“I became an expert in pretending I was OK” Jessica Rowe on IVF and motherhood

TV presenter Jessica Rowe speaks with The Baby Project about her IVF journey, postnatal depression, and finding herself again.

Shot of a beautiful pregnant woman with the sun drawn onto her belly against the background of the ocean

It was the phone call in her dressing-room just before she was due on air that left television presenter and journalist Jessica Rowe filled with rage and grief and running to hide beneath her doona, sobbing. After 28 days of injections, nasal sprays, blood tests and ultrasounds, her IVF nurse had called with the news that Rowe had ovulated early – two days before the scheduled egg collection. For Rowe, it was yet another setback in a long, painful and uncertain IVF journey.

“I called my boss and told him I couldn’t do the news, and then raced home,” she says. “I really wasn’t coping.”

Jessica Rowe is opening up about her experience with IVF, she says, to help lift the stigma of shame and silence surrounding fertility treatment and to support women going through it.

In her memoir Is This My Beautiful Life?, Rowe tells her IVF story and talks openly about her struggle with postnatal depression.

At age 35, Rowe was diagnosed with polycystic ovarian syndrome; a condition that meant she didn’t ovulate every cycle and only produced a few eggs a year. It was unlikely that Rowe and her TV journalist husband Peter Overton would ever conceive naturally.

“So I thought, yeah OK, we’ll do IVF and it will be an inconvenience, but at the end we will have a baby,” she says. “I thought it was guaranteed, but it just didn’t end up being like that.”

Rowe approached IVF with the determination and organisation that has seen her rise to the top of her field – and was totally thrown when it didn’t work. “I felt completely powerless,” she says. “I was doing everything that the doctor said, and yet I wasn’t getting pregnant! It was completely out of my hands. I really had to work at managing my expectations. I just tried to keep positive and celebrate all the little victories, all the little steps along the way.”

Like many women undergoing IVF, Rowe began to see pregnant women everywhere. All her friends seemed to be falling pregnant and having babies, and a startling number of people seemed to think it was perfectly acceptable to discuss her childless status, asking when she was going to start reproducing and warning her of the dangers of waiting too long.

“I just wanted to shout ‘I’m on IVF! I don’t know if I will ever be a mother, OK?’”

If IVF is difficult to begin with, one can only imagine what it is like being a celebrity trying to maintain some privacy. While their clinic went to some lengths to protect the couple, such as allowing them to enter and exit through a staff entrance, hiding the effects of the drugs was a little harder. “I had such bad acne, a result of the hormones, and every night the makeup people had to cake the foundation on to cover it up,” remembers Rowe.

And added to this pressure, Rowe was involved in legal action with Channel 10.

“You know, it’s that cliché that you don’t know how strong you are until you go through these terrible times, and it is through difficult times that you learn life’s lessons,” Rowe laughs. “Of course that’s true, but sometimes I felt like shouting, ‘Enough! I don’t need to learn any more lessons!’”

Eventually, after four failed cycles, Rowe became pregnant with her daughter Allegra, now eight. Two years later, her second daughter Giselle was conceived naturally.

Like most women, Rowe was totally unprepared for new motherhood.

Following the birth of Allegra, difficulties breastfeeding and complete exhaustion led to feelings of inadequacy and despair that soon spiralled into postnatal depression.

Not that you would know it. “I became an expert in pretending I was OK,” Rowe says. “I loved my baby, of course, but I felt out of control, overwhelmed and desperately unhappy. Everyone says it’s the happiest time of your life but I was feeling it was the unhappiest I had ever been.

“But I just felt like I had no right to complain. This is what I had always wanted, this is what we had gone through so much to get. I felt like a failure.”

Rowe is no stranger to mental illness and had worked for many years with the mental health support organisation Beyond Blue. Having grown up with a bipolar mother, Rowe had spoken on many occasions about her family’s struggle, and the challenges of having a parent with mental health issues.

“Oh the irony!” says Rowe. “For years I had speaking about depression, urging people to seek help, letting them know that help and support is out there. And here I was doing exactly what I was encouraging other people not to do!”

Ultimately it was a phone call from Beyond Blue, asking her to become a spokesperson for postnatal depression that forced Rowe to accept her condition and seek help.

After opening up to her husband and family, Rowe underwent counselling and began a course of medication, and after a while began to feel the darkness disperse and her sense of optimism return.

During her second pregnancy, Rowe experienced some anxiety that the postnatal depression might return. This time though she was in a better position to identify the triggers and sought help immediately.

Pregnancy and motherhood has been quite a ride, with extreme highs and lows, and it was the lows that spurred Rowe to write the book. “I’m a big believer in the power of sharing experiences,” she says. “Honesty is how we support each other.

“Writing the book was challenging because I had to revisit a really painful period in my life. But of course I am looking at it with different eyes now – I have my two gorgeous daughters. I know how the story ends.”

Is This My Beautiful Life by Jessica Rowe is published by Allen & Unwin and retails for $29.99.

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