by Kari Lizer
Running Press Adult, 2020; 288 pp.; $20.24 (Hardcover)Buy Book
Kari Lizer, in her debut essay collection, Aren’t You Forgetting Someone?: Essays from My Mid-Life Revenge, isn’t afraid to tell the truth about midlife, motherhood, and navigating the terrain of holding on and letting go of her adult children. Lizer’s dedication, For Annabel, Elias, Dayton—I forgive you for leaving me to go live your lives, sets the tone and landscape for most of her essays. Empty nest means confronting hard, vulnerable truths about raising children, and learning how to find yourself when you realize your kids-who-have-become-adults need you, the mother, less and less. The center has shifted and reconciling how to become a mother in the periphery pushes Lizer to contemplate the passage of time, loss, love, grief, and identity. Her material sometimes lingers in darkness, but the reader is too busy laughing out loud at Lizer’s self-deprecating humor, and the sharpness of these truths escape into the ether.
The collection contains 27 essays, beginning with young motherhood and how Lizer realized that having children meant she had to hustle not for herself, but for her family. As a divorced comedy writer in Hollywood, her world took on new meaning once she staked claim to her title as mother. She talks about this shift in her opening essay, “Alexa, Is Everything Going to be Okay?”:
And then came motherhood. The 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 she reflects on motherhood in midlife, her outlook offers relatable clarity.
There was no such thing as balance. No middle. Until now. This middle age. The indefinable in-between. When I am 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.
When Lizer complains to her children about acknowledging “middle-age,” she also is honest about coming to terms with her divorce and not having her children around. She admits her divorce wasn’t entirely her fault and quips that “the kids aren’t around very much these days—no goddamn separation issues there.” Before the reader has a chance to feel Lizer’s loneliness, she recounts a conversation with her kids bemoaning her lonely middle-aged life. “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.'”
Lizer’s reliance on humor shows her humanness and her ability to be gentle with herself. And the humor is present as a balm and refuge because Lizer has confronted plenty of tragedy in her life. As the reader becomes comfortable with Lizer’s humor, reality is quickly brought to the center by a few sad revelations: her young brother died of heart failure because of chronic methamphetamine abuse and her sister passed away at 41 of a brain tumor. She openly states, “My family is funny in a way that most people would find disturbing. We make jokes where feelings are supposed to be. . . . We move away from our feelings.” Lizer admits she “grew up with no customs or traditions to contain the shock of death.” Given this context, it makes sense that humor has become a reliable way to cope.
In her most poignant essay, “We’ll Call That Love,” she asks the question many midlife parents contemplate, “How do you stay connected to your children and attend to their needs from so far away? Should I break the bad news to them? You don’t.” In this essay, Lizer comes up with several excuses to call or text her college-aged children. Inexplicably, most of the time, her children don’t respond. She increasingly becomes bitter and resorts to leaving a nasty message on her son’s phone, “Hey! You’re obviously busy enjoying the outrageously expensive private college education that I fucking pay for. You’re welcome. Too bad I raised a douchebag.”
Lizer’s response is real and raw, and reader moms will appreciate the anger that arises when your children don’t return a text or phone call. They seemingly rely on you during their every waking moment while at home, but the moment they leave, you’re forgotten. Lizer allows every midlife mother to be angry about their children’s absence.
Everything mothers do is to prepare for their children’s eventual departure—the tutors, the college tours, the nagging, the tears, the speech therapists, the educational therapists, the marriage counselors, the extracurricular activities that will look good on an application, the community service, the threats, the bribes, the struggle—all leading to this moment. . . . So the only wisdom I can offer is this: try so hard to be happy when they’re happy, even when it makes you sad. We’ll call that love.
Toward the middle of her collection, Lizer focuses her attention on her experiences in her work in Hollywood, There are essays dedicated to #metoo movement and the insufferable treatment of women in Hollywood, as well as her own experience as a young extra on the set of Growing Pains and how she mistakenly thought she could land her big break because Alan Thicke suddenly paid attention to her. She also spends a few chapters detailing her love of animals, her need to be philanthropic, and the experience of getting her second tattoo when she is 50. She also admits that she’s come to terms with saying she’s perfectly fine not being in love. Lizer’s attempt to focus on these other areas of her life shows how midlife pushes mothers to assess the non-mom parts of their identity. And sometimes these examinations might be of comfort, while other times they might lead to regret.
In one of her final chapters, she tackles endings. She readily acknowledges her ambivalence about goodbyes in “I Don’t Know Why I Say Hello.”
I’ve started to realize that my life has become a series of endless endings. My children’s infrequent homecomings are all quickly followed by a relentless series of leavings. Their lives are about hellos right now, so they can’t wait to untangle themselves from my octopus-like grasp and run out into the world that’s so eager to greet them.
Her children leaving also pushes Lizer to confront her own mortality. She admits that even when she pops on social media, she learns of “the demise of at least a peripheral person in my universe who’s dropped dead of what I guess we can no longer say are unexpected circumstances.” But this collision with mortality, leads Lizer to a much bigger epiphany toward the end of her collection in an essay titled, “Chasing Nothing.” She provides this recap of her life: “I spent my twenties chasing love and money and fame. I spent my thirties chasing babies and money and success. I spent my forties chasing self-respect and balance and money. What would I chase in my fifties and beyond?”
In answer to that question, Lizer explicitly states, “Maybe there was nothing left to chase. . . . It’s possible I have everything I need. I have my ChapStick, my chickens, and my fine, funny children—all three of whom remembered to call me on my birthday.” This realization contributes to the peace Lizer explores in her last essay, “Live Like You’re Dying (You Are).” Despite the morose title, the essayist realizes, “My time is my own for the first time in many years, and while worry still waits at the edges of my thoughts (I’m still a mother), the hypervigilant state I lived in while trying to give my kids everything they need while also building my career has relaxed.”
She readily admits that midlife isn’t a tragedy, but the freedom to do whatever she pleases. And maybe that’s the lesson for all midlife mothers. The letting go means exploring a new identity.