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Helena Bonham Carter: 'I would have tried anything, even IVF'

Catherine McDiarmid-Watt | Saturday, October 20, 2007 | 0 comments

Helena Bonham Carter, alternative therapy devotee, tells Andrea Manzi-Davies how she resorted to fertility drugs in her quest to conceive a second child at 41

Pregnancy at 41 certainly agrees with Helena Bonham Carter. Seven months into carrying her second child, vibrant and beaming, she is licking big globules of Marmite – her latest craving – off her fingers.

She knows she is lucky. Not because of her successful acting career maintained over 25 years but because, after trying for two long years, she finally managed to conceive naturally.

Bonham Carter already has one son, Billy Ray, four, with her partner, the cult film director Tim Burton, best known for the Gothic Edward Scissorhands and two of the Batman films.

But she was desperate to have a second child and, while more women are becoming mothers over the age of 40 – there has been a 50 per cent increase in the past 10 years – she was well aware that only 7.8 per cent of women over the age of 42 are able to conceive with their own eggs.

So, like many women in her position, the actress, whose career has moved from playing Merchant Ivory heroines to the evil Bellatrix Lestrange in the Harry Potter movies, was open to considering all options.

And while Bonham Carter is renowned for her interest in alternative therapies, after trying and failing to get pregnant she decided to try conventional fertility medicine. The experience was not a happy one.

She took a fertility drug called Clomid, which stimulates egg production, after being told that she might not have been ovulating. The drug, which was also taken by Jools Oliver, wife of the chef Jamie Oliver, and is prescribed on the NHS, tells the brain that not enough oestrogen is being produced. But Bonham Carter is angry that she was not warned about potential side-effects.

"I had a terrible reaction to it. Many people think it is the only thing that's going to make them ovulate, but as it turned out I was ovulating anyway. It stressed me out beyond belief. Hormonally, I was all over the shop and I got really low emotionally. Lots of people don't have that reaction, but on the internet I found a Clomid Club, with people who react to the stuff discussing it online."

Reassured that she was not the only one to suffer this way, she stopped using it and concentrated on alternative therapies. "I tried acupuncture two years ago," she says. "I went to the Chinese acupuncturist in Belsize Park. Dr Deng, who practices there, is brilliant, and has helped so many local people. She kept saying that I was 'too weak, too weak', and gave me several types of tea to help build my strength up."

She also tried Tui Na (literally "push and grasp"), a form of Chinese massage that follows the same pattern as acupuncture and is an alternative for patients anxious about needles.

But she still wasn't pregnant and the next option was to try IVF. "I think we probably would have, yes," she says now. "Obviously, you don't know what you'd do unless you were actually in that situation. I think we might have gone for a round of IVF, but that would have been that. There was an argument for just having one child, because we thought if that's the way it's meant to be, so be it."

Ironically, however, she finally became pregnant naturally, just when she was under intense pressure at work. Immersed in a demanding role as Mrs Lovett in the Stephen Sondheim musical Sweeney Todd (with Johnny Depp in the title role and directed by Burton), Bonham Carter was putting in long days with little sleep, singing for hours on end.

"I was working so hard at the time," she recalls. "The first three months being pregnant while filming, I felt totally spaced out. You do need to multi-task with acting. You've got to remember your marks, your lines, singing, everything, and actually – you have no brain! Suddenly your own brain is growing another person's brain, so yours goes defunct. It wasn't ideal, but then I was so happy to be pregnant."

At that time, she also returned to Listening Therapy, where patients listen to Mozart and Gregorian chants to help them unwind. The theory is that by exposing the muscles of the middle ear to different frequencies, concentration improves and stress decreases.

The therapy, based on the work of the French neurologist Alfred Tomatis, has been used to help children with learning difficulties but it is also offered to pregnant women to help them relax before giving birth.

Years ago, Bonham Carter used the therapy to learn a language for an acting role, and revisited it when she was expecting Billy Ray.

During pregnancy, the technique is supposed to produce an alert, relaxed, and physically toned baby, and an easy delivery because it calms the mother. "That was absolutely the case for me with Billy," she says. "Billy was able to hold his head up at a very early stage, he was very laid-back, and although I love chubby babies, Billy has always been physically toned. I really think listening therapy might have helped a lot. The birth wasn't drama-free, but I felt very relaxed."

Despite their reputation for unconventionality – they live in separate houses connected by a hallway – both she and Burton attended antenatal classes before Billy was born. A fan of homoeopathy, she would have preferred a natural birth but "when it came to it, I just went for an epidural", she says. "Although arnica and camomile were really helpful afterwards, what I'd like to know is if there is anything for new fathers." In fact there is; homoeopaths recommend Arg Nit (silver nitrate) or aconite, which can be used for shock and panic, as well as vitamin-B complex and Rescue Remedy.

This time Bonham Carter is, she says, more relaxed about her pregnancy although she has had to give up some treats. "One of my favourite dishes is carpaccio and I love sushi but I've avoided them during this pregnancy," she says. "Obviously anything with raw eggs is forbidden, too. I don't drink caffeine as much as I would normally and try to restrict myself to one cup of coffee a day."

Instead she has become a glutton for peppermint tea and is also snacking on goji berries, hailed as the latest superfood – they are said to have more betacarotene than carrots, more vitamin C than oranges and more iron than steak. As we speak, she wolfs down slices of soda bread with a generous layer of butter and large dollops of Marmite (enriched with Guinness).

She will be giving birth in a hospital again – although she does not reveal which hospital nor will she give details of her birth plan. Is it safe to assume that the hospital will run the show? Or will Burton revert to type and suggest a Gothic birth? There are gales of unrestrained laughter. "Oh no! The hospital I hope…"


Listening Therapy
Listening therapy was developed by Alfred Tomatis, a French neurologist who now has 200 centres around the world. Patients are "taught" by listening to a series of music tapes over six months. This is said to re-educate the middle-ear muscles and aid concentration. It is used to help children with problems such as attention deficit disorder and autism, and is also offered to pregnant women to make them feel more relaxed.

Acupuncture is an ancient Chinese treatment, based on the premise that illness is due to an imbalance of "vital energy" (qi) said to flow through the body along 12 "meridians". Needles are stuck into these meridians to restore the energy. With lower back pain some studies have shown acupuncture achieves better results than conventional treatment, and it is also used for fertility problems, stress, addiction and pain relief. The British Acupuncture Council regulates acupuncturists.

Traditional Chinese medicine
TCM is a range of medical practices developed in China over several thousand years. Treatment is usually a combination of herbal remedies — either taken in tablet form or as a "tea" of barks, roots and herbs — acupuncture and Tui Na massage. There has been concern about unregistered and poorly trained practitioners working in the UK; registered TCM doctors can be found through the Association of Traditional Chinese Medicine.


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About Catherine: I am mom to three grown sons, two grandchildren and two rescue dogs. After years of raising my boys as a single mom, I remarried a wonderful man who had never had a child of his own. Unexpectedly, I found myself pregnant at 49!
Sadly we lost that precious baby at 8 weeks, and decided to try again. Five more losses, turned down for donor egg, foster care and adoption due to my age and losses - we have accepted that there will be no more babies in our house.

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