Liz Ellis felt a strong responsibility towards telling people’s stories about their “infertility journey”.
“Almost to a person, they all said they wanted to tell their story to help somebody else,” Ellis says. “Writing this book totally restored my faith in human nature because you can see what the human heart is capable of.”
Ellis, 45, the former Australian netball captain, is talking about her book, If At First You Don’t Conceive, a “friendly” guide to tackling infertility, based on her own experiences, those of many others who shared their stories and a range of experts.
To collate the stories, Ellis put a call out on social media for people who had experienced infertility to contact her. The stories, many told over the phone, were extraordinary.
“I spoke to people who had the most emotional stories. I’d often speak to people after I’d put the kids to bed and I’d be on the phone, tapping away, bawling my eyes out because their stories were amazing.
“To see what people are prepared to do for love is amazing, either because they love their partner or they want a family to love.”
Ellis lives with husband Matthew Stocks and their two children – Evelyn, six, and Austin, two, on a 64-hectare cattle farm near Byron Bay. “We have a very gentle life; the kids have all the freedom in the world. They spend a lot of time muddy, I spend a lot of time hosing them down … they are my world.”
Her book is a story of love and resilience. “I spoke to a woman who went through 19 rounds of IVF to get her twin boys. She miscarried twins at 20 weeks after 12 rounds and her story of having to give birth and seeing her husband talk to these dead babies … I get emotional thinking about that conversation. She was so resilient, so determined that she was going to have her family.”
Ellis notes that one in six couples in Australia is affected by infertility. She and Stocks were one of them, their five-year struggle including five rounds of IVF and miscarriages.
As someone who had been “on the infertility highway without a GPS”, Ellis was in a good position to make a series of calls to people she didn’t know about a most intimate subject. And it helped to be well known. “Yes, because people trusted me,” she says. “I cold-called IVF specialists and obstetricians, and when they knew who I was they were happy to sit and chat.” Her social media reach of 22,000 followers was useful, too.
Asking strangers about difficult topics such as infertility and miscarriage was daunting. “There are no words to talk about the grief like that. If someone’s father dies, you know the words. If you have an IVF transfer and there’s nothing there, what are the words to talk about the grief for something that never was?”
She says there remains a stigma. “I want people to talk about it because there is a stigma attached to it a little bit around what’s not working, whose fault is it. Forget the fault, forget not working; this is what you’re going through.” But people were relieved to tell their story. “A number hadn’t told their story before, particularly men. Infertility is not [only] a women’s issue. It’s equal male-and-female factors.”
Ellis says women and men approach the journey in different ways. “A lot of women I spoke to still felt like it affected their femininity, that the biological reason for me to be here is to reproduce, regardless of career,” she says.
“When you want that baby, you want that baby. It was a hard thing for women to get their head around. But women are more able to talk about it. They confide in their friends; they’re used to having that conversation with people.”
She says getting men to talk about it was difficult. “They didn’t want to talk to me about it because there’s a stigma to infertility, around feeling emasculated … that you’re not as masculine as the bloke who’s got a great sperm count. My husband got his sperm count back and they said ‘you’ve got A-grade sperm’ and he was like ‘I’ve got excellent sperm!’ It’s such a pride thing.”
She says the sense of relief when men did address it was “almost palpable”. “I spoke to a man who said he found it really hard dealing with his infertility … they used donor sperm, but when the baby came out that baby was his. He was so emotional in the telling of it, you couldn’t help get caught up in that emotion.”
Ellis says it’s a story about love – wanting to share love with a child and the rocky road towards that quest, including the pressure on relationships.
“My conclusion is that infertility treatment will exacerbate what is already there. So if you have a relationship that is strong but you need to communicate better, fertility treatment magnifies that and shows you must communicate. If you have a relationship that is rocky to start with, then infertility will absolutely tear that apart.”
Ellis was impressed with the courage of people who shared their stories. “One woman said ‘I want my story to be a beacon for other women’. She gave me lots of notes and someone else gave her diary; very personal. I felt the reason they were giving me their story was to light the way for others.”
- If At First You Don’t Conceive
- $34.99, out now