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CELEBRITY / Jan ‘2015

The Making of Mary

Mary-coustas
CELEBRITY / JAN ‘2015

The Making of Mary

No stranger to challenges of the road to parenthood, Mary Coustas shares why giving birth at age 49 has been such a journey.

Words ARI CHÁVEZ

"At one point, I thought I was miscarrying, and I was with my best friend and I remember saying, 'I think I'll go insane...this might be the straw for me."

Mary Coustas is in a perfect storm of contentment. The reason for her joy? A tiny, sweet-smelling baby girl: Jamie Betsis.

Jamie, born in November 2013 to Mary and her husband, George Betsis, is the precious outcome of a gruelling ten year odyssey with IVF, a journey full of losses so relentless and profound that, at one point, Mary questioned her own sanity.

The journey began early, and jarringly, for Mary and George, an advertising executive, whom Mary met in 2003 and married in 2005. Just a few weeks after their wedding, Mary discovered she had blocked fallopian tubes, and that IVF was her only option for having a baby. It soon became clear that she would have to devote all her time and energy to the process.

It was serious business, a long way from playing the wildly popular character Effie on television show, Acropolis Now, a concoction so beloved by audiences that a regular line of her dialogue – How embarrassment! – is now enshrined in the Australian vernacular. After the success of Acropolis Now, Mary went on to launch a one-woman stage show, Waiting for Effie, and work on various dramatic television shows, including Rake, The Secret Life of Us and Grass Roots. She also worked as a voiceover artist on The Magic Pudding and Always Greener, released a novelty single with Gary McDonald’s comic character, Norman Gunston, and penned her first book, Effie’s Guide to Being Up Yourself.

It was a busy, creative, successful life and, in 2005, it all crashed to a halt. In her strikingly honest memoir, All I Know: A Memoir of Love, Loss and Life, Mary writes, “I put my work, which has always been my spiritual saviour, on indefinite pause while I took the scientific road to motherhood. The IVF world required of me a commitment to a schedule that is not predictable. Indeed, to be available for appointments, retrievals and implantings, they monitor you according to how your body has responded to the drugs on each attempt, so knowing what’s happening next is always uncertain. Not being able to commit to work that is long-term or interstate, I was left with no choice but to temporarily let go of my career.”

In fact it wasn’t temporary, more a permanent state of rolling the dice with a mixture of anticipation and dread. For years Mary underwent numerous IVF attempts, and endured false hopes and many miscarriages. At times she faltered, mental and emotional exhaustion threatening to overtake her.

Mary

"I thought I would go insane, I really did," she says, quietly. "At one point, I thought I was miscarrying, and I was with my best friend and I remember saying, 'I think I'll go insane...this might be the straw for me.' And it wasn't."

“I thought I would go insane, I really did,” she says, quietly. “At one point, I thought I was miscarrying, and I was with my best friend and I remember saying, ‘I think I’ll go insane…this might be the straw for me.’ And it wasn’t.

Mary and George persisted against the odds and, after copious tests and needles and losses of early promise, they finally got the news they were waiting for in 2010. A positive result.

“At last there was a stillness and a promise of a future that had been six years in waiting,” Mary writes in her book. “A new era had begun as I found myself floating through the hours and the days, which prior to that felt endless.”

Mary’s joy was compounded when, at her seven week scan, she was told she was pregnant with not one but two babies, fraternal twins. It was an instant family right there for the taking, a cause for celebration indeed. The euphoric feelings were short-lived, however. Just two weeks later, at her nine week scan, her pregnancy suddenly became ominously, medically, complex. Mary discovered she was carrying triplets.

She had a few moments of elation, describing in her book ‘a Rocky Balboa moment’ where there ‘was nothing my body couldn’t do’. Then, as her doctor explained the risks, both to her babies (cerebral palsy, loss of hearing and sight) and Mary, herself (pre-eclampsia leading to cardiovascular issues and possible liver and renal failure), reality set in.

Mary
"She was placed on my chest and I know I could not have loved her more than I did in that moment. It was the crush of a lifetime. My wounded, aching heart was suddenly full."

Stunned, and clawing around for answers, Mary was advised by five different specialists to do the unthinkable. Reduce the pregnancy by two: the twins.

Mary and George, who had for years tried for just one child, were thrust into a nightmarish world where they not only had three potential children, but were being told they must reduce two of them so one baby, and the mother, could survive. It was a cruel twist indeed.

After much thought, and a gruelling viewing of all three babies on a 3D ultrasound, Mary and George decided to go ahead with the twin reduction, a heartbreaking procedure which left Mary bereft.

“The cruelty of those circumstances was beyond anything I had experienced before,” she writes.

“A sense of foreboding brought about an utter collapse in my composure. The doctor held my hand and said gently, ‘Mary, I’m sorry you have to go through this. But I need you to stop crying. You must stay completely still.’

“I took a deep breath and with every bit of my willpower I did not move. George held my hand and squeezed it. I couldn’t look at him. The thought of seeing George’s face with the hurt that I know he was trying so hard to hide would have been my complete undoing.”

The procedure involved injecting potassium chloride into the heart of one of the twins, which should have also terminated the second twin because of the shared placenta. Agonisingly, it didn’t completely work and, when Mary and George returned for a check-up two days later, the doctor told them they would have to repeat it for the second twin.

Mary endured the second injection while a, “silent wailing screamed vehemently in my head,” and, finally, as the medicos had advised, there was one baby remaining. Just the one.

Stevie.

Mary’s pregnancy, already under a cloud of fear, did not proceed as planned. Her waters broke at twenty weeks, and she was placed on bedrest in hospital, trying to banish the anxious thoughts of an early labour from her head. At twenty two weeks, her contractions began and escalated. Mary was wheeled into the birthing suite, examined and told her remaining baby, her beautiful girl, was on her way, but she would die in the birth canal and be stillborn. There was nothing that could be done.

It was, perhaps, the unkindest cut. Remarkably, Mary resolved to be mentally and emotionally present as she gave birth to her dead daughter, determined to honour the time they had together.
“It’s very confronting when death and life turn up at the same time, and I underestimated who I would be,” she says. “I was so present. I refused to go into denial or shock or anything when it all happened. I knew I had limited time with her, and I wasn’t going to let my fear take away the day or two I had with her whether alive or not.”

In those fragile post-birth hours and days, Mary displayed a lioness love for baby Stevie, “tiny and perfect and so incredibly pretty. The minute I saw her staggering beauty I knew I was looking at an angel. She was placed on my chest and I know I could not have loved her more than I did in that moment. It was the crush of a lifetime. My wounded, aching heart was suddenly full.”

Mary spent time holding Stevie’s tiny body, marvelling in her unique beauty, cuddling her exquisite feet, refusing to leave.

“I think there’s a lot to be said for the maternal instinct, for how strong women have to be,” Mary says. “We’re such emotional beings, in comparison to what men are prepared to show, although I’m sure they feel it. I think that puts you in good stead to be able to surprise yourself under those sorts of conditions, and it definitely surprised me. I was very galvanised by it.

“None of us know who we are until something happens. We can sit there and talk in theory about who we think we are and how we think we’d cope but, when something happens, that’s when you find out. The rest is all cafe speak, really.”

ARI CHÁVEZ

Ari has had work published in Australia, England, Japan and Singapore. She has a delightful toddler, Gabriel, who was born with coffee in his veins. She is currently completing her first novel as part of a PhD project.