The Awkward Silence

My daughter has been having a jag of rough sleep lately. As moms, we all know what that means: I’ve been having a jag of rough sleep, too. She typically crawls into bed with me and snuggles in close and falls right back to sleep. I don’t, but she does J. So last night was no different. When I rolled over and awoke to find her, she was all tucked up on her stomach, knees to chest and arms folded under. And then there was her breath.

My partner and I co-slept with all our children when they were infants and their breath is something I can remember vividly. The flutters, the pauses, the deep exhales. I also remember how when there were these signs of irregularity in their breathing, when I would pull them in close, focus on my own breath’s rhythm theirs would smooth out, too. My observations of our own experience with co-sleeping seem to be supported by research that found baby’s breathing becomes regulated with the mother’s lead in this environment (McKenna, 1996).

Did you know that the most sacred name for God in the Jewish tradition is spelled with the same Hebrew letters that are for the sounds of the breath (YHWH)? Some theologians might argue then that we come into the world with our first word as Yahweh, and His is the last one we speak before we die (Bell, 2007). (Watch more of the inspiration for this here!)

Now, in no way do I mean to preach or convert here, just provide a possible purpose that is greater than ourselves to help quell the anxiety, disorientation, etc. I think of all the parents who have co-slept with their children, passing on that breath, connecting from generation to generation with each inhale and exhale. When I think of God, I think of Love, something that transcends truth and cannot be contained. While I have been raised and practice a Judeo-Christian faith, God’s Word isn’t necessarily the Biblical text for me. It is the ongoing conversation, including the silences we have. These ongoing conversations help to bring me into regulation with God, with Love. And sometimes, the things I experience in life that cause me distress, their resolution defy words, and Love sits with me in that space, so that I am not alone.

I am also a therapist. I see individuals who experience anxiety and disconnection. Many times there are these long awkward silences. I think many clients wonder what that’s about. It’s something that, as therapists, we spend a considerable amount of time practicing being able to do in our training. The novice wants to jump in, fill the space, make things not so awkward. The fact is this is unrealistic in life. We have pauses in our momentum, in relationships, in families, that feel unbearable for one reason or another. And here you come to therapy to understand your family, your relationships, your momentum. But what if all the pause needed was to be tolerated, to have faith that it was not a permanent condition. What if the breath could bring your divine, your truth, your intuition into a more tangible experience? And sometimes that is the model the therapist can provide, like an anchor, a regulator as you learn to do it for yourself. Jumping in and filling the space, while initially may soothe the discomfort, its subtext says, “You can’t stand this and/or lack the competence to resolve it on your own so I’ll do it for you.” Those long awkward silences say, “You can do this; I believe in you.”

There will come a day when my daughter will no longer need my physical proximity to calm her. When that day comes I will miss her and I will treasure her coming into my bed when she is scared and calming with my presence. And I’m pretty sure that there will be no words to describe that experience adequately so I will remember my breath and know that it is somehow hers as hers is somehow mine, too.

Kate Hall