Like many Americans, I grew up believing that success is a direct result of productivity, that succeeding means achieving big goals, accomplishing difficult tasks, and producing high-quality work consistently and constantly. To be honest, I’m not sure I fully realized this was something I believed until I couldn’t do those things — I couldn’t work. I’m not talking about taking a sick day, or even a week or two, but being physically unable to work for almost eight months. And the horrible illness that brought me to my knees (both figuratively and literally)? Pregnancy.
Well, technically, it wasn’t just pregnancy — the problem was that I suffered from hyperemesis gravidarum (HG), a debilitating pregnancy complication indicated by nausea and vomiting so severe that it can lead to dehydration and weight loss. For many women, HG symptoms lessen or even disappear completely after the 20th week, but for some of us lucky gals, HG lasts the entire length of the pregnancy.
Soon after finding out I was pregnant, I started feeling sick and throwing up, and I thought, “Here comes the morning sickness.” But it became clear after a few weeks that this was more than just typical morning sickness. I’d already had to be hospitalized once for severe dehydration, and I’d lost almost ten pounds. My work attendance had also become completely unpredictable; I would try to force myself out of bed, telling myself that maybe it was psychological and I could simply “mind over matter” myself back to work, but of course I couldn’t. Eventually, I realized I had to take an extended sick leave.
I was still drawing a salary for the first couple months, but then my leave became unpaid because my doctor didn’t believe that I literally could not work and would not approve a disability claim for me. I had been taking care of myself for so many years at this point that it was incredibly uncomfortable for me to adjust to the idea of depending completely on my husband’s salary while I earned nothing. Day after day, my husband would wake up and go to work while I remained in bed. And day after day he would come back to find me either on the couch or back in bed, having accomplished nothing during the day. No matter how much I knew it wasn’t true, I felt like a lazy wife, lounging at home while sending her husband out to earn the money; maybe I didn’t feel that way, actually, so much as I worried other people would see me that way. I was doing nothing, I was producing nothing, I was contributing nothing of value to our household or the world at large. I felt completely and utterly worthless.
But of course I wasn’t doing nothing — I was actually doing quite a bit. I was accomplishing a great deal, my body was producing something new every day, and I was contributing something to our household that my husband never could. Lying in bed, or on the couch, totally immobilized by a combination of nausea and depression, I was creating a whole human being. You just couldn’t see it.
I didn’t realize it at the time, but this was actually preparing me for the invisible nature of the work of motherhood. After I gave birth, my husband and I decided I would stay home with our son rather than return to work, and adjusting to the “job” of full-time, stay-at-home motherhood was a challenge, to put it mildly. Do you remember the story of Sisyphus from your junior high Greek mythology studies? I’ll refresh your memory if not: In the Underworld, Sisyphus, as punishment for evil deeds during his life, was sentenced to roll a huge, heavy boulder up a steep hill. Unfortunately, every time it was almost at the top, the rock rolled back to the bottom and Sisyphus had to start all over again, which meant he was stuck in this loop of pushing the boulder up the hill and following it back down the hill for all eternity.
This was what my new life was like at home with my son. Somehow, I would find myself cleaning the house all day, every day, whether that was doing laundry, washing dishes, or picking up seemingly thousands of baby toys. And at the end of each day, when my husband came home from work, the house looked exactly like it had when the day began, with the same amount of dirty laundry, dirty dishes, and scattered toys. I’d play a thousand games of peek-a-boo, sing a thousand songs, and read a thousand books with my little guy, but when Dad came home my son would beg him for attention as if I’d been ignoring him all day. Once again, as I had when I was pregnant and unable to work, I found myself without any measurable standards by which to gauge my success — at the end of a day with my son, what had I produced? What had I achieved? What had I accomplished? I had nothing to show for my labor day after day; I knew how hard I was working, but no one else could see it.
It was easy to feel that way, but fortunately, it turns out this wasn’t true. I had (and have) a partner by my side who saw — and acknowledged — my hard work. My own mom, as well as my mother-in-law (whom I adore), both saw with the eyes of women who’ve been there and remember what it was like. And perhaps most importantly, there were my close friends and fellow moms, beside me in the trenches day after day, doing their own invisible work and saying, “Girl, same.”
And every so often, our invisible labors produce visible results — maybe only for a moment — and give us the encouragement we need to keep going. The first time my son said, “I’m FRUSTRATED!” instead of throwing his toys across the room or hitting me, I could smile and say to myself, I helped him learn that skill. I did that. And I realize that just like when I was pregnant, I’m never “doing nothing” when I’m with my son; I’m always — still — creating a whole human being, moment by moment, day by day, month by month, even if it feels like no one can see it.