“Holding the space” is one of those Waldorf/hippie mama/gentle parenting catch phrases that gets thrown around a lot. We all nod and smile knowingly and look wise, but it can be a little difficult to truly wrap our brains around it. I know I’ve tossed it into conversation before, but I don’t think I ever really truly knew what it meant.
That is, before 5 AM this morning.
The babies have decided that now that they are 10 months old, they don’t need to sleep anymore.
Not at night. Not during the day.
Sleep is for suckers.
And you know, there are two of them. This mostly works out because there are two of us grown ups. But the downside is, it’s always a man-to-man defense and never a zone strategy. If they’re both up at night, we’re both up, and no one gets a break.
Early this morning when Matthew woke up wanting to nurse for the sixth time between midnight and 4 (I know, because I was counting), my husband took him downstairs. I thought I had scored because I got Molly, who tends to be the better sleeper and at the very least, makes her requests to nurse with giggles and smiles rather than the whines and grunts Matthew uses, even at 4 AM. Boy, was I wrong. Molly also seemed to be determined to set a nursing record and at 5 AM I just said no.
And then we were all treated to The Full Molly.
I don’t regret my decision not to nurse her for one hour last night. I don’t think it was particularly cruel or nasty of me. Pointless, perhaps, because while she was screaming it isn’t as if I wasn’t getting any sleep either, but I was sore and tired of being sucked on, so I stuck to my guns.
Unfortunately, Molly is just as stubborn as I am.
At first, I tried patting her. It didn’t work.
I tried holding her. It didn’t work.
I tried singing to her, rocking her, kissing her. None of it worked.
I caught myself getting more and more frustrated. My words became sharp as I told her to knock it off and go to sleep, all the while knowing she didn’t truly understand. And then, it hit me.
Hold the space.
I remember reading once about a doula who was particularly sought after. Her method of labor assistance that was so highly in demand? She sat in the corner and knit. Laboring mothers would come down from a contraction, look over at her knitting in the corner, and know that everything was OK.
She held the space.
When Katie Grace was a toddler, I read Dr. Karp’s The Happiest Toddler on the Block. I loved the ideas in his baby book, and hoped this one would prove useful as well. One of the ideas in the book was “matching the intensity.” If a child was tantruming, you matched their intensity. I tried this once with a screaming Katie Grace. Getting down at her level, I made a grumpy face and spoke in a voice as loud as her own.
“You’re really angry aren’t you? You don’t want to do that!”
She burst into tears.
Children don’t need us to match their intensity. It scares them. They need us to be calm, to be their rocks when they feel like the whole world is shifting. Not only that, but matching the intensity raises the ante– they yell, we yell back, and the only place to go is louder.
No, what children need is for us to hold the space.
When you hold the space, you set the tone. You create a safe place. You say to your child “It’s OK. You do what you need to, and I’ll be here for you.” Setting the tone is not relinquishing control and creating an “anything goes” atmosphere, which is I think what we as parents fear. Rather, it is keeping control. We exercise our authority as parents by refusing to get sucked into a yelling game. We are strongest when we choose gentleness.
Way back in the day when I had to maintain order in a room full of preschoolers, I learned a little trick for getting their attention. It wasn’t a gong or a whistle or a yell. It was to simply whisper a child’s name. And it was amazing how that calm whisper caught them more than yell or demand.
In order to listen to me, the children needed me to hold the space.
We read in Scripture the story of Elijah (I Kings 19:4-18), who was listening for the voice of God. When he finally heard Him, it was not in the wind or the earthquake or the fire, but in a gentle whisper.
This is a shame, because I am much better at yelling. I often feel, in this house full of children, that it’s the only way to make my voice heard. But today, running on fumes of sleep, exhausted and wondering if I’ll ever get a good night’s sleep again, I am making a conscious decision to choose peace and gentleness and the quiet whisper instead.
When they can’t be calm, I will be calm.
When they can’t be peaceful, I will be peace.
When they can’t find rest, I will be restful.
I will hold the space.