In a "League of Their Own"
by Lisa Jones, Wellington, Florida, USA
from LEAVEN, Vol. 33 No. 6, December 1997-January 1998, pp. 139-40
Many times we hear about the perception of La Leche League as an organization that does not welcome the working mother, the mother who regularly supplements her baby's diet with formula, the mother who weans early. Often this perception is based on a rumor, told from friend to friend to friend, none of whom has attended a Group meeting. I admit that I heard LLL was a radical breastfeeding organization, made up of women who had a kind of "in your face" attitude about nursing.
I pictured the LLL mother in Birkenstock shoes with unshaven legs and no makeup, a kind of Earth Mother of the '90s. I knew that I enjoyed breastfeeding but didn't think that I wanted or needed to know more than that. I honestly don't know what led me to my first meeting.
At the meeting I felt nothing but acceptance and a sense of belonging. No one questioned me about my daughter's thumbsucking or her attachment to a blanket at bed and naptime. No one made me feel bad for following a pediatrician's advice to supplement with formula when my firstborn was a newborn premie. There were a few Birkenstocks in attendance, but there were also pumps, high heels, beach sandals and sneakers!
I had finally found like-minded mothers and kept coming back for more until I was approached about leadership early the next year.
I have grown so much in my mothering through LLL, I just wonder what I would be like if I had really believed the rumors. But if any of the rumors had proved true in the Group that I attended that first time, I do not think I would have gone to a second meeting. I wouldn't have brought along my good friends and future sister Leaders and their breastfed babies to attend with me.
I believe it is true that a mother who comes away from a meeting feeling accepted will tell three friends. A mother who has a bad experience will tell ten friends.
What if a Group, its Leader, and its members are critical, judgmental or give a wrong impression of LLLI philosophy? What if a meeting is peppered with doctor-bashing remarks and mixing causes galore? What if a first-time attendee who feels unwelcome not only tells her close personal friends but also tells the world on the Internet?
This has happened recently and we should all be made aware of the ramifications of one mother's bad experience. Granted, only one side of the story has been told, but the potential effect is so great that we all must take another look at our leadership skills and the atmosphere that we create in Group meetings. A Group in a "League of its own" hurts us all.
Picture a mother who attends her first meeting and instantly feels out of place because she is working outside the home. She may feel judged because she gives her baby bottles of mother's milk in her absence. Before attending the meeting, she was proud of her ability to provide her baby with only mother's milk. In an hour's time, she feels as if she is doing something awful to her baby!
While in a computer "chat room," the mother lets it be known that she feels LLL let her down. An online friend told her only good things about LLL and recommended meetings as a wonderful way to meet other breastfeeding mothers. Yet, after her first experience, the mother will probably never return to another LLL meeting. She may not get support and information about mothering through breastfeeding from anywhere else. We owe it to this mother to try harder to meet all mothers where they are in their breastfeeding relationship.
When mothers attend a Group meeting for the first time, they usually don't know what to expect. They may seem reserved or shy. As Leaders, it is helpful to remember our own trepidation at our first meeting.
Series Meetings, as discussed in the LEADER'S HANDBOOK, should be geared toward the newcomer. Even if nine out of ten attendees know each other well, that tenth mother needs to be made to feel welcome. There are several ways we can help make a mother's first visit to an LLL meeting a positive experience, one she will happily share with her friends and family:
- Use a greeter. Greeter is a great job for your friendliest regular attendee. A smile and a sincere "Welcome!" go a long way.
- Watch your body language. Leaders can practice what they learned in Human Relations Enrichment (HRE) sessions: turn toward the speaker, smile and look directly at her.
- Pay attention to nametags. Include the baby's name on the mother's tag. Mothers really love it when you remember their baby's name.
- Don't mix causes. Nothing is more frustrating to a newcomer than feeling she doesn't "measure up" because she is different. Remember, breastfeeding is our common focus, LLL's only focus.
- Keep the discussion on the topic of breastfeeding. Sometimes a reminder about LLL's mission and philosophy is necessary. We are not the "thought police," but we do need to rein in conversations that veer too far from the stated purpose of LLL.
- Encourage mothers to socialize after the formal part of the meeting. Sometimes, when mothers have been attending for a long time, they use the meeting time to catch up with other regular attendees, unknowingly forgetting the newcomer. There are few things so hurtful and upsetting as feeling that you are not part of a "clique." Suggest that mothers chat afterwards and exchange phone numbers, for wonderful, long-lasting friendships have grown out of LLL!
- Hold Planning/Evaluation Meetings. Learn what mothers think and feel about the Group. They appreciate feeling "ownership" of the Group and will have a vested interest in making the Group the best that it can be.
- Try not to say anything at a meeting you would not say to the general public. Remember that mothers will share not only the wonderful things that they hear at a Series Meeting but all the more unusual things as well.
We all want our message of mothering through breastfeeding to reach as many women (and men!) as possible. It is our passion which makes every LLL Leader so special. When we meet every mother "where she is" in her breastfeeding relationship, we truly can change the world, one mother and baby at a time.
It helps to remember that it took some of us many years and often several babies to arrive "where we are." We also have the benefit of the most recent breastfeeding research and the incredible support system of LLL to help us to grow in our mothering. Most mothers have only themselves, their precious babies and instinct to guide them.
If we welcome all mothers to LLL with a positive first experience, we help them benefit as mothers and help LLL grow as an organization.