Mother in the Middle

Mother in the Middle

A Biologist's Story of Caring for Parent and Child

  • reading group guide
Called “a poignantly searing fusion of heartbreak and hope” by Kirkus Reviews, this is the story of a woman—and a neurobiologist—forced to come to terms with her mother’s mental deterioration, while bringing a new life into the world.

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.

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.
Choose a format:
  • Touchstone | 
  • 320 pages | 
  • ISBN 9781416541561 | 
  • February 2014
List Price $19.99
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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 see more

About the Author

Sybil Lockhart
Photo Credit:

Sybil Lockhart

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 ( She lives in Berkeley, California with her husband and two daughters.


Author Revealed

Q. how did you come to write Mother in the Middle?

A. I didn’t write this book alone, although I was alone when I began writing. I was home on maternity leave with my second baby when I allowed myself for the first time to acknowledge that my mom's forgetfulness had progressed beyond normal; that she was disoriented, and her personality had begun to change. When doctors confirmed that these were the early signs of Alzheimer's disease, I was heartbroken and overwhelmed, and since leaving my job I was also in almost total isolation for the first time ever. As an outlet, I began to write an essay: the seed for this book. I needed people to help me through, and I was so lucky to find writing people! In a toddler park, I met Amy Hudock, who just happened to be starting a mothers' writing group: six women who met at the local community center to critique each other's writing while the babies nursed and toddlers frolicked around them. As a science snob, I had my doubts about hanging with a bunch of mommies, but what a cool eclectic group of incredibly smart mommies they were—I quickly took to them, and we wrote and wrote and wrote. In time, we created a website to showcase our work and named it Literary Mama Magazine. I wrote a Literary Mama column called Mama in the Middle, about raising small children while caring for my ailing mom; this was the seedling. Online readers and my friends and family seemed to enjoy the occasional neuroscientific musings that found their way into the column. My critique group encouraged me to explain more about the science of dementia, and of children's brain development—and they were so right. My family had become a case study in neurobiological extremes. So Mother in the Middle is my answer to their persistent questions and encouragement, a merging of my personal story with what I call the biological back-story: heartbeat, ionic flux, neurons and synapses—everything that was happening inside of us as we lived through the ordeal. My writing group has since morphed into a serious and vital critique group called Motherlode, of which I remain a devoted member—so I still rarely write alone.

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