Actress and foodie Lisa Faulkner talks to Hannah Stephenson about infertility, adoption and relishing her blended family with fiancé John Torode.
Actress and cook Lisa Faulkner likes the term ‘blended’ – and not just when she’s referring to food.
The 2010 Celebrity MasterChef winner is talking about the ‘blended’ family she has with her fiancé John Torode – the chef popped the question at Christmas and they plan to marry in the autumn.
When they got together, Australian Torode, 53, already had four children from two previous relationships, and Faulkner has a 12-year-old adopted daughter, Billie, with her ex-husband, former EastEnders actor Chris Coghill.
“I love the word ‘blended’,” the former Holby City and Brookside actress enthuses. “A lot of people I know are in the same situation, with step-parents, step-sisters and brothers and you make it work.
“When John and I met we had our baggage, our past lives, and you just take somebody warts and all, and their families, and you just become blended.
“We all sit there at birthday parties, and have dinners and lunches. He keeps his family very private. He has wonderful children and I’m blessed with them all.”
But it has not been an easy path to motherhood for Faulkner, now 47, who suffered years of infertility, rounds of IVF, desolation and finally the ultimate joy of adoption. She charts every raw emotion of the whole journey in her new book Meant To Be – My Journey To Motherhood.
“The IVF road is such a lonely one. I just wanted to be that hand to hold for people who are going through it. Eleven years on, it felt like I could be honest enough and my daughter was old enough,” London-born Faulkner explains.
From around age 30, the former model admits she sensed her body clock ticking. Her primal urge to have children, the expectation that like her younger sister Victoria – who seemed to fall pregnant at the drop of a hat – she would soon be carrying one or more little bundles of joy, began to consume her life.
Then, an ectopic pregnancy resulted in her having one of her fallopian tubes removed, reducing her changes of being able to conceive in the future.
The experience just fuelled her desperation, as she threw herself into healthy eating, tried to cut down on alcohol, went to yoga religiously and had sex when she knew she was fertile.
A battery of tests on both her and then-husband Coghill could find no reason why pregnancy wasn’t happening, so she upped the ante with the fertility drug Clomid when she was 33. The pills, she says, turned her into a ‘total monster’.
Sex on demand soon became lacklustre, while lying for hours with her legs in the air praying to the fertility gods didn’t do much for her state of mind either. Alternative treatments, including hypnotherapy and Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) followed, but to no avail.
“I think when you are wound up inside like a coiled spring, not much can help you,” she reflects now.
The knots of tension tightened when friends revealed they were pregnant, and much later on, when her sister told her she was pregnant (again), she recalls yelling at her about the unfairness of life and then driving round the block and ringing her doorbell for a second round of screaming.
“To be shouting at somebody who wasn’t shouting back and is just devastated for you is really tough. I look back on that day and think that I was so wrapped up in me and couldn’t be happy for my sister. It was awful, a horrible way to feel.”
Last chance saloon was IVF, which she went into optimistically. But after three unsuccessful attempts, she was physically and emotionally spent. Her consultant told her as gently as he could that he was letting her go.
“He told me I was done emotionally, although he’s since told me it’s an implantation issue which they could probably cure. I accept it now. It’s laid to rest.”
It was only when she realised she had reached the end of the road that she and Coghill considered adoption and, after what seemed like an endless process of form-filling, social worker visits and general investigation into every aspect of their lives, they adopted a 15-month old girl, Billie, in 2008.
In the book, Faulkner touches on the devastation she felt losing her own mother Julie to throat cancer at 16, when her mum was just 44, and wonders if her own deep yearning for children evolved as a result.
“I wonder if I have been trying to fill the huge gap left by her, to recreate something I was retrospectively lacking,” she writes.
She reveals that throughout the desperate times when conceiving was the only thing on her mind, her mental state was questionable.
Coghill, she agrees, was endlessly patient, as his wife turned from a fun-loving actress who knew how to have a good time, into an anxious, mood-swinging neurotic whose only focus in life was to get pregnant.
“He was going through it, he wanted a child too. He was very patient and his attitude was, ‘Whatever is best for you we will do’.”
While there was a happy ending with adopting, the marriage ended in divorce in 2011, although they remain friends and co-parents. Coghill lives nearby and sees Billie all the time, she says.
“I think we were under huge pressure. When you go through times of trying to have children, you either come out of it and you’re together, or you come out of it and you’re not. We were pretty much a shell.
“Now, we have a very good relationship. We knew that as a couple we were done, but as parents we are not and we won’t be done. We will look after Billie together. We are both her parents and she will not suffer and nor will we in that sense. I’m very grateful that we have such a strong relationship.”
Faulkner is now focused on planning her upcoming wedding – and she says Billie is delighted she and Torode are tying the knot.
“She just wanted to know which dress she could wear. They get on very well. Billie is going to be my best woman. I don’t know if she’s going to say any words – we’re just talking about how it’s all going to work.”
Like many blended families, the couple, who have been together since 2012, didn’t rush into things.
“We took everything so very slowly. We introduced the children six months after we started going out with each other and then it was only for lunch. It was slow and centred around our children being OK. It was never about us. By the time we moved in together, it felt very normal.”
While she notes in the book that her slight hope of pregnancy will be with her until she hits the menopause, she also writes, ‘There’s a hole inside me that has never been filled’.
“That’s not just about being a mother,” she says now. “That hole is called grief. It’s about losing my mother. That’s what will always be there. The hole is filled up by my daughter and my family. Billie and I heal each other.
“She says to me, ‘Aren’t you pleased the IVF didn’t work?’, and I say, ‘Yes, I really am, because otherwise we wouldn’t have each other’.”
Meant To Be – My Journey To Motherhood by Lisa Faulkner is published by Ebury Press on June 27, priced £16.99.