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When a Leader's Beliefs Become Mixing Causes

Joanne Hamilton
Foley, Alabama, USA
From: LEAVEN, Vol. 35 No. 2, April-May 1999, p. 30

In the late '70s when I was a freshman at a university, equal rights for women was a hot topic. One night a friend and I decided to attend a meeting of the local Women's Collective, hoping to find some "consciousness-raising" and perhaps a petition to sign for ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment. When we realized that the meeting was instead on quite a different topic, we made our excuses during a break in the meeting to set up the film projector and left. If the meeting had centered on women's issues of interest to all, I think we would have stayed. It just wasn't what we came for.

That's an interesting story, but what does it have to do with mixing causes and La Leche League? Consider: Does a new mother with a fussy baby and sore nipples want to hear about the dangers of immunizations? What about that mother whose cesarean incision is still raw, physically and emotionally? Will it help her to hear about the joys of homebirth and immediate nursing, when she and her baby were separated for 24 hours postpartum? These mothers may "make their excuses" and not return like my friend and I did.

When Leaders mix causes at LLL meetings, mothers don't get what they came for-breastfeeding information and support. If they're so inclined, they can learn about related issues through Group Library books or conversations with other mothers during refreshments.

Leaders can point out during meetings that we are here to offer support and information about mothering through breastfeeding. They can acknowledge that some of the opinions expressed by mothers may not reflect LLLI philosophy, but that information given by the Leaders will. It should be made clear that all ideas are respected. However, only Leaders represent LLLI and present our philosophy.

The LLLI policy statement on mixing causes, revised by the Board of Directors in 1998, says in part: "Helping mothers worldwide to breastfeed, so that they can learn mothering through breastfeeding, is the main focus of La Leche League work." In addition, "The LLL Group is not to be used as a forum for a Leader's non-LLL interests or to do the work of organizations other than LLL." (LLLI Policies and Standing Rules, Appendix 10.)

It's easy to apply the policy statement in some contexts. Most Leaders understand that they can't circulate political petitions at meetings, advertise their own businesses or allow others to do so. These things are fairly clear-cut.

But there are other causes that are less obvious. Many Leaders and Group members have beliefs that they think tie into LLLI philosophy. If "alert and active participation in childbirth is a help in getting breastfeeding off to a good start," does that mean the only good birth is a totally natural birth? Are "foods in as close to their natural state as possible" necessarily organically grown?

No and no. Individually, women can believe those things and practice them, but as Leaders, we should not be promoting those beliefs as part of LLLI philosophy. Many Leaders homeschool their children, avoid immunizations, use cloth diapers and believe the family bed is a way of life not just a way to get through the night. Again, these beliefs may seem to be "in line" with LLLI philosophy, but they are not part of it. To the mothers at a meeting, the Leader is La Leche League. If she is vocal about side issues, she runs the risk of misrepresenting LLL.

Sometimes the "cause" is such an intrinsic part of who and what an individual Leader is that it's hard for her to separate from it. One recurring example of this is religion. Many Leaders are devout in their chosen faiths. They believe that their religion supports LLLI philosophy and that LLLI philosophy supports their religion.

But stop and think-LLL is a nonsectarian organization. How else could it be an international organization, serving women who have many different beliefs? If a Leader makes a casual reference to her own religion, doesn't she risk alienating a mother who may have different beliefs?

In days gone by, everyone knew the etiquette rule of not discussing politics or religion at dinner. The rule still applies at LLL meetings.

There are so many opportunities for all these side issues (and more!) to come up at meetings. It's a wise Leader who practices her "side-step" and is ready to politely but firmly bring the discussion back on track. It's a happy group of mothers who will return time and time again, knowing they'll get what they came for-breastfeeding information and support.

What You Wear May Be Misunderstood

The face you present to the world as an LLL Leader can have an impact on all of us. The impression one Leader makes is extended to all Leaders. For this reason, T-shirts with slogans are not a good idea for LLL meetings. It's fine to be involved in other causes; it's another thing to introduce them into an LLL meeting.

Do mothers really know what we're there for? What about first-time mothers? What does a new mother think when the Leader wears a "Save the Whales" button or T-shirt? Do we want mothers who are new to LLL to come away thinking all LLL people use only cloth diapers, eat organic foods, homeschool, avoid vaccinations and circumcision? If we don't want mothers to leave with that impression, we may have to limit our buttons, tote bags and T-shirts for two hours a month.

Claire Bloodgood
Georgetown, Texas, USA

We are there for one reason: let's keep our focus! I think some first-time mothers may have the same thoughts that I did-La Leche League is a bunch of neo-militant earth mothers who bake bread for their school-aged kids who are all still nursing! But the Leader at my first meeting gave such a beautiful opening statement. We were all there to learn more about breastfeeding; we would hear a lot of ideas, but we were all different families; we should only use what sounded right to us.

It's important to remember that we are who we are, but sometimes we have to put our personal lives aside and help others. It can be a challenge!

Heidi Bowman
Athens, Tennessee, USA

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