So What Does “Holding the Space” Really Mean Anyway?

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I stumbled across a post a few years ago that really seemed to sum up the evolution that my practice style as a doula has taken.  You can read it here: Holding the Space: A Doula’s Best Gift.

The author, Pam England is a midwife, author of Birthing From Within and a dynamic speaker in the birth world.  I sat through a conference session that she gave in 2007 at the Lamaze Conference that just touched briefly on this topic.

While the post as a whole speaks to me, this part especially stirs my soul:
“When a doula is prideful or too busy in labor, she may forfeit being touched by the great Mystery of birth. And, if she or no one in the labor room is in touch with that great Mystery, then who is “holding the space” for the Mother who is between two worlds while she births the Child?”

angela-6The concept of “holding the space” is one oft talked about in doula circles.  However, this term lacks a clarity to prospective clients and even doulas about what it is that skilled doulas really do – which more accurately labeled would be the practice of attunement.

Simply defined attunement is the state of being aware and responsive.

When I first became a doula my birth bag was huge and filled to the brim with “tools” and books and a whole host of things that I never used.  As the years went on I downsized,  started utilizing what was available in our birth space and often found that my bag sat untouched at most births.

Our most powerful tools are our hands, voices, knowledge and our unyielding support of and belief in the woman who labors in front of us.  

Being open to the moment, to the experience, present and aware with our ego cast aside can be such an incredibly powerful and rewarding thing.   When I enter a birth space I come in quietly put my things down and simply *be* for a few moments.  I open my heart, my mind and my soul to what is happening in that moment.

The way she moves, the sounds she makes and her presence in the moments where she is fully relaxed tells me how she may be coping and how I might best help her and her partner as we move deeper into labor together.

If what she is doing is working for her, then I don’t need to fiddle with it.   I don’t need to be ‘doing something’ to our clients all the time.  As doulas we shouldn’t be fostering a sense of dependency, but fostering a spirit of independence.   Once our journey together is through my goal is to have created an environment where the laboring woman and her partner feel like “WE did it!”,  not “We couldn’t have done it without you!”

It’s always interesting to speak to doulas after the first few births they encounter where their client didn’t want to be touched.  They often express “I didn’t do anything, I don’t feel like I earned my fee.”

I was fortunate to come into this work with a natural ability to attune to the needs and emotions others from the start. 

So it was no great struggle for me to quietly step back and assist in other ways with clients who didn’t desire to be touched.  It also helped that I’m also one of those laboring moms who just can’t stand to be touched in labor.

But I didn’t have a doula, I had two at my last birth.

One was my rock, she knew what I wanted, what I believed in, she was there to be my doula eyes and ears so that I could be just a woman in labor and not try to doula myself.  The other was my comic relief.  She was there to provide levity, irreverence, with a wicked sense of humor that was so very needed for me when my plans for a homebirth became a necessary Pitocin induction in the hospital due to severe pre-eclampsia.

I needed to laugh, I needed to have someone help me keep life in perspective and ever true to a doula’s heart she knew just when to toss out that wicked one liner or when to simply sit quietly and smile and nod when I met her eyes to let me know that I really was doing just fine.

Observing the power of birth, the power of family, the power of a woman’s body as she moves between two worlds and lingers there for a while is an incredible thing to witness.  It’s not a role that I take lightly.

As a doula I am there to help this family feel safe.  I am there as a reassurance that they won’t forget what their desires for this birth were, because I’m ready and waiting to remind them.  I’m there to meet their physical needs, offering a drink here, a bite of food there and reminding them to take breaks to tend to their own personal needs.  I am there to support them should their plans change.

I am an unwavering source of non-judgmental source of support, comfort, reassurance and information.  Entirely focused on their needs, their desires and their goals.

Their goals are mine and they are the only goals I am focused on as I support them.  I bring no agenda, no belief that I know what is right or “best” for this family.  I hold the space around them so that they can focus completely on each contraction, each sensation as they work together to bring their baby into the world. 

One Response

  1. Betsy
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    I love that the part I remember most is your hands… Effortlessly (it seemed to me) you watched and quickly realized what I need was more pressure (seemed crazy I know) on my back to help me ease that pain and focus on the rest of me… It was your hands that helped guide (not push) me mentally to keep going and let the pain do its work while you managed it with me… I don’t recall even seeing you with any “things” (but I’m sure you had some stuff); it was simply your hands and calm voice guiding me as we went on the journey of birth together! 🙂

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