The Suburban Identity Crisis Is Real

Photo-Illustration: The Cut; Photos: Getty

In “The Liver,” the series finale of Fleishman Is in Trouble, Toby Fleishman takes a woman off life support. She’s a seemingly dutiful wife and mother who had a rare underlying disease triggered by a wild weekend of drinking in Vegas with her friends, prompting the demise of her liver. In a metaphorical parallel, Fleishman’s old camp pal Libby Epstein is hanging on by a thread to her own idea of life.

When forced to reckon with how, after many thankless years swimming upstream as an underestimated journalist at a men’s magazine, she somehow continued the cycle of self-sacrifice by trading her own friendships, needs, creative desires, and New York City for marriage, family, and the suburbs, Libby has an epiphany: “I was living this life that wasn’t mine anymore and then I was living a life that had never been mine.” After disappearing to “the city” for a few days to avoid her own existential midlife crisis by caring for her friends in theirs, she remembers how inspired she once was in New York, how alive she once felt, and wonders where that feeling went — where she went. She returns to her family in the burbs but is so resented for shirking her wifely and motherly duties for a couple of days that her family treats her like a speed bump, an inconsequential annoyance, as punishment.

The woman willingly gave up everything that comprised her sense of self for love and got what? A four-bedroom, two-and-a-half-bath Craftsman in New Jersey with a backyard, a couple of kids, and a miserable husband turned warden in the form of Josh Radnor?

In a few painful ways, I relate. I miss the city like hell. Although it wasn’t the most financially savvy decision for our family, we stayed long past the point it made sense because I couldn’t fathom how I would cope without proximity to the people, places, and things outside of my family that make me me. Unlike Libby, I kept writing after I had kids, freelancing to pick up the child-care slack. But like Libby, I felt compelled to leave my beloved Brooklyn neighborhood of 24 years after spending the pandemic confined in 1,000 square feet with three grown or near-grown people, some triggering Cancer transits, and low interest rates fueled me with the unequivocal desire for stability afforded by homeownership.

When you dive headfirst under the bus, you make it easy for everyone to blame you for the tire tracks embedded in your forehead. Since leaving her job and the city, Libby occupied herself with caring for everyone but herself — a trap so many of us who align with these institutions somehow still fall into — out of some antiquated bullshit sense of duty. “I’d somehow fallen for it, some dream of safety that I hadn’t understood would never reconcile with who I was, which was a free and independent person,” she laments in voice-over. Lines like these from showrunner and author Taffy Brodesser-Akner give poetic voice to the midlife crisis wherever it may happen: the need to cling to some semblance of who we’ve always been by clinging to where and what made us feel most alive.

But the New York City withdrawal she touches on in Fleishman is a different animal. For a certain type of person, living in New York City for any substantive or formative period of time becomes more than just a part of your personality. It becomes an organ — like the liver — that functions to facilitate your survival in it, and in the world. If you can make it there, you can make it anywhere. Or so you think.

As it turned out, my partner and the kid who was to remain at home were up for the change. Right before we had to give up our apartment, I tried desperately to shift course. “We can rent out our new digs and actually come out ahead!” I pleaded. But I was outvoted and thus relented to giving the quiet rural-suburb life a try. As a result, I found myself living in a perfectly lovely place where I could hear myself think but that had nothing to do with who I was. I was such a mess after we moved that one of my dear friends messengered over some Ativan so I could bring myself to unpack.

So many of us disembark to the suburbs hoping our lives will regenerate, like the liver, into something capable of sustaining us. Sometimes it works; sometimes it doesn’t. The displacement Libby felt was akin to being airdropped into a foreign land where she didn’t speak the language. I totally get it. Though her husband maintains otherwise, the reason she feels like such an “oddity” is because, to her neighbors, she is one. New York is a container built for the oddities of the world so we can find safety in numbers and common ground in bitching about tourists, rats, whoever the mayor is, and alternate-side-of-the-street parking. When Libby implores her husband to understand the profound sense of displacement, abject misery, and loneliness she feels where they live, she says, “It’s like we died and these houses are our headstones.” I screamed at the TV because I felt so fucking seen. (Unlike Libby, though, at least my husband gets it.)

When a longtime friend and resident of the East Village came to visit and observed the cause of my emotional malaise, she quickly nailed why I felt so profoundly lonely: People in the suburbs see their homes as a refuge from the world and its people, while most New Yorkers sleep, eat, and watch TV in their homes and do their actual living among the people, on the outside. I went from being among sometimes tens, sometimes hundreds, maybe thousands of people a day to three, and was in acute withdrawal from that level of intense human observation and interaction. My home felt like a headstone, but I still wanted to live aboveground, on the outside, among the people, how I’d always seen myself — as a New Yorker.

To be fair, not all burbs are created equal. Some have a warm, friendly vibe with plenty to do and plenty of like minds to connect with. What I’ve learned about where I chose to move is that the physical distance afforded by homes spread apart equals the emotional distance people like to keep from one another. We’ve managed to connect with some lovely people, but I remain something of an oddity: It’s not like most of the people I’ve met know who LCD Soundsystem is, let alone have any desire to go to one of their shows with me.

A year and a half later, the distance between who I am and where I am remains too big a chasm for me to scale. I’ve watched so many close friends and fond acquaintances migrate away from “the city,” some to the burbs and others to different cities or countries. Almost all of them are content with their choice. Wherever you go, there you are, right? I have so much to be grateful for. I have a nice place to live. I’m happy with my lot as a partner, mother, and writer. I fully admit to having long entertained giving New York up to become an Angeleno or a Palm Springs desert witch. While I still feel as if I’m missing a vital organ, I have hope that my stint in the suburbs may help me regenerate, like the liver, into something healthier and more forgiving. But I have to be real: Who the fuck am I if I’m not a New Yorker? So, like Libby, I’ll take any excuse that comes up to return to where I last saw myself.

The Suburban Identity Crisis Is Real