Isn’t it time men held the space? If my 6 year old daughter can do it, dudes can too
I’ve been told many times I’m great at holding the space. It’s an evocative image – holding space – one of celestial beauty, of impossibility, grace, even. It elicits an image of a cosmic mother, her arms wrapped around the stars like she birthed them. Is this how people see me? A divine mother, nurturing the universe? Or is that how I’ve decided to see myself? Because, in reality, holding the space can be anything but divinely graceful.
As women, most of us have an innate understanding of what holding the space for someone is, and how to do it. Not to say it’s an inherently, fully-formed thing, because doing it well takes practice, no matter how mother-goddessy we are. But, in my experience, women seem to be able to access it more readily, and employ it much more often, than men. And I wonder, because of that, what our daughters and sons are learning about how women hold the space, what it means for the holder and the holdee, and who gets left out.
Holding the space for someone is more than just listening to them as they grieve or share, feel anxious or worried or afraid. Sometimes you just hold the space in silence. I’ve held the space when the other person didn’t know I was. It’s a stepping out of the self, while remaining fully in the present, to help another person feel they’re in a safe space, but not crowded.
Global men’s group facilitator, Connor Beaton sums it up perfectly: Holding space is the process of witnessing and validating someone else’s emotional state while simultaneously being present to your own. It’s this being present to your own where I think men struggle. It’s certainly what Connor has found in his three decades of working with men: that there is a strong desire to fix a problem, or feel like in order to validate someone or something you must also agree, or view someone else’s challenges through the prism of your own experiences. And when we do all that, we layer our own judgements and value systems on top – and that isn’t holding the space, it’s just creating another one. Don’t get me wrong, women are not immune to wanting to fix things. But, as Beaton points out in his work, men genuinely do struggle to find that sweet spot where you’re not trying to fix and you’re also more invested than just listening and nodding your head. There is nuance involved; a selflessness; a trust and vulnerability; and often an intuitive response required. And let’s face it, these are not the most inherent of male behaviours.
My ex-husband is a feminist, artist, designer who whips up glorious baked goods (yes, he’s currently single, yes, he’s extraordinary, yes, call me), and my current partner is a man’s-man, with a big beard and a penchant for war movies, and neither of them could hold the space for me. I had to teach them. It was hard. I almost gave up and continued to let my women-folk do this most important of humAnnsses exclusively for me. But we persevered – these most disparate of men and me – because I needed it, their own hearts needed to learn it, and their children needed it.
There is a profound beauty in watching two adults care for one another in this way. When they are side-by-side, swathed in vulnerability, trust all around. There is also a deep, personal learning to be had when we do this. Can you imagine if we held the space for ourselves more often? Imagine how our lives might change if we all practiced holding the space between our initial, emotional reactions to things and what we say about them? When we give our inner wisdom time to ruminate before we respond, personal growth naturally occurs. But oh, this breakneck world does not conspire to assist us in this at all. Hence why it’s a practice – it takes time and patience and repetition to slow down like that when everything else is moving at warp speed.
I worked with an extraordinary leader once who practiced this in the workplace. Whenever someone else was speaking, she would lean her elbow on the desk, put her chin in her palm, and place her index finger over her lips, effectively shutting her mouth. She listened, and when the urge to jump to a response arose, that most purposeful of fingers allayed that response.
I starting practicing this with my never-stops-talking-reacting-exclaiming-defending then five-year-old daughter. Not the finger over the lips thing, but near enough. I extended my pauses, stopped my movements – held the space. This is not an easy feat. Mothers of young children know this. When you’re multi-tasking, there is a cascading of things and events all interrelated, and a change of tack can see that bath-dinner-bedtime routine come crashing down around you with alarming and yet predicable veracity. But after a while, I got the hang of it, and we all benefitted.
What I found was that often my responses to my daughter in those moments where I was knee-deep in the minutiae of life were rote or rushed or insincere. It’s not hard to throw out a “yes, I see”, or an “uh-huh”; enough that they are getting a response while the bath runs and the potatoes cook, but certainly not a taking in of nuance or a connecting of hearts. Not that you have to have this level of connection all the time, you don’t. But you can get closer to it while also feeling less overwhelmed by just being in each moment as it comes. I’ve found that a rote response to running a bath or getting things on the stove is easier and better all round than a rote response to anything my daughter has to say. And in those times, where I am feeling like I am everything to everyone and utterly tired by it all, when I hold the space for myself within the pauses and tiny spaces that those times allow, I am infinitely happier.
As I flexed this muscle more, my daughter would observe the sometimes longer pauses before I answered her or my partner. She got to hear me say to my partner – what do you mean by that? – or – let me sit with that for a minute. Our conservations became more considered, and our care for one another deepened.
One day my daughter and I were out and an older man in a supermarket turned to her blonde-headed, bouncing self and said: “you’re a feisty one”. She looked up at him and said: “what do you mean by that?” Oh how my heart swelled. I felt a deep joy for the next generation – not just the girls who are standing in their power – for everyone who will benefit. His comment made her uncomfortable and she questioned him. It was a revelation to me. I still don’t do this with older men. She didn’t stop there either – she held the space – looked up him with her huge eyes and waited quietly for his response. She wasn’t bouncing anymore, she was still, feet planted. Hell, she might as well have been holding a finger over her lips as she held the space for this man to learn and grow. And she held the space for herself – to experience what demanding truth to power feels like. The man looked at me and I purposely made myself unavailable; kept my eyes on her. No way I was going to let him deflect – ignore her power. He laughed then and winked at her. “Feisty indeed!” And he walked away.
My daughter didn’t like that he didn’t explain what he meant, but she didn’t hold onto it either. She bounced back into her day with all the exuberance of a kid after a Kinder Surprise. But, oh, how I replayed that moment in my mind. To me, she was Fearless Girl in front of her bull – except it was my bull, and I think maybe she’d held the space for me.
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