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When a Mother Needs More Than Support

Lisa Albright
Austin, Texas, USA
From: LEAVEN, Vol. 37 No. 1, February-March 2001, p. 10-11

During a discussion in Meeting three about fatigue, a mother volunteers that she can't get any rest because her husband doesn't help with the baby, yet he expects the house to be perfect. During the ensuing discussion of suggestions for coping with an unsupportive spouse, you sigh inwardly because this is the third time in as many meetings that this mother's situation has monopolized the meeting. Or you find yourself avoiding answering the phone because of a mother who has been calling repeatedly. It's nearly impossible to end conversations with her because they routinely veer from minor breastfeeding questions to a long string of other problems in her life.

How does a Leader cope with a mother who seems to need more than her "share" of support? It is important to consider whether the mother needs something beyond the support a Leader can offer her.

The Mother Who Needs "More"

Women who seek out La Leche League are often in a stressful life transition associated with the birth of a child. The mother-to-mother support provided at LLL meetings and in one-to-one helping are both healthy and important aids that help women through this transition. Leaders also know how to be sensitive to symptoms of the "baby blues" that occur in many new mothers and to be aware of the signs that can signify postpartum depression (BREASTFEEDING ANSWER BOOK, p. 482-486).

Sometimes a mother experiences an excessive amount of stress for an extended time beyond the postpartum period because of preexisting circumstances that are complicated by the birth of her baby. Problems in her marriage or relationship with her partner may be exacerbated by a new baby, or by issues that develop as the baby moves into toddlerhood. She may have a great deal of internal conflict over the choices she's facing about her career and her family. Or her ability to cope with the traditional stress of adjusting to a baby and motherhood may be limited compared to other women.

Because of the open and accepting atmosphere found at LLL meetings, it is not uncommon for women who are experiencing chronic and excessive stress to see LLL Leaders as their primary source of support, even for non-breastfeeding issues. Many Leaders find themselves providing some support along these lines at one time or another. If the situation interferes with your ability to be an effective Leader, however, it is time to set some limits on your role, and direct the mother to other resources.

Signs of Stress

Women who are chronically overstressed can have a wide variety of physical, psychological, or interpersonal symptoms. You may learn of certain physical or psychological symptoms only because the mother tells you. Active listening skills, such as those taught in the basic Human Relations Enrichment series, can help elicit this type of information.

Outward signs of stress include difficulties in concentration or speech, or nervous laughter. The mother who is preoccupied with her problems may find it difficult to listen to others at Series Meetings and tries repeatedly to refocus the discussion on her own situation. Conversely, she may be extremely quiet in a group and reveal her problems only in a one-to-one situation, perhaps with repeated phone calls to the Leader. If a Leader has known the mother a while, she may notice signs of stress in the mother's interaction with her children, such as more frequent yelling, increased sensitivity to their noise and activity, or forgetting to do things for them.

Signs of Stress

Physical Symptoms

  • Fatigue
  • Headaches, tension or migraine
  • Grinding teeth, jaw pain, dental problems
  • Pain or tension: neck, shoulders, back
  • Heart palpitations or shortness of breath
  • Digestive problems: stomach aches, diarrhea, constipation, nausea
  • Sweaty palms or excessive perspiration
  • Dryness of the mouth or throat
  • Rashes and other dermatological problems
  • Muscle spasms, tics, trembling of hands
  • High blood pressure
  • Frequent illnesses

Psychological Symptoms

  • Feeling out of control, overextended, overwhelmed, or overloaded
  • Feeling irritable or angry
  • Feeling tense, pressured or anxious
  • Feeling sad or depressed; crying without knowing why
  • Resenting everyday intrusions, including friends' phone calls and invitations
  • Loss of appetite
  • Overeating/binge eating, increased alcohol or drug consumption
  • Sleeping problems (insomnia, difficulty falling asleep, nightmares)
  • Difficulties in concentration
  • Nervous laughter, speech difficulties.
  • Loss of interest in sex
  • Clumsiness/becoming accident-prone
  • Developing fears or phobias
  • Living in the past or future

Interpersonal Symptoms

  • Being irritated or short-tempered with spouse
  • Increased sensitivity to noise and activity of the children
  • Yelling at the children more frequently
  • Forgetting to do things for the children
  • Increased conflict among children themselves

*Note: Many of these symptoms can also be due to other causes.

Finding Your Limits

Setting limits on what a Leader will do to support a mother can be hard, especially if the mother is a regular attendee or personal friend. Here are questions that can help you decide if the mother's needs fall outside the scope of a Leader's role:

  • Is it a breastfeeding problem or does it fall outside the scope of breastfeeding?

Our expertise is in breastfeeding, not marital relationships, nor problems with extended family, employers, or friends, even if we touch on these issues in Series Meetings. This question, when asked with the other questions below, can help clarify the limit of your involvement. If you have referred mothers to lactation consultants, you may find it helpful to review the thought processes that guided you to seeing the limits of your expertise, since there are similarities.

  • Is the mother repeatedly dominating Group Meetings with her needs?

This indicates that the mother has a great need for someone with whom to share her problems. However, the Series or Enrichment Meeting is not the appropriate outlet. It's unfair to other attendees when meetings repeatedly focus on one person's problems.

  • Are the mother's calls to the Leader overly intrusive, irritating, or taking an inappropriate amount of time?

A Leader's intense support during a breastfeeding crisis can make the difference in whether the breastfeeding relationship continues. However, if the need for a high level of support continues to such an extent that you find yourself for example, avoiding contact with the mother, it can indicate that the mother needs professional help rather than calls to LLL.

  • Is the mother revealing personal information that is making the Leader uncomfortable?

Are the details too intimate or inappropriate? Are you getting emotionally involved? Your own comfort level is a good measuring stick for situations that are beyond the scope of a Leader's role.

There are many effective ways to help empower a mother in her parenting and to help her form her own network of support (LEAVEN, Oct-Nov 99 p. 113). However, a mother's need for support because of a dysfunctional relationship or an inordinate amount of anxiety is not the basis of a healthy friendship. A mother in this category may be better served by referral to a health care provider for counseling and/or evaluation.

Referring a mother to a health care provider is not turning away from a mother. Rather, you are giving her the message that you take her problems seriously by directing her to the most appropriate resource. In addition, you are preserving your own mental health, and conserving your emotional resources for your own family and for mothers with breastfeeding problems.

Making a Referral

Suggesting that a mother seek help from a mental health professional is not a comfortable nor easy task. Find a time when you can talk to her individually and, confidentially. You can begin by honestly stating that the mother's situation is beyond your expertise:

Doreen, the issues you were talking about today at the meeting really fall outside the scope of breastfeeding. I think I've reached the limit of what I can do for you as a Leader, and you might benefit from talking to a professional (getting some counseling) about this.

Nancy, I'm uncomfortable with what you're telling me about your relationship with John - it's really something you should be discussing with him. Have you considered getting some counseling together or by yourself?

In many societies, the need for counseling or therapy is sometimes seen as a sign of personal failure. It may help to remind the mother that the stresses she is experiencing are big and that it may be unhealthy for her not to ask for help. It may also help to remind her that her own emotional needs must be filled so that she can nurture her baby and other members of her family. If you have knowledge of others' positive experiences with counseling, referring to them (without revealing identifying information) can help the mother to realize that seeking help is a positive step.

Continuing to Support

One of the ways a Leader can support a mother taking this step is to act as a resource for her in finding a therapist or counselor. Counselors can be found through physician referral and health care provider lists, as well as through women's health centers, churches, hospitals, community health centers, and local organizations such as the YWCA. Encourage her to network, starting with people she trusts such as her physician or close friends. Finding someone supportive of breastfeeding and her mothering style may be an issue. The mother should not need to reveal more than, "I'm looking for some individual (or marriage) counseling," to receptionists, screening people at insurance companies, or people she is asking for a referral.

Continued mother-to-mother support is still important. This is one reason why maintaining the strictest confidentiality about the mother's situation is vital. It's crucial that she does not feel embarrassed to return to LLL meetings, for instance, because of fears that other Leaders or mothers in the group know that she is in therapy.

You may need to remind the mother to take non-breastfeeding issues back to the counselor or therapist as she learns how to turn to the most appropriate resource for her problems. In this way Leaders complement the mental health professional as we do other health care providers.

As in other helping situations, a mother may not follow your first suggestion for counseling. You may end up repeatedly suggesting she get counseling if her needs continue to go beyond the limits you've set for your role. However, you're planting the seed of an idea and the time may come when she acts on it. You've pointed her in another direction rather than turning away from her. And you've preserved your own resources for mothering and leadership.


Liles, C. and Escobar, N. Help! This mother needs more than I can give. LEAVEN, 35:5, Oct-Nov 1999; 113.

Mason, L. J. Stress Passages: Surviving Life's Transitions Gracefully. Berkeley, California: Celestial Arts, 1988; xi-xiii; I -5; 31 -33.

Mohrbacher, N. and Stock, J. THE BREASTFEEDING ANSWER BOOK, Revised Edition. Schaumburg, Illinois: La Leche League International, 1997; 482-86.

Shaevitz, M. H. The Superwoman Syndrome. New York: Warner Books, 1984; 16-22.

Witkin-Lanoil, G. The Female Stress Syndrome: How to Recognize and Live with It. New York; Newmarket Press, 1984; 96-112.

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