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.
A Conversation with Sybil Lockhart
Describe the process of writing this memoir. Many of the scenes have a sense of immediacy as well as the perspective of hindsight. Did you reference your journals from that time?
When I went on maternity leave with baby Cleo just after Ma was diagnosed with Alzheimer's, I was lonely and so overwhelmed, and I was writing all the time to work through it. When I met Amy Hudock, a women's studies professor on maternity leave who was running a writing group for moms, I joined right away. We met at the local community center to critique each other's writing while the babies nursed and toddlers frolicked around us. We eventually created a website to showcase our neophyte work, and I volunteered to contribute a regular column called “Mama in the Middle” about raising small children while caring for my ailing mother (the website, literarymama.com, grew into a tremendous resource for moms. It's now run by dozens of women inside and outside of the U.S., and I can't keep up with all that they publish). Mother in the Middle emerged after Ma's death; it sprouted organically from the column, as a merging of my personal story with my own constant awareness of the biological narrative behind it. I spent short patches researching the bits of science I didn’t know inside out, and longer patches trying as hard as I could to hear Ma's voice, to capture something of her essence on the page. I wrote out scores of memories that would never make it into the book, just trying to distill her (and never quite could). Over the year I took to write it, the story naturally grew into a kind of final, complex proclamation of my love for Ma. Yes, I referenced my old journals extensively. I have seventy six of them to date, so there were invaluable details in the books. Up until that point I had rarely read back over them, and it was emotionally exhausting. Also, it was often alarming to see what a skewed memory I retained of scenes from my own life!
As a biologist, do you think that your intellectual understanding of the illness changed your emotional perspective as a caregiver?
Probably. I've never been a caregiver without a biological perspective. I suspect that my awareness of the processes at work inside our brains and bodies both helped and hindered. For example, my biologist's perspective definitely helped me to feel empowered in the doctor's office: I knew what questions to ask, how to find more information, and how to understand that information. I could also really appreciate the beauty of the processes at work, the astounding complexity of the biological systems underpinning this whole experience. On the other hand, I sometimes slipped into a truly morbid contemplation of the deleterious processes at work in Ma's brain, and I understood almost too well how devastating they were—so I could get pretty gloomy, too.
You convey a great deal of scientific information in a way that is accessible and poetic. Did this involve a deliberate translation into layman’s terms, or do you think you communicated the way you truly envision the workings of the human body?
Sometimes I found I could drop into an almost meditative state—I think of it as a visceral and visual channeling—where the science interfaced seamlessly with the narrative, and it came very naturally to me. But there were other times, especially if an explanation had required research (because of course I didn’t know all the science in this book before I wrote it), when I had great difficulty staying away from scientific jargon. I wrote long, thick paragraphs packed with facts and devoid of sensory detail, devoid of personal reflection—or personality, for that matter. My critique group handed them back to me with comments like "could you bring this down to earth?" or "no offense, but my eyes are beginning to glaze over here" penned in the margin. This was one of the most challenging aspects of the book, and I'm still not convinced I've done it as well as I promised I would in my book proposal!
You describe the anxiety you felt after deciding to leave full-time work to become a caregiver. Looking back, are you happy with the changes in your life? Do you think you would have become a writer if you had stayed on your career path?
I think the anxiety had to do with an image I had formed of myself that wasn't true to life. Laboratory science was not as deeply gratifying to me as I could plainly see it was to my mentors. But I loved thinking about neuroscience. Plus, I had invested so much of myself into the study of neuroscience, and others had invested so much of themselves into my training, that I felt immense pressure to continue. On the other hand, I had denied myself the possibility of writing professionally for so long that that didn’t feel like an option either. No, I probably never would have become a writer if it had not been for this particular set of circumstances—but after I let myself out of the box I'd been keeping myself in, I saw it was the best, most healthy path for me. Don't take this lightly; changing careers mid-life is really hard; undeniably, this has put tremendous strain on my family, both personally and financially. But if I had it to do over? Yes, I would. I'd write and write and write.
How important was your writing group in the process of writing Mother in the Middle? Do you continue to be involved?
Very important. I always say "I never write alone," because so much of what I write has been read and influenced by my groups before it goes public. The writing group that launched Literary Mama has since morphed into a serious and vital critique group called Motherlode, of which I remain a devoted member. I also have a second writing group I adore. In that group, we simply meet, eat and write. We read out loud to the group in turn, but do not critique. It is the perfect complement to the critique group, where we analyze every word. I had always imagined that writing would be an entirely solitary pursuit, but for me it has this extremely social element that I adore, interspersed with blissfully quiet stretches when it's just me and the words.
It seems that your writing group became a source of emotional support for you. Why do you think it was easier for you to reach out to a creative group than to a caregiver’s or Alzheimer’s support group?
That's such an interesting question. Maybe because to really connect and feel supported, it helps to have more than the illness of a relative in common. Perhaps simply having a loved one with Alzheimer's doesn’t select narrowly enough for "people like me." Plus, you have to remember that a huge part of my life, both a joy and a stressor at that time, was motherhood, and the women in my first group were all mothers of toddlers or babies, so we had that. Come to think of it, many of them also had aging parents, so we had that too. But I think working together to achieve something, to produce, to create—that gave the group a shade of optimism that maybe I was afraid I wouldn’t find in a group of caregivers.
How has your life altered since your mother’s passing?
Well, there are no more "grown-ups" I my life. My mom's friend Daniel, who was my godfather, died recently—he was the last of my parent figures. I suppose that means I've had to come to terms with being an adult myself. The girls are older now—they need me less, which is hard in a way because I was very wrapped up in being a mommy. I still am, but it's different; they're so independent and confident now, they often both go off to do their own thing, leaving Pat and me to ourselves. Meanwhile, he quit his job to pursue his dream of founding a start-up company, so I've been teaching and tutoring, in addition to writing, to help keep us afloat financially. Our marriage almost didn’t survive all this—Pat and I are still repairing. I guess it's a good thing the kids are giving us room to process; we're learning how we fit together, now that we've all changed roles.
You write about keeping memories alive through the evidence of a life lived, like the clown costume and your mother’s letters. How have you continued to keep Ma’s memory alive for your children?
I mention her and her ways whenever I'm reminded of her, which is often. I tell stories. I still have her ashes on an alter in my room. The girls still bring treasures and artifacts to add to it from time to time. And every Day of the Dead we move the altar downstairs, surround it with marigolds (with the trail of marigolds leading from the door, so the spirits can find their way in) and chocolates, oranges, a cup of coffee, and some dried corn. We look at pictures of Gram and others who have passed, remembering. But just the other day, Cleo confessed that she didn’t really remember Gram any more. She knows facts about her, but she doesn’t remember "how she felt," she said. "Well, you were really young then, Cleo," Zoë assured her, with a perfect tweenager blend of heartfelt empathy and airy condescension. In the end, I think the most fundamental way I carry Ma to my children is in the way I love them every day.
Having created Mother in the Middle partly in order to “write [your] mother home,” what does writing now mean to you? Do you have any new projects in mind?
Oh my. What does writing mean to me? It's the most consistently gratifying activity I've ever experienced. Writing and editing—I love to edit—fulfill some deep part of me. Writing works for me—it helped me to keep a hold of Ma, and I suppose it has always, in my ridiculously profuse journaling, helped me to keep a hold of myself. But my column and this book ushered me and my writing out into the world in a new way. As I write this, I'm pretty well terrified about what that means—so many people are about to have access to some of my most intimate moments when this book is released, and it's not all pretty. I guess I'll no longer have even the illusion of controlling what people think of me. So writing means exposure too.
Maybe because of that, and because I'm utterly sick of thinking about myself, I haven’t been able to write memoir since I finished this manuscript. I have a few characters who've been popping up in my journal—fictional characters. Right now I'm just watching them to see what they'll do; I'm following them around and writing down what I see. I don’t know if they are publishable, but they seem to be all that's happening "in there" at the moment.
What is your advice to readers who may be going through the same process with their aging parents?
I tell the 8th graders I'm tutoring in English that there are no right or wrong answers in the brainstorming phase of an essay; anything goes. I think that rule needs to apply when we are seeking help in this situation as well. What worked for me—staying home with my baby, quitting my not-quite-satisfying job, allowing myself limbo/transition time, reaching out to a group of mama writers—may not be at all the thing for you. That said, if you are interested in journaling, you might take a look at You Want Me to do WHAT? Journaling for Caregivers, a slim volume by Lynn Goodwin that gives prompts to help people write through the experience. A couple more bits of advice: exercise if you can, even a little bit. Take hot showers or baths. Even if you have no time, take just 10 minutes out and watch a bit of movie or TV or read a bit of book—anything that will give your weary brain and heart a rest from the constant toil of worry. If you can figure out what you need, ask someone for it (even if in prayer). Lastly, and I don’t say this lightly: Take your vitamins and drink LOTS of water.