Miriam Main, Edinburgh, Scotland
2021 is a year to remember. In addition to mothering, working, and leading through a pandemic, we have been able to celebrate La Leche League’s special 65th birthday. As we approach the end of this unusual year, I have been spending time reflecting on my role as a Leader. To be part of such an important global organisation is quite humbling. It prompted me to think—What is the key to our success? What is it that keeps attracting new Leaders? Naturally I thought about my own experience: what attracted me to La Leche League, first as a breastfeeding mother, and what pushed me to make the leap to Leader Applicant?
I was a relative latecomer to LLL. When my daughter was 18 months old we moved up to Edinburgh, and I wondered if I could find others who were as in love with breastfeeding as I was. Edinburgh is fortunate in that there are multiple breastfeeding support groups from different organisations. Being an avid researcher, I looked at them all!
For me the choice was obvious. I read the ten concepts and I was amazed—they spoke to my soul. When I realised these concepts had been pretty much unchanged in 60 years, and are the same for LLL worldwide, I experienced the most wonderful epiphany: a deep sensation of unity with mothers throughout the world, throughout time. When reading all the materials; The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding, the LLL Great Britain (LLLGB) website, and our leaflets—I appreciated the clear, familiar, and unreserved language. It felt like wisdom from a much loved old friend, the matriarch of my clan, from Mother Nature herself. That special LLL language style moored to evidence-based research and science is a powerful, unique and very attractive thing.
So I was in love with LLL before ever attending a meeting! But what tempted me to become a Leader, rather than stay a member? I remember a distinct turning point when I attended a talk by Johanna Rhys-Davies about mixing causes at the Scottish Spring Workshop. This talk sparked something within me, and it remains one of my favourite aspects of La Leche League. I believe it is the key to our timeless relevance and success.
“The purpose of LLLI is distinct. The purpose as stated in the Bylaws does not prevent interaction with other organizations with compatible purposes but La Leche League will carefully guard against allying itself with another cause, however worthwhile that cause might be.” PSR: LLL Philosophy https://www.llli.org/about/policies-standing-rules/psr-lll-philosophy/
“As an organization, LLLI is neither for nor against any other cause. Our goal is solely to offer information and support to those who want to breastfeed their babies.” The Leader’s Handbook, online edition https://www.llli.org/leader-pages/leader-handbook/ (Chapter 2 Leading Series Meetings, “When LLL Expertise Is Overshadowed” > “Keeping the LLL Purpose Clear”
Something many Series Meeting attendees enjoy is the opportunity to meet others with completely different backgrounds and interests to their own. Mothers share their personal experiences, family histories, and things they have read, watched or seen. Consequently discussions can touch on a huge array of subjects unrelated to breastfeeding. Normally these are passed by quickly; however sometimes certain topics appear frequently and repeatedly. When this happens, unless noticed and managed by the Leader, it is easy for those attending the meeting to leave with a false impression of La Leche League philosophy. In addition to this, the more time we spend on unrelated subjects, the less time we spend discussing LLL philosophy: mothering through breastfeeding.
“the more time we spend on unrelated subjects, the less time we spend discussing LLL philosophy: mothering through breastfeeding”
The subjects that might come up are unique to each Group. Generally speaking, the more homogenous the community, the greater the risk of mixing causes. Commonly religious beliefs, home birth, co-sleeping, non-vaccination, alternative medicine, stay-at-home parenting or vegetarianism may be topics that attendees, or Leaders, have an interest in or strong feelings about. Some of these subjects are related to breastfeeding; however, if discussion is restricted to a narrow set of choices the balance of ideas is upset; a newcomer might think these specific choices reflect LLL philosophy.
Even if there are no newcomers present it is important to maintain the discipline of not mixing causes. It can be extremely difficult to coax regular attendees, and yourself, away from a narrow base of discussion if it has become the ingrained culture of your meetings.
As Leaders we need to be especially vigilant and self-aware to avoid mixing causes. Subtle messages can be sent with clothing, badges, bags, or our social media profile picture. A casual side conversation or even our body language can reveal that we have other interests, or even subtly advertise a business, leaving meeting participants with a warped view of LLL.
We all have our own interests and biases. It is much easier to detect a subject as unsuitable for an LLL meeting when it is a view that differs from our own. When we agree with an opinion someone has voiced, it is tempting to agree—we may even feel compelled by our own values to speak up. We might also see it as an opportunity to form a bond or friendship with someone at the meeting; after all, connection is one of the reasons we all love LLL. However, as Leaders we represent LLL and we must always keep our “Leader hat” on. This is one reason why sharing personal experiences should be done with caution. Even if we use a disclaimer “while LLL doesn’t have an opinion on this, my experience is….” those at the meeting are liable to forget or miss the disclaimer, and take your own opinion as LLL’s.
“LLL meetings should be a place where everyone can communicate information and experiences. Focusing too much on one person’s experience can present a limited picture of LLL information and philosophy and of how these might fit into others’ lives. It may be best to talk about your own experience sparingly to avoid inadvertently setting yourself up as a model others believe they are expected to imitate.” Leader’s Handbook Online Version. “Deciding When to Talk about Your Own Experience” in Chapter 2,“Leading an Effective Meeting” https://www.llli.org/leader-pages/leader-handbook/#An
So, what do we do to avoid mixing causes? A good rule of thumb is: if a subject isn’t covered by our concepts, the Leader’s Handbook, or The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding, it probably isn’t appropriate. Having set responses ready for common situations is helpful. When a mother brings up something unrelated to breastfeeding, we can empathise with her feelings and then proceed with the regular discussion. If the subject persists you can say with a smile, “I love your passion on this subject! But we’re supposed to be talking about breastfeeding today….”. When discussion stays on a narrow spectrum you can use the concepts to provide balance, for example if vegetarianism is frequently mentioned you could say “Here at LLL we believe that good nutrition means eating a well-balanced and varied diet of foods in as close to their natural state as possible.”
Evaluation meetings are an excellent opportunity to explain the concept of mixing causes to Group members. You can ask for their help in presenting a range of options in Series Meetings. Once members understand that there are a variety of parenting options encompassed within LLL philosophy, they will feel more able to share their approaches.
So, how does this help us attract new Leaders? By keeping our focus on breastfeeding, we ensure our meetings are welcoming and we ensure our meetings are welcoming and appealing to a diverse population. We can attract potential Leaders who hold a variety of opinions on a variety of topics, but who are eager to work together in a unified, focused way towards our common goal of supporting mothering through breastfeeding. This timeless goal has worked for 65 years, and I trust will continue for at least 65 more!
“To help mothers worldwide to breastfeed through mother-to-mother support, encouragement, information, and education, and to promote a better understanding of breastfeeding as an important element in the healthy development of the baby and mother.” LLL Mission statement https://www.llli.org/about/policies-standing-rules/psr-mission-statement/
Miriam Main lives in beautiful Edinburgh, Scotland with her husband, two cats, and two children Matilda (5) and Duncan (2). She has been a Leader for just over two years, mostly throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, and has recently started her own local monthly Series Meetings in person.