It’s okay for you to lose it for a while. When you’re ready to come back, when you need to remember why you’re doing this I’m right here.

“Holding the space” is a phrase so well-worn amongst doulas and midwives, that you can’t spend more than five minutes looking at birth-related websites without coming across it. A Doula holds the space. Your midwife will hold the space.

Like many words and phrases in the natural birth lingo (ahem empowerment and your multitude of variations, I’m looking at you), it sounds warm and fuzzy and a little bit woo-woo. While midwives and doulas understand exactly what it means and probably think it should be self-evident, I’m willing to bet that most women encountering it for the first time don’t have a clue – much less understand how it relates to having a baby.

So, what does holding the space mean?

In a strictly spiritual sense, to hold space for another is to make yourself a centering force. To hold the space for a woman giving birth is make yourself the rock-solid ground beneath while labour throws everything it’s got at her. It means passing no judgement and holding no sway over her decision making, nor her perception of her experience. It means not trying to fix the unfixable, or reason with the unreasonable. It means accepting that there will be times in labour when she comes a bit unglued, and will be convinced she can’t do it…and knowing what she needs to hear (and doesn’t need to hear) when that time comes. It means making it emotionally safe for her and her partner to live through this most intense of experiences in their own way, and to feel whatever emotions come with it. It means making sure they know there’s a safe space if and when they need to talk about it afterwards.

In that moment, for those hours, your birth team are right in it with you. Time stands still inside that room.

Nothing else matters.

Doulas dont have a monopoly on this role, of course. A partner or family member will sometimes have the temperament and emotional strength to do this job well. Though, the objectivity and presence of mind needed can be harder to come by for those who have an intimate relationship with you. Loved ones can be too close, and can so easily become drawn into the emotional whirlwind of labour along with you (which is entirely as it should be, by the way). Doulas tend to hold the space in a different way. Our emotional involvement with you isn’t the same as that of your partner or family, and witnessing many births teaches us to stand in the storm without flinching.

Who’s Got Your Back?

Like most big decisions in life, choosing your birth support is best not done from a purely emotional place. What does emotional decision making look like? When you feel like you need to let your mother-in-law into the birth room because it’s her first grandchild and she’s guilting you like crazy? That’s an emotional decision, and many of us make them! Think about each and every person in the room, not only in terms of your emotional connection with them but also their capacity to hold your space. The mother-in-law who’s cracked jokes your entire pregnancy about having a caesarean “because it’s easier!”, is probably not going to understand what you need when you’re almost ready to push, and absolutely convinced you want an epidural. That doesn’t mean she’s an unsupportive so-and-so by nature (she’s your MIL, of course she’s not!!) it just means that this is outside her life experience.

The maternity system tends to function in ways that influence our decision making, and send subtle but powerful messages that our bodies and minds aren’t quite up to the task. These messages can flow on to our support people as well. A grounding, centered presence who will keep faith in you even when the intensity of pregnancy and labour makes you lose sight of it completely is what holding the space is really all about.

Having birth partners who understand this makes it much more likely that you’ll come through your birth feeling well-supported, strong and safe.

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