Whenever the Duchess of Cambridge (aka Kate Middleton) adds to her family, Hyperemesis Gravidarum, which she suffers from, becomes a topic of discussion. This is where the annoying but temporary morning sickness common to most pregnancies becomes so debilitating it’s a major health concern. Sometimes, women are hospitalised and need extensive medical intervention. Occasionally, it’s life-threatening.
While the medical consequences of Hyperemesis are of paramount importance, there’s another aspect less discussed. This is when it impacts other parts of women’s lives, particularly their employment, and can cause desperate hardship.
My own encounter with Hyperemesis Gravidarum began 28 years ago, when I fell pregnant with my daughter (I had it again 5 years later with twins, but that’s another story). This first time, I had a teaching job I loved, and although the pregnancy occurred soon after marriage (so earlier than we wished financially), we were delighted.
Until, that is, the vomiting started.
For weeks I could ingest nothing but water. I became severely dehydrated and constantly dizzy. I threw up 20 times a day, and had to buy children’s beach buckets so I could keep them all over our house and car, and at work.
Ah: work. This was the fly in my ointment, the big difference between the Duchess and I. Because while Kate has cancelled her work schedule since becoming ill, this hasn’t affected her income. Yet my husband and I had just bought our first home, and I couldn’t afford to suddenly leave work.
So I kept going. Vomiting in my bucket in the car, running into bushes while on yard duty, and throwing up in my classroom when the children weren’t looking.
Eventually, it caught up with me. I was so thin and dizzy I couldn’t continue, and my Principal approved an unpaid leave of absence. I went straight to hospital, and after a few weeks on a drip and a few more resting at home, I felt well enough to resume my job. I still had 15 weeks until maternity leave officially started, and needed to sock away as much income as possible. There was no paid maternity leave then, yet with careful planning we could have saved enough to cover my time away from my job.
But it didn’t work out that way. The Principal had employed another teacher to cover my absence, and wouldn’t give me my job back. I was just a pain to her, as I was messing up her staffing schedule.
Although I was legally entitled to return to work, I’d no choice but to accept her offer of two days per week. At 16 weeks pregnant I was in no position to look for another job! I can’t remember why, but my union couldn’t help (again, this all happened in 1989). And in negotiating all this, I also, unknowingly, gave up all rights to my pre-baby job.
Effectively, Hyperemesis cost me my career.
If this story sounds unfair, it bloody well was. It took us years to recover from the financial mess imposed; and while it was our pregnancy and our responsibility, it shames us all when women are treated illegally in the workplace.
My story is very common, as much now as it was in 1989. Perhaps even more so, since workforces are now more casualised. Imagine a woman working as a waitress or retail worker or in one of many other insecure positions, who’ll lose her job immediately if she can’t work.
Imagine a pregnant woman in a teaching or other short-contract position, who could also find herself quickly unemployed if she’s suddenly unable to work.
Whether her pregnancy is planned or not, this unexpected loss of income (on top of the stress of severe illness) has lasting impacts. If it was difficult for me, I can only imagine the hardship for a woman in insecure employment, a woman without savings, a single woman, or one estranged from her wider family.
Hyperemesis is the pits. There’s usually a baby at the end of it, which is wonderful, but otherwise it stinks. And if we’re now discussing employment law to assist women fleeing domestic violence, we should also discuss what employers and unions can do to help women suffering debilitating pregnancy issues.
Hyperemesis is a class and workplace issue and should be framed as such: particularly as it hits disadvantaged women the hardest. When Hyperemesis happens to Duchesses, that side of it is hidden. It certainly shouldn’t be.
I’m glad Kate’s experience has raised understanding of Hyperemesis. Perhaps employers and others will be more understanding towards women suffering it. If that occurs, it’s a good thing, and we should be grateful to Kate for raising awareness of it.
And yes, we might also feel sorry for Kate, but we should feel even more sorry for women suffering like her but without her permanent income, her palace, her staff, and her other privileges.
Hyperemesis is most definitely a feminist issue. Kate’s condition has started this conversation, but we can all continue it. And we should.