every day at business school. He ended up defaulting to “Julia’s not feeling well” each time, which is a great deflection in the moment, but using it every day for two months was cause for serious alarm. A friend told me she was secretly furious at Nate for being so casual about his wife’s eternal mystery illness and contemplated rescuing me from the house where surely he was holding me hostage. I knew something was deathly wrong when Julia never showed up to the free school-sponsored happy hour at 3:00pm on a Tuesday…
At around 14 weeks of pregnancy, my symptoms began to subside and I slowly re-entered the bright and shiny world of combed hair and mouthwash. It was grueling but I got through it. In fact, I found scientific research that concluded that babies whose mothers had severe morning sickness scored higher on cognitive tests later in life. Something about reduced caloric intake, or, maybe just a team of researchers gathered in a room and said “Oof. Let’s just make up some findings to give these pukey women a reason to live.”
But you know what? I had it bad, but I wasn’t even CLOSE to Hyperemesis Gravidarum, the chronic barfing affliction that hospitalized Kate Middleton… twice! I usually do not pity princesses, but good Lord I would never trade places with her. Not even for a million Jenny Packham gowns and perfect hair. The Duchess will probably never speak publicly about her experience, BUT THIS WOMAN DID!
Not sure how women manage this for second or third pregnancies. Sickness is my #1 consideration for having another baby, because the next time around I will not have the luxury of resting my head on the toilet seat for as long as I please. Any recommended coping strategies?!