Fertility

Amanda Gillies' infertility heartbreak

One of the most unfortunate aspects of endometriosis is the fact the bloating symptoms mean she can sometimes look pregnant.

By Emma Clifton

When you Google Amanda Gillies, the results point to a story from Three's The AM Show that screened last May. Presenter Duncan Garner was interviewing a fertility expert when the chat turned personal and both newsreader Amanda and co-host Mark Richardson opened up about their [individual fertility struggles].

Despite a journalism career that spans almost two decades, it's this five minutes of television that currently define her. (It should come as no surprise that the story doesn't appear when you search Mark's name.)

It was an interview she'd intended to stay out of, she says. "If I'm honest with you, I couldn't actually take part in the conversation, because I found it too hard at the time. But the boys both knew my situation, and I trust them both and completely adore them both."

It was only after Mark had shared he and his wife Mary's battle to conceive – and became choked up during the process – that Amanda realised she was willing to do the same.

"I thought, 'If you're strong enough to tell your stories, I should too." And so Amanda discussed being childless in her 40s, and that this made her feel like a failure as a woman. It's raw and emotional to watch, even months later.

It was not a planned admission, she says. "I'm really personal about it, because I also respect that it's everyone's own choice. And it is, for a woman, quite a heartbreaking thing to have to deal with. There have been a lot of tears shed for me. But it came up."

And so she talked, with Mark beside her and Duncan instinctively reaching over to hold her hand. It was a tender little moment between three colleagues that went viral. The feedback was immediate.

"To cry on national TV was hard," says Amanda.

"But the response was humbling – beautiful people giving their honest stories of what they've been through, and you realise how many people go through it. And you think of how many people have had happy endings and how many people have had devastating endings, but we're all in it together."

She's replied to as many of the people that came forward as possible and believes the reason it struck such a chord is because it's a topic that's not really talked about. Women's bodies – particularly their wombs – are so often considered suitable topics of conversation, and yet there's a silence that surrounds fertility issues.

"I think the hardest thing someone ever said to me was, 'You don't understand because you're not a mum,'" says Amanda.

"I thought, 'Wow, that hurts.' There was no, 'Why aren't you a mum?' A lot of people said to me, 'Oh, I thought you didn't want kids – I thought your career was more important.'"

She acknowledges that the topic is a minefield for a lot of people.

"One of the first things people ask when someone gets married is, 'When are the kids coming along?' And it's such a hard question! To say, 'Actually, I can't have kids', or 'It's too far gone for me to have kids' or that it's the guy who can't have kids… No one, for whatever reason, wants to discuss that. And it's a heartbreaking thing because you take it for granted that it's what you do."

Amanda tells younger female colleagues to work having kids into their career path, if they want to start a family.

"I tell them not to wait too long, because your body won't wait with you." At 41, Amanda knows the odds are not in her favour. "But I won't give up hope. I refuse to give up hope… Miracles are a wonderful thing."

"I didn't take it that seriously. I didn't know what endometriosis was. Because no one really talked about it. I was oblivious."

Amanda insisted on going to Australia to cover the elections, even though it meant she got home at 2am on the day of her first surgery. The second surgery, however, forced her to realise how serious her condition was.

"I thought, 'I don't want to live like this. I don't want to be this unhappy, sick, tired and grumpy."

Having now cut dairy, gluten and alcohol from her diet, her health seems to be slowly improving.

For Amanda, one of the most unfortunate aspects of endometriosis is the fact the bloating symptoms mean she can sometimes look pregnant.

"What I often get is, 'Congratulations, when are you due?'" she says drily.

She lists four occasions off the top of her head: At a funeral she was covering "a reporter bailed me up outside"; at a media line-up outside a court with a policeman, "I said, 'Congratulations on your promotion,' and he looked down and went to rub my belly and said, 'Congratulations to you too!'"; and at a baby shower for her best friend, "One of the lovely older ladies there said, 'Isn't it wonderful that you two are having babies at the same time?'"

The most recent misunderstanding was far more public. A friend had bought her an adult tap dancing lesson, as part of her Life After 40 plan, and the resulting video got put on The AM Show's Facebook page. One comment reads: "Is she pregnant?"

"It's funny," says Amanda. "You don't want to talk about it, but people are happy to ask if you've had one too many pies and not invested in Spanx. It's a funny wee world."

Funny is a generous way to put it.

It's confronting for a lot of women to talk about their health; and it's even more so for a journalist trained not to make themselves the story.

"You never expose yourself; you don't give an opinion. You're always straight down the middle, both sides of the argument. You're Amanda the reporter,' not 'Amanda the person'."

News is the Gillies' family business; if you've ever picked up a copy of the Gisborne Herald, you'll have seen the byline everywhere. In 1997, when Amanda was starting out, it was all Gillies, all the time at the local paper. Amanda's uncle was the editor; two cousins ran the proof-reading department. She had the opposite of a family advantage.

"I think they'd just had enough of the Gillies, so there was a vacancy and I didn't get it!"

As a result, she went into radio for a year – "I'll put it on record that I was probably the worst drive-time radio host ever" – but it was good training for live TV, she says, because it taught her how to "talk and talk". She eventually got a job at the paper, but it was another role that kickstarted her career.

"I'd done a week's work experience at TV3 because it's where another cousin worked – nothing like a bit of nepotism – so I celebrated my 21st birthday there."

While interning, she came to the attention of Mark Jennings – the news chief who was influential in the careers of Hilary Barry, Samantha Hayes, John Campbell and more. He told her she had potential, and to work as a journalist then come back in a few years.

But he kept an eye out for her and when a job came up, Amanda got a call. She and her then partner were about to head off on their OE when she was asked to do a last-minute audition. She did the test, flew to Sydney for the world's shortest OE – two days – before heading home to take up the job.

"I said to my partner, 'We may be here a year or two at most.' That was 16 years ago."

Amanda started at Nightline, but had her eye on heading to the 6pm news to "play with the big kids". She worked in Christchurch, then Wellington, then Australia, always as a reporter. Early on in her career, Mark had told her he never saw her as a presenter, thinking instead she'd make "one hell of a reporter". It was, in a way, freeing.

"I never set foot in the studio to present – I never asked to. It wasn't even on my radar."

She loved the immediacy of being on the ground, the intimacy of telling people's stories. When a big story was breaking, she would be the one texting, "I'm on my way to the airport" in a race against Mike McRoberts to see who'd get there first.

Being in the thick of it had been her bread and butter for a long time, whether heading to Sri Lanka after the devastating tsunami, getting her microphone punched out of her hands by Frank Bainimarama in Fiji, or accompanying a devastated Kiwi family to their decimated Melbourne home after the deadly 2009 bushfires.

But when the opportunity came up in late 2016 to fill in on former 7pm show Story, alongside Duncan, she thought it might be a good challenge.

It was a bit of a rocky start: the TV3 premises had gone through a recent reconstruction and she was so far removed from the presenting side of things she didn't even know where the studio was. Once she found it, her nerves kicked in.

"I was sweating and my hands were shaking so badly that Duncan was like, 'Sh*t, girl, you're making me nervous.' He held my hand and said, 'No, we can do this. I've got your back and we're going to be fine.'"

They were – and the natural banter between them made TV3 sit up and take notice. At the end of the year, Amanda was asked if she'd be interested in taking on the newsreader role for the rebooted The AM Show. And now here we are.

Amanda's final 3News sign off prior to her move to Newshub.
Amanda's final 3News sign off prior to her move to Newshub.

Despite having been part of The AM Show for a year, she's still "traumatised" daily by her 3.20am alarm clock. Getting out the door every morning requires military precision.

Her first alarm goes off at 3.20am; the second at 3.30am; and then she checks social media for the big news stories of the day.

Everything (from her outfit hanging on the back of the bedroom door, to her toast, plate and knife ready to roll beside the toaster) is laid out the night before, so there's as little as possible to think about in those cruel wee hours.

"If someone recorded me every day, they'd think I had serious issues. But it's the only way I cope."

But despite the ungodly wake-up hour, it's an extremely fun set. "At four o'clock in the morning, when there could be a lot of anger and grumpiness, there's a lot of laughter and singing."

The team, including the behind-the-scenes crew who keep it all on track, are her saving grace.

Becoming a newsreader after spending so long as a reporter was a steep learning curve, she says.

"For the first couple of months, I was so out of my comfort zone it wasn't funny."

Almost a year later, "I finally feel like I'm getting there."

It's not lost on her that she's starting her presenting career at least a decade later than it usually happens. Samantha Hayes, for instance, was shoulder-tapped in her early 20s.

"If you'd have asked me five years ago if, at 40, I'd be presenting for a morning show, I would have said, Hell no!'"

The exciting, scary new role came hot on the heels of her 40th, a milestone birthday Amanda admits she felt a bit daunted by.

"You get to the point where you think, 'God, have I done everything I want to do?' To be honest, I thought I'd be a mum by 40. I thought I'd be married. You start looking at the negatives. I thought I'd be in better shape by 40! I thought I'd be a homeowner."

It was only when a friend pointed out just how lucky she's been that Amanda says she snapped out of it. Then things in both her professional and personal life kicked up a notch; she got The AM Show, and met her partner. She won't delve into the details on their romance, other than saying he's "the loveliest person in the world".

Life is good, she says. "I don't plan too far in advance any more. More tap dancing lessons would be good. More time with my girlfriends and my family."

Having said that, any long-term plan would probably involve a move back to Gisborne. "One day I'll get myself a place on the beach. With a rocking chair, and maybe a surfboard, and a pair of tap shoes."

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