parenting as holding the space

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?

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  1. Posted 30 November 2010 at 6:11 PM | Permalink

    I love this analogy and it rings very true for how I parented when my son was home. Now that he is out of the house (and a few years before he left), I find my primary role is to let go. Letting go is an active stance and similar to holding the space only you need to trust that he is in fact capable of holding it himself now.

    • Molly
      Posted 30 November 2010 at 7:54 PM | Permalink

      Oh, yeah: they grow up! And then the job changes. Sometimes I forget that part, in the midst of parenting a very little person with so many needs.

      Thanks for the compliment, & for the perspective.

  2. Posted 1 December 2010 at 12:10 AM | Permalink

    Thank you for this. This is very similar to my way of parenting, but i didn’t have this particular language, which i’m glad to have. i practiced as a doula and a midwife in the ’90s and while we certainly had the concept you’re describing, we didn’t use this language to describe it. i like “holding the space.” It’s good.

  3. Posted 1 December 2010 at 3:19 PM | Permalink

    My mother has been a sort of parenting coach for me, and she uses the same phrase: “holding the space”, in much the same way when we talk about parenting. It is really weird (and awesome!) to read it from another source! So there is some similarity, I think, probably, in my approach. The other big one is the “80% rule”, which is in place to help me maintain sanity and resist the knee-jerk “bad mom” line of thinking. If things are consistent and predictable 80% of the time for my daughter, we’re good. If she is eating a healthy balanced meal (based on my rather demanding standards of healthy) 80% of the time, we’re good. If we keep the TV off 80% of the time, we’re good. You get the idea. I think the parenting goal for me is to “hold the space” for her to grow, and gradually expand it as she expands. Part of that is protecting her from what she isn’t ready for, and part of it is stepping aside to let her explore what she is ready for (even if I’m not). This was a great post, I really enjoyed it.

  4. Erin
    Posted 2 December 2010 at 9:10 AM | Permalink

    Yes, exactly! I wonder how many of us parent in this way without thinking of it in those precise terms. I’ve been thinking about this a lot with my son (now 2.5). I started thinking of it as “not getting in his way” – allowing him space to move and grow and be who he is. I worried about his life being constrained by too many “no”s – you can’t touch this, you can’t eat that, you can’t jump off the couch, or run into the street etc etc. Poor toddlers! They don’t understand any of the rules we have to impose on them. So my partner and I work to minimize the “no”s in his life, while maintaining firm but gentle boundaries so he can feel safe. A lot of how I feel about parenting is instinctive, and has found voice through reading Montessori theory. My mother was a Montessori teacher, so the philosophy has been a part of my life for a long time. I learned two lessons that I really took to heart before my son was born: 1) deep and fundamental respect for the personhood of all children; and 2) that my responsibility is not to “make him happy” but to provide him the tools to live a life of meaning, purpose, self-respect, and compassion. We try never to move him against his will (not always possible!) or take things from his hands (ditto). But even though we don’t live up to our ideals 100% of the time, just *thinking* about it, being conscious of him as a person changes the way we parent and live our lives. Providing a calm space is challenging for me because I’m an impatient person; I did very well when DS was younger, but now that I have a new baby at home and am seriously sleep-deprived, I’m more emotionally chaotic than normal, and I’ve really noticed how much more chaotic this makes my toddler. Thanks for the lovely post! I think it will help me to have a new way of talking to myself about how I parent.

  5. SharonBugs
    Posted 8 December 2010 at 8:18 AM | Permalink

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts. I am at the stage of our unschooling whereby I’ve lost sight of our objectives…and am beginning to sway back towards Control. Being linked to your blog thru another unschooling mum was just what I needed at this moment of uncertainty.

    Holding space – what a brilliant concept and a whole new perspective for me; and it makes perfect sense. “Often in moments when we ourselves feel like throwing tantrums”, you are so right…it is a mechanism to remind us how we’re failing….I can understand now, my recent frustrations are actually tantrums, now..if I had actually paid attention, I would know now why I’m feeling so frustrating …it is becoz I am failing and I don’t know why…and therefore I am feeling really miserable about it.

    Time to reset back to “holding space” and wait.

    A big thank you and hugs and Best Wishes,

    • Molly
      Posted 8 December 2010 at 10:44 AM | Permalink

      Good luck being where you find yourself, and getting somewhere that feels better! I’m glad you found my blog.

  6. Mary Barbosa-Jerez
    Posted 8 December 2010 at 12:55 PM | Permalink

    I can’t tell you how much I appreciate your beautiful articulation of your work as parents — not because, like many of your readers, I practice similarly (unfortunately, I’m not a parent), or because I was parented like this. In fact in both action and intention, what you practice is antithetical to the experience in my family of origin. And though I glimpse your practice in the good parenting of my current friends, a full sense of what you and they are doing has remained mysterious and somehow occluded. By writing about it, you provide definition, shape and structure, and a guide to the work of good and moral parenting for those of us who sorely need it.

    I’m fortunate as an middle-aged adult to have (at last) gained “the freedom [and] authority to surround [my]self with the people or information [I] choose, select or significantly alter the physical space where [I] live …”. As a child, I felt abandoned by adults in my life who knew at least a little about the circumstances in our household, and who (I thought) failed to help us.

    I know now — as I see the children in my extended biological family struggle, trapped within a family cycle of domestic violence, and in a larger cultural system that discounts them and the impact these events and that environment have on them — that those adults probably struggled to help. But how? To date, there is almost no research, publication, or legal protection (short of removing them from their homes, and this only in the most dire cases) available for those of us with at least some power to help these little people.

    Furthermore, as adults who grew up in family-systems of control and not-always-subtle violence, we struggle to recognize and understand what “love” means and looks like — how it is manifest, its warp and weft, and to how to parse out and re-name the many actions and conditions that masquerade as love.

    You surely know of Bell Hooks small book: All About Love: New Visions. Her book was important for me (and I think for many people who were not parented the way you and Eric parent) as a way of identifying what love is and is not. Your work (and it is work) as parents, and articulating that work continues what Bell Hooks began.

    Your writing is radically important if we mean to create a more compassionate and loving world. In writing you extend your experience, theory and practice to all of us who need both structure and model for moving forward in a way that’s not simply an attempt to refrain from repeating “the sins of our fathers” (and mothers). You’re creating a clear paradigm for healing families and our larger culture, one small child (and one 40-something woman) at a time.

    Thank you!

    • Molly
      Posted 9 December 2010 at 12:18 PM | Permalink

      Thanks for the kind & thoughtful comment, Mary. I know hooks’s work, of course, but haven’t read All about Love; I’ll add it to my absurdly long to-read list :)

  7. Posted 21 September 2011 at 7:59 PM | Permalink

    I’m not at all sure how I “surfed” my way to your blog post, but I’m glad I did.
    It was a wonderful analogy for homeschooling.
    THANK YOU for your thoughts.

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