Eric and I don’t follow any particular ‘parenting philosophy.’ This approach has many advantages for us, but sometimes I think it makes it difficult to articulate what we’re doing–or why we’re doing what we’re doing–to family members or friends or childcare providers. Labels can be handy like that.
So anyway, about six months ago something popped into my head while Noah and I were walking our dog, and it’s stuck with me. I see my biggest and most challenging and most full-time role as a parent as ‘holding the space.’
You know how doulas and midwives talk about ‘holding the space’ for labor and childbirth? This concept means different things to different people, but the basic idea is that a calm, focused, loving person can protect a space in which the laboring/birthing person can do what she needs to do. So maybe a doula turns down the lights, makes the room smell like lavender instead of disinfectant, keeps the noise level peaceful and respectful–physically holding the space. And maybe the doula sits quietly, looks untroubled, pays complete attention to the person who’s laboring/birthing, sets aside his or her own baggage in order to be in the moment to protect and honor that person’s present experience–emotionally and spiritually holding the space. Right?
So that’s what I’m trying to do for Noah, but for many years instead of the few hours or days of labor and birth. Especially when he’s so little and new and dependent on us, I want to create and protect a physical, emotional, and spiritual space in which he can do what he needs to do and feel what he needs to feel. We have to do that for him, because he can’t do it for himself yet; he doesn’t have the freedom or authority to surround himself with the people or information he chooses, select or significantly alter the physical space where he lives, or even just decide he wants to bake some cookies because he feels blue and self-indulgent one night.
I want to be careful not to throw my weight around and unthinkingly wield my considerable privilege as an adult, because I know that his emotions and perceptions right now are just as real and valid as my own. Regardless of what our culture says, a child isn’t an inconveniently not-yet-finished adult but a whole person … even if he needs more help than I do. I know that someday I’ll be sick or elderly or hit with a big loss and I’ll find myself just as dependent on others as Noah is now–more so–and that my ‘independence’ as an able-bodied adult is an illusion anyway. He and I are not so dissimilar.
And I want to hold a space for him that excludes our culture’s insistence that children’s feelings and needs and opinions don’t matter–that they’re either cute or purposeless inconveniences, but that they don’t matter the way adult experiences matter.
I don’t at all mean we just let him do whatever the hell he wants. But I try to remember that if someone simply refused to let me do what I wanted to do or go where I wanted to go, or served me a meal I didn’t choose and didn’t feel like eating, or wouldn’t let me have food or a drink when I was hungry or thirsty, or physically restrained or moved me against my will, or ignored me, or locked me in my room because they didn’t like the emotions I was expressing, or took one of my belongings away from me … that would make me feel really frustrated and out of control, and in some cases downright frightened. Holding the space sometimes means not doing those things because we can find another, less invasive, way. And when we have to do those things in order to make our lives work or keep Noah safe, holding the space means being honest and open while acknowledging and accepting his feelings.
In other words, Noah (like everyone) needs a little room of his own, and we’re the only people who can make that happen for him right now. It’s hard to keep up all the time. We sometimes fail … oh how we fail, often in moments when we ourselves feel like throwing tantrums. But we’re really trying to be that nonjudgmental presence keeping the noise of the world at a manageable level while Noah does the hard work of learning to live in it.
If you parent, how do you conceptualize your role as a parent?