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Aren't You Forgetting Someone?
Essays from My Mid-Life Revenge
By Kari Lizer
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What does it feel like to have your kids leave the house at the same time your parents might need to move in? With self-deprecating humor, sharp wit, and Ephron-esque aplomb, Kari Lizer gives an honest account of finding herself in the middle of growing up, growing old, and still figuring it all out. She finds the wry, bittersweet humor in (almost) all situations–whether it’s becoming radioactive during a thyroid cancer treatment, getting fired from her volunteer work, or struggling to find her identity outside of motherhood. Aren’t You Forgetting Someone? speaks to those of us who lament the invisibility of the middle-aged woman, but also revel in the unexpected delights of newfound freedom to do whatever the hell we want while no one is looking.
Alexa, Is Everything Going to Be Okay?
At eleven years old, I got my first job at the Lazy J Ranch, where suburban teenaged girls boarded their show ponies and I shoveled horseshit. I didn’t get paid, but for each four hours of mucking, I was allowed to ride Squaw, the twenty-two-year-old cancer-ridden paint mare, around the perimeter of the stables—limited only to a slow walk because of her deteriorating condition. It was a good job because it was a horrible job, motivating me to find better jobs, ride better horses, work for better people, and make real money. Since then, every phase of my life, fueled by outrage, injustice, and an inappropriate sense of humor, has been a powerful motivator to propel me to the next, better phase of my life.
My underappreciated high school theater geek self was determined to show the popular crowd how woefully they underestimated me, which sent me to Hollywood to pursue my dreams of professional acting. It was the 1980s, and Hollywood was more wet T-shirt contest than meritocracy for actresses in their twenties, driving me to expand my reach into writing parts for myself. Writing parts for myself made me hungry to write parts for actors better than me and led me to full-time writing. Becoming a full-time writer educated me about how hard it was to be a woman and a comedy writer, and there I was, back to shoveling shit, but motivated to create my own opportunities. And then came motherhood. The most powerful motivator of all. I suddenly cared about owning a car that didn’t die on the side of the 101 Freeway. Poverty was no longer my badge of honor, and I didn’t long to reside in a house in a neighborhood that screamed, “Artists live here!” My priorities had shifted. My character had transformed.
When I became the dreaded double hyphenate in the school drop-off line at my kid’s elementary school—divorced-working-mom—the Mommy Wars fueled my fire for a few good years. The stay-at-home moms criticized the working moms. The working moms sneered at the yoga-pants moms. The wet-ponytail moms whispered about the Drybar-blowout moms. The no-vaccine moms were the enemies of the Happy Meal moms. A couple of the moms felt fine about themselves, but nobody liked them. We moms should have banded together, of course, because no matter how much we did, it was a pretty thankless task.
I was so busy some of those days—between mothering, writing on other people’s TV shows, then eventually running my own show, waking up at 4:00 a.m. to bake cupcakes from scratch so I didn’t feel the burning shame of store-bought baked goods—that I would find myself standing up halfway through peeing, declaring to no one as I yanked up my pants, “I don’t have time for this.” Meanwhile, it seemed to me a dad could show up for one midday assembly and have the science wing named after him in appreciation.
I had this sense that if I didn’t do everything perfectly, the bottom would drop out: jobs would be lost, kids wouldn’t go to college, people would die! It was all on me. It was a feeling I recognized in other mothers—I saw it in their eyes when they forgot a permission slip or realized their kid was the only one without the regulation socks on the club soccer team. I saw them at work, pretending to have read the chain of emails that had been filling up their inbox since dawn. There was no such thing as balance. No middle. Until now. This middle age. This indefinable in-between. When I’m mostly finished caring for my children and looking down the barrel of wiping my parents’ asses. It’s an odd time—tender and aimless and mean… menopause kicking in as the kids walk out the door. To have the people you love most in the world go away when your emotions are as unpredictable as a Hollywood career for a woman in her fifties. Finding my voice, which can only come with age and perspective, just when I have no one left to talk to.
And then the world decided to go crazy with me. Adding mind-blowing insult to soul-crushing injury, the fall I dropped my third and final child at college was also the fall that Donald Trump was elected to the White House. That fall, as I drove down Interstate 93 in New Hampshire, just before the election, when the outcome was still inconceivable, I had a bumper sticker on the back of my car with a picture of Donald Trump that read, “Does this ass make my car look fat?” because I thought it was funny. Heading south through the White Mountains on the mostly empty highway, I was suddenly cut off by a jacked-up pickup driven by a forty-ish white man. As he ran me out of my lane, he screamed out his open window, “I hope you die, cunt!” Shaken, I pulled off to the side of the road. That would be the first time of many to come that I felt something had been unearthed: some deep misogyny I had missed or forgotten about or ignored until it poked up its ugly head at Hillary. Later, as the #MeToo movement kicked into gear, I found myself spending a lot of time on the side of the road, wondering whether we were going backward or forward or just blowing up. And now I’m in a bad fucking mood.
I’m doing what I can emotionally, nutritionally, technologically, and medically to intervene—I’m rubbing the estrogen/progesterone/testosterone creams into my inner thigh as rigorously as I can, cancer be damned, but there aren’t enough hormones on earth to offset the outrage and disappointment I feel in the country, the genders, the world, because I’m just so fucking disappointed in everyone as, I guess, you know… a mother. I can’t even eat my feelings anymore since one deeply unkind thirty-year-old nutritionist-slash-lifestyle-coach got me off bread by shaming me for what she described as my “wheat belly.”
So I’m left sitting on my couch in my pussy hat, starving to death, screaming at the TV, cheering on the Justice Department and the judicial committees and Nancy Pelosi, waiting for life to be fair.
I find myself relying more and more on my Alexa, perched on the kitchen counter: “Alexa, what’s the temperature? Alexa, is Mary Tyler Moore still alive? Alexa, is everything going to be okay?”
And Alexa answers, “The current temperature is seventy-three degrees. Mary Tyler Moore died January 25, 2017. I wouldn’t count on it.”
A friend suggested I get out of the house. Get around people. The isolation, she said, was making me weird. She said it was no good to sit home and stew. So I went to a friend’s game night, where we were supposed to bring a potluck dish for running charades. I brought a vegetarian stew. While we waited for the fun to begin, there was a thoughtful conversation among thoughtful liberals about how one deals with the problem of sexual harassers, perverts, and predatory power mongers without sweeping up some good guys in the process. I blurted out, “Who gives a shit? Where were the good guys when Harvey was opening his robe to ingénues in hotel rooms? When Les Moonves had a woman on the payroll for blowjobs on demand while he was fucking with my life’s work? I’ll tell you where they were—keeping their mouths shut, kissing their asses, hitching their wagons to those assholes’ stars. Personally, I’m in favor of a good old-fashioned prairie castration.”
My charades team fell silent, so I went on to explain (as if their silence was because they had questions regarding the technicalities of the prairie instead of my unfortunate rage burst). “See, when they don’t have surgical instruments on the range to geld the rams, they take a thick rubber band, wrap it around the base of the scrotum, and leave it there. It cuts off the circulation. It’s incredibly painful for the first few days as the balls swell up to the size of grapefruits then eventually turn black, until they finally fall off altogether. I’d like to watch Harvey’s balls drop to the floor.”
“You’ve thought about this,” one man who didn’t know me, and didn’t want to, finally said as he protectively crossed his legs.
“Yeah. I have,” I told him, unblinking, without the hint of a smile.
“But you’re kidding, right?”
“Sure,” I said, “I’m kidding.”
“Oh. Okay. I heard you were funny.”
Then we started the game. Where it didn’t get better.
I got Les Misérables for my charades clue, and I just stood there, motionless, while my team yelled at me, “What does it rhyme with?”
Nothing I could think of.
“Act it out!”
“How many syllables?”
I couldn’t even count. Finally, after what seemed like a very long time, we heard a cheer from the other room as the opposing team won the round. My team didn’t tell me it was okay, good try.
I believe I’ve become unsuitable for mixed company.
I didn’t stay for another round, and all the way home, my party shame grew.
I don’t hate men! I know too many spectacular ones—including the two I birthed myself. As I walked into my empty house, I wondered what would become of me. I might live another forty years. Why did I quit smoking?
I can’t escape the continuous MSNBC news feed that does nothing to reassure me about the fact that cheaters are prospering all over the place and nice girls are finishing last. I’m getting into one-sided arguments in my bathroom mirror with Betsy DeVos and Woody Allen. Is this really the next, better phase? I have too much fight and no designated enemy. Or is everybody my enemy?
I laid down on the couch and called out, “Alexa, how many syllables in Les Misérables?” While she was thinking, I heard a text come in. It was from the dark-haired woman on my charades team. The one who was sitting at the end of the couch. She was about my age, and I think she was a fashion photographer or a lesbian or a chef. I had thought she was trying to kill me with her eyes. She was one of those charade savants who guessed The Iliad when the only clue given so far was “a book.” She wore clothes that looked like they came from Japan and had a haircut that did what she wanted it to. Her text said, “Hey. Sorry you left. It helps to know other people are going crazy too. We’re in this together. Try to breathe.”
I sat for a moment, so strangely and instantly comforted by the solidarity of a woman I didn’t know. Breathe, she said. I’m going to try that. I called out to the empty room, “Alexa, how do I breathe?”
Cry It Out
In the summer of 1995, a few things happened: my twins, Annabel and Elias, were born; O. J. Simpson was on trial; and many new parents and their pediatricians were clinging breathlessly to Dr. Richard Ferber’s book How to Solve Your Child’s Sleep Problems. Dr. Ferber’s method of getting your child to fall asleep on its own became known as Ferberizing. Most of the new mothers I knew at the time were desperately on the lookout for someone who knew more than we did about raising children, which was everyone. We were inexperienced, insecure, and easily shamed by experts. La Leche League, the advocacy group for breastfeeding, told us if we couldn’t nurse our newborns, we failed; the yogi on La Brea told us if we used an epidural during birth, we failed; and Dr. Ferber told us if we didn’t get those babies to develop healthy sleep associations, not only had we failed, but our children would fail for the rest of their lives! Millions of sleep-deprived parents all over the world, desperate for answers to their sleepless nights and zombie days, bought Dr. Ferber’s book and gave his method a try. Most people I knew, including myself, didn’t actually read the whole thing—we couldn’t keep our eyes open long enough—but we got the gist: in order to sleep train your child, you must give them healthy bedtime rituals and arm them with the ability to self-soothe. The habit of continually running to your baby’s side the minute you heard even the smallest squeak, scooping them up, sticking them on the boob or bottle, rocking them in the chair, driving them around in the car, or placing their infant seat on the vibrating dryer until finally surrendering and taking them into your bed where you would let them sleep attached to your breast like they were sleeping in a vat of chocolate so you could finally close your eyes was no damn good.
You were setting your child up for a lifetime of quick fixes and dependency on external salves to their internal stresses. The Ferber method promised to be quick and easy: establishing a bedtime routine, then letting your child fuss without running to soothe him or her for a predetermined and ever-increasing length of time until that baby learned to settle on his or her own and fall back to sleep without you. Dr. Ferber scoffed at the idea that this was a “cry it out” method, as some people accused. The time you left your baby to cry was a mere three minutes at the outset—hardly torture—then increasing to five, ten, maybe fifteen minutes at the longest. But within a week, he assured, you would have a baby who could get herself back to sleep without your harmful interventions, a self-soother who would take this important skill from the crib and into the world and the time when you wouldn’t be there to solve her every problem for her. You would not be setting your child up with a crippling dependency on you or anything that promised instant relief the minute she felt a twinge of discomfort (read: heroin).
In the first few months of my twins’ lives, I had probably already ruined them. It was the beginning of the twenty-four-hour news cycle, and I was obsessed with the O. J. trial. Every picture of my newborn babies also has Marcia Clarke or Johnny Cochran lurking in the background on the television set. The nursery, which my husband, Jack, and I had painted a sunny yellow with a “cow jumping over the moon” wallpaper border, was furnished with two matching cribs with custom linens and visually stimulating, brain-expanding black-and-white mobiles that stood untouched where they’d been assembled the month before the twins’ arrival.
Annabel and Elias had spent every night in bed with me, mostly because breastfeeding twins is simply a matter of survival. There is no time for luxuries like feeding schedules or parenting strategies, and as far as Dr. Ferber’s warning that my children could suffer separation anxiety later in life, that meant nothing to me. I was pretty sure there would be no “later in life” because these babies were going to kill me. The thought of sending these ravenous creatures off to college seemed so far away he might as well have talked to me about the time when I would want to have sex again. It was like science fiction. There was no place for modesty or even dignity in those early days. The minute I snapped up my size 38 triple H nursing bra from one feeding, the other baby would be ready to go, so pretty soon I stopped bothering. I didn’t even wear a shirt.
Jack’s relatives, who had always had the annoying habit of just barging into our house unannounced, learned quickly to knock or risk seeing things that couldn’t be unseen—like me resting cool cabbage leaves on my bosoms to draw out the heat and pressure of the overwhelming milk supply while sitting on a hemorrhoid donut, shoveling food into my mouth because I had never been so hungry in my life and it felt as if those creatures were sucking out my marrow. I eventually discovered the only way I could eat in peace was in my car. The drive-through meal became my savior, the twins buckled into their car seats while I feasted on twenty-four-hundred-calorie double cheeseburgers in the parking lot. In-N-Out Burger even offered a very civilized lap placemat. This was our existence for four blurry, beautiful months. My babies and I stared into each other’s eyes, ate on demand, slept when we could, showered very little, and cocooned ourselves inside the very small world of getting to know you.
But at four months, reality crashed in because I had to go back to work. Since I worked on a television writing staff that consisted of all men, only one of them married, I knew I had to get my shit together. Seeing me in my current condition could emotionally scar the sweet young guys I worked with. No reason for them to know the cruel details of the early days of parenthood until they had to. As it was, the mechanical sounds and dairy farm whooshing coming from my office at lunchtime from the breast pump were probably going to alter their enjoyment of their catered Universal commissary lunch. And the bottles of breast milk in the communal fridge marked “Kari’s boob juice” was undoubtedly enough education. I’m not saying it wasn’t good for them, but I didn’t need to overdo it. I also had to give the showrunners confidence that I was up to the task of returning to my job, especially since I had departed for maternity leave in a bit of haste. I’d finished only twenty-three pages of my thirty-two-page script that was due. I had a cast on my arm from tripping on the stairs on the way into work one day, breaking my wrist when I reached out to stop from falling on my enormous, baby-filled middle. It was almost a hundred degrees in the San Fernando Valley every day, I was nearing two hundred pounds, and there was a rash where my thighs rubbed together that could only be alleviated with a grease-like lubricant meant for old people with diabetic feet. I finally waddled into my bosses’ office, threw the twenty-three pages on their desk, and said, “I’m sorry. This is all I got. I have to go home and have some babies.”
So now, coming back, I needed to work twice as hard, be twice as good as my nonlactating brethren. I couldn’t burst into tears during table reads. I had to woman up. What that meant was these twins were going to have to let me sleep more than fifteen minutes at a stretch all night long. So I agreed to try to Ferberize them.
I told Jack I didn’t think I could do it; I couldn’t put them in their cribs and listen to them cry without going to them. He agreed this was on him. “The first time is only three minutes,” he reminded me. “That’s nothing.” He promised we would just go for a three-hour night and work our way up to a full night’s sleep.
We brought them into their room and laid them down in their cribs, and holding back tears, I told Annabel and Elias I loved them as if I were saying goodbye for the last time. And then I walked away. I went into the bedroom and listened on the baby monitor. I heard Jack say, “Good night, guys. You’re going to be okay. We’re right here. You’re not alone,” as the book instructed.
I thought to myself, They don’t speak English. You could be saying, “Mom and I are going on a Caribbean cruise. Try not to mess up the house while we’re gone. We never loved you.”
Then I heard his footsteps as he walked away. Then I heard him close the door. At first, there was stunned silence. I burst into tears thinking about their confused little faces. I missed them. Then Elias started to wail. I jumped up from the bed, but Jack was in the doorway. He held up the timer in his hand. Then Annabel joined in the wailing, summoning me. Milk began pouring from my breasts in sympathy. I held a pillow to my chest. Jack suggested maybe I should go where I couldn’t hear them. I said no. I needed to hear them. I needed to suffer. Now they were hysterical. I writhed on the bed in actual physical pain; it was unbearable. Finally, after what seemed like five hours, the timer went off. “Hurry!” I said. And Jack ran to them.
I clutched the baby monitor. I heard Jack go into their room. Their crying didn’t pause. He didn’t pick them up—that was the rule. He just yelled over their screams, “You’re okay. It’s bedtime. You’re not alone!” It seemed to me their wailing got louder when they realized that was all they were going to get.
There was a short hiccup pause in their hysterics when he patted their backs as recommended, and then, once again, I heard their bedroom door close. The twins went apeshit with outrage. I could tell Elias was doing that kind of crying where his entire face turned purple and his limbs were shaking. Finally, after another minute of this torture, I had a thought: Fuck. This. I jumped up from the bed and ran down the hallway. Jack intercepted me and tried to stop me, saying, “It’s only five minutes this time.” I would have killed him if I had to. Like, I would have stuck my thumbs into the soft part of his throat and squeezed the life out of him. I think he sensed this and let me pass.
Every maternal cell in my body rejected the premise that for four months you teach those baby brains, “When you call me, I’ll be there”—growing those synapses in a way that lets them trust that for the rest of their lives, there is someone who thinks about them, worries about them, lets them know, “I’ve got you.” Then, at four months, when it can’t even be explained to them, I’m suddenly supposed to change the rules and say, “You’re on your own, kid.” Sure, I thought. If I keep this up, no doubt they will stop crying eventually. I’m sure Dr. Ferber was right about that, but when they did, I was also certain, as the mother of these two, they would stop because they would have given up. I could break them like people break horses of their willfulness and need—but that night I declared, “I don’t care if they’re sleeping in our bed until they’re twenty-five years old; I’m not doing this. Dr. Ferber can suck my dick.”
Dr. Ferber, I know you’re a Harvard-educated shrink and I have a high school education and was fired from McDonald’s for fainting at the french fryer. But you didn’t spend two years trying to conceive them, drinking dried bugs and mud from the Chinese acupuncturist, and turning sex into homework. You’re not the one with scabs on your nipples and scars on your once-flat stomach.
And for the first time in my life, I was not going to defer to a white man with a superior education. For the first time in my life, I was going to trust my own instincts.
Motherhood was about to make me fearless instead of insecure. It was about to change me as a person. It was my job to protect them, and if Dr. Richard Ferber had been standing in that hallway, I would have happily killed him too. Not everyone needs to become a parent to grow up. But I did. The fierceness that being a mother brought out in me was new. I sold myself out on a regular basis before that, but those six-pound evil geniuses gave me something to fight for.
They never learned to sleep in their own beds, and when my next baby, Dayton, came along two and a half years later, the sleeping routine became a nightlong dance: lying down with Annabel and Elias on a bed in one room until they slept; then moving into my bed with Dayton until Annabel or Elias woke up, realized I was missing, and called out for me; trudging down the hallway to lie back down until they slept again—until Dayton realized I ditched him; then scurrying back to bed with Dayton until Annabel or Elias realized I had abandoned them. All night. Every night. Until it was time to go to work in the morning. And it meant I couldn’t go out of town, but there was nowhere I wanted to go. Going to work and leaving them with nannies during the week was brutal, so nighttime belonged to them. Period. It was how I overcorrected for long hours in the writer’s room when I couldn’t get home for dinner. I was well aware that my working mother’s guilt was driving my parenting choices. And I was okay with that. I believe in a guilty conscience. I think guilt makes people behave better.
I saw a lot of parents who could have stood to have a slightly more active conscience where their kids were concerned. Not that I judge.
I was warned that my behavior would bite me in the ass when it came time to send them to pursue their independence. I was told they would cling to me like ring-tailed lemurs when I tried to drop them off at preschool or if at some point I ever developed an interest in leaving my house without them. But they didn’t have separation issues.
In fact, the little fuckers walked away that first day of preschool as if I were their taxi driver. They unlatched their fingers from mine, waved goodbye, and skipped off into the sunset. “Okay!” I yelled after them. “Have fun at school! Don’t worry; Mommy will be right here when you’re done. I’m right here. You’re not alone!” I reassured no one because they had disappeared onto the climbing structure without looking back.
I looked at the kids on the bench outside the Red Room at the Country School, their heads buried into their parents’ necks, nails digging into their arms. One mom told me she had to sit on that bench outside the classroom for three weeks. Another had to stay so long she finally just took a job at the school. I would have given anything for one of those needy kids. But mine never struggled with summer camps or school trips. I was never the parent called to pick my weeping child up from sleepovers in the middle of the night like Dr. Ferber promised. I knew one lucky parent with a kid so paralyzed with social anxiety he couldn’t attend any of the elementary science camp sleepovers unless she was a chaperone.
It used to drive me crazy when people said, “You know the days are long, but the years are short.” But now here I am with two babies legal to drink and one legal to draft—who I still wouldn’t let cry in five-minute increments.
They don’t sleep in my bed anymore. And they won’t let me sleep in theirs. My marriage didn’t last—shut up—it wasn’t all my fault. And the kids aren’t around very much these days—no goddamn separation issues there. When I said to them, “It’s weird, this middle-age thing,” they comforted me by saying, “You’re not middle aged. It’s pretty unlikely you’re going to live to a hundred and ten.”
Sometimes I miss them, and sometimes I don’t. Those first nights alone, when I couldn’t soothe myself into sleep, I looked over at my nightstand to inspect my unhealthy sleep attachments: a healthy glass of chardonnay, Advil PM, the TV remote, my iPhone at the ready in case something on the ever-present MSNBC set fire to my hair-trigger rage and I needed to post an angry Facebook status. Dr. Ferber would probably suggest that this sleep environment was not ideal for self-soothing. That’s the book Dr. Richard Ferber should have written. Someone should have Ferberized me. Let me cry it out, but please come in every five minutes to pat me on the back and let me know, “It’s okay. We’re here. You’re not alone.”
Daughter, Divorcée, Storyteller, Jew?
When I first started spending time with my ex-husband’s family, the difference between our two clans was a shock to me. His family’s favorite pastime was to sit together for hours on end telling and retelling stories of the past and present. Pots of coffee and packs of cigarettes would fuel endless tales of their relatives both alive and dead. Their ideal vacation would be a cluster of cottages situated lakeside so they could wake up and go to sleep in close proximity to one another, starting and ending the day visiting
"Kari Lizer's essays are SUBLIME . . . Moving and laugh- out-loud funny. . . No one is a more keen observer of human behavior, of the kind we all try to hide from one another. Her writing makes me feel seen, as if I belong somewhere, and that somewhere is that magical place where Kari's pen touches paper . . . Her writing makes me feel as though I am home."
- "Kari Lizer writes about being the child of parents, being the parent of children and being a middle aged adult with brutal honesty, a tender heart, and a wicked sense of humor."—Julia Louis-Dreyfus
- "Kari's essays are unpretentious, open-hearted, and filled with integrity. From boldly admitting to her flaws, to calling out the b.s. she faces as a working mother, I found myself just constantly saying, 'YAAASSSSS.'"—Wanda Sykes
- "For years Kari Lizer has been writing truthful and incisive comedy for television, and now she's bringing her honesty and hilariousness to the classy world of books. We're all lucky for it."—Andy Richter
- "This book is honest, open, hilarious, and has a big heart. I devoured it. Treasured it. Didn't want it to end."—Molly Shannon
- "TV scriptwriter and producer Kari Lizer... debuts with a rollicking and often hilarious compilation of observations on life after her three children have departed for college. ...Readers will enjoy these challenging and sweet stories."—-Publishers Weekly
- On Sale
- Apr 7, 2020
- Page Count
- 288 pages
- Running Press