Literary Mama writing about the many faces of motherhood
Extended Family

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After Ma died, I held an estate sale. I stood in the front yard of the house I had grown up in and watched as strangers carried the Lockharts away, piece by piece. It was a cool autumn day, but the doors at Lafayette Street were flung wide; the yard bustled with eager bargain-hunters, and I stood in a daze. There went our music, our books, our tools and furniture, walking off down the street. As all the little pieces of our life scattered, I felt my center slipping away.

Over coffee I told my friend Polly how futile life felt. "People just die," I said, "and we sell their stuff. Why do we worry so much about everything -- education, exercise, morals? Why bother?"

She looked at me carefully and said, "Maybe the best reason to keep going is just to keep each other company while we're here."

Polly called me often in those first weeks. "Just checking in," her voice said to my answering machine, day after day.

Some days, I smiled and pressed "3" to delete, and other days I stood there, tears streaming down my face, struck by the depth of her simple, persistent offer. "I love you," she said. "I'm here." This captures something essential about the people I call family: in times like that, they come forward.

One day, we met for lunch, and Polly told me about trying to get her partner Jennifer pregnant. "Just think: a baby! Your girls will have someone to babysit. That is, if we can just get the biology working."

I watched her eager, happy face. Polly is twinkly, silly, and fun in a way kids love. She's also smart, loyal, and kind in a way they need. Jennifer balances Polly's dreamy optimism with unwavering practicality. They were perfect parent material. But their sperm donor lived hundreds of miles away, only traveling through town occasionally. I pictured Polly rushing to the airport with a small jar, and home again to Jennifer with the goods tucked into the breast pocket of her tweed coat.

I imagined the slow, weary sperm after that long ride in the cold, cold jar, limping their way up through Jennifer's cervix, mopping their little brows with tiny hankies as they struggled weakly toward the distant glowing orb of her egg.

"You know," I said, "I'm just thinking about sperm. Pat's got plenty -- we're not using it. That just seems like a waste of local resources, don't you think?" Polly corralled her wide grin into an unassuming but hopeful smile.

That night, I approached Patrick as we lounged on the couch.

"You know how Jennifer and Polly are trying to get pregnant?" I asked.

"Yeah. How is that going?"

"They need a new donor. They might try a sperm bank."

"Oh, yeah?"

"Yeah . . . you know, we are so fortunate. Your sperm must be totally golden." This was true. It had gotten me pregnant on the first try, twice.



"I said yes. I've thought about it -- if they asked me, I would do it."

I just grinned. Later that week, we had Polly and Jennifer over for dinner, and after the girls were tucked into bed, we explored. What would our relationship be to the kid? At what point would we tell him or her about Pat's connection? Would we need a lawyer to help Pat sign away parental rights and be absolved of financial responsibility? Would we tell Zoë and Cleo right away, or later? Did we want to do this thing?

We all knew the answer was yes, but we agreed to wait and talk again in a few days. As we said goodnight, there was much hugging and beaming. I felt more connected than ever, not only with Polly and Jennifer, but also with Patrick. We would do our part. We would keep our friends company.


"Wow. I don't know if I could do that."

I was in the park, talking to my friend Daniela. I had burst forth with the news of our venture. She frowned at me earnestly. I felt my face flush.

"I mean, I'm just saying, for me . . . that'd mean another kid in the world who might want to have a relationship with my husband one day, you know?"

I felt myself shrinking, despite the fact that we'd gone over this, despite the fact that Polly is one of my dearest old friends, and I expect her children to be in our life.

Daniela went on. "The child might have strong feelings about having a father who doesn't raise him, too."

Father? I thought. This kid won't have a father. It'll have two moms and a pleasant fellow who donated the sperm. But okay, some people want to find out more. We had talked about that. We all agreed to give information freely to any of the kids as the need arose. I started to explain, but Daniela went on:

"What about Zoë and Cleo? They wouldn't have a choice -- they'd have some little half-sister or half-brother running around. What if he turned out to be really needy?" She evoked a kid with Pat's cleft chin and five o'clock shadow, talking up a storm with "his dad" while my Zoë secretly wiped away a tear of jealousy. Or, a tightly clad teen who would show up once a month popping her gum in my face and asking if Pat was home. Financial liability, emotional upheaval. My children's inheritance in jeopardy.

Yet, the cascade of toxic fear Daniela generated in me dissipated that evening as I considered her question: what would this mean for Zoë and Cleo? A little baby would enter their lives. This child would have an intimate relationship to them, a shared code, and maybe similar looks -- like an especially special cousin. They would grow up knowing their parents were willing to share, to have this unique bond with another couple that made life more complicated and more joyful at the same time. In this way, we adults would build a better world, teaching our children how to support one's extended family. Maybe our kids would even conclude that they, too, could make choices based on principles of faith, love, and the value of family (biological or otherwise), rather than on fear.

When the time came, Pat disappeared into the bedroom with a jar that had once held artichoke hearts, reemerging just in time for Polly's arrival. He handed off the jar, we sent our love to Jennifer, and Polly made the short trip home before those sperm got tired. A month later, Polly brought us a gift: a potted artichoke, which grew in our yard as the new sprout grew inside of Jennifer.

Baby Maclain was born just days before the first anniversary of Ma's death, sweetening that melancholy time in the most delicious way. In the hospital room, Zoë and Cleo admired her lovely pinkness as Mama Jennifer and Baba Polly glowed sleepily, already intoxicated with love for their girl. Sitting in that crowded little room while Jennifer nursed Maclain and Polly snapped photos of all the kids, I felt my heart expand, just like that. What had begun with genes was eclipsed by spirit. For the short time that we're here, we are here together.

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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