When I taught yoga, it wasn’t unusual for a student to weep on the mat during class. Some people feel uncomfortable with tears. In fact, I often do. But as a yoga teacher I didn’t have the freedom to panic. My job wasn’t to stop teaching, ask them what was wrong, fret about it, or otherwise draw attention to their experience. And it certainly wasn’t my place to take it personally if they were having a strong response to the practice. My job was simply to hold space.
All the tissues I passed, adjustments I made, and hands I held helped prepare me for the colossal job of holding space for my son. However, it took me a while to figure this out.
In the first three months of Judah’s life, I felt my sole purpose was to love and comfort him.
Oh, and to keep him alive. Dear God!
I was continuously fraught with worry over whether I loved him enough, comforted him enough, or fed him enough. I thought if I did those things right he wouldn’t cry. But cry he did. And often.
In our first day home from the hospital I was holding him and marveling over the perfect human we created. Out of nowhere he made the saddest face, as if I had told him I wanted to return him to the hospital. His little lips curled downward, his chin dimpled, and my heart broke. Pure sadness. Sadder than sad.
How he could feel so sad when he had just arrived in this world? Aside from being squeezed out of my body and that horrible test when they pricked his heel, I’d felt like I was doing a really good job of keeping him comfortable.
He should be happy, I thought. Jeremy and I are really great people; we’re fun and funny and we like to sing and dance. And we love the shit out of him. So, why the sad face?
I cried over that face. When Jeremy walked in and found me sobbing over our new baby he reminded me that life was going to make him sad sometimes and all we could do was be there for him.
It was truer than true.
Still, I spent the first three months agonizing over his state of mind. Was he happy? Was he sad? Was he bored? Was he okay just chilling with us? When I didn’t get it right, was he mad at me?
It bothered me so much to hear him cry. I did everything I could to keep him from crying. More experienced moms around me said it was fine to let him cry, that crying was good for him. Nothing made me angrier. He was so new to this world. I wanted him to be happy he was here, to feel safe and loved. If he was crying he must not feel safe and loved, I reasoned.
But the truth was that I was afraid of his cry. I was afraid it meant that I wasn’t a good mom.
Then one day I watched him go from horribly upset to delighted in a matter of minutes and it started to click.
By the third month of his life I was spent. I was sleep deprived and got sick. One day, I almost passed out. I did stupid things all the time because I couldn’t think straight. I was frustrated. And sometimes I was just plain sad.
But if you asked me how I was, I would have told you that I didn’t want to be anywhere other than exactly where I was, that I was happy. And I was. I was happy.
Why couldn’t my baby experience the same kind of duality? Being a baby must be hard. That doesn’t mean he wants to be anything other than my son. When I got it wrong, he wasn’t wishing for new parents. He was just showing me how he felt.
So, I held space.
Holding space means being the calm in the storm. It means holding down the room so someone can feel their own personal hurricane in a safe place. It means creating a neutral energy that someone else can sit in without judgment or fear.
It means having empathy. Brené Brown says empathy is feeling with people. And I think this is why it was so hard for me to see him cry. She says in order for us to connect others, we have to connect with something within ourselves that identifies with that feeling.
In a yoga class, any number of things can come up. Our muscles have memory and as we release them, we release our baggage. Sometimes we have a lot of emotional shit to unpack in class and it can take us entirely by surprise leaving us feeling wildly open, confused, stricken, or all of these things at once. And it can be scary.
When I thought about my son like a student I wasn’t afraid of his tears any more. I let go of the need to urgently “fix” him. Instead, I learned to just hold space for him. In doing so, I become more calm and open, and can often intuitively decipher what he needs. But it takes being quiet and listening to his cries, not wishing they would end.
Sometimes, when he cries others try to swoop in and help me by distracting him or entertaining him. I know they mean well, but I think it actually robs him of the opportunity to feel, express himself, and learn about what it means to be human in the process. It’s okay to have strong emotions and it’s okay to express them. Of course, he’ll learn the best ways to do that later. In the meantime, I don’t want him to get the message that his feelings are unwelcome or make me uncomfortable. So, until he’s mature enough to work through his shit on his own I’ll just hold space for him.
Judah is 12 months old now. We’ve come a long way. There is still so much to learn, but I’m not worried about it. Tears happen. He’s learning about himself. And in the process, I’m learning too.
Other Things to Read