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BOOK REVIEW: If At First You Don’t Conceive – Your Friendly Guide to Tackling Infertility by Liz Ellis

| 25 August 2018 | Reply

BOOK REVIEW: If At First You Don’t Conceive – Your Friendly Guide to Tackling Infertility by Liz Ellis

Pan Macmillan Australia
April 2018
Paperback, $34.99
Reviewed by Natalie Salvo

Non-Fiction / Medicine / Reproductive Medicine


After retiring from her professional netball career, Liz Ellis and her husband Matt found themselves among the one in six couples in Australia and New Zealand who were struggling to conceive. Liz and Matt had secondary infertility which meant that, even though they had the one child, they struggled to conceive their second one naturally. Ellis did a lot of research and tried different therapies at the time. When she struggled to find a practical and trustworthy information source on the subject, she chose to write about it herself. The result – If At First You Don’t Conceive – Your Friendly Guide to Tackling Infertility – is a part guide book and part memoir that offers a beacon of light to help you along the infertility road, one that can be quite a trying one to say the least.

Infertility is a disease (yep, a disease…who knew!) characterised by the failure to establish a clinical pregnancy after twelve months of regular, unprotected sexual intercourse (this part you probably do know) or due to an impairment of a person’s capacity to reproduce either as an individual or with his/her partner… This is important, as it acts to include people who would otherwise fall outside of the traditional definition of, and thereby treatments for, infertility. It can include people with pre-existing conditions or disability that prevent pregnancy occurring naturally, same-sex couples, and single people.

Miscarriages and infertility can be taboo subjects, especially in a world where the gossip magazines are focused on talking about celebrities falling pregnant with ease well into their forties. The truth is that infertility affects many different people but often this battle does not play out in public. In writing this book, Ellis strives to remove the stigma attached to infertility and offers solace to those currently in that situation by showing them that they need not feel isolated and alone, as many people have walked down this well-trodden track before:

I found myself hurtling down the infertility highway without a GPS. The road signs were confusing if they were there at all, most of the distance markers were missing and the exits were not clearly marked…
If At First You Don’t Conceive was borne out of a desire to share some of the insights and knowledge I gained from a five-year struggle with secondary infertility which included alternative therapies, fertility drugs, IVF, donor eggs and more miscarriages. Not to mention the frustration, disappointment and heartbreak that such a journey brings.

While Ellis may not be a medical practitioner, it is obvious from this volume that she has consulted with lots of experts like Professor Michael Chapman of IVF Australia. In doing so, she has found a balance between writing in an informed way about medical topics and presenting this in a manner that is accessible to your regular, run-of-the-mill readers and should be used in addition to your own physician’s advice. In doing so it means that you can learn a lot and she also dispels some myths. For instance, did you know that infertility rests exclusively with 30% of men and 30% of women? The remaining 40% of cases include 20% that are explained by joint male and female factors while the remaining 20% is inexplicable or in medical terms “idiopathic.”

It is widely acknowledged that an infertility diagnosis can deeply affect a man’s sense of masculinity, so much so that there is even something called the ‘courtesy stigma’, whereby a woman lets people think that she is infertile rather than reveal her partner’s infertility. The truth is, infertility is just as psychologically devastating for women.

This book is not a critical investigation into the assisted reproduction industry. Instead, Ellis tackles things like what infertility is and offers up the modifiable factors that you can employ to improve your fertility chances. She also explores the causes of male and female infertility, gives advice on choosing a fertility clinic and specialist, and details the different types of treatments including what to expect and the complementary therapies that are available. Things like donor conception and surrogacy get their own chapters and she also deals with the aftermath including miscarriage, pregnancy and how one can approach the ceasing of fertility treatment.

It is worthwhile stating here that Professor Chapman of IVF Australia believes in taking it slowly, and recommends that patients think long and hard about rushing into high-tech fertility treatments like IVF. In his experience it’s worthwhile beginning fertility treatment with a thorough investigation of a couple’s reproductive systems in order to come up with a diagnosis and then look at some ‘softer touch’ treatments first. These can range from flushing the fallopian tubes, to starting fertility drugs and even progressing to some stimulated IUI cycles before taking the leap into IVF.

Ellis includes a number of case studies in her text. She features quotes from men and women and their own experiences with infertility. These range from joyful success stories to open discussions about tragic loses and some of the coping strategies that these people employed. Ellis herself is very frank and forthright about her own family’s experience and she certainly tries to bring a light and playful aspect to the proceedings and even cracks jokes at times.

This is not the time to be making big decisions or plans. It is a time for being kind to yourself, and to surround yourself with people who don’t annoy you. It is highly likely that the only person that doesn’t annoy you is your dog. Or your cat. Remember, though, that your cat doesn’t care. But that’s a whole other book.

The advice that Ellis offers is well-placed and practical. You get the sense that she practiced what she preached. She advocates having great communication with your partner (if applicable) and being an active – not passive – participant in your infertility treatment. The financial commitment can be as much as what some people spend on a car or a house so it makes logical sense that she advocates asking lots of questions including the simple, “Why?” and “What’s next?”

Before infertility I was a list-writing, box-ticking, overachieving, impatient type A personality, despite the fact that I had already had one child. Once I achieved one thing it was on to the next. Infertility taught me to wait. To be patient. To appreciate what I have rather than wish for what I don’t have. It has made me a better mother because I have learned to slow down, to sit with my kids and to appreciate them.

If At First You Don’t Conceive is essentially what to expect when you’re not expecting. It’s a clever, heartfelt and accessible volume that guides you through the murky waters of infertility. It should teach people a thing or two about topics that are little-known outside of the industry and are often not discussed out in public. It should also help those in the midst of all this to understand that they need not feel alone because this journey is a long one best tackled with baby steps and Ellis guiding you through each step of the way.

Category: Book Reviews, Other Reviews

About the Author ()

Natalie Salvo is a foodie and writer from Sydney. You can find her digging around in second hand book shops or submerged in vinyl crates at good record stores. Her website is at:

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