From Homegrown Volunteer to World-Renowned President of an International Breastfeeding Organization: A Special Q&A with Marian Tompson
By Karen Williamson, BT Managing Editor
A spitfire of energy with a memory a thousand miles long, Marian Tompson is truly “as sharp as a tack”—just like her friend Cecily Harkins, LLLI Board Chair, told me she would be. As Marian communicates with me through our computers several states apart, her warm memories of serving families through La Leche League are as vivid and animated as if they took place yesterday. Clearly, this is not your average 89-year-old!
And now the secret is out: Marian is celebrating her 90th birthday this December 5! And she is so grateful for stumbling upon her passion for helping breastfeeding families early on, as a young mother breastfeeding her own children.
Her 24-year history of serving as the first president of La Leche League may sound glamorous with her flights to foreign countries to speak on behalf of the organization. But it was only during a portion of that time that she received a salary from La Leche League International. Needing income after her husband’s passing, she began accepting honorariums for her talks at area conferences.
Thus, over her 63-year history with La Leche League, Marian has primarily been a volunteer. So, in honor of International Volunteer Day—which happens to also be December 5—it seemed fitting to talk with her about the reasons why she chose to give her time so generously to support breastfeeding families.
What is your best memory of volunteering for La Leche League?
Marian: The wonderful friends who came into my life as a result. We were all mothers with the same goals—to do the very best for our children. I always used to say La Leche League was like a giant industrial magnet that goes around the globe and pulls up these like-minded people that you would have never had a chance to meet otherwise—people who would help nurture and support what you are doing. We were speaking to a deep-seated longing of mothers who wanted to breastfeed their babies. A lot of these people are still my Facebook friends, and I wouldn’t have known them otherwise.
In your biography, Passionate Journey, you talk about your mother’s influence in your life. Would you say the way she cared for your grandmother, during her debilitating arthritis, influenced your passion for helping others in need?
If it did, I wasn’t aware of it, but my mother was a very giving person. She was always there for anybody who needed help.
I was born at a time when women were told just to feed their babies every four hours and only to pick them up every four hours. My grandmother, who came here from northern Italy, told my mom: “Babies shouldn’t be allowed to cry! You should just pick them up.” And my mother did that. So, what a different beginning of life I had.
I remember one of my mother’s best friends who would tell about standing at the crib beside her baby with the baby crying, and the mother crying too while constantly looking at the clock waiting for that four-hour period to end so that she could pick the baby up. How terrible!
That is so sad! Can you educate me: is it more ingrained in the historical culture in Italy to pick up crying babies than it was in the United States years ago?
That was just how my grandmother was. She too was a generous person. My mother would tell me of people in her time without a place to call home, who would travel from one town to another. They would come to people’s doors and ask for some food or a handout. And my grandmother would say, “Never let anyone leave the door without some food. Whoever comes to the door you always give them some food.” So that was her heart. And I was named after my grandmother, only she has a slightly different name spelling, Marianne.
So, I came from a background of generous women who really cared about the people in their lives.
They cared about their neighbors, not just their own families.
Yes, when my parents bought their first home when I was in high school, we had neighbors that said they never knew each other until my mother moved into the neighborhood! She would host Friday night at our house. And one of the neighbors would play the piano, people would come together, and everyone would sing and talk. She brought people together, that is what she did, so I guess I was affected by that subconsciously.
After I decided I wanted to do something about women not getting the breastfeeding help they needed, I knew bringing together people like my mom did was key. I realized at that church picnic in the Chicago suburbs that other women besides me had not received the breastfeeding support they needed from their doctors. In those days, you didn’t automatically know who was breastfeeding. Nobody breastfed babies at church or in other public settings. Luckily, I knew two women who breastfed—Mary White and Edwina Froehlich. So, I went to them and said, “I want to do something to help those people wanting to breastfeed. Do you want to help?” And right away, they said, “Yes!”
Then they invited other breastfeeding friends of theirs to join us: Betty Wagner, Mary Ann Cahill, Viola Lennon plus Mary White’s sister-in-law, Mary Ann Kerwin. Within a few days, we were seven women. Not that we planned to have a certain number; it just happened.
Seven women, hmm. And if I remember right, you have seven children?
Yes, I have seven children!
[Laughter] The irony of it all! Marian, would you call yourself a rebel? And how did that little rebel side help you be a good volunteer?
Not at all. I actually thought of myself as a shy introvert. I really was. But when I had a goal or I wanted to do something, I would do whatever had to be done to accomplish it.
In the book LLLove Story, Betty Wagner tells of how she met me during my first opportunity to vote at an election, in 1952. I had a one and a 2-year-old and I was pregnant. As an election judge, Betty looked up my name and said that I wasn’t registered to vote. I said that I was, and asked if she would please look into it. Of course, they didn’t have a telephone there then, so she had to get somebody else who could telephone downtown. Many phone calls later they found out that I was in fact registered to vote. She was impressed that during those hours I sat there with two little girls, determined to vote. Years later Betty came back into my life when she became one of La Leche League’s founders and a friend.
So, I do have a stick-to-it-iveness. When I need information or want to help somebody with something, I won’t let anything get in the way. Luckily, I didn’t have to pursue my dream alone; I had my friends helping me. And to our surprise within a year of our first LLL meeting, three attendees asked how they could start a similar group in Chicago. This wasn’t part of our original plan, but by 1960—four years later—there were La Leche League Groups in 16 locations, and our first Group outside the USA started in Quebec, Canada. Articles about our work appearing in newspapers and magazines brought in a lot of mail from women needing help. Many were from women interested in starting a local Group. Our work was cut out for us! To meet the need we offered a newsletter, wrote what we referred to as a “manual”— The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding, and more when other needs cropped up.
If I recall correctly, your dad was a bit of a rebel too. He insisted on being in the delivery room for your birth even though that wasn’t hospital policy at the time. Good for your dad!
Yes. He ordinarily never raised his voice, so this was totally out of character for him, but my mother had a miscarriage with her first baby at five months. She was washing the windows, and when she went to tug one window, she felt a sharp pain and had a miscarriage. My dad knew how devastated she was with that.
She immediately got pregnant with me after. When my parents were in the hospital, and hospital staff had my mother on a gurney ready to take her into the delivery room, my dad—so out of character—stepped in front of the gurney. He said, “You are not taking her into the delivery room unless I go with her!” The staff were so shocked. My mother did not see me being born because in those days, they would put a cone-shaped device called an ether cone over the mom’s head during the last contraction. But because he stood up, my dad did see me being born!
And then your husband Tom also fought hospital policy?
Yes, when it got to be nighttime while I was in labor with our first child, he was told by the staff nurse to go home. Once he got home, he thought, “What am I doing here? She needs me!” Yet, when he got back, he still wasn’t allowed in my room and had to stay in the fathers’ waiting room. It was the most horrible thing in my life to see him from my window, walking away from the hospital.
Would you say that your dad and your husband’s experiences in the maternity wing of the hospital impacted your desire to bring about hospital policy changes surrounding birth?
The solution for me was giving birth to our last four children at home. But it was really La Leche League dads in Illinois that got hospital policy changed about being in the delivery room in Illinois. They did it by doing such things as handcuffing themselves to the gurney in the hospital in order to go into the delivery room.
Really? They chained themselves to hospital beds?
Yes! Partners can be so instrumental! Tom probably would have done it too if he’d thought of it when I was in the hospital years prior. I was so blessed not only by my dad standing up for my birth, but my husband who stood by me. I can’t imagine a more supportive husband. When travelling and volunteering with La Leche League, I would make one phone call home because that was all we could afford, and he would say, “Don’t worry. Everything is fine.” I realized later that the house could be burning down and he would still say, “Don’t worry. Have a good time,” because he realized there was nothing I could do from where I was at. And he didn’t want anything to be worrying my head. He knew how important it was to get information about breastfeeding to other families.
That loving support enabled you to happily and effectively volunteer.
Yes. Never did he say, “You’re leaving again, and leaving me with all these children?!” Our family had a world map in the dining room, and we had pins on the different places that I went to for La Leche League Area conferences, and the annual breastfeeding seminars that we put on for physicians. One year on Mother’s Day I was flying back home from a meeting to Chicago O’Hare airport, and then catching another plane to head to another meeting. Tom met me on the concourse with Mother’s Day cards that each of the children had made for me. They gave me the cards there so that I would have them before I flew off on this other journey. Tom was one-of-a-kind, I really feel, a true partner and enabled me to do what had to be done.
What would you say to someone who is considering becoming a La Leche League volunteer?
Doing things for other people gives you a wonderful feeling. You feel fulfilled that you are doing something important. People will smile, be thankful, say, “That is exactly what I needed to hear.” It will also make you feel better about yourself. I feel we come to this world with a purpose, and maybe that purpose is to share your translation skills, fundraising, interpersonal skills, administrative abilities, website design skills or breastfeeding knowledge with another person. There are many different ways to be of help. Volunteering also teaches you things that you could never learn any other way. Many people have gotten jobs as a result of these skills, including some who went on to become lactation consultants or conference organizers.
Taking the time to talk it out loud with a significant other or a good friend can help you decide whether volunteering is right for you. If you have a partner, it’s important to ensure you are on the same page, and that one of you is not overdoing it. For example, this may help you realize that maybe this particular time in your family’s life is not the right time, but maybe later it will be.
When you help someone else, it enriches your life in a way that few other things do. I know it did for me.
Five Fun Facts About Marian
1. She appreciates the art of slowing down to “saunter,” and YouTubes about it!
Check it out at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RI6x9TLsp9s&t=4s. Also, be sure to watch for more of her thoughts on life as a 90-year-old, coming to YouTube soon.
2. The pursuit of a motorcycle led her to true love.
At age 16, Marian went with her sister to check out a motorcycle down the street that was for sale. Marian wanted to help a friend who was interested in a motorcycle purchase. The motorcycle turned out to be owned by a guy named Tom, who would later become Marian’s husband.
That day, “Tom and his friend, Ken, were building a freeform swimming pool in their yard,” says Marian, “and Tom came out of the ground covered with mud. Tom later told me that during that first meeting, he decided then and there that when I was old enough, he was going to marry me. And after I graduated, he was there, ready to court me.”
3. She helped start not just one, but two nonprofits.
Besides helping found La Leche League, she also founded the nonprofit AnotherLook at Breastfeeding and HIV/AIDS, which she led from 2001 to 2011. Marian shared with me that AnotherLook’s efforts to further research on this topic prompted UNICEF to change their policy from never breastfeed with HIV or AIDS, to breastfeed if certain criteria are met.
Although AnotherLook is no longer in existence, Marian maintains the old website as a valuable resource on the topic. You may visit it at http://www.anotherlook.org/index.php.
4. She could have been a famous ballet dancer instead of a famous breastfeeding pioneer.
Marian gave up travelling with the ballet to start a family because she wanted a home-base for them, and because she was head over heels in love with an older spouse and deeply wanted to give him his wish of children during their best childbearing years.
5. Four books tell Marian’s life story.
- La Leche League International. The LLLove Story. Edited by Kaye Lowman. Schaumburg, Illinois, USA. 1978.
- La Leche League International. Seven Voices One Dream. Edited by Mary Ann Cahill. Schaumburg, Illinois, USA.
- La Leche League International. The Revolutionaries Wore Pearls. Edited by Kaye Lowman. Schaumburg, Illinois, USA.
- Her autobiography: Marian Tompson. Melissa Clark Vickers. Passionate Journey: My Unexpected Life. Hale Publishing, 2011.
Happy 90th Birthday, Marian. Thank you for giving your time so generously over the past 63 years to support and educate breastfeeding families! A whole world of healthier families is indebted to you for your decision to help start and grow La Leche League.
A Shout Out to La Leche League Volunteers Worldwide
As we celebrate International Volunteer Day this year on December 5, we at La Leche League International are so grateful for all the wonderful La Leche League Leaders and volunteers who support and encourage breastfeeding families. Whether it be translating publications into other languages, designing group webpages, greeting parents at meetings, putting up La Leche League group notices on bulletin boards, or sharing your valuable input on committees—thank you for giving of your time and talents to make this world a healthier and happier place!
Photo credit (for main photo at top): Julie Kaplan Photography Ltd. www.juliekaplanphoto.com