My daughter Ayla was born on August 23rd, 2009. My novel Far to Go was born exactly one year later. I had published before, but this was the first book for which I’d actually been well paid—it even had a publicity budget and international sales. When the British edition was nominated for the Man Booker Prize, I finally had what I’d been dreaming of since I was ten and writing detective stories in my composition notebook. Suddenly people were buying my book, and inviting me to read from it at festivals in faraway places. I wanted to be happy. I was happy. But what about my tiny daughter? How would I ever balance being a writer and a mom? From the beginning these two parts of me were like siblings: one always seemed to want what the other had.
Motherhood is a creative act. It requires passion, devotion, and the ability to adapt to the ever-changing demands of another being. Writing a novel is the same—but it also requires silence, solitude, and intense concentration. This did not mesh well with a toddler who liked to climb up in my lap while I sat at my computer and knead by breasts like dough, shouting “Pushy! Pushy!”
When I told people that I was a self-employed writer, they would often exclaim, “How wonderful! You can write your novels at home with your daughter!” But even with a babysitter downstairs entertaining her, it was impossible to get anything done. I would hear her little voice drifting up the stairs. Her laughter made me want to play with her; her cry made me want to comfort her. When I went on tour with my novel, leaving Ayla at home with her dad, my breasts got engorged: I expressed milk into hotel sinks. My stupid pump was always breaking. At various literary festivals in various cities I stood at the podium only to see I had dribbles of milk down the front of my shirt.
I'm a writer, but my autistic child can barely speak I would never have given up the chance to promote my novel, to be on stage with writers I admired talking about literature. But I missed Ayla desperately when I was away. At night in my hotel room I lounged on the king-sized bed in a massive pile of pillows, listlessly popping M&Ms into my mouth while scrolling through pictures of her on my phone.
Then came a bigger test. When Ayla was two and a half—and finally weaned—I was invited to read in Beijing. I would be away for ten days. She was sick leading up to my departure, with a fever and bright pink circles on her pale cheeks. Halfway through the trip, I Skyped home. When she saw my face on the screen she plaintively raised her arms and said, in the saddest voice, ‘Mama. Pick me up.’
She was, of course, too young to understand that I couldn’t, in fact, pick her up through the screen, and when I refused to comply, she slammed the laptop shut.
Do I wish I hadn’t gone to China? That would only have led to a different set of regrets, about not taking my chance to be a real writer when I could. But when I think of that Skype talk—which I still do years later—I feel a grief that’s hard to describe.
As Ayla grew it got easier. With each book she understood more. I could explain where I was going—to teach people to write, say, or to talk to people about my new book. Now she waves happily when I’m leaving. She’s proud of me in a child’s fierce way. And I like to think I’m showing her something about being female in the world— that a girl’s worth isn’t just in caring for others, but in nurturing her own interests and investing in her own passions.
Ayla turned eight the day my new novel was released. I’ve been writing Strangers With the Same Dream since she was five. She helped me brainstorm titles. (The Drawer that Would Not Open and The Smell of Human Life were some of her picks). She couldn’t wait for the launch, which will be hosted by bookseller Ben McNally, famous in our household for once having given her candy.
Strangers With the Same Dream is set in Israel, before it was the country it is today. Ayla came with me to the kibbutz where I did most of my research. I explained to her about the archives, about the implications of writing about characters from another time and place, about the responsibility a novelist bears. She looked at me blankly.
Later, we went to the Dead Sea. We floated together, laughing and sticking our legs up out of the water. Then it began to pour with rain. She got salt in her eyes and began to cry. She lifted her small arms into the air.
“Mama, pick me up,” she said.
And I could. And I did.
Alison Pick is the author of the newly released novel Strangers With the Same Dream, Penguin Random House Canada.