I have a set of candlesticks that have moved with me everywhere I’ve lived as an adult. A trio of white, glossy ceramic with long stems and Hygge pretensions (meaning: I bought them from Ikea as a student). The other weekend my mum was round and as we sat at my dining table drinking coffee she said: ‘Oh, you’ve used them – I don’t think I’ve ever seen those with actual, burnt candles in before’. And she was right.
Those candlesticks have sat on various mantelpieces, coffee tables, and shelves, in our first flat, then house, then slightly bigger house, always bearing the same set of unlit tapers. Each time we moved, they’d be dusted down, wrapped up and transported to the next place so we could carry on not using them.
Then, for no obvious reason other than I felt like it, this New Year’s Eve I lit them. Since then, we’ve lit them most nights, burning steadily through the box of candles we must have bought a decade ago.
While I didn’t think it significant at the time, now – if it’s not too mad – I can’t help seeing the candlesticks as a symptom of something bigger. A sign that for the first time since we’ve moved here, we’re finally living in our home. I don’t think it’s much of an exaggeration to say that in the six months since going freelance, I’ve spent more time in the house than I had in the entire two and a half years before that. And it shows.
Now, there’s sheet music on the piano. Butter in the butter dish. Coffee in the pot. Music trickles from my study while I write, most days. Wellies get taken for regular walks, rather than standing sentinel in the porch, filling with stray letters and spiders, never feet. A cycle helmet and (mud-splattered) jacket hang from a hook in the kitchen.*
Home takes on a different resonance and layer of meanings, after baby loss, I think.
On the one hand home is your refuge – literally, if you are waiting out a missed miscarriage, afraid to leave the house, or even bed, in case the bleeding starts. And then in the grief-exhausted days that follow a loss, being out in the world – exposed to the hoot and rumble of traffic, packed, pushing pavements, airless train carriages – can feel like a physical ordeal. Home is shelter. Your cave. Where the duvet is.
On the other, home is also a place where mixed feelings, painful reminders and bittersweet memories hide in un-used rooms. You can feel haunted by the quiet and the relative tidiness; by the sensible, practical decisions you made back in what felt like a different lifetime. For a life that hasn’t shown up yet.
If all goes to plan (ha!) we will probably move again before we have a baby, now. A fresh start will undoubtedly do us good, but there is sadness written into that decision, too. Goodbye to the safe, suburban house, picked so deliberately and carefully, with room for one more human – possibly two.
A different kind of empty nest, brings its own kind of empty-nest syndrome. Just like the desire to ‘nest’ in pregnancy, losing a baby or spending a long time trying to conceive one can trigger an urge to re-invent, to decorate and de-clutter. To throw yourself into projects. Distraction by DIY.
I’m basing this purely on anecdote, and our own drive to rip out carpets and re-paint. Our pattern of tackling a new room after each miscarriage. Maybe it’s nothing to do with miscarriage at all, maybe it’s just the age we are. The B&Q years.
Still, I do think there’s something deeper going on. When babies don’t arrive as expected, what you start to feel keenly is a slow loosening of the usual social rituals, an absence of structure outside of the foregone conclusions of post-hospital visitors, christenings, first birthday parties and so on. Accordingly, you start to realise that there are things you had been counting on children to bring into your life – chaos, routine, celebration, warmth, visitors, play, noise, joy, meaning, belonging – and you may have no choice but to create them for yourself, in some shape or form.
So perhaps that’s what the empty-nesting is about, that’s why it feels therapeutic – it’s the forging of a slightly different kind of family home, in recognition that you are already a family, right now. Instead of waiting for your real life to begin. Saving things for best, always.
Speaking of which, the day after mum pointed out my neglected-no-more candlesticks, one of them smashed. The china cracked and frittered spontaneously, spitting out its nub of just-lit wax. Not a hair had been touching it. I can only guess it had got too hot, too quickly after a very cold January day.
Oh well. I suppose breakages are a small price to pay for a life well lived-in.
** I realise this makes it sound as though I have some idyllic, slow-living rural existence. I don’t. I live a stone’s throw from the M25, in the heart of Metroland. And the cats are such terrible townies that they are literally scared by a stiff breeze.