Literary Mama writing about the many faces of motherhood
Mama in the Middle

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If you call me on a Friday night, six-year-old Zoë will probably pick up the phone. Without saying hello, she will yell over the Glen Miller blasting in the dining room, "WHO IS THIS?!"

In the background you will hear not only the music, but also the wail of two-year-old Cleo, who has just been robbed of her copy of the Bay Guardian and will raise holy hell until her sister gives it back.

Prepare yourself to wait a moment for Zoë to pass the phone to me, because I'm in the living room with my mom, mid-battle. "No, Ma," I'm saying, "the last time you were here, you really did wet the bed, and the time before that too. You have to wear the Depends when you sleep here."

The receiver will clunk to the floor and roll around underfoot for a moment before I finally answer. In my voice you may hear the sound of exasperation melting into resigned fatigue. "Hello?"

Like most parents of young kids, I find myself at the center of a flurry of activity that never quite subsides. Like many parents, I'm also a Mama in the Middle: my children are still young, and Ma, my remaining parent, has early-stage Alzheimer's disease. I have dependents at both ends of the timeline, and I'm scrunched between them, with a lot of mothering to do.

The house is always full of people, noise and movement. Most Friday nights, Ma stays over with us. Saturday morning, I'm in bed, and bed is the center of activity; my husband, Patrick, and I hold court there. The girls arrive shortly after 7 a.m., and we all bounce and snuggle and zerbert and tickle until my internal alarm tells me that Gram needs her coffee, and besides, I need a potty break.

The bathroom, once a peaceful refuge, now comprises a top theater venue. Kids just love a captive audience. They burst in, sporting African masks and nothing else, and treat me to a performance of the "naked dance" to the tune of Alvin and the Chipmunks' "Witch Doctor" while I finish up and wash my hands.

Even late at night, as I snuggle into bed with my cup of tea and the latest New Yorker, I hear the thump of a foot against the wall in the girls' room, and if Ma is there and remembers to go, her quiet sigh as she trudges to the bathroom. This is my downtime, my 2.5 minutes of alone time.

So what does a mama in the middle do? I worry. I worry that the girls will do all the things I did, but not be as lucky surviving it. I worry that Ma will be swindled by the in-house attendant I have yet to hire, or get lost walking home from the senior center. I worry that Patrick will die and we'll all go insane with grief. I worry because I care very much about the people in my life, but no matter how hard I work, I can't protect all of them all of the time.

I wake next morning with the New Yorker stuck to my cheek, as a kid crawls in under the comforter. When (rarely), at the end of the day, I do have the energy to not only fret but also reflect, I find that the habit of caring has spread from mothering to other parts of my life. These days I'm much more likely to give the time of day to the stranger on the street, because my parent-mind transforms him into "somebody's child," or "someone's crazy old dad." I have become more compassionate, more empathetic. I communicate. I participate. I am increasingly, instinctively, centered in my own life.

I'm in the middle in other ways too. In recent years, you might say, my middle has grown considerably. If I die in my mid-eighties, like my grandma did, then at 41 I'm almost perfectly middle-aged. By birth and in spirit, I am also perfectly middle class. I sit in the glow of my computer monitor and write this column in the middle of the night.

And although I didn't see it coming, it seems I have landed squarely in the middle of the stereotype I defied throughout my twenties: I am married, with two children. My husband makes the money, while I have left my job as a neurobiologist to shuttle my kids to swim lessons, play dates and doctor's appointments, change diapers (wee and grand), tend the garden, do the dishes, and put out the recycling. Twenty-three hours a day, these dozens of small tasks keep me grounded in the present moment.

When Zoë has a kindergarten dance performance in twenty minutes, I still haven't found the camera, Ma is there fretting about whether to bring her purse, and just as we step out the door Cleo feels a poo coming, there is just no way I can stop and worry. I'm in the thick of it, juggling the urgent and conflicting needs of two short, crazy people and the forgetful grey-haired lady who used to be my mom. If I pause for introspection at any particular moment, I suffer consequences: Cleo's poopy pants; Zoë's missed recital; Ma's lost purse.

I'm locked into the instant; I'm a reluctant Zen mama. I'm a Mama in the Middle, and I'm in the middle of Right Now.


Sybil Lockhart is the author of Mother in the Middle: A Biologist’s Story of Caring for Parent and Child, a memoir developed from her archived Literary Mama column. She has a Ph.D. in cell and molecular biology and a defunct secondary teaching credential, both of which somehow heighten the pleasure of staying at home with the kids. She has taught French and English to high school students, done research in developmental neurobiology, and lectured at U.C. Berkeley. Her writing has appeared in Brandeis University’s Artemis Magazine, The Journal of Neuroscience, The Journal of Neurobiology, the Bay Area’s Neighborhood Parents Network Newsletter, and Books and Babies: Writing About Motherhood. One of her children’s stories is forthcoming in Ladybug. Sybil lives in Berkeley, California with her two daughters.


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