Mary Coustas: 'How having a baby changed me'

Mary Coustas with longed-for daughter Jamie.
Mary Coustas with longed-for daughter Jamie. Photo: 60 Minutes

She longed to have a baby of her own and dedicated a decade of her life to making that dream become a reality. But when it came to holding other people's babies before she was a mum herself, Mary Coustas was not overly fussed. 

"Before this I had held newborns until they started crying, which would be pretty quickly, and then I would hand them back,'' Mary says. "I wanted my turn. I waited for my own experience and I worked hard for it.

"Now I'm discovering it all first-hand. There have been lots of overwhelmingly gratifying moments, from the minute that she came out alive and well. There was a high that came from that that's still peaking - the waves of relief are continuous.''

Mary Coustas with husband George and baby Jamie.
Mary Coustas with husband George and baby Jamie. Photo: 60 Minutes

When you hear Mary speak so glowingly about the first four months with daughter Jamie it is impossible not to smile. 

The much-loved comedian, best known for Wogs out of Work and her character Effie, endured a long and heart-breaking journey to become a mother - firstly to stillborn daughter Stevie in 2011, and then to baby girl Jamie in November last year at age 49. 

Mary's struggle with fertility started when she discovered she had blocked Fallopian tubes shortly after marrying the love of her life, advertising executive George Betsis in 2005.

It involved countless rounds of IVF, several trips to a fertility specialists in Greece to source donor eggs, miscarriage, the agonising decision to selectively reduce two babies in order to give the remaining triplet the best chance at life and, most tragically, the loss of that triplet, Stevie.

If anyone has earned the right to finally bask in the glow of new parenthood, it is Mary and George. And that is exactly what they are doing since the birth of Jamie.

"She's great,'' Mary says of her adored daughter, who will be four months old next week. "Because I struggled so hard to get her I try to get maximum enjoyment out of every moment. I didn't realise I would find a baby so compelling - it's just such a primal urge, such a satisfying experience."

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Mary believes her long path to parenthood has made any of the small annoyances of life with a young baby pale in comparison to the worries of the past 10 years. Like a lot of new mums, she has even learnt the joy that can come from baby poo.

"When she has a good poo, that's the best thing ever,'' Mary laughs. "When I see she has one, I think 'wow you must feel good now' and of course you I know it means everything is functioning as it should."

As for sleep deprivation, Mary is much happier losing sleep due to the demands of a newborn rather than the unhappiness she felt during years of trying to create a baby.

"I have better sleep now than before she was born because I'm not worried," she says. "When you are losing sleep because you are stressed, that is hard. I can nap while she's napping, there's a way around that stuff."

Mary is philosophical about how long it took for her to welcome a healthy baby into the world, saying the experience taught her she was capable of a lot more than she ever imagined. At one point when pregnant with Stevie, Mary believed she was having a miscarriage and began to have serious concerns about how she would cope mentally with more sadness.

"I thought it was going to be a miscarriage and I was scared I was going insane,'' she says. "But I didn't miscarry, I gave birth to a stillborn baby and I didn't go insane. I think people underestimate what they are capable of."

In some of the darkest days on her path to parenthood, Mary drew support from those around her and found strength within herself. 

She is heartened by the fact others have been inspired by her story, and that is the reason Mary decided to tell the truth about her battle to be a mum in her autobiography All I Know, which has just been re-released to include a chapter on Jamie's birth.

She describes the decision to use donor eggs as a difficult one for many women. However she said it would not  be helpful to others if she was not honest about how her daughter was created.

"I couldn't tell half the story, so I told my full story,'' she says. 

Jamie will one day realise how much of her mum's life was dedicated to having her. She will also know about her sister Stevie who occupies a special place in Mary's heart and family.

The all-consuming nature of Mary's quest to become a mum led to her putting the majority of her work projects on hold for several years. But now she has her beautiful baby girl in her arms she is ready to rediscover that part of her life. 

She feels fortunate that the nature of her work means she can combine it with caring for her baby. She also believes the experience motherhood has boosted her creativity.

"It's changed me in a good way,'' Mary says. "I'm a lot more empathetic. I cry at the drop of a hat but then I also laugh more. It lets you get closer to other people's pain and other people's joy. I have never felt more creatively stimulated as I have in the past few months."

Meanwhile, Mary's dreams for her child's future are much like those of all mums.

"I hope that she feels strong and valid as a young girl and that she runs her own race,'' she says."I just want her to feel like she's able to let her spirit soar as often as possible and have a great life."

The new edition of All I Know by Mary Coustas, which is updated to include a chapter on the birth of Jamie, is in bookstores now.