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Just Helping a Mother Breastfeed

Eleanor Randall
Former Chairman of the Board
From: LEAVEN, Vol. 33 No. 1, February-March 1997, p. 15-16

To celebrate LLLI's 40th Anniversary, LEAVEN features Encore Articles, reprints throughout our publication since 1965. Although we have become more sensitive to terminology that implies judgment of a mother, we hope to share this food for thought: LLL has grown and changed in 40 years yet so much remains the same. In this article from our September/October 1986 issue, Eleanor Randall, LLLI Board of Directors Chairman from 1985 to 1988, responds to a Leader's letter.

Dear LLLI,

I am a Leader on Reserve who helps a Group by taking phone calls. Last week I received two calls from mothers of three-week-olds who wanted to know how to express milk because they were returning to work. Both were frustrated at their inability to pump gallons of breast milk and expected me to provide a solution to their problem.

As I tried to help them with tips on increasing milk supply and expressing milk, I also offered ideas about staying home longer. Both refused to change any work plans. The second mother got very defensive and said, "Well, I guess you can't help me!"

I have been in LLL eleven years, so I've had calls from frustrated mothers before. But when I hung up this time, I was nagged by an issue I've been struggling with. Lately, my impression of my job as an LLL Leader is that I am supposed to only pass on answers to breastfeeding questions.

I feel uncomfortable encouraging a mother who is going back to work and I feel I'm not being honest with her. I don't agree with mothers who think that giving their babies breast milk is enough. But why am I telling you this? You taught me this eleven years ago.

It is important to me that you respond to my confusion about the present direction of LLL. I don't want to quit an organization that has supported and encouraged me in the kind of parenting that has changed my family's life. But I sincerely feel I cannot compromise my beliefs any longer.

A Concerned Leader

Dear Concerned Leader,

We are facing quite a dilemma, aren't we? How do we combine our ideals as LLL Leaders and still help mothers whose thinking is far removed from ours?

Perhaps it is easier for me to be objective about this because 20 years ago when I became a Leader many of us could look back on a time when we ourselves had a lot to learn. And learn we did! Each baby taught us a little bit more until we were ready to fully embrace LLL philosophy. Looking back at our own learning process, we sympathized with mothers who stood at the threshold of understanding this philosophy.

Although others have expressed concerns like yours, the emphasis in LLL has not really changed in recent years. Let's look at our traditional motto "Good mothering through breastfeeding." As you analyze these words you see that we have always recognized that breastfeeding came first and through breastfeeding came the mothering.

Even 20 years ago, mothers didn't come to us in hope of learning to be good mothers; they came for help with breastfeeding. And that is exactly what we gave them, help with breastfeeding. But think about it. How can a mother successfully breastfeed without holding that baby many times a day, without putting him to the breast each time he cries, without responding to his needs? Pretty soon that mother is tuned into her baby and a bond is formed. We didn't have to teach her about mothering; the baby did that job. We helped with the engorgement, sore nipples, plugged ducts, fussy spells and growth spurts, and all that time the baby was weaving his magic and before our eyes a mother was born.

But, you will say to me, you didn't have to worry about working mothers in those days. Well, there were not as many as there are today, but over the years we had our share. Our hearts went out to these mothers because we thought it was so sad that they would be away from their babies for such long periods of time. We knew these mothers loved their babies and wanted the best for them; why else did they choose to breastfeed and come to us for help?

Yes, I know. Some say, "I only plan to nurse for six weeks because I am going back to work," "I'm only here because my husband wants me to do this," or even "Just tell me how to breastfeed; that's all I want to hear." And they are very businesslike in their approach to the whole business of caring for babies. Their body language tells us that they are very much on the defensive. Oh yes, they think they have heard about us and our strange ideas and they only want to know how to breastfeed.

But look at those mothers a few months later. The mother whose husband "wanted her to do it" is sitting there dreamily, her eyes glued on her baby and her arms wrapped around his warm little body. The mother who was going back to work after six weeks managed to take a leave of absence for a few more months. The one who only wanted the facts is eagerly listening to discussions about toddler nursing and the family bed.

Ah, I hear you say, those are ideal, situations. It doesn't always happen that way. No, not always. But let's be honest, even if it only happens once in a while, isn't it worth it?

During the many years that I worked as an active Group Leader I saw many women come and go and by far the greatest majority of them were wonderful mothers. What LLL did for them was free them to follow their own, sometimes deeply buried, instincts.

Society has done quite a job on our young women telling them what to do and how to think, even to the point of convincing them that distancing themselves from their children is for their children's own good. But this is nothing new.

My mother tells me that when I was a tiny baby just home from the hospital she was ordered to let me cry it out during the night because it was bad for me to be picked up. She and my father held hands through those long nights so that neither would weaken. She too cried for as many days as it took for me to give up. And these many years later she remembers it so vividly that her voice shook when talking about it.

It takes time and understanding to undo society's conditioning. And that is the greatest challenge facing us today. What is our role when talking to a woman who tells us she will return to work after her baby is born? My approach is to assume that she has no other choice or thinks she doesn't. Without prying into her reasons, I ask her if she has considered other options. Would she like to hear of some or read some material on the subject? I learn a great deal about her by listening very carefully to what she says and I take my cue from what I hear.

But let's assume that she has made her decision and is determined to return to work. She only wants me to help her nurse her baby. Then I will do it, and I will do my very best. I want this mother to spend as much time as possible with her baby, get to know her baby, fall in love with him. I want the baby to get the best possible nourishment, get to know his mother's body, be able to weave his magic. What better way to accomplish all this than by helping this mother breastfeed?

And always I remember the mothers that I helped in the past who after a number of months decided to quit their jobs because they missed their babies too much, those who experienced the heartbreak of separation with one baby and decided to stay home with the next, those who faced many hardships in order to combine breastfeeding and working and did a terrific job of mothering their babies.

It doesn't always work out. Some even decide that it is too much trouble to combine breastfeeding and working. But when I get discouraged I remember all those mothers who were helped to be the best possible mothers they could be in whatever situation they were in. When I have doubts I remind myself that I would rather see a mother work and breastfeed than work and not breastfeed. I would rather see a mother breastfeed part-time than not breastfeed at all because I believe breastfeeding is that important. I believe breastfeeding is an important step in the process of becoming a mother who is sensitive to her baby's needs.

So you see, "just helping a mother breastfeed" is not such a bad goal after all.

Eleanor Randall

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