Her baby dreams have been dashed many times over, but Shortland Street star Ria Vandervis isn’t giving up. She talks to Sophie Neville about guilt, gratitude and her sister’s generous gift.
“It feels good to talk about it,” says Ria Vandervis, through tears. The Shortland Street star has done many interviews during her eight years on the iconic Kiwi soap, but never once has she spoken publicly about one of the most important things in her life. Today, though, she’s sharing her story with Woman, opening up about her and her husband Chris Ashton’s heartbreaking six-year battle for a baby.
“There’s so much shame and a sense of failure wrapped up in fertility and miscarriage,” says the 36-year-old, who plays doctor and mother of two Harper Whitley on the show. “It can be such a lonely experience, but I think that if we start talking more it could really help.”
Although it’s undoubtedly a sad subject, it’s a smiling Ria who rushes into the Shortland Street cafeteria for our chat just before Christmas. Wearing high-waisted jeans, a white singlet and with her hair piled high on her head, she’s a bundle of energy – her beloved pooch Maeby at her feet. “Up you come!” she says, lifting the adorable schnauzer-foxy-Jack Russell cross onto her lap as she settles in with a coffee.
Ria’s been through the mill over the past six years, but hope is finally on the horizon in the form of ultimate gift: her younger sister Lottie has donated eggs and, right now, there are five embryos waiting on ice. It’s exciting, but after so much disappointment, Ria isn’t counting her chickens yet. This instinctive self-protection is something many women who’ve experienced fertility problems will understand – and Ria has more reasons than most to be cautious.
“It’s been pretty exhausting,” she says as she begins her story. It starts back in 2014 when, two years after she and company director Chris got married, they decided to try for a baby. They knew getting pregnant could take a while, but after months of disappointment, it started to become clear their path to parenthood might not be straightforward.
After visiting a GP and being referred on to specialists, Ria was diagnosed with polycystic ovary syndrome and endometriosis, where uterine tissue grows outside the uterus. Ria had always suffered bad period pain, but had no idea it was something more serious. Both conditions can affect fertility, so it was a devastating blow.
After surgery to remove the endo, Ria was put on the waiting list for publicly funded IVF, and the couple thought they were on the home straight. “We felt really hopeful about the IVF,” says Ria, ruefully. “We thought that would be it and we’d be sorted.”
Believing a natural conception impossible, they were amazed several months later when Ria discovered she was pregnant. Pulling out her phone from her bag, she shows us a photo taken on the red carpet at the NZ Television Awards in November 2017.
“This is the day I found out I was pregnant,” she says, holding out the phone with the picture of her looking glamorous and beaming in a gorgeous black jumpsuit. “I remember that night so well. I was totally freaked out. I was so, so happy but also in total shock because we didn’t think we could do it naturally.”
Ria and Chris were over the moon and, from a work perspective, the timing couldn’t have been better as Ria’s Shorty character Harper had just become pregnant, too.
“I remember thinking how perfect it was that it had worked out that way,” says Ria. Over the next few weeks, she shared her news with close friends and family, and followed the pregnancy rulebook to a tee, eating all the right foods and steering clear of anything off-limits.
Things seemed to be going well, and at the seven-week scan, the couple heard their baby’s heartbeat for the first time. Ria will never forget Chris’ reaction. “He was just so super-stoked,” she recalls. “He was absolutely beaming.”
But six weeks later, Ria was out for dinner with friends on Waiheke Island when her tummy started cramping. She went to the bathroom and discovered spotting.
“I was hoping it wasn’t what I thought it was, but overnight the cramps increased, so I went to hospital the next day. It was pretty distressing. I was terrified, actually.”
After sitting in the waiting room all day, she was finally given a scan and told there was a 95% chance she was losing the baby. She was sent home to wait it out, and eventually miscarried her baby alone in the bathroom.
“It was awful,” she says through tears. In a cruel twist, a grieving Ria had to carry on at work as her character Harper’s pregnancy continued. Each day for the next few months, she’d pull on a fake baby bump and act out the excitement and emotions that she herself had missed out on. She even had to endure a labour scene when Harper gave birth to baby Billy.
“I just had to put a block up for myself and try not to go there, because it was pretty close to home. I had to compartmentalise everything,” she says. “I remember asking my sister, who’d recently had a baby, for tips with the labour scene and she said ‘Just pretend you’re f***ing dying!’”
Feelings of failure
Doing her best to remain upbeat, Ria tells her story through both laughter and tears. She couldn’t have got through it, she says, without the constant support of Chris, their “wonderful friends”, and her mum Jo and sisters Lottie and Zina.
But despite being surrounded by love, in the months after her miscarriage, Ria started experiencing feelings of loneliness and guilt. A sense of failure started to creep in, and although she’d perfected the art of pretending she was OK, she realised she wasn’t coping. “I started thinking it was my fault it had happened. Even though I’d been eating good food and doing everything I was meant to, it was still all wrapped up in shame and failure. That was quite scary for me, because I’m a logical person and I sort of knew it was crazy.”
Seeing a counsellor helped enormously, she says, adding that she counts herself lucky she could pay for therapy and didn’t have to endure the five-month wait for publicly funded sessions.
“I can see now that it’s ridiculous to try to go through that experience of miscarriage alone,” she says. “I’d really encourage people to talk to your friends about it. The counselling was invaluable – it totally sorted me out.”
In 2018, with their IVF treatment looming, Ria admits she became a little obsessed with the quest for a baby. Vaginal steaming, acupuncture, abdominal massage and lipidol flushes, where poppy seed oil is washed through the uterus while X-rays are taken – you name it, she tried it. Ria also read It Starts with the Egg, a book about the science of egg quality, and followed its advice fully, adopting a vegan diet, cutting out all refined sugar, refined carbohydrates, coffee and alcohol. She even refused to touch receipts to avoid the chemical BPA, which is often used in the coating and is believed to affect fertility.
By the time their first IVF treatment rolled around in mid-2018, Ria and Chris were feeling hopeful. It wasn’t to be, though. Ria’s egg-stimulation process hadn’t worked and doctors were unable to harvest any eggs. “That was absolutely devastating,” she says. “I wasn’t prepared for that outcome at all.”
Next came an unsuccessful attempt at IUI (artificial insemination), and then a different system of egg stimulation, which resulted in two eggs being harvested. But hope was short-lived when neither of these fertilised when joined with Chris’ sperm.
“I was gutted,” says Ria. “I was starting to feel really let down and really upset.”
Their last round of IVF, in 2019, was their most promising yet – one healthy embryo was created and the couple thought their luck had finally changed.
“It was a grade A, perfect embryo. I was thinking, ‘This is it! This is the one!’”
Devastatingly, it didn’t result in a pregnancy after being transferred into Ria’s womb. It was an agonising time and, like many couples, Ria and Chris were hit hard by grief and stress. Over the course of their fertility journey, they’ve had times where they’ve argued, times when Ria’s felt Chris wasn’t as committed as she is, and times when they’ve both felt misunderstood. But now they’ve come to a place where their life is full and happy, and the battle for a baby is only one part of it.
“We’ve really consciously had to not let it take over our lives,” explains Ria. “It’s been going on so long, we’ve had to learn to live alongside it rather than let it take over. We have so much other stuff happening and we’ve actually got to the point where we’re calm about what comes next and how things turn out.”
It’s been going on so long, we’ve had to learn to live alongside it rather than let it take over.
Nevertheless, Ria admits the sadness sometimes sneaks up on her. Most of her friends have families, so it can be hard at social gatherings when she’s the only one without a baby in her arms.
“I do feel a bit sad at times… Recently I was watching some fireworks with friends and I was the only one without children, and that definitely was hard.”
She also feels for Chris, who she says will be the most amazing dad. “He’s like that really fun uncle, the one who’s always out there playing with all the kids.”
A sister’s gift
Last year, when Ria and Chris were on the verge of giving up, they were offered an incredible lifeline by the actor’s younger sister Lottie. The 30-year-old architect offered to donate her eggs in the hope the couple might have success that way.
They were blown away by this selfless act, but it wasn’t the only gesture from a family member – Ria’s other sister Zina also volunteered to help, but her reproductive hormone levels were not as high as Lottie’s.
“My sisters are the best,” smiles Ria. “We were a bit wary about the whole thing, but Lottie just kept saying, ‘I’m really serious – I’d love to do that for you.’”
Ria continues, “It was a big thing to consider, but I think because it’s my sister, it was less of a decision… If we are lucky enough to get children out of this, the DNA will be so close to mine and it’ll be me carrying it, so we’re really comfortable with it.”
Ria was by her sister’s side, holding her hand as she had her eggs harvested. They were thrilled when the IVF process then resulted in five healthy embryos, the first of which was due to be transferred mid-last year.
But, once again, things didn’t quite go to plan, when Ria was found to have toxoplasmosis, a common infection that’s usually caused by eating infected meat or by exposure to cat faeces (often via soil). Although it’s most often harmless, it can cause serious problems in pregnant women and their unborn babies, so Ria’s embryo transfer was delayed by another six months.
“I almost just had to laugh,” says Ria, with a shrug. “I’ve got to the point where it’s like, ‘What’s gonna happen next?!’ It was a bit gutting, but the most important thing is it was picked up; thank god for my amazing GP who noticed my glands were up. And I’m doing my best to look on the bright side – I get to have a nice summer eating and drinking everything I want with my friends and family.”
Given Ria and Chris, who both hail from Dunedin, have a new home on Waiheke Island, there’s no doubt she’ll be spending a lot of time relaxing in the sun and catching up with friends in the coming weeks – although she’s the first to admit that relaxing isn’t actually her strong suit.
“I’m a very active person, I don’t know how to chill out. I call myself an active relaxer – but I do think I should take more time to not do so much.”
The couple are serial renovators – they bought the house just before New Zealand went into lockdown in 2020 and spent their isolation in a DIY frenzy. It’s their fourth big do-up, and something Ria, who started an architecture degree before switching to acting, can’t get enough of.
“We’ve got pretty good at doing it all ourselves,” she says, explaining they also have an apartment in Auckland city to use as a base when they’re working. “I do all the finishing – painting, laying floors, tiling… It’s kind of the way my mind works. I’m quite logical, I can figure it out.”
Ria is certainly a woman with many strings to her bow, also working with Chris in their printed apparel and promo business Konstruct, plus her side gig as a marriage celebrant. Summer is always a busy time for weddings and this year is no different. She loves presiding over these happy occasions, getting to know the couples first and preparing highly personal ceremonies.
“It’s all about telling a couple’s story,” she says. “The thing I love about marriage is that even though it’s just some words and a piece of paper, it’s actually a whole lot more. I know that for us, being married deepens and enriches our relationship.”
She’s forever grateful to Chris for being by her side during their roller-coaster fertility journey, and tells us they’re now cautiously looking forward to February or March, when Ria will have the first of the embryos using Lottie’s eggs transferred. They have everything crossed, but she’s keeping her expectations in check.
“The way I’m looking at it is: science is an amazing thing and hopefully it will happen.”
The way I’m looking at it is: science is an amazing thing and hopefully it will happen.
“But it’s also true that you can find joy in other ways. I’m a godmother to my best friend’s son, I’m an aunty, which I love, and Chris and I have a great life. No matter what happens, we know we’re really lucky.”