empty nest essay by Catherine Newman

“I made a lovely arctic char on Monday,” my mother is telling me. Hear this in her English accent, which is still somehow crisp after 60 years in New York. “And then on Tuesday your father mixed the leftover fish with cooked bulgur wheat” — there’s a muffled shouting in the background — “yes, Ted, I was getting to that. And sautéed mushrooms. Little grape tomatoes! It was delicious. And then yesterday we ate the leftover bulgur over pasta and, if anything, it was even better! We’re having it again tonight.” “You could use it as an omelet filling,” I offer, and my mother laughs. My father, who has apparently picked up the other receiver, says, “That’s not a bad idea, actually.” These very old people eating their iterations of leftover fish! Borne back ceaselessly into the past of the Whole Foods seafood counter. My heart.

My baby daughter, who has managed to become a college freshman despite being born five seconds ago, sends me a TikTok with the title “Phone call with your mom.” A college student pretends to be her own mother, says, “So, yeah, it’s been me and your dad. We made leftovers last night — well, we heated up the leftovers last night…” The vibe of the video is very mystified by the boringness of her own life. “Ha ha ha! Sorry. Omg,” I text, and she writes only “No it’s perfect.” Perfect? “I have to show you this TikTok Birdy sent me,” I say to her older brother, Ben, and he laughs says, “Yeah, no. I know the one you mean. It’s perfect.”

I’ve heard the expression ’empty nest’ for my whole parenting life — anticipated the downy expanse of it, the absence of cheeping, maybe the bird pair doing a little more mating what with nobody barging in at midnight needing either of them to read an email to their history teacher or inspect a weird freckle that turns out to be magic marker. But now I’m realizing that an empty nest is two birds looking at each other, shellshocked and nostalgic, over the single worm they’re now splitting for dinner. And they’re yanking up way too many worms, even though it’s just the two of them. “We still have some worm from last night,” they’re saying. The nest is full of worms that nobody’s there to eat.

As it turns out, I have been essentially hosting my own children for decades — throwing a permanent kind of dinner party that I wanted them to never want to leave, even though they’ve left now and it’s good, of course. It’s the way it should be. But I have never not shopped for groceries without thinking of them, dazed with love. I have picked out artichokes and polenta and blackberry seltzer, picked up gluten-free peanut-butter-filled pretzels and frozen shrimp and Trader Joe’s Paneer Tikka Masala. Everybody’s favorite everything, non-stop 5-star Yelp reviews: “Would recommend this mom, 100%.”

Now I am at something of a loss. It’s easier to feed ourselves. It’s sadder. I don’t know how to spend less at the supermarket, even though we eat so much less, and so strangely. In the early fall, I sliced tomatoes for our dinner — a gorgeous platter of them dressed simply with salt and olive oil, and we ate only that. After Halloween, I roasted our Jack-o’-lantern and fed it to my husband like we were in a dull remake of Sweeney Todd. Some nights instead of sitting down at the table, I eat Grape-Nuts on the couch and do the daily Sudoku online. One night I make pancakes from leftover skordalia, a Greek potato and garlic dip, and I serve them with something I optimistically call “celery salad.” Another night I make perfect kale, the dressing thick with anchovies, all of it blanketed with grated parmesan, fried breadcrumbs.

There is candlelight and conversation, and I think: I could learn to live like this. But yet another night, when still nobody brings their bursting young energy to the table, I think, over my quiet bowl of bright borscht: I will never learn to live like this. Nobody complains about there being soup again, which is a good thing. Not that anyone ever actually complained. It was more subtle than that — just a mild deflatedness upon sitting down. I don’t miss it. (I kind of miss it.)

Should I throw out some of these things the children have left behind? In my kitchen there is a blue gas-station drink, five purple Otter Pops and, in the back of one cabinet, an unopened bag of Flamin’ Hot Cheetos with a 2019 expiration date. I miss the high-school days of Taco Bell wrappers and melting Slurpees, the open package of Sour Belts and the open bag of Extreme Doritos that I ate from absentmindedly while my coffee brewed. I miss the gigantic teenagers sprinkling every edible thing with sugar, caramelizing it all with a culinary blowtorch while I screamed, “Do not set this house on fire!”

Now the cat eats Birdy’s cactuses, throws them up, succulent stems ejected in foamy pools of barf. “Does the cat seem depressed to you?” I ask Michael, and he laughs, pats me consolingly. “He does,” he says. This man with the beautiful hands who is here still, somehow, even after this decades-long whirlwind love affair with our children. “But I think it might be getting better.”

Catherine Newman is the author of the forthcoming social skills book for kids, What Can I Say? (Storey, May 2022) and the forthcoming funny grief novel for grown-ups, We All Want Impossible Things (Harper, November 2022). She has written for Cup of Jo about many topics, including raising teenage boys.

P.S. 21 completely subjective rules for raising teen girls, and an 8-minute film that made me cry.

(Illustration by Abbey Lossing for Cup of Jo.)