Loss and life
Unfathomable is the word that comes to mind when one tries to comprehend what comedian and actress Mary Coustas has endured on her quest to become a mother. The bittersweet journey has taken her from the realisation that she may never be a mother, an early miscarriage, to dependant on IVF, to carrying triplets, making the heartbreaking decision to selectively reduce her twins for a singleton pregnancy to give her daughter the best chance of survival and then the final crushing blow – the birth of her stillborn daughter. And now, at 48, Mary and her partner George Betsis finally have the good news that Mary is 22 weeks pregnant.
In an interview with 60 Minutes that aired last week, Mary announced that she and George were over the moon with their happy news.
“Life’s most common miracle has been the most elusive one for me,” the actress said candidly in the interview.
“I want stretch marks, I want sore nipples, I want all the things everyone else complains about. I would like to join that club and it looks like I will.”
Their baby is due in December and her partner George said the couple are “excited but cautious”. Despite all odds, they have been given a deserved second chance – despite all the odds, Mary and George look set to have the baby they have longed for.
The devastating journey and battle to have children and the tragedy that followed came to light when Mary wrote about her ordeal in her book All I Know: A Memoir of Love, Loss and Life (Allen & Unwin).
“Six weeks after George and I were married, I found out that I could not have children. A laparoscopy revealed that I had blocked Fallopian tubes. Our honeymoon was brought to a swift end by an unanticipated and massive blow. I was told my only option was IVF. I was completely winded emotionally.
“In 2009 I was 45 and my egg quality was diminishing due to the ageing process. Adoption was not a possibility. In Australia, you cannot adopt if there is more than 40 years age difference between you and the child. And you are not permitted to adopt while trying to conceive using IVF.”
Eighteen months later – after Mary put her career on hold – she found out she was pregnant. Following her nine-week scan, Mary and George were told by their doctor that there were three heartbeats – but that two of the babies were sharing the one placenta. With that lay a plethora of risks for all three foetuses.
She writes: “The consequences of giving birth to three very premature babies include the risk of cerebral palsy, and loss of sight and hearing.
“There was also the possibility of personal risk to me at my age, and with triplets, of pre-eclampsia, which could lead to me developing cardiovascular issues as well as liver or renal failure.
“Could we live with the possibility that one decision could result in three unhealthy children? There was no avoiding the catch-22 dilemma we were facing. Just to make matters worse, a 3D ultrasound was scheduled for that week. It was agony watching our three babies doing exactly what you would hope for – moving and breathing, their hearts beating, but for how much longer?”
The couple spent the next few days in a medical limbo, consulting with five separate specialists who all had the same tragic conclusion to ‘selectively reduce’ the twin foetuses with their best chance being to lower the risk and preserve the single pregnancy.
“The day after the 3D ultrasound, George and I made the excruciating decision to reduce the twins. Wanting only a healthy life for our babies motivated the hardest decision we’ve ever made.”
Trying desperately to save her remaining child, Mary was faced with another obstacle. At week 20 of her pregnancy, her waters broke. Two weeks later the contractions began and she had no choice but to give birth.
Mary remembers the time her obstetrician told her he could see the baby, but the chances of her coming out of the birth canal alive were very slim. She was told her daughter would die coming through the birth canal.
“I wanted to collapse, to scream, to wail uncontrollably, but I couldn’t. I had a job to do. I had to deliver my baby. And as difficult and unimaginable as it was, I had waited for this moment my whole life. The cruelty of our circumstances was not going to ruin that.
“I pushed harder than I’ve ever pushed before. And there she was: 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.”
Through this, George stood by his wife’s side and silently cried.
“I cried too for the many reasons that are obvious but also for the miracle that is love,” Mary writes. “For its ability to strike in ways that leave you breathless, for its breadth and for its blindness to the abrupt nature of death.
“In six months I had gone from none to two to three to one to none. How do you fathom something like that? How do you survive the reality of it?”
This harrowing sadness of loss compelled her to write the book, that not only captures her loss with her children, but the death of her father. Death – the final taboo, she says, but in an interview with Peninsual Weekly, Mary says that following the death of her father at an early age (he was 59 when she was 23), all this loss in her life means she has become “very good at being present”.
“It’s something we will all encounter with people we love, and we all avoid it. We don’t like to talk about it and we don’t like to show our pain in regards to it. It’s something that we don’t address very successfully.”
“You become very good at taking every moment you can from what’s right in front of you without loading it with any expectation of what you want from it.
“I’ve been born into that way of thinking, archiving, maximising, making the most of all the smallest things, remembering, keeping it alive through storytelling.
“It is very in balance with how I live.
That’s how I’ve learnt to live, from the beginning. So it’s not a new concept for me. For me it’s only enhanced every other thing in my life, more so because I know that at any point everything can change, in one moment. I don’t need to be told that; I’ve witnessed it.”
And change it will again as Mary gets set for her biggest chapter in her life; being one person’s mother for the rest of their life.