health

AMANDA KELLER: "I'd never been maternal. Then I was confronted with the prospect of being childless."

There’s always an unasked (or sometimes annoyingly asked) question that I know comes up for every women over the age of thirty. When are you going to have a baby?

For me, it was complicated, and I found the question excruciating.

When Harley and I had been ‘going out’ for a week or so, we went away to the Blue Mountains in New South Wales for a so-called ‘dirty weekend’. As we lay in bed that first night, full of love and gushy emotion, Harley told me solemnly that he’d had a vasectomy ten years before.

I still remember the moment. It was like hurting yourself in an accident – you don’t feel anything at the time but you know it’s going to sting eventually. My heart was hammering, my mouth went dry, and I stammered out: ‘That’s alright.’

But was it?

The Private Life of Amanda Keller. Post continues after podcast.

I’d never been particularly maternal, quite the opposite in fact. But when confronted with the prospect of being childless, suddenly I realised I’d always assumed motherhood would be part of my life. It seems so naive now to look back at it, but I thought that Harley’s vasectomy was no big deal, and somehow all would be well.

What mattered most to me was that Harley wanted to have a baby with me as much as I wanted to have a baby with him. So first step was a vasectomy reversal.

We made an appointment with Australia’s top vasectomy reversal man, a microsurgeon who’d become famous not long before for attaching a new forearm onto the stump of a man called Clint Hallam (who’d lost his hand in a circular saw accident). The pictures of the operation were gruesome, but Harley boasted that at least the doctor had worked on things to scale.

Our first meeting with him was what I’d call… unusual. When he discovered Harley and I had both worked on Beyond 2000 he produced photos of a new chair he’d designed for the Sydney Opera House. We responded as enthusiastically as was humanly possible. Let’s face it, if you’re going to curry favour with anyone in the world, it’s going to be the man who’ll be swiping a scalpel around your husband’s nether regions.

And his love of technology didn’t end there. When Harley awoke from his procedure, resplendent in pyjamas still bearing the creases from the packet they came in, the doctor popped some state-of-the-art 3D glasses on us both, and we watched Harley’s operation in three glorious dimensions.

People are funny. Some poor bugger further up the corridor was woken from his anaesthetic by a clown! A gift from his wife.

So we were off. Next stop, baby.

Yeah right.

After Harley’s vasectomy reversal I think I ignored the fact that nothing was happening on the pregnancy front for some time. It’s what I do. If something’s hard to deal with, I ignore it.

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I don’t recommend this as a tactic if you can help it.

A few years went by (I know, I know, don’t nag me… ) and time after time I endured eyebrow-raised queries regarding our childless state. Meanwhile, I visited a fertility naturopath and swallowed disgusting-tasting potions, had my hair analysed for lead, was asked if I sat too close to the computer screen, and was queried about whether I ate crushed glass for breakfast, etc. etc.

I rolled my eyes but persevered because this benign approach was so much less frightening than the alternative… medical intervention, which just felt too overwhelming to think about.

What happened next reminds me of when I decided to get my driver’s licence. I woke up one morning at the age of twenty-six thinking today’s the day. I bought a car, had lessons and got my licence all in one week – ten years after everyone else in the universe had learnt to drive.

Once again I woke up one morning and thought, Today’s the day, and made an appointment at an IVF clinic. At the age of thirty-five, it was time to get this baby on the road.

Amanda and Harley in 2005. Image: Getty.

A week later Harley and I met with Dr Steigrad, the medical director at Sydney East Fertility (as it was then called). Dr Steigrad listened to our story and said that yes, we were candidates for IVF. I left his office feeling scared but elated. This could be fixed.

In those days, however, only one in four couples emerged from the gruelling IVF process with a baby. When you embarked on the ‘journey’ of course you imagined you’d be that one couple. Everyone knew someone who’d had a baby through IVF. The media was full of IVF success stories. It was easy to forget the three in four couples who came home empty-handed time and time again.

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The fabulous Di Craven, one of the nursing coordinators at the fertility clinic, became our point of contact. Over the following years I came to love this woman but our first appointment was head-spinning. Di explained the chemical rationale behind the entire procedure, and the plethora of ways we had to administer the thousands of potions. For me it was like listening to my accountant, or a parachute instructor… I just heard dogs barking.

While Di was drawing something on the board I thought, in my light-headed state, she was drawing a bum. How funny. But you know what? It was a bum. And she was explaining in detail the precise point on my bum Harley would have to plunge the needle when he gave me my daily injection. I started seeing spots and my whole body flushed red hot. I thought I was going to faint.

Next Di produced a bloody long needle and an orange, and showed Harley how to insert the needle. Cripes. He had to draw the liquid up into the syringe, avoiding air bubbles (thank you), then manoeuvre a needle as long as a finger into my rump. There was something about making sure the needle hadn’t hit a major vein by sucking up a little blood into the syringe but by then I was having an out-of-body experience. In fact even my out-of-body self was putting her fingers in her ears saying, ‘Make it stop, Mummy.’

On shaky legs we headed home, wondering what lay ahead.

'A few days later I got a call from the clinic. I'll never forget it.'

First came egg collection. To get eggs you were required to ‘superovulate’ – that’s what the daily injections were for, to produce a bumper crop for harvesting. They should have a category for this at the Easter Show.

Day after day Harley filled me full of chemicals, but not in a cocktail party fun sort of way. The needles he had to use were works of art – sharp and perfectly designed to slide easily into soft yielding flesh. Provided, that is, you didn’t mess with them. One awful day Harley didn’t notice he’d damaged the top of the needle, adding a tiny burr to the tip. It went in without fuss but on the return journey it felt like a fish hook was being ripped out of me. This was not without exquisite pain.

My chemical levels were constantly evaluated with blood tests, waiting for the time when I was ready to be given the big ‘trigger’ needle to set up the harvesting process. The timing of this needle was crucial and had to be given when my hormone levels dictated it – no matter how inconvenient. Middle of the night? Too bad. Middle of the busiest day ever at work? Too bad.

That’s what I found hardest about the entire process – not being in control of the timing. I’d head off for daily blood tests and clinic visits and sometimes spend an afternoon under general anaesthetic for egg collection. A couple of our close friends knew we were doing IVF, as did a few people at work. However, trying to keep it under wraps, as we were, was hugely stressful.

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I was doing breakfast radio with Andrew [Denton] at the time, and any absence was a big deal. It was impossible to be away without explanation. So I would wave goodbye to unsuspecting colleagues after the show and spend the day at the hospital, then front up again for work the next morning.

Amanda with her Triple M breakfast show co-host Andrew Denton. Image: Getty.

On the upside, I actually think having to keep working throughout this experience saved me because it gave my day structure and purpose. No matter how I felt (sad, sore, hopeful or terribly disappointed) there were a few hours of the day when I couldn’t dwell on it.

I came out of the anaesthetic after our first egg collection with the number 23 written on tape on the back of my hand. Wowee, twenty-three eggs! That was huge! How could we not get pregnant first go? So exciting.

A few days later we got a call from the clinic. I’ll never forget it. None of the eggs had fertilised. Not one. The whole process had come to naught.

Harley and I were both devastated.

My husband is a man of few words, but on that sad day he made a lovely speech, saying, ‘As rotten as we feel today, our relationship remains… I want you more than I want a baby.’

I said the same, but over the coming months and years a gazillion emotions came into play. Logically, I could rationalise how I would feel if we didn’t have a baby, but emotions aren’t always rational. I knew if we were unsuccessful I would grieve the lack and the loss for a long time.

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The next IVF cycle, and the next, and the next, the eggs fertilised. We had embryos. We had cells dividing in petri dishes. But each time the embryos were placed in my body, they didn’t survive. The two weeks between implanting the embryos and the blood test that would say I was pregnant or not were excruciating.

While I was carrying implanted embryos anything seemed possible – until we got the results. This suspended reality was a better state to be in than the awful disappointment of the phone call from the clinic. And we seemed to be getting nothing but bad news. It reminded me of Shrödinger’s cat, which is a scientific explanation of quantum theory (is that a dog barking?). The idea is that you stuff a cat into a box with a device that randomly may or may not kill it. Under the lid the cat could either be dead or it could be alive – so to the white-coated observer the cat exists in both states. Its fate is undecided until you open the box (or get that call from the clinic).

I’d turn up at the clinic month after month and feel like I was letting everyone down. I’d been set an assignment, and I kept failing.

One month a tweak in the regime caused me to be overstimulated. I produced too many eggs, which was dangerous and incredibly uncomfortable. This coincided with a photo shoot for Penthouse Magazine. Sounds racy, but it’s not what you think.

It may surprise some of you to know that there are words as well as pictures in Penthouse. I’d been approached to be featured in the ‘words’ part of the mag. It appealed to my sense of the absurd. I suggested I hold a stuffed beaver. That way I could say I’d had my very own ‘beaver shot’ in Penthouse.

On the day of the shoot, I could not have felt more dreadful. It was at my house and my stomach, chockers full of eggs (like after a gluttonous Easter), was pressing unflatteringly against my pants, and my shirt was straining at the seams. Not in a sexy bosomy way. In a fat gut way. While the Penthouse people were setting up, I sat in the bathroom in agony, and as soon as the shoot was over I headed to the clinic. This would have to have been the least sexy Penthouse shoot in the history of the universe.

At one point during my IVF years I was given chemicals to trick my body into thinking I was pregnant, hoping this would make those pesky embryos stick. As a result there was no point in having a blood test two weeks later to check for pregnancy markers – they would be present whether I was up the duff or not. So we had to endure a six-week waiting period, when an ultrasound would give us the news.

Once again we left broken-hearted.

'I heard on the radio you're pregnant...'

Adding insult to injury, a colleague called the next day and said, ‘Are congratulations in order? I heard on the radio you’re pregnant.’

It transpired that my ‘pregnancy’ had been revealed during the segment we did on the show each morning called ‘The Rumour Mill’. During this segment people would call in with all kinds of rumours about the world of TV, politics, celebrity. But all calls were screened, and we never ran rumours of a personal nature. This particular week Andrew and I were on holidays, and a fill-in team of presenters and producers were handling the rumours. One of the on-air team was Brendan Jones, who would become one of my closest friends.

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But not this day.

The rumour that I was pregnant had been called in by someone saying they’d seen me leaving an ultrasound facility. Jonesy says he would never have let the story through if he’d heard the details of the call beforehand. But he was simply told, ‘It’s a funny story about Amanda.’

Yeah right. Hilarious. What’s in any way funny about a woman being seen leaving an ultrasound facility? I could have been leaving with a dire medical diagnosis. And if I had been pregnant, in what world would I have wanted it announced this way? As it was, it had been a devastating day for me and Harley. What made it feel even worse was that the very people who’d let the rumour go to air were the ones you’d think would be looking out for me.

As you can imagine, Harley and I were horrified. Triple M management went into damage control. Our producer Richard pretty much tore everyone involved a new one (as they say) and Cath O’Connor, the big boss, demanded to know how it had happened.

A few days later, a lovely handwritten note from Jonesy arrived in my letterbox, apologising for airing the call. Very sweet. And I know how hard it was for him to write. But I felt bruised and betrayed for quite a while.

Jonesy and Amanda. Image: Getty.

A friendly word of advice. If you have a friend who is having trouble falling pregnant, don’t use any of the following phrases: ‘You can have one of my kids!’ ‘My husband just has to look at me and I get pregnant,’ or the dreaded, ‘You need to relax. I have a friend who couldn’t get pregnant, she adopted and then she got pregnant. Because she was relaxed.’ These small sentences, no matter how well-meaning, are enough to bring a person unstuck.

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As we lurched towards the turn of the century I had to enthusiastically spruik a radio competition where married couples tried to conceive ‘a millennium baby’. A relatively high number of contestants managed to get pregnant in the narrow window of time allowed. ‘Congrats,’ I said between gritted teeth.

Even the most benign movies would wind me up. One day Harley and I went to see Notting Hill to cheer ourselves up after yet another sad phone call from the clinic. The mismatched duo of Hugh Grant and Julia Roberts was annoying enough, but the final scene (spoiler alert) has her heavily pregnant lounging on a park bench reading a book with her head in his lap. How dare they?! How dare the filmmakers make falling pregnant an inevitability! The whole world was conspiring to piss me off.

Around this time I bought a vase. Painted on it is a scene of a man and a woman with a dog. They are skipping through a field alongside the words, ‘Blue skies ahead!’ Maybe it would be okay. Maybe all that I already had would be enough.

And then – and I still get a thrill when I write these words – something happened. My daily blood tests showed elevated hormone levels. Potential was in the air. Sydney was hosting the Olympics, the city was bursting with excitement and optimism, and it felt like my body caught it! For the first time ever, my clinic visits had us all saying ‘maybe, maybe’.

Harley and I had tickets to the closing ceremony of the Games. The spectacle was magical. But while we were watching giant kewpie dolls and rubber thongs parade around the arena, I went to the loo and noticed some bleeding. Please no. Please no, I prayed. Every ten minutes after that I fought my tears (and the crowds) to make my way to the bathroom to see if my dream was over. I think there was a finale of breathtaking fireworks. But all I remember was my silent prayer.

We learnt later that the bleeding I had at the closing ceremony had been caused by two of my three embryos coming away. But one hung in there and finally, after so many sad visits to the ultrasound unit, our lives changed tack in the best possible way. We detected a heartbeat. A tiny flashing speck amidst a sea of what looked like submarine signals. Evidence, finally, that there was something there.

Ironically, just the month previous, the clinic had developed a new regime to produce stronger embryos and suggested I try it. But I knew we had three remaining embryos in the freezer and felt somehow that I owed it to them to use them first. By the new technique’s screening process, my eldest son (spoiler alert) wouldn’t have passed muster, a runt if you will.

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I sometimes tell him that when he’s had a week of overachieving at school. My six-foot-tall fourteen-year-old son who tops both academic and sporting lists. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Video by Mamamia

With joy came the most incredible fear. I knew how fragile this embryo was, how tenuous its hold on the world. Hold on little one, hold on.

The wait until we were in the clear at twelve weeks was excruciating. I was scared to acknowledge I was actually pregnant until we passed that milestone. I told family and close friends but was terrified it would come to nothing, and that I’d once again have to hear them all trying to say the right thing.

Harley, on the other hand, dropped his guard completely and told everyone who’d care to listen that we were up the duff. After years of being so careful and protective of our ‘journey’ he gave over to the pure euphoria of the moment.

I had to hose him down. We had a long way to go. Not only was I concerned our little heartbeat wouldn’t hang on, I was also anxious word would get out at work. A breakfast show co-host taking a chunk of time off is a big deal for radio bosses. I wanted to be quadruply sure before letting the cat out of the bag.

I told Andrew, of course, and I let Jonesy in on our big secret as I was heading out the door to have some blood tests. The next day, in front of a group of people in the Triple M kitchen, Jonesy said, ‘Where’d you go yesterday?’

Astonished, I pointed at my stomach.

‘Problem with your guts?’ he asked.

I dragged him away and said, ‘I had an appointment… I’m pregnant, remember?’

Like a goldfish, he’d completely forgotten I’d shared my biggest news ever with him twenty-four hours before. He claims this is evidence that he’s good with a secret.

This is an extract from Amanda's book, Natural Born Keller, Allen & Unwin.

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