Holding Space for Birth
Space holders often have a natural tendency for the work, but the skills can be learnt. In fact, if you want to learn you are almost guaranteed to be able to do it. Those that can't (yet) learn are those that generally cant even see the work let alone understand or put value on it.
The most adept space holders in birth, due to their very nature, often go unnoticed and yet they are actually quite easy to spot when you know what to look for. They are the ones stepping back, the humble ones who don't profess to have all the answers, the ones who give all the glory to the parents and who make women feel so very seen and heard.
Seeing and hearing are two of the most powerful tools a space holder uses. Being able to see and hear a woman without shutting her down is a gift many cannot give her. As a space holder you give witness to her.
So why is space holding for birth so rare and so precious? Well, most birth workers, when you think about it, may be very conscious of the need to avoid unnecessary management of birth in the physical or medical sense but most of us still step in to manage a woman's feelings without thinking of the potentially negative impact it may have. We understand the cascade of intervention in physical terms and probably talk to women about understanding that there is risk and benefit to every intervention but then we so often intervene without applying the same criteria to our actions.
How many times have you heard a pregnant woman shut down with 'Don't get upset, it's not good for the baby'.
Holding space for birth isn't just about the actual birth process, it's also about preparing for birth about pregnancy and the postnatal.
Let me give you an example of how we, even when we mean to help, shut women down and deny them the space to make sense of things themselves.
When we lost our first baby I was blessed to be cared for by one of my amazing Midwifery colleagues on the labour ward in the Unit where I worked at the time. Afterwards, so that I wouldn't have to hear the babies crying on the postnatal ward, I was transferred to the Gynaecology ward. My husband was sent home and so began my dark night of the soul, the oxytocin began to wear off (yes you still produce oxytocin but have nowhere to direct those loving feelings) leaving me to start the great journey back to myself.
A very well-meaning Nurse came and sat on the end of my hospital bed. She started to ask me how I felt and I began to reply. It was the first time I had spoken about it to someone new since leaving the cocoon of the labour room and I felt that I was trying to make sense of it as it was coming out of my mouth, I was developing my own narrative as I spoke, trying to understand, make sense of and come to terms with it; just beginning the work necessary to assimilate this deep loss into my life story.
I make myself sound as though I was coherent at this point; I wasn't. What actually came out was series of disjointed words between sobs and sniffles as saliva and tears slid uncontrollably down my face and all over my hands as they tried in vain to wipe them away. I totally get it, that she wanted to help me see the positive side but even so I will never forget that feeling of being totally shut down with one sentence; 'well, at least you know you can get pregnant'.
Space holders don't shut women down. Space holders witness, allow and, well... hold space for women's feelings. Space holders can sit in that uncomfortable space right alongside her without responding to their own needs of wanting to make it better or make it stop or responding to their own ego; wanting to be the one with the answers or the skills. Here's one for you; have you ever considered that even passing a crying woman a tissue can be a way of shutting her down? It really makes you stop and consider your own responses doesn't it? Like I said, these actions are often coming from a good place but like all interventions they have both benefits and risks. They have the potential to halt or delay the work that she really needs to do to come to her own conclusions, to do her own healing or whatever else it is that she needs the space to do.
One of the reasons that I created my own programme of Hypnobirthing Teacher Training was so that I could teach others these skills. I found myself on many occasions unpicking the damage that had been done by others who had failed to hold space. As a community Midwife I once carried out a home visit for a woman who had not had the birth outcome she had expected following her Hypnobirthing course. She described feeling that she had failed, feeling foolish and let down having done a hypnobirthing course. I knew most of the Hypnobirthing teachers in the area at the time and so asked her who had taught her. I felt confident when she named her teacher as I knew what a lovely, kind individual she was so I suggested she make contact with her teacher and talk about her feelings. She replied that she already had and that her teacher had suggested that she hadn't practiced enough.
It's not just the women who are let down when Birth Workers don't have the skills to hold space, it can be terribly uncomfortable for the Birth Worker too. I have had many Birth Workers reaching out to me for support when they recognise that they just don't have the skills or support themselves to offer this to their clients.
Now I not only teach Birth Workers this valuable skill I also hold space for them. I realised early on that I would never be able to operate a large and impersonal Training school. I just can't do it. It is a need of mine to turn up for people in a very real way, to mentor, support and hold space for teachers, not just train them. I have had to build based on that. Yes it is the long path. No I will never make my millions this way but it is a nurturing and authentic way of bringing real value to women and their Birth Workers and I'm ok with that. Slowly our small family of Compassionate Birth workers is growing; at a natural rate. Some need more support than others, some don't need support for months at a time and then suddenly, out of nowhere comes that one big story that they need the space to process and they call me and they know that they can.
The Birth world is sadly notorious for its competitiveness and judgmental attitudes and these are often the loudest voices. The quiet space holders go about their business with humility and compassion and due to the very nature of the work are rarely heard but, know this: the riches you bring to women, their families, your colleagues and your peers when you hold space for them are beyond compare. Space holders may go unnoticed by the masses but to the people who really matter you hold the moments between moments that make it all begin to make sense, that sets them on that path back to themselves, or into healing, you make it possible for her to say of her own situation; 'Well, at least I can get pregnant', to find that little light in the dark. You give women ownership of their own birth stories and their own healing and that is priceless.
There will always be those that walk away from a conversation feeling so pleased with themselves and their super skills / knowledge that they were able to say something positive, make a woman stop crying, point out who is to blame or educate her about what she should have done / should do and that's ok because after they have left the space holders step in and the real work begins.