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Holding the space

Updated: Dec 15, 2022

I often find myself thinking about childbirth when I consider the nature of unschooling. For the last 11 years, I've given prenatal classes to women and couples who are looking to increase their confidence and diminish their fears around labour. Two things we talk about a lot are creating the right environment and trusting deeply in the birth process. When we can achieve these two things, we are more able to then relax into the process rather than fight it. And the more we relax, the more the process simply flows. Sounds familiar?

So, when things don't appear to be flowing here at home, I know there's nothing wrong with the process. The process is perfect just as it is. I see every day how children live and learn. But if there's nothing wrong with the process, why are there sometimes those days when things feel a little stuck?

Accompanying a natural process

A space conducive to giving birth is a space in which the mother knows she can relax and let go. We're naturally on high alert when we're in labour. If there is any sign of danger or threat around us, our body will flood with adrenalin, shutting down the secretion of oxytocin which is essential to keeping labour going. And so, the ideal containing space is created by people who are patient, undemanding, and responsive to the mother's needs. They are confident in the mother's ability to give birth and provide her with the optimal conditions to do just that. Accompanying a child in their natural processes is very similar. Patience, confidence and trust go a long way.

Trusting the natural pace

Sometimes, things naturally slow down during labour, just as they do in an unschooling home. Just because one day is filled with quizzes, cooking and inventive games in the garden, and the next feels listless and boring, doesn't mean anything is 'wrong' or needs to change. This is when, as companions to the process, we should relax. Perhaps our children don't need anything at all, except for us to respect their downtime and simply be there, holding the space for them.

E was feeling bored the other day. I had a couple of suggestions but they weren't appealing to him. I left him to it, but I could feel some rising anxiety that I needed to keep a lid on (I still find that boredom can trigger me). Later he came to tell me that his best ideas come to him when he's bored and showed me all a complex secret code he's creating. I should have just relaxed..

If we're intuitive to our children's needs, and able to let go of our own doubts and fears, we're better able to provide what is needed, when it's needed.

Gentle interventions

Sometimes, we do need to offer something. What might that be? Perhaps they'll tell us exactly what they need or what doesn't seem to be working for them right now. If not, then maybe a suggestion of something we can do together. I have to note here that when I make a suggestion to someone who is feeling listless, the suggestion is rarely seized upon. I get that. If I'm out of sorts then it's going to be hard to suddenly get my enthusiasm going. Better than suggestions are often just shaking up the energy a little. A cup of tea together, a chat, a quick game of cards, a dance around the sitting room, a cuddle. Just as in the birthing room, some loving connection is often the only intervention needed.

Shifting the environment

Or maybe something really does need to shift a little more. If you're going through a significant period of time where things don't seem to flow like they used to, then maybe there are some more important adjustments to make to the environment. You'll probably know yourself if something is off, if the space doesn't feel so healthy, creative or stimulating as it maybe once did. Perhaps it's time for more trips out of the house, investing time and energy in a new project, or seeking out new activities in the wider community. As our children grow their needs naturally change and they'll be looking for more independence and perhaps more likeminded friends. So, part of our space holding needs to be facilitating these needs.

Just shifting the energy in the house can also create a new flow to life. After lots of visits and summer fun, things were beginning to feel a little stagnant here. So today we got the materials for a couple of projects, including a directional signpost in the garden pointing to all the places that mean something to us, and a world map where we can place little pins for each visitor who comes to the house. Hope to post the results of our handiwork soon...

I've also got my weaving loom out and a few other craft projects on the go. Apart from me just enjoying them, there's a gentle, creative energy that comes from these projects and often just attracts others to the table, often with very cool ideas of things they can make.

And what about the person holding the space?

When I talk to couples about the birth, I encourage the birth companion (usually, but not always, the father), to recognise their own fears and to take good care of themselves during the process. A well-meaning but worried dad who has shut out all of his own feelings and needs in order to give everything to his partner is likely to feel stressed and disempowered. A companion who has taken time to work through his own fears, and is taking care of himself in the knowledge that the quality of his presence is paramount, is likely to be more in tune and relaxed. And this will help to create a calm, loving, and adrenalin-free space for his partner. In fact, not just for his partner. He is more likely to enjoy the birth as an empowering experience and feel more connected to his partner and baby. He will also have the capacity to keep holding the space for the mother and baby in those first intense months of the baby's life. I encourage the father to think about who is supporting him in order for him to carry out this role.

I think unschooling is very similar. If your role is to accompany and hold the space, then you need to value your role, recognise that it can be hard and understand what you need. If you're straining under the weight of being everything to everyone else, and putting your own needs last, you're much more likely to get stressed and run down. If I am feeling tired and tense, I am far more likely to be triggered by feelings that I am not doing this well enough if someone is bored. And my reaction, even if I try to hide it, will certainly cast a shadow on the space. If that shadow is too heavy it is likely to disturb the natural process. These are the times that we intervene needlessly, that we subconsciously cast doubt on the process, we try to fix things that aren't broken. And by so doing, we risk derailing the process.

So here's where we can also pose the question, "What/who is holding my space?" Do you take care of yourself? Do the people around you validate your parenting or make you doubt yourself? I'm lucky to have people around who support my choices (and an acquired ability to zone out those who don't). I also know that to be at my most alive and connected with my children, there's some self care that has to happen. In my case this involves some early morning quiet time, making sure that I am organised with my own work, and investing time in my own hobbies. I like the quiet days when it's just us and our children, but too many quiet days, and I start to get stir crazy. One thing I've found that works for us all is to have lots of visitors. The house is big enough that if someone doesn't want to be sociable they can just do their own thing. Long walks in the hills, lots of contact with dear friends, indulging my own creativity. These are all things that nourish me.

As E said the other day, "A grumpy child is, well, just a grumpy child. But a grumpy mother makes the whole house grumpy". Wise words indeed. I like to think that he isn't saying that I'm often grumpy, but rather recognising the importance of the people holding his space.

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