This Is Us

The Art of Mothers Holding Space For One Another

By listening — really listening — we can make space for marginalized voices in the motherhood conversation

Photo: Stephen Browning/EyeEm/Getty Images

WeWe give each other power when we don’t try to fix one another’s problems. We don’t offer judgment. We listen. Each of us knows that we will never have it all figured out. When the time comes, we hold space for one another.

It’s a tradition I’ve seen passed down from my mother’s generation. When I was young, the mothers came over and they sat on the plastic-covered couch in the formal living room for reasons I wasn’t privy to. They brought food in Tupperware that they insisted my mom keep, and they sat. Though the days of sitting on the couch and saying nothing are not completely gone, we now tend to congregate in virtual spaces to empower each other and honor our differences.

There’s no denying that the art of mothers holding space for one another is not always widely practiced. A social media post about public breastfeeding turns into a debate over how we feed our babies. A stay-at-home mom publicly declares that her job is more difficult, while moms who work outside of the home quickly come to disagree. When we argue about differences in parenting values in these public spaces, we are not arguing with each other. Rather, we are saying we need more support from society to raise our children. We are asking for some sort of validation that we are doing this important, seemingly thankless, incredibly difficult job right. Or at least okay. Or at least we’re hoping that, at the end of the day, the blood, sweat, and tears we put into mothering will amount to something good, even when we make a mistake or two.

“I’m not okay,” we say in various ways.

“I’m here for you if you need me,” we respond.

Just as there’s no need for judgment, there’s no need for advice.

Certain groups of mothers — Black, brown, disabled, immigrant, queer, single, and otherwise marginalized mothers — practice such an art partly out of necessity. Motherhood is a white, able-bodied, heterosexual conversation in which those of us outside of those norms are screaming to be heard. Our social ties within those groups form a kinship that allows us to build up a little more power — or at least it feels that way. For all mothers, though, our power is in numbers.

I hold space for other mothers in particular ways.

In quiet ways

There’s a crying toddler in the grocery store whose mom is frustrated and embarrassed. The pressure she feels from the judging eyes glued on her makes her doubt herself. She is clearly committed to not yelling and losing her patience, so she speaks quietly to her screaming child. The judging eyes and the whispers are calling for quick action. As I walk by, I flash an understanding smile to reassure her. Just as there’s no need for judgment, there’s no need for advice. The space I hold for this mother is to remind her that even under pressure, she can trust her own instincts.

For white mothers, who by sheer virtue of being white guide the narrative on the mothering experience, practicing this silence is most important. That silence looks like listening when Black and Indigenous women discuss their fears about the dangers of childbirth and medical mistreatment. It’s silence and open ears when immigrant mothers show us how their culture guides their mothering. It’s all of us nodding our heads in agreement when marginalized mothers are speaking.

The space I hold for this mother is to remind her that even under pressure, she can trust her own instincts.

In ordinary ways

“Are you okay?”

“How are you?”

“No, how are you really?”

Send it in a text message, in a direct message, in an email, or over the phone. It is the question we take for granted. Duchess Meghan Markle’s recent interview reminded us of the weight of the question “Are you okay?” for any mom, and especially a new mom. The question alone is validating. But what happens next is just as important as the question: We must be willing to then go wherever the answer takes us.

When we offer unconditional support to other mothers, without advice and without attempting to fix “the problem,” we are holding space for one another. When we do so without sharing our own journey but instead walk alongside those mothers on their own journey, we are mastering the art of mothers holding space for one another.

The unrequested gestures freed up enough space for me to begin healing.

In present ways

Everything minor was important and everything major was overwhelming when I was in the midst of my postpartum depression. The details of it all — baby’s next feeding, filing the correct papers to return to work, appointment dates, grocery lists — couldn’t cut through the fog. There was so much I couldn’t do and couldn’t be. That is when the mothers in my life showed up.

My mother came over to clean. She didn’t ask if I needed help at home. She showed up and she did the work. My sister routinely took my oldest son to her house for a cousin sleepover. My sister-in-law came by, without advice but with the typical adult conversation that helped me feel like me — a person and not just a mom. In these experiences, I truly felt seen. The unrequested gestures freed up enough space for me to begin healing.

DDespite the mommy wars cultivated by pervasive media coverage of celebrity parenting news, and the never-ending introduction of various parenting styles, mothers are still in this together. When mothers can trust themselves and begin to trust each other, the space widens. By protecting the needs of other mothers, we can hold just enough space for one another, prioritizing those among us who have traditionally taken up less space.

This story is part of The Art Of, an ongoing series that supplies you with instructions for living.

Writer and editor whose interests focus on the intersections of parenting, health, and race. Find me at contentbykelly.com and on Twitter @kellygwriter.

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