Listen: Former Aussie netball captain Liz Ellis chats to Katrina Roe.
Liz Ellis is a household name for her stellar career in netball and in the media, after rising through the netball ranks to become captain of the Australian Team.
But a lesser-known part of her story is her five-year battle with what’s called secondary infertility: the struggle to conceive her second child.
After a difficult journey that she never expected, Liz has shared what she learnt in her new book, IF At First You Don’t Conceive. It’s a comprehensive, practical guidebook to tackling infertility and the practical and emotional challenges that come along with it.
First Time Was Easy, Second Time Tough
Chatting to Hope 103.2’s Katrina Roe, Liz said that having children wasn’t part of her original game plan, but she and her husband decided to give it a try after she retired from netball. She was reaching her late 30s at the time, and if they were going to do it, now was the moment to start.
Their first child came incredibly easily. Liz fell pregnant within six weeks of trying and nine months later a healthy little girl was born.
“We thought, ‘this having babies business is easy!’”.
Baby number two didn’t come anywhere near as quickly. When their eldest was still only nine months old, Liz and her husband fell pregnant again; it was their first miscarriage in what was to be a five-year journey.
“That was the beginning for us of this engagement with the infertility industry, and understanding that we were suffering from secondary infertility,” Liz said.
She says that as a successful, elite sportsperson, it was a shock to realise this was something she just couldn’t control.
“I had a body that had always done what it was told to do,” she said. “When I needed to be fitter, I just got fitter. When I wanted to be stronger I worked hard and got stronger. And suddenly there was a problem. We either couldn’t conceive, or when we did there was a miscarriage.”
The emotions she went through were many: there was even guilt for not being happier.
“Occasionally you’d just feel, there are people who haven’t had their first baby, and here I am feeling sorry for myself because I couldn’t get my second baby. You almost judge yourself.”
If You’re Having Fertility Treatment, Plan Your Approach
Now a happy mother of two, Liz’s keen to encourage other men and women who are on the fertility journey. Her two biggest pieces of advice are around nurturing your relationship with your partner, and planning in advance.
“Always keep in mind why you’re trying to have your baby, and that’s because you love each other,” she said. “Try and remain intimate—even though that intimacy is almost [a means to an end]. Intimacy is probably one of the things that goes by the wayside but is one of the things you need the most.”
“The other thing is, IVF is expensive. During our treatment you get to the point where you ask, how do you know when to stop? Think about what point financially you’re prepared to go to, or how
many years or months you’re prepared to try for.”
Liz says that by deciding ahead of time how far you will go with a treatment like IVF, you will have a helpful roadmap later when you’re too emotional to think clearly.
“Intimacy is probably one of the things that goes by the wayside but is one of the things you need the most.”
“If you’re trying to figure out when to stop when you’re in the middle of it, you actually use a different part of your brain…the ’Lizard Brain’, the basic instincts for survival—fight, flight, reproduction, fear. If you’re trying to use that part of your brain you’re not going to make a decision that’s best for you. The decision will be, ’keep going until you reproduce, regardless of the consequences’.
“But before you start, you’ll use a part of your brain that is built for reasoning and logic and gathering all the available information. So before you go in, have an idea about when might be enough.
“Now you might get to that point, then think, ‘Oh no, we can keep going, but at least you’ve got that point to make you stop and think.”
Liz and her husband stopped their IVF treatment after a couple of miscarriages, realising they needed to focus on the child they already had. It was later on that they fell pregnant naturally. But Liz is well aware that this won’t be everybody’s story, and knows all too well the pressure and pain of being told to ‘just relax’.
Encouragement for the Journey
Liz hopes her book will be an encouragement to many men and women who just need a little extra guidance through the confusion of infertility and the medical industry.
“When you’re in the middle of treatment, it is like walking blind through a snow storm, looking for something white. You don’t know what you’re not seeing, or what you’re looking for. But when I got to the end I thought, there’s a way to strategise through this, and plan.”
The book contains both practical medical information as well as stories from others who have experienced many different kinds of infertility – to encourage men and women that they are not alone.
Liz encourages others to be proactive, take charge in their own treatment, and shop around until they find doctors and specialists they feel they can trust. She also wants to encourage those struggling with infertility that “it’ll be OK in the end, and if it’s not OK, it’s not the end”.
“You need to remind yourself you will come through this one way or another.”