Why Emetophobia Makes Me Feel Like A Failure As A Mom

by Uluobi Andrea Ogunba
Originally Published: 
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With my mom on hand to help me, being a first time mom with twins was a piece of cake for me. We took turns minding the babies. My mom ensured I got ample rest and I focused on expressing milk for the babies and regaining my strength. I felt proud of myself; I slept when I should, pumped enough milk to feed the two babies, lost baby weight only a few weeks after. Everything seemed so perfect.

And then one day … it happened.

My twins were three months old at the time and we were settling into our routines. I felt good, like I had it totally covered, this whole mom business. That evening, I had just fed them a delightful three course meal; milk as the hors d’oeuvre, milk as the main course and even more milk for dessert. Usually meals like these sent them off to slumber land, and tonight wasn’t going to be different. At least, so I thought.

As I settled them down to play and self soothe in their rockers, I heard a little raspy cough. I ignored it. We had just moved houses and a bit of dust from the old house had given my daughter a little cough. I heard a deeper cough and looked up just in time to see my daughter projectile vomiting milk from her rocker! The milk seemed to come out in torrents. I stood transfixed, horrified, watching creamy vomit literally pour out of her mouth.

Up until that moment, my entire life, I had never watched anyone throw up. I was too terrified to even touch her. But I knew she needed someone to soothe her and clean her up. I looked at her twin brother, cooing contentedly in his rocker. Definitely not him. That someone definitely wasn’t going to be me either. Unable to move from the sheer horror, I called out to my husband who was in another room in the house to come help her.

The way I screamed for him he must have thought the roof had collapsed on us because he ran out in a frenzy. He picked her up while she poured the last bit of vomit on him. My screaming must have startled her because she started to cry. Still I stood, transfixed, unmoving, not reaching out for her.

Like a bad body odor, instantly I felt all my mom-confidence ooze out of my pores. My 3-month-old baby had successfully reminded me that, super mom or not, some things had not changed.

Granted, as a mom, we all have those days, when we scream at our children too much, when we forget to do something as important as packing an orange cup when your toddler specifically asked for a green cup in a school bag, when we serve dinner late or forget to buy milk or cereal. But this, what I had just experienced with my own child, had completely deflated my balloon of confidence. Low spirited, I entered my room, lay on the bed and shivered thinking that 3 months was barely the start of the motherhood journey. Was I going to be this frightened each time my baby threw up?

No, it wasn’t “new-mom panic” that something was desperately wrong that made me react this way; I knew she had overeaten and after coughing a bit had thrown up. It was something else.


Everyone believes their mom is the best; mommies can do everything and anything for their children. The internet is rife with humorous videos of dads gagging while they changed their babies’ diapers or passing out in awkward positions from sheer exhaustion with their children. But not mommies. Mommies are the superheroes the late Stan Lee forgot to draw about.

As I sit here and type, I have vivid memories of portions of my life growing up as a young girl in a rustic city in the eastern parts of Nigeria. Images of an older sibling being sick, me snuggling up to my sister on her chair at the dining table extremely agitated, refusing to be comforted. She would tell me it was nothing, she would try to soothe me and make me see that puke was simply (partially) digested food, not the three headed monster with eighty four jagged teeth I thought it was. But it never worked.

I constantly feared that someone beside me would throw up, running as fast and as far as I could when it finally happened. Pacing very quickly down hospital corridors when we had to visit a patient, concerned that the next person was about to spew up aliens from his tummy. On those rare occasions when I would throw up myself, I would make such a mess running around while at the same time vomiting, trying to get away from myself.


Welcome to the eccentric world of emetophobia. I say “eccentric” because it’s strange, and few understand it.

Emetophobia is the fear of vomiting. This fear comes in various forms; the individual fears vomiting or seeing someone else vomit. When someone with emetophobia sees (or even hears) someone vomit they experience impulsive panic, act irrational, or feel they may vomit too. They may run away very fast and feel extremely agitated about remaining in the same place with the sick person, even if it is their own spouse, child or other family member who needs their support at the time. If they are trapped and unable to leave, they plug their ears, shut their eyes tightly and hum loudly to block out the sights and sounds of the person vomiting.

Somehow I made it through those gruesome boarding school years and college years living with this phobia. Make no mistake, I totally enjoyed my secondary school days in Federal Government Girls College, Owerri, Nigeria. While there, I formed lifelong friendships, I learnt independence at its best and best of all, I grew to become a lady. However, those boarding school years were gruesome because you had to share dormitory rooms with other people. Sharing rooms meant every now and then someone would get sick, and you had to be holed up with them in a tiny space, with nowhere to run.

I made excuses for myself at several points. I explained that it was the smell of vomit that made me so horrified. When I realized how illogical this excuse was, I decided it was the sound of retching. Then I patted myself on the back the day from inside my room I could listen to someone retching without plugging my ears. When I ran out of excuses I beat my chest and decided that I had nothing to worry about, I bragged to myself, “Just watch. When I am a mom, the intense love I feel for my children will push it all away.”

Somehow, I felt motherhood was a cure-all. I had heard of the intense love between mother and child. I had heard of how inexplicable the feeling of love a mother felt on holding her baby for the first time was. I was sure that when I carried my babies the same way, the love I felt would be the end of this extremely embarrassing phobia. I felt once I became a mom and carried those babies in my arms all agitations about puke would disappear and I would literally use my hands to scoop up baby puke.

Then, I became a mom. A mom of two kids at the same time. Twins are a huge blessing. You get double doses of everything: baby shower gifts, diaper boxes, strollers, car seats, and then … wait for it…… puke!

Darby S/Reshot

The spit ups came in double doses. I could tolerate those, partially digested milk, that dribbled out and didn’t involve a lot of retching. But that day, as my 3-month-old twin daughter had a bout of intense vomiting, I watched helplessly in horror. Literally helpless. Transfixed. I couldn’t move close to her. Thank God for my husband, who understood I was dealing with this phobia and came to the rescue, soothing her.

We’ve had several more of those vomiting episodes over the years. Children being who they are, as they’ve grown, they’ve noticed that “Mommy doesn’t like when people vomit’” and my 6-year-old daughter is catching on to that sticky fact fast. A while ago, in the midst of intense spelling bee practice, probably exhausted, she came up with a plan; she turned with a smirk on her face and said, “Mommy, I feel like vomiting.”

Like a bolt I dashed up, “Call daddy!’’ I peeped cautiously from behind the door of her room asking, “Are you okay, is your tummy okay now?’’ and she smirked. She didn’t throw up. But as you can imagine, we never continued the spelling bee practice. How could we? Mommy wasn’t within earshot. I had practically disappeared into thin air.

Even today, I am not sure what the trigger was, what brought on this phobia. But every day in every way I make progress dealing with it; I encourage myself that yesterday I couldn’t be within a mile of someone throwing up, but now I can. I encourage myself that I had never actually seen someone puke until I started having babies in my early 30s. It’s a process. A lengthy and tiring process, especially for a mom. Your natural instinct is to sit beside your helpless, puking child and wrap her in your arms afterwards. But when you feel so overwhelmed by this fear, you simply can’t.

I mused to a friend yesterday that maybe I need to go see a therapist who would help me trace the origin of the phobia. Maybe. But until then, I’ll be a mom the best way I can; being a mom isn’t only about rubbing backs in between retches, or cleaning puke. Being a mom involves bedtime stories, being a teacher, a nurse (for all ailments not involving puke, and there are many; injuries to be cleaned and bandaged, bumps to soothe with ice …), a mind reader, a comedian, a seamstress, an image consultant. Motherhood is so many things, and I’ll be strong for my children all the other ways I know how to. Then one day, one bright sunny day, I may actually sit beside them and rub their backs while they puke.

Or maybe I’ll just wait till I’m a grandma.

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