A Mama's Journey with LLL
Jen asked me to write a guest blog about the La Leche League of today, and I couldn’t be happier to do it, because La Leche League has been so important to my mothering journey. I’ve only had my own tiny experience with LLL, but there are women all over the world, over the past 60 years, who have had their own tiny experiences with La Leche League. I imagine that many of these are similar to my own, because although it’s become an internationally respected resource on breastfeeding, at its core it is still small groups of mothers supporting each other.
I was lucky to grow up in a liberal community where breastfeeding was the norm, however I wasn’t familiar with La Leche League until I was a young adult. I remember hearing some moms talking about it at work, and I later asked my own mother what it was. She said, “Those are the women who nurse for like 4 or 5 years.” “Weird,” my know-it-all 23 year-old self thought. “That’s clearly not a group for me.”
Ten years later, when expecting my first baby, it never occurred to me that I wouldn’t breastfeed her. I took a breastfeeding class at the hospital where I would deliver, and my husband and I were astounded to learn some benefits to breastfeeding that had never occurred to us: It protects babies from illnesses! It’s free! It’s convenient! It even protects mothers from breast and ovarian cancer! Amazing! The instructor (who is a LLL leader in addition to being a lactation consultant,) encouraged me to go to a LLL meeting. I wasn’t so sure about this, but I had a feeling I might need things to do as I adjusted to my new life as Mama, so I filed it away, still a bit wary of the extreme perspective I thought LLL might espouse.
Once Daisy was born I happily didn’t have any trouble initiating nursing, even after an emergency c-section and subsequent 2-hour separation, so I still wondered whether La Leche League was a group for me. But when she was 3 weeks old I nervously packed up my new diaper bag with whatever I imagined a mama might need and walked the distance to the library where the group met. When I entered the room, I was immediately at home. These were such lovely women—why hadn’t I been able to find women like these to befriend in my new community before? They were welcoming, kind, supportive, funny--what a joy! And although I somewhat uncomfortably saw toddlers nursing for the first time, I was able to look past that as I appreciated the fact that at the start of every meeting the leaders articulate that we should take from others’ experiences what works for us and for our families, and leave the rest. I guess my mom was misinformed about the requirement to nurse preschoolers!
The group only met once a month, which can be a lifetime in those early mothering days. I looked forward to the date on my calendar and slowly watched myself over the course of those months transform from a timid new mom into one of the seasoned mamas, offering my own experiences and support to others. We learn and grow so much and so quickly as new mothers; it felt important to be able to use what I had discovered to benefit more than just my own family. Within these meetings, a community grew, and in turn my own community of friends grew—I felt a part of a larger experience and was able to make connections with other mothers and babies that continue today.
During this time I also became fascinated by the many benefits of breastfeeding and dismayed by the low numbers of breastfeeding success in our community and world. I realized that the reason La Leche League was founded and continues to be needed is because we no longer have the built-in support of experienced breastfeeding women all around us. Until the last century this was a part of mothering that was passed on informally. Young people grew up seeing babies nurse and there were mothers, sisters, aunts and friends to bounce questions off of: Why is my 3-month old nursing like a newborn? Why is my 6-month old waking again at night? Will it hurt when my baby gets teeth? What if big brother wants to start nursing again when the new baby comes? These issues and more are regular topics at LLL meetings—topics that I never knew existed until I was a nursing mother myself.
As I watched the LLL leaders gently talking with new mothers and as I continued to appreciate the ideas and information they shared with me, I thought this might be something I’d like to try. I worked with our local leaders and via email with leaders in other parts of the country to become an accredited volunteer leader shortly before Fiona, my second daughter, was born. Throughout this period, we sadly noticed that attendance at our meetings had plummeted to maybe one or two mothers. We wondered whether LLL meetings were necessary anymore in this age of so much information being available online and opportunities for mother-to-mother support available in the form of moms groups. I was unwilling to give up on meetings because of how important they had been in my early mothering days; I still felt there was a need for information-based breastfeeding support. So I decided to be proactive in advertising meeting topics and posting breastfeeding-related articles to our Facebook page. Amazingly, attendance almost immediately grew, and for the past two years we’ve been averaging between 15-20 moms at our morning meeting and 10-12 at our evening meeting! We also recently added a park playgroup and an additional morning meeting. Now we don’t have to wait the whole month to gather together with other fabulous breastfeeding mamas!
As a leader, my favorite moments at meetings are when I watch a formerly timid and overwhelmed new mom confidently and supportively share some information or expertise that I remember seeing her learn. It’s those moments that show me that the founding mothers in the 1950’s knew what mothers needed then, and still need today—“…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.” In the rooms where these meetings occur, everyone is valued, everyone is listened to, and breastfeeding is the accepted norm. I like to envision the shared confidence in our choices moving out of those rooms into the community and the world, creating a more breastfeeding friendly society for mothers and babies everywhere.
Jen Starks, Owner