Robyn Malcolm: My Journey to Motherhood

The past 18 months have brought the greatest grief, the greatest joy and a career highlight for actress Robyn.

Joyful is the best word to describe Robyn Malcolm’s pregnancy. Not only does the 38-year old actress look wonderful and feel great, she’s profoundly happy to be six months into a healthy pregnancy. Like many women, Robyn hasn’t found her journey to motherhood to be the easy one she expected. There has been sadness and shock along the way and she has learned some tough lessons about life.

When asked how she feels she laughs, “I feel like a lamb to the slaughter. I mean, there are all those wonderful feelings associated with pregnancy – it’s a miracle, isn’t it? But I also feel a sense of a massive change about to happen and it’s daunting. I feel strange in a magnificent way, if that makes sense. There’s this little being growing inside my body and it’s weird! But there’s also an extraordinary comfort and loveliness to that feeling. I’ll wake at 3am, Allan will be asleep and I’ll feel the baby moving and have this spooky and wonderful sense of not being alone”.

When Robyn and her husband Allan Clark married three years ago they knew they wanted to have a family together. But their relationship was quite young and they thought it was important to spend time with each other first. “You know how teenagers believe they’re immortal? I think I believed my fertility was immortal too,” says Robyn. “I’d got so used to scheduling everything else in my life that I thought I could schedule pregnancy as well. So we cruised along and then, about two years after we got married, we decided to start trying. I thought I’d be pregnant the next month and of course, surprise surprise, it doesn’t happen like that”.

As the months passed and there was still no sign of a baby, Robyn couldn’t help wondering if she had left it too late. So, when a pregnancy test finally turned out to be positive she and Allan were thrilled to bits. “We were so excited we told everybody immediately and threw ourselves into planning for the future”.
There were other things happening in Robyn’s life too, of course. The former Shortland Street star was still busy acting. She’d also applied to do something that had been a long-held dream – to go to London to study the performance of Shakespeare at the famous Globe Theatre.

“Every year the Globe runs what they call their International Artistic Residency. Through the National Globe Centers around the world, they select a small group of mid-career actors to come and take part in a month-long workshop at their theatre. This year The Shakespeare Globe Centre New Zealand selected myself and Wellington actor/director Jonathon Hendry to receive the scholarship and represent New Zealand.”

Everything happened at once on 11 December last year. “That morning I got a call to say I’d been accepted to be one of the International Residents of the Globe in 2003,” Robyn explains, remembering how elated she felt at the news. “I rang Alan and we started talking about how we’d have a wee baby by then and we’d all have to go over as a family. Then, that afternoon, I miscarried”. Robyn couldn’t help blaming herself. “It was like my two worlds had collided,” she explains. “I thought, ‘There’s terrible meaning in this. How could I be a mother and do this course? Was I bad to want it all? Was I greedy?’ Such irrational feelings, I know, but nevertheless, acute at the time”.

Nothing in life had prepared her for the way she would grieve over her lost baby.
“I’d always thought that miscarriage was one of those difficult hurdles that you get over,” she admits. “But it was nothing like that. It was deep, deep pain. It was a death. And I got really scared. I was waking in the night just sobbing, wondering what was wrong with me. Then I talked to other women and they would say, ‘That’s it, that’s miscarriage. That’s what it feels like’.”

Talking proved to be the most healing thing of all for Robyn. She was lucky enough to be surrounded by an amazing collection of women – mother, sisters, friends, who were all able to offer such invaluable support to her and Allan. “Some of them had been through the same thing and I didn’t even know it – that’s how secretive people can be about miscarriage. But the minute I’d tell them, their eyes would fill up with tears and I’d realize they knew what I was talking about. I began to understand the mystery and guilt that seems to surround this part of a women’s life,” continues Robyn. “As well as the support, there were other people who found it difficult to understand the grief, often saying things like, ‘Oh well, it wasn’t meant to be. You can try again, just have a cry and get back on that horse.’ I guess because, in a way, it’s an unseen grief and difficult to relate to. And then of course came the question from one well-meaning person, ‘How can you feel this and still justify what you did six years ago?'”.

What Robyn did six years ago was choose to terminate an unplanned pregnancy. That question was difficult to answer. “My decision six years ago wasn’t made lightly,” she says. “I had to go right down the track of what would happen if I had that baby before I could make what was the healthy choice for me. I found it a deeply traumatic experience and it involved an enormous amount of grief. It’s interesting territory isn’t it? I’m pro-choice and I’d challenge anyone who might say that women choose to end pregnancies without a great deal of difficulty and pain. And yet, now, I’m not sure I could go through that process again myself. It’s a paradox, as I’m starting to understand much of life is. Last December I began blaming myself for the miscarriage,” she continues. “I’m clear about it now but then I started to wonder if I was being punished for having that termination. This guilt, I understand, is terribly common for women – we blame ourselves any way we can. Perhaps that explains the secrecy surrounding the issue. We feel guilty that our bodies can’t seem to carry a baby.”

For the next six months Robyn was overwhelmed with trying to cope with her loss. She felt completely directionless – unsure of where she was going in any aspect of her life. She still had the residency at the Globe Theatre to look forward to but had lost most of its excitement for her.

But then, in September of this year Robyn’s two worlds collided yet again – this time in the most wonderful way. “I was standing onstage in the Globe Theatre, in front of 700 people doing excerpts from Hamlet, and I was four months pregnant,” smiles Robyn who, seven months after her miscarriage, had fallen pregnant again. “It was a marvelous moment. It was about two elements in my life meeting briefly in a perfect way.

When our child gets older I’ll be able to show her or him the photos and say, ‘This was your first theatrical experience on the South Bank of London in Shakespeare’s Globe.’ It might not mean a toss to anybody else, including the child,” she laughs, ‘but it meant an awful lot to me.”

Robyn had an unforgettable time studying in what she describes as the most magical theatre she’s ever been in. She learned a great deal and says it’s completely changed her attitude to live performance. “Despite the fact that it is a replica of a theatre built in 1599 and the actors often work in traditional dress with traditional practices, it has a feeling of being an enormously contemporary space. You can’t tell me that 1500 people, 700 of them standing in the rain, for three-an-a-half hours watching an Elizabethan play, knowing they can leave whenever they like, is about anything other than a great theatrical experience.”

As amazing a time as she had at the Globe, Robyn was looking forward to returning to New Zealand and Allan, and the now relative safety of planning for a life of three.
There are piles of well-thumbed books about birth and parenthood beside her and Allan’s bed. “When I do something it tends to be 264 percent and this is no exception. I’m reading everything! And through this while journey of fertility, miscarriage, pregnancy and impending motherhood, I’m beginning to see how chaotic and powerful a part of life it is. To be given the opportunity to love and teach new life to negotiate its way around the world is a privilege but its also hugely demanding – from learning how to deal with a crying baby, to the issues of staying in the conventional workforce or not, to finding the ability to be more tolerant and flexible than you ever have before. My mum always says, ‘ The family is the factory where people are made’ – and that’s no mean responsibility! It does seem that mothers are still not given the kudos they truly deserve. I look at my own mother and those who surround me with an increasing respect.”

One of the most surprising things about this pregnancy for Robyn is how she feels about the changes to her body. “I’ve never been physically confident,” she explains. “I had lots of food and body issues when I was at school and then they were exacerbated by working in the worryingly body-obsessed film and TV industry. Initially when I got pregnant I could feel myself getting that nervous feeling you have when you know you’ve had a winter where you’ve eaten too much. I remember consciously telling myself this was an entirely different scenario and that I was being ridiculous. Then something snapped and I feel more comfortable with my body than I ever have. I think it’s because usually we are taught the shallow lesson, through the media, that our bodies are acceptable or not depending on how they look – such a lethal message. Now I feel my body is doing this unbelievable thing and because of that I’m really proud of it and I like it. It’s such a great lesson.”

Robyn is feeling so good she even went and tried on bikinis the other day. “I never wear bikinis,” she laughs. “You know that terrible experience – we’ve all had them – of being in those changing rooms, under the harsh lights, really close to the mirror – it’s never very attractive. But I was trying on these bikinis and thinking, ‘Hey I look good! I’m quite liking this. I might buy one and scare the locals for a couple of months.'”Robyn’s had a reasonably quiet time since she returned from London. She’s just started doing pregnancy yoga, which she highly recommends (“You feel like you could give birth to quintuples afterwards!”) and is about to start filming a new TV series, Serial Killers. However, she’s planning a far lighter schedule for next year to allow her to spend as much time as possible with the baby.

“I guess the past 18 months have taught me not to wish away anything too fast. I’m truly grateful to be in the position I am now – a healthy pregnancy, a husband who will make one of the world’s best fathers and the excitement of one of the greatest challenges life can offer just around the corner.”

Nicky Pellegrino
This story was originally published on 10th November 2003 in the New Zealand Woman’s Weekly and has been added to our website stories with the kind permission of Robyn Malcolm and editor Nicky Pellegrino.