An Empty Nest, Sooner Than Expected

With our son out of the house, my husband and I provide our own teenage ambience

Low view of a teen doing a jump on a skateboard on the sidewalk.
Photo: Daniel Wirtz/Unsplash

My son, completely at wits’ end with Zoom education, left for boarding school last month, so my husband and I became, a few years ahead of schedule, empty nesters. I had not yet given this phase of my life much thought; my son is in 10th grade, so I had assumed I had three more years of hands-on parenting. My thoughts about empty nesting were formed primarily by a television commercial that ran some years back, in which parents are sending their kid off to college, accompanied by the weeping of huge crocodile tears and the wringing of hands, but the minute the kid leaves, they race into his room, pitch out all his furniture, rip down his heavy-metal posters, and turn the room into some kind of fancy, expensive spa/home theater.

I never pictured myself celebrating at all — in fact, I looked at the prospect of his departure with real dread — but I also figured there might be changes we’d appreciate. For instance, our trash would no longer bulge with uncountable numbers of pizza boxes; our travel plans could be made without regard to a school calendar; there would be less stinky laundry to do. More than that, though, I thought my husband and I would start living an adult-centric life. We would watch higher-brow movies that my son had vetoed. We would eat more sophisticated food, and definitely more fish, which my son eschews. The house would be tidier. We would spend time in a more adult way — I’m not sure what I even meant by that, but I just assumed that instead of spending weekends at paintball stadiums and sneaker shops, we would, say, read. Or look at art.

Okay, do I tell you now about having peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches for dinner? About the clothes piled up in little mountains around the house? The crap television we’ve been watching for hours? The unmade bed? The laundry hamper erupting like Mt. Vesuvius? Rather than convert our home into an intellectual, worldly haven, untethered to teenage ambience, we have gone the other direction — we’ve made it into the home my teenager probably dreamed it would be. I’m still showering, but my personal presentation has definitely gone down a few notches. We eat lunch — or should I say “lunch” — by standing in front of the refrigerator and picking at whatever is within reach. Dinner is served — “served” — in front of the television, exactly what my parental self explicitly forbade. We haven’t become adults; we’ve reverted to being teenagers.

I can’t help wondering, as I finish eating a cheese stick for lunch (I bought the cheese sticks to use for training my new puppy, but, well, whatever), just how much of parenting is performative. Some of it is for real, of course; even though my son is away, I don’t do things like littering or shoplifting or fail to clean up after my dog, things that I feel are actual moral, civic duties. But there are many things that I remember arguing with my parents about — like why you needed to make your bed every morning if you were going to mess it up at night anyway — that I suddenly feel too lazy to do, now that I don’t have an audience of a younger person to perform them for.

I fully expect a midcourse correction. We will soon tire of peanut butter. We will tidy up. We will open our mail. We will shower, and do our laundry, and slowly deploy hangers for our clothing. We have no choice. My son will be home soon for spring break.

Staff writer, The New Yorker. Author of The Library Book, The Orchid Thief, and more…Head of my very own book club (join me!)

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