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Helping Mothers When You Have Strong Feelings about Their Choices

Jill Whelan
Indianapolis, Indiana, USA
From: LEAVEN, Vol. 34 No. 6, December 1998 - January 1999, p. 130

Imagine that you are leading a Series Meeting. The participants are a mix of mothers: some are attending their first meeting, some have been attending regularly for several meetings. During introductions, the mother of a four-month-old says, "My husband and I just got back from a wonderful trip to Florida. We had a whole week to ourselves! Jessie stayed with my mother and got along just fine."

You see new mothers looking at her with envy. A Leader Applicant and several Group workers look shocked. Your heart skips a beat. How could anyone leave such a young baby for a week? And what will you say in response?

Our greatest challenges as Leaders often come when mothers make choices that are in conflict with LLLI philosophy or our own personal feelings. Many Leaders have a hard time helping mothers who have chosen lengthy or frequent separation from their young babies, choose to let their babies cry at night, choose to wean very early. Accepting and respecting a mother's choices when our own convictions are strong can leave us feeling uncomfortable. Are we agreeing with a mother's actions by accepting them? Will new mothers at the meeting be confused about what LLL believes? How will the longtime Group members respond?

It is equally challenging in telephone-helping situations to respond to a mother whose choices differ from our own. We no longer have to worry about others hearing our response and the mother will not see a look of dismay on our face, but we may worry about conveying warmth and acceptance without the benefit of face-to-face contact.

Consider the following statements from mothers. How would you respond? You might want to jot down your responses for reference later on in the article.

1. I don't think it's a good idea to nurse Ben to sleep. How will he ever learn to fall asleep without me? 2. I'm going crazy after six months at home with my baby. My whole life is so different! I really think it would be best for both of us if I went back to work. 3. Sally is so shy and clingy for a two-year-old. She still bursts into tears if I leave the room! Going to preschool a couple of days a week will be good for her.

In situations like these using reflective listening, one of the basics of Human Relations Enrichment (HRE), is important. By listening carefully to what a mother is saying and reflecting the feeling behind her words, we can focus on her feelings rather than our own. We can acknowledge her feelings without agreeing with her point of view. Our empathetic response shows respect for the mother and her ability to make choices. The mother feels accepted. When she feels accepted and supported, she will be more likely to continue to attend LLL meetings and call with her questions. She will be more likely to be receptive to the information and suggestions she hears. Perhaps she will come to accept LLLI philosophy wholeheartedly sometime in the future; perhaps not.

It is helpful to remember that Leaders are not responsible for changing a mother's mind. Our job is to share accurate information and the experiences of other breastfeeding mothers; it is each mother's responsibility to make her own choices according to her unique situation.

Let's go back to the meeting situation at the beginning of the article. A Leader's attending behavior is very important here. A relaxed and open attitude, eye contact, smile and warm tone of voice will put everyone at ease. One possible response to the mother might be:

You feel pleased that the week seemed to go well for all three of you.

When you respond in this way, the mother is not judged for her choices, nor have you given approval. You have stated how she feels about her experience and why. A shift in eye contact to the next person in the circle will encourage introductions to continue without further discussion of this mother's situation. During the meeting there may be a chance to tactfully offer alternatives to leaving a baby behind. At that time new mothers will have an opportunity to hear about meeting baby's needs by keeping him close as an option to consider.

When responding to a mother over the phone, it can be helpful to take a deep breath, relax your body and smile as you would if she were sitting beside you in order to keep your voice warm and friendly. When you establish rapport with a mother first, she will be more receptive to the information and options that you share.

Now let's return to the three sample statements by mothers. What is each of these mothers feelings? Did the response you wrote down include a feeling word? A possible response for each situation might be:

1. You seem concerned that by nursing Ben to sleep you're preventing him from learning to fall asleep on his own. 2. You're unhappy that becoming a mother has brought changes in the activities and lifestyle you enjoyed before. 3. You feel anxious because Sally seems to behave differently than other two- year-olds and you think that preschool might help her overcome these behaviors.

When you find yourself caught up in your negative feelings, it is helpful to use reflective listening in order to respond with empathy. With this skill to fall back on in tough situations you have a starting point, time to gather your thoughts and focus on the mother while putting your personal feelings out of the way. A mother may continue to explore her feelings with you if she thinks she has been heard and understood. During your conversation with her, you may be able to offer suggestions or options that she may not have thought of. And you can feel confident that you have done your job as a Leader by accepting and respecting her and the choices she has made.

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