It’s getting humid and hot in Iowa. Every summer since 2007, I go through my own twisted version of Proust’s Madeleine moment when I step outside into the sun and feel the heat bearing down on me and the warm air thick in my lungs: I start to feel vaguely queasy.
My daughters are winter babies, so my early pregnancies were during the summer. We conceived Robin very purposefully on June 4th, 2007. We’d just bought a brand-new king sized mattress. I went to see Knocked Up by myself and at the end, I thought: “Well if those idiots can have a baby, so can I.” I drove home and we made a baby. I confirmed the pregnancy two weeks later, while vacationing with my Mom’s extended family at Kentucky Lake. We played flashlight tag with my cousins for hours that night, and then I went inside and took the test. Brian had stayed home to look for work, as he’d been recently ejected from his PhD program, and I texted him an image of the test.
Holly was conceived just after finals week in May 2009. We were high on Led Zeppelin and getting decent rest now that Robin was 14 months old, and then I really was Knocked Up. I took the test just after Memorial Day and the general reaction was Oh Shit (and later, Yay).
I had hopes that I’d be one of those breezy pregnant women who literally glow in pregnancy: the women for whom hormones ramp up the sex drive, clear the skin, and give them a sense of deep contentment and purpose. I have friends who love pregnancy, who thrive in pregnancy, who sometimes get pregnant to feel better.
I am not one of those women.
Within two weeks of confirming pregnancy, I was hobbled by crippling nausea that lasted not the “several weeks” or “first trimester” those evil books and websites promised, but 5 months. Five months: half a pregnancy, nearly half a year, of simultaneously unrelenting nausea and rabid hunger. Everything made me sick. I once had to run across the house and hide under a pillow to hide from the scent of my husband BOILING WATER. Speaking of my husband, he started to exude a pungent funk that was absolutely repellent: we could not sleep together, and I couldn’t kiss him without first dousing him in Aqua Velva (even then, I had to hold my breath).
I remember my pregnancy with Robin most clearly because I was childless at the time and therefore had more time to writhe and moan about how sick I was. I was working part-time and clutched cans of fizzy water at work, scooting the nearest trash can just a little closer, just in case. As soon as I got home, I went up to the master bedroom, where my husband had moved our TV set and blocked the light with blankets. I read blogs about pregnancy on my laptop and watched television obsessively. I read every recap of Project Runway and Top Chef on TV Without Pity.
I watched so many shows: I had to quit watching Six Feet Under because it was too dark. I had to stop watching The Wire because my brain couldn’t keep the plot or characters straight. I ultimately settled on an old gem from Adult Swim, the fantastically funny cartoon HOME MOVIES. Home Movies focuses on three schoolkids who make their own movies, and the loser adults in their lives: Brendan’s single Mom and his fat, lazy, drunkard soccer coach. I watched and rewatched Seasons 3 and 4 on DVD. Although each and every episode is worth viewing – especially the ones that feature the hysterically funny Coach McGuirk – the one I remember best from this time is an episode from Season 4, “The Heart Smashers,” in which Brendan and his friends are making an Abyss-like deep sea horror film about a terrible, mind-controlling sea monster with seven testicles – I mean tentacles – the Mighty Septopus. The despicable Fenton Mewley writes an absurd little theme song for the movie and I found it running through my head constantly:
Beware the Mighty Septopus, he’s a crazy guy. He walks on top of submarines and he’s always eating piiiiiie. Septopus, ahhh. Septopus, ahhh.
I took to calling my little embryo a mighty septopus, and he/she/it did seem like a fearfully powerful little creature who had taken over my mind and body with fierce power. I remember very clearly reading through Dooce’s journal of her first pregnancy, where she had this to say about morning sickness:
I know that I’ll probably have a little more insight into this when I finally give birth and am able to hold my own child in my arms, but right now, now as I can barely sit up straight without feeling the thump thump thump of my heart in my ears as it signals the march of acid through my digestive tract, as the smell of herbal shampoo in my hair urges me to hurl, as the mere thought of coffee grounds conjures nightmares of being drowned in pools of rotting septic waste, I really have no idea how billions of women in the history of the world have not only gone through this once, but have agreed to go through it AGAIN AND AGAIN.
Is there an epidemic of amnesia among mothers that no one talks about? I can’t imagine that I’ll forget anytime soon what it feels like to be nauseous in my fingers and toes. I can feel the dizziness in my eyebrows and in my elbows. Every joint in my body has gathered with signs and megaphones and is shouting in unison, “THIS IS NOT WHAT NATURE INTENDED.” And I really have to wonder, how did billions of years of evolution end up here, with pregnancy ushering in wholly debilitating nausea and a sense of smell normally reserved for canines? I mean, it’s 2003, for crying out loud. Humans now have the technology to PAUSE LIVE TELEVISION, why can’t a woman who is pregnant wash her hands without dry-heaving stomach bile at the smell of Softsoap? HOW ARE THERE HUMANS BEING BORN IN THIS WORLD WHEN THERE IS SOFTSOAP SITTING ON BATHROOM COUNTERTOPS?
Amen, sister. Amen. Time slows down when you’re ill and bored in early pregnancy and the first few weeks lasted forever. Then, things took a turn for the worst both times, and I started puking even more at 10 weeks. And none of the “natural” remedies for morning sickness worked. You snide jackasses who can sip Ginger Ale or eat a few garbanzo beans and feel fine can go fuck yourselves. (Sorry. That was mean.) The only thing that took the edge of of the nausea when I was pregnant with Robin was an over-the-counter remedy: UNISOM.
Yes, Unisom, a sleep aid. Unisom is actually doxylamine succinate, a mild antihistamine, and in Canada it’s sold over-the-counter directly to pregnant women for the purpose of relieving nausea. And before you get all judgy about drugs during pregnancy, read this and see that Unisom is perfectly safe for pregnancy. I cut up my precious little blue pills into quarters and faithfully took one every four hours for twenty weeks.
With Holly, Unisom made me too sleepy to keep up with my toddler, so I asked my midwife for the hard stuff: Zofran. Zofran is a very expensive prescription drug that sad pregnant women and chemo patients take so they don’t puke themselves into dehydration. I took Zofran daily for twenty weeks, too. I still puked, but I could keep stuff down. Mostly.
My pregnancy cravings were strange and became fixations. With Robin, I could eat oatmeal, and plain Campbell’s Tomato Soup made with water only. No cream. No fucking organic tomato chunks, thankyouverymuch, Brian-who-at-the-time-was-clerking-at-a-healthfood-store. When pregnant with Holly, I mostly lived on tempura shrimp sushi and very expensive ginger kombucha drinks. I also drank a lot of tonic water (my midwives assured me that I’d have to drink gallons to affect the little bear in my tummy).
The last time I puked in a pregnancy-related manner was when I was 17 weeks pregnant with Holly. I’d gotten up the gumption to eat some delicious tacos, the most complicated food I’d eaten after weeks. A few minutes later, I ran to the bathroom and squatted to puke. The force was so strong that I peed all over myself.
This is our initiation into motherhood. It’s humbling and at times, humiliating.
I’d like to say that I had the kind of amnesia Dooce describes above that made it easy to get pregnant again. I’d like to say that at the end of my pregnancies, I felt that sacrifice had been worth it. But I’ve never had to get back on that horse on purpose: Holly was a (wonderful) accident, and we were both somewhat relieved to have had the matter taken out of our hands, since we knew we wanted another baby but weren’t sure we could sign on to that sickness purposefully. After Holly was born, mostly I thought, “Thank god I don’t have to do that again.”
I’ve had pangs of desire for a third child, but then any time I get remotely nauseous or dizzy, I’m brought right back to visceral and awful memories of how terrible, relentless, and debilitating the sickness was. As much as I love my little septopi, I think I get too sick to make any more. In a different world, in which I didn’t get completely sick and my kids weren’t awful sleepers, I might have more kids. But that’s not my reality.
I guess in a few more summers, I’ll have spent more summers not pregnant than pregnant, and the strong association between the hot summer and puking up Cheez-its will fade. In the meantime, though, I’m enjoying Home Movies again. Watch this great clip and then check it out yourself. You can watch most eps on Youtube, but the whole series is on Netflix. Long live McGuirk!