Synopses & Reviews
Sybil Lockhart, a Berkeley neurobiologist, became a "mother in the middle" when she was pregnant with her second daughter and her mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease. What makes Sybil's story different, and so powerful, is that she understood the neurological processes, by turns exciting and devastating, that were taking place in the brains of those she loved. Interweaving her scientific expertise with her own complicated emotions, she writes with elegant simplicity and breathtaking honesty about biology's inevitable, powerful effects on the people around her.
When her mother begins to show the first subtle signs of the disease that is slowly ravaging her brain, Sybil refuses to consider the possibility of dementia, insisting that all her mother needs is a daughter nearby. She relocates her young family to her beloved San Francisco Bay Area, where her memories of her mother and her childhood are deeply anchored. As Sybil sets about creating new memories against the backdrop of her past, the emerging undeniable truth about her mother's condition threatens to overwhelm her ability to maintain her career, nurture her marriage, raise her young daughter, and care for herself during her second pregnancy. Even though she appreciates the beauty of the dramatic biological processes at work inside the brains of her family members, she also understands their inevitable power, and she bravely describes the complicated emotions -- denial, rage, ambivalence, exhaustion -- that so many caregivers experience.
With a unique combination of science and intimate experience, Mother in the Middle is a story of mothers and daughters, science and creativity, and life's exquisite intertwining of love and loss.
"Mother in the Middle is a caregiver's journey told from the most unique vantage point. As a neurobiologist, Sybil Lockhart reveals a fascinating view into an Alzheimer's we normally can't see -- into the very molecules and neurons gone haywire inside her mother's brain. As a daughter, Lockhart reveals her mother's Alzheimer's as she sees and feels it with unflinching honesty, empathy, and love. It is a story about losing a mother and becoming a mother, about a mother's mind, told from a daughter's heart." -- Lisa Genova, author of Still Alice
"Sybil Lockhart's insights as a neurobiologist and a daughter watching her mother disintegrate from dementia are meaningful and poignant -- and her writing about mothering her own daughters equally so. In the midst of the pain are uplifting lessons and a new map for living with the illness of a loved one." -- Richard M. Cohen, New York Times bestselling author of Blindsided and Strong at the Broken Places
About the Author
Sybil Lockart was a biologist at UC Berkeley before quitting her job to become a full time mother and caregiver. She writes a popular column called "Mama in the Middle" for Literary Mama Magazine (LiteraryMama.com). She lives in Berkeley, California with her husband and two daughters.
Table of Contents
1. Friday Night
2. Blue Moon
4. In Utero in the Lab
8. Fall Back
12. Impulse Control
14. Number Two
16. Fourth of July
17. Take Care
18. Mama in the Middle
19. Lost and Found
20. Days of the Dead 21. Writing Home
Reading Group Guide
This reading group guide includes discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Sybil Lockhart. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
Questions for Discussion
1. How does the language of biology function in the story? What insight does it give into Ma's condition? Does it broaden your perspective on certain aspects of life? How does it create a more specific sense of Sybil's experience?
2. The first scene establishes the contrast between Sybil's caring for her children and caring for Ma. Why is one responsibility more positive than the other to her? How are the caretaker roles similar? Why do you think Sybil found it helpful to use parenting skills in dealing with her mother? How does this shift in the dynamic of the relationship affect her?
3. Lockhart describes with great honesty her sensory aversion to "old." Do you think this is a natural human reaction? Why? Discuss Lockhart's depiction of herself and of the ways in which she reacted to her situation, petty moments and all. How much of Sybil's response to her mother do you think stems from her own fears of aging and memory loss?
4. What were Sybil's expectations of starting a family? How does her mother's dementia let her down? Find examples of life events for which Sybil had specific hopes. How does the reality contradict her expectations? Do you think that it is natural for all parent-child relationships to shift, causing tension as the roles change? How is Sybil's disappointment unique, given her mother's condition?
5. Describe the differences in Lockhart's depictions of Massachusetts and California. How does the idea of home resonate for Sybil? For Ma?
6. On a hike with her mother, Sybil wonders "Had I formed a false ideal of our relationship, idolized or exaggerated it in my years away?" (Pg. 101) Discuss how memory is explored in Mother in the Middle. How does Lockhart's description of sensory details in her own memory create a sense of the weight of what her mother is losing? How does her mother's memory loss undermine the certainty of Sybil's own memories? In your opinion, how much of identity is tied to memory?
7. "Sometimes consciously and sometimes unconsciously, I had begun to emulate my mother, the young Ma, the one I had once called Mommy," Lockhart writes (pg. 182). How do Sybil's memories of her mother help her to fulfill her role as parent to her daughters? How much of Sybil's emulation of Ma comes from wanting to keep the old concept of her mother alive?
8. Lockhart likens her limbo period of early parenthood to ancient traditions honoring life changes. Do you agree that shifts in life require a time of blankness? When in your own life did you require "a neutral zone"? (Pg. 200)
9. How is Sybil supported by those around her? How does Zoë's compassion bolster her mother? What is your reaction to Patrick's withdrawal and Alice's refusal to step in? Is it unfair of them to retreat, or is it understandable?
10. What social stigma is attached to Sybil's decision to leave work and become a full-time caretaker? How is her sense of self further undermined by the comments of those around her? How is it reclaimed?
11. What does it mean to Sybil to find her mother's writings after her death? In what way is the young Ma reborn? How do you interpret Sybil's visions of Ma after her death? Is a non-supernatural explanation any less significant?
Enhance Your Book Club
Even if you don't have a personal connection to Alzheimer's Disease, there is much to relate to in Mother in the Middle. Share your own experiences of caring for family members, young or old.
For more information on Alzheimer's Disease, or to donate funds towards research and support services, please visit www.alz.org
Lockhart sees writing as a way of connecting to the world. Get creative - turn your book club into a writing group for a meeting or two.