It was several years ago when my mother went for a flu shot to our family doctor, an avuncular, bearded South African whose medical practice comfortably services at least half of north-west London’s Jewry. It is a position that requires front-line heroism when one considers the demographic; the armchair physicians and proxy-hypochondriacs and tirelessly frantic Jewish mothers. His desk is a confusion of stuffed animals and rubber chew toys, brightly coloured and easily disinfected, the armoury of the family practitioner. Dr Winter oversaw the removal of almost half the tonsils in my junior school classroom, and has attended to the food poisonings and holiday vaccinations and slipped discs of most of our synagogue. My family has been going to him since 1985. And so, a flu shot for Mrs Segal. But the doctor was conscious of a far more serious threat to her well-being.
‘Nu?’ he demanded, settling back for a chat. ‘Why isn’t she married?’
At the time I was twenty-seven.
‘Never mind, I have someone. Nice boy. Older. Westminster and Oxford, like Francesca. He’ll call her. Leave it with me.’
And so my mother left, inoculated against both flu and, it was hoped, social disgrace, clutching the prescription for a son-in-law.
A lot about north-west London is embodied in that anecdote. No one involved is remotely religious. My parents, unlike many of the neighbours, couldn’t have cared less than I hadn’t married young; they were proud I was doing well at work, and only gave my romantic status a moment’s anxiety when someone else drew their attention to it. But the community here is small and tightly-knit and has remained socially conservative, even as religious practice falls away in favour of tradition. Everyone knows everyone, and can probably name the whereabouts of all kindergarten classmates. There are simply not enough of us to render the shidduch defunct; that charming man you met at a dinner party is, statistically, unlikely to be in the tribe. It’s a lovely place to grow up, but in early adulthood in particular, the warmth can border on claustrophobia.
Despite the Crossing Delancey parochialism of our introduction, I actually spent six rather tempestuous months with the doctor’s prescribed gentleman. He was handsome, and it therefore took a little while to realise that he was also, as the endlessly applicable saying goes, Not That Into Me. But if nothing else, the whole episode illustrated the strength and vigour of the north-west London grapevine, nourished as it is by the fertile soil of local gossip, because less than a week after we broke up, Dr Winter was on the phone to my mother.
‘Did it work?’ he demanded. This was mere feint; fifteen patients that morning had no doubt already told him that it hadn’t. ‘No? Never mind, I have a backup.’
This time, valiantly, my mother tried to fend him off. Dr Winter would not accept her refusal. But I must thank him because it was the backup, in many ways, who defined my fate.
‘Dr Winter has called and given me your number. I am very flattered,’ read his email, as if I had been declaiming sonnets beneath his window when, in fact, this email was the first I’d heard of him, ‘but I’m sorry to tell you that I have just started seeing someone. If it doesn’t work out with her then I will certainly get in touch in the future. PS. Did you go to King Alfred’s School? I think my sister knows you.’
It was shortly after that email (which I did not answer, lest you were concerned) that I decided to move to New York. And it was shortly after moving to New York – safely buffered from home by the Atlantic – that I decided to write a novel set back home. North-west London and I have made up now, and these days I spend most of my time there. But two years away afforded me a fantastic perspective – and the opportunity to remember all its strengths, as well as to smile at its foibles with fondness.
I have been a writer for my whole adult life. I have only been a mother for five months. Like many women, I worried that having a baby would unmake my professional life. I worried that I would never have time to write, that my upcoming book tour would be a disaster and the novel that had taken me eight years to write — arguably my first baby — would not get the birth I wanted for it.
My son was born in November, and for several weeks, I disappeared into the slow, rolling water of motherhood. My sense of time disappeared. It made little difference if it was night or day — I nursed, I slept, I ate, I gazed down at this brand new creature, alive for the first time in history. I forgot all about my book, about the new novel I had been working on while I was pregnant, about publicity and schedules. There was a new story in my life: the story of my son, the story of me as his mother. In the first nights, the baby slept beautifully but my husband and I lay awake because it was impossible to look away from him. His tiny, perfect hands rested on his tiny, perfect chest. This is my baby, I kept thinking. I will love him for the duration. I had been making things my whole life, but never had I created something like this.
When my son was two weeks old, I got an email from my publicist with a series of interview questions from another writer. “Could you have this to me by Tuesday?” she asked. Tuesday? I thought. What is Tuesday? The calendar and I had parted ways. It seemed so strange that everyone was having a regular work-week, that they were tending to the usual business while I was living a miracle. Still, I opened my computer and discovered when Tuesday was. I read the questions and thought about them. It took me a few days to get all the answers down, but it felt good to remember that other baby of mine. Especially since I could do so with my son on my lap, swaddled and sleeping. He was happy to let me do my job, to make room in the day for other parts of me.
Three months later, the book was published and reviews began to come in. Though they were mostly positive,
it was overwhelming to see the work I’d done evaluated all over the place. Before the first reading I started to wonder what I was doing.
How was this a good idea again? The private part of writing suits me; I wasn’t sure how I felt about the public performance part. But I looked down at my sweet boy in my lap. He was sucking on his hands — a new trick. “I’m just going to read to you, OK? You are the only audience that matters.” He smiled up at me. And for the next four weeks, in cities across the country, he was there in the back of the bookstore curled up on my husband’s chest. He cooed and gargled occasionally and slept most of the time. He did have to be taken out of the room once, but not because he was upset: he had the giggles.
After I had read and signed books, milled and chatted, the three of us would go out and find a glass of wine someplace. It was wonderful. We were a family, my husband, our son, me –both the mom and the writer. I had worried about how I would pull everything off with a baby, but I hadn’t considered how I would have managed it without him.