Addressing Mothers' Diversity
From: LEAVEN, Vol. 37 No. 2, April-May 2001, pp. 38-39
I have realized that we are beginning to see lesbian parents in France. I have contacted an organization for lesbian parents in the hopes of getting some information about the experience of the nursing mother in a female couple. I think this must entail special challenges and as Leaders, we should not exclude anyone. Are there any published resources for or about lesbian nursing mothers? Are there any Leaders who have personal or counseling experience in this area?
Thank you, Catherine, for your letter and your desire to help all the mothers who come to La Leche League by "providing education, information, support, and encouragement to women who want to breastfeed. " To answer your question, two points need to be addressed. What information is unique to lesbian breastfeeding mothers? And most importantly, how can we as La Leche League Leaders provide the information in a supportive manner?
Most issues faced by breastfeeding women are the same regardless of their lifestyle. Questions about milk supply, latch-on, lack of sleep, etc., are issues that cause most mothers concern. Like all parents, lesbian couples have to make parenting decisions for their children - including what and how to feed the baby - based on the best information they can gather combined with their own feelings and judgments about what is best for their baby and their family. And, like all parents, they have both the privilege and responsibility of making these decisions on their own. The information in our publications on, specific breastfeeding concerns can be used with confidence to help any and all breastfeeding mothers.
One situation Leaders might be asked about that would be unique to lesbian women would be when the non-birth mother desires to breastfeed, either solely or in addition to the birth mother.
While this is not a traditional "wet nursing" situation, the Leader may want to mention that it is important for both women to be in good health and not taking any medications or substances that could be harmful if passed to the baby through the milk. In addition, concerns about cross-nursing could be addressed, such as the risk of cross-infection and the unique bonding a mother and her baby share. The physical and psychological issues related to cross-nursing are discussed in "Wet Nursing and Cross-Nursing," LEAVEN, July-August 1995.
A Leader can refer interested parents to information on the mechanics of lactation and induced lactation in THE WOMANLY ART OF BREASTFEFDING, THE BREASTFEEDING ANSWER BOOK, Breastfeeding the Adopted Baby by Debra Stewart Peterson (No 63-7), and Nursing Your Adopted Baby (LLLI, No. 522-24).
The Professional Liaison
Department is available to help Leaders if they need more specific information
about working with individual couples.
Many couples decide that the logistics of both women establishing and maintaining a milk supply for the infant are too daunting. As a Leader in Connecticut discovered while working with two different couples, "Once they realized the commitment required to induce lactation, heard the information about supply and demand, and how it may be difficult for one baby to maintain the supply in two women, neither couple decided to try it."
In this case, the parents
would benefit from hearing of other ways to bond and care for the breastfeeding
infant. A mother in France discovered, "As much as I wished that
As a Leader in Oregon stated, "Lesbian mothers are aware that most of the literature is going to be written for traditional families and that they can still benefit from the suggestions in these materials."
Depending on a Leader's location, there may be local organizations that address lesbian parenting issues. Knowledge of local organizations can be helpful to the Leader, but is not something every Leader needs to have on hand since women come to us primarily for our expertise in breastfeeding. Leaders may wish to let these organizations know that LLL is available to help all women with breastfeeding concerns, and provide them with information.
This leads us to the second issue that your question raises: How can we as Leaders meet the needs of all women in a nonjudgmental manner.
A Florida Leader found in her experience, "Lesbian mothers are very open to mothering through breastfeeding and seem to identify, parenting-wise, with LLLI philosophy." One Louisiana mother told the Group Leader, "We feel like odd ducks sometimes, but it's not because we're lesbians; it's because we pick our baby up when she cries!"
Because LLLI is a large and diverse organization, it is no surprise to anyone that there are lesbian members and Leaders. However, sexual orientation is not addressed in any of the concepts that embody LLLI philosophy. This is sometimes a revelation for members as well as Leaders.
One question that comes up in this context is "How does the Leader address the concept on fathering?" La Leche League philosophy holds that "The loving help and support of the father enable the mother to focus on mothering so that together the parents develop close family relationships which strengthen the family and thus the whole fabric of society." The fathering concept itself states that, "Breastfeeding is enhanced and the nursing couple sustained by the loving support, help, and companionship of the baby's father. A father's unique relationship with his baby is an important element in the child's development from early infancy." Just as we discuss fathers and the father's role in a sensitive manner when we know there are single mothers in a Group, we should extend the same courtesy to lesbian mothers.
While LLLI recognizes the
father's role as being important to the mother and the baby, we do not
exclude women who do not have males in their lives from LLL's breastfeeding
information and a Leader's assistance.
It is always important for Leaders to present a welcoming and positive environment for all mothers to receive our information and support at Group meetings. If we as Leaders have negative views on lesbian mothers, those attitudes can get in the way of our sharing the information and support that every woman has come to expect from us. As representatives of LLLI we don't want personal bias or feelings to affect the presentation of our information or the atmosphere at Group meetings.
Perhaps you never thought that a lesbian mother would attend your Group. New situations can be difficult for all of us. If you feel uncomfortable, your first step is to acknowledge any feelings you have so that you can convey breastfeeding and LLL information in an accepting and respectful manner.
In "Helping Mothers When You Have Strong Feelings about Their Choices" (LEAVEN, December-January 1999, p. 130), Jill Whelan writes: "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." Jill continues with the following suggestions: "A relaxed and open attitude, eye contact, smile, and warm tone of voice will put everyone at ease. 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."
As Group Leaders we set the
tone for the meeting or the phone call, A Florida Leader with two lesbian
couples in her Group wrote, "It seemed to me that the women in
our Group took the lead from the Leaders and were very accepting."
The LEADER'S HANDBOOK (Revised Edition, 1998, page 59) explains, "If
the mothers attending the meeting truly feel accepted and supported,
they will be receptive to LLL's message and the Group is bound to thrive.
A viable Group is one in which the
mothers are comfortable exchanging ideas."
Keeping meetings on that month's topic is probably your strongest safeguard if Group attendees seem to be ill at ease with the lesbian mother. Also making our usual introductory statement lets all mothers know that we Leaders are the ones representing LLLI and that our breastfeeding information is available to all women.
The section on "Respecting Differences among Mothers" in the LEADER'S HANDBOOK (p 7-10) reminds us, "If her image of us is that we are there for her as a person, can relate to her, listen to her, understand her, and can offer suggestions and information about breastfeeding, then we can help her. She will listen to us. If she feels we care more about breastfeeding than about her and her baby, or that we are critical of people who do not follow a fixed pattern of mothering, her image of us will stand in the way of our being able to share our information with her."
Almost every woman who has
become involved with LLL offers a similar reason for why she kept coming
back. La Leche League offers information and support to mothers and
lets each mother decide what she needs while empowering her with the
knowledge that she is "the authority" on
By making sure we provide the necessary information and support that all women need, regardless of their sexual orientation, we will continue to change our world for the better "one mother and baby at a time."
Online PL Resource Advisor, LLL Online
Westhope, North Dakota, USA
LLLI Policies and Standing Rules, discussion of La Leche League International's Philosophy; Appendix 1, Feb 92.
LEADER'S HANDBOOK, Revised Edition. Schaumburg, IL: LLLI, 1998.
Minami, J. Wet nursing and cross nursing. LEAVEN, July-August 1995; 53-55.
Mohrbacher, N. and Stock, J. BREASTFEEDING ANSWER BOOK, Revised Edition. Schaumburg, Illinois: LLLI, 1997.
Nursing Your Adopted Baby, LLLI No. 522-24.
Peterson, Debra Stewart. Breastfeeding the Adopted Baby. San Antonio, Texas: Corona Publishing, 1994. (LLLI No. 63-7)
Whelan, J. Helping mothers when you have strong feelings about their choices. LEAVEN, December-January 1999; 130.
THE WOMANLY ART OF BREASTFEEDING, Sixth Edition. Schaumburg, IL: LLLI, 1997.