Doulas and “Holding Space”

Several years ago, a friend and neighbor called me about a time-sensitive issue that she needed help with. My husband and I jumped into action to lend our assistance, but the matter at hand was pretty emotionally charged for us.

We cared about this family and hoped for a positive outcome to the problem. Quick thinking from those involved, not to mention several miracles, helped us achieve the outcome we were hoping for. All is well that ends well.

I learned an important lesson throughout that experience.

I learned how important it was to have someone who can “hold the space.”

My brother-in-law played the role of “space holder” and he didn’t even know it. He did not know this family, and while I am sure that, on some level, he hoped for a happy ending to the story, he did not have any emotional attachments to the outcome. He listened to my husband and I talk through strategies on what we could do to help this family. He listened as we lamented that we’d done all we could to help, and now we just had to wait for others to do their part. He didn’t offer advice and he didn’t tell us what he thought we should have done. He just listened.

I still remember what a comfort it was to have him there, just being with us as we tried to help our friends. It helped us feel like we weren’t alone. It just made it better. His calm and confident presence gave us courage. He gave us his undivided attention when we needed it. It was perfect.

He was like a doula.

Read just about any doula’s website and you’ll see mentioned how doulas hold space.

What does it mean to “hold space?”

According to the Birth Boot Camp article Holding Space: The Art of Doula Work:

“To hold space is to walk along with someone on their journey without seeking to influence it with our own desires. Simply put, to hold space, one is just there, supporting without judging and without agenda.

In truth, we all crave the simple companionship of one who “holds space” for us as we go through life. Those that naturally do this are our best friends, our beloved confidants, our anchor in the storm. We have all craved a place in time where we could completely be open and vulnerable without fear.

If we, as humans, crave this gentle companionship in our everyday experiences, how much more do we need it during life’s most defining events?

We greatly benefit when we have someone to hold space for us when a loved one passes from this life. We crave a shoulder to cry on, a gentle word, simple help and companionship when we ache.”

I love these beautiful words because they ring true to me. It seems that pregnant bellies or babies in arms invite statements and opinions from just about every person we come into contact with. How many of these sound familiar?

I could never have that kind of birth.

You should just get the epidural.

Why not just get a C-section? That’s what I did!

Why are you hiring a doula?

Don’t you care about your baby’s safety?

You shouldn’t eat that when you are pregnant.

All that matters is a healthy baby.

Why do you want a natural birth? That’s crazy!

When are you going to wean?

Are you still breastfeeding?

If you would have just done ______ you would have had _______ outcome.

If you would just educate yourself….

I could go on and on giving examples of statements and opinions that are just not helpful at all and definitely do not qualify as “holding space.”

I love what Master Coach Instructor Brooke Castillo says in her podcast Episode #23: Life Coaching Tools Review about holding space:

“Holding the space is not identifying anything as good or bad, not anything as right or wrong, but simply just witnessing the life and evaluating it in a very compassionate way. That is one of the tools that we use in coaching. When we’re doing that, we don’t involve any of our own opinions about what should or should not be done about it, what should or should not be true, what should or should not have been accomplished or not been accomplished. It’s simply what is.”

As doulas, our clients’ choices regarding their birth are not “good or bad” or “right or wrong.” They are simply “our clients’ choices.”

We do not “involve our own opinions about what should or should not be done… what should or should not be true, what should or should not have been accomplished or not been accomplished.”

In birth, “it’s simply what is.”

“Holding space” takes practice. In almost 9 years of being a doula, I still have to remind myself to detach from outcomes and hold space for my clients. I have to remember that any birth that I have been invited to attend is not MY birth. I am there to meet my clients where they are.

I so appreciate when someone holds space for me. So many of us crave it and may not even realize it. So many people say, “I wish someone would just listen to me! I wish someone would just hear me!”

I have come to learn that anything worth doing in life takes practice, and this goes for learning how to hold space for others. Nothing else has been a better teacher in my life than doula work. I am not yet perfect at this skill, nor do I believe I will ever attain perfection, but I am continuously trying to improve. I hope this skill can carry over into other aspects of my life, including being a spouse, parent, friend, and one day, a nurse.



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