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Couples Meetings: Including the Breastfeeding Father

Ro Killory-Andersen
Melrose, Massachusetts, USA
From: LEAVEN: Vol. 31 No. 2, March-April 1995, p. 28

Interest in fathers has been sparked by recent studies showing that partners sometimes harbor negative feelings and misconceptions about breastfeeding. "I feel inadequate," says one father. "My wife breastfeeds and she's the only one who can comfort our baby." Another father laments, "I feel as though I don't have a wife any more. All she does is nurse the baby, touch the baby and talk to the baby."

These fathers' feelings of inadequacy and distance are common in the first year after a baby's birth (see LEAVEN, July/Aug 1993, pp. 59-60). While maintaining our primary commitment to mothers, Leaders can begin to meet fathers' needs for information and support in several ways.

Breastfeeding information and support can be offered in an informal way at a family social event. Why not plan a potluck dinner, summer picnic or World Breastfeeding Week Walk at a park or zoo. Fathers can meet other fathers and talk with each other as they tend to their little ones.

If your Group prefers a more formal meeting format, you could offer a special Series or one meeting per Series to women and their partners. The Group could hold an extra "Breastfeeding Basics" meeting for new parents or an extra Couples Meeting in addition to the Series.

If you invite men to a Series Meeting, it is essential to offer mothers an alternate women-only meeting. One Acton, Massachusetts, USA, Leader offered a Series open to partners, while her co-Leaders concurrently held a women-only morning Series. Your Group could coordinate schedules with a nearby Group, too. See THE NEW LEADER'S HANDBOOK, p. 66 for guidelines.

LLL of Melrose, Massachusetts, USA, holds a Couples Meeting each February in the Meeting 2 slot. We publicize this meeting on our regular meeting notice with a short line below the date and time: "partners are invited to attend this month." Several members requested a Couples Meeting to introduce their partners to other breastfeeding families and help them better understand baby's and mother's needs. After the first meeting it became a regular part of our meeting schedule.

Of course, a Couples Meeting does not meet the needs of all mothers and some may be alienated by it. The term "partner" rather than "husband" shows sensitivity to the fact that families come in many different forms. Mothers should be assured that they are welcome to attend alone or with a grandparent or other support person.

The NEW LEADER'S HANDBOOK suggests that a private breastfeeding area be provided for mothers who prefer it. Our Melrose Group sets up several chairs in an adjoining room, facing away from the group. At one meeting, a Leader helped a new mother with discreet breastfeeding techniques. Several other mothers joined them and found an opportunity to ask questions they felt uncomfortable posing in the mixed group.

Some fathers are wary of LLL and don't quite understand why people would want to get together to talk about breastfeeding. Other fathers may disagree with information or ideas their partners heard at meetings. For these reasons it is important to make a good first impression at Couples Meetings. A Leader's professional and level-headed appearance as well as an introduction describing Leader accreditation can help. LLLI's global influence, LLL publications, the Professional Liaison Program and opportunities for continuing education all demonstrate our credibility.

Keep in mind that mixed groups communicate differently from women's groups. Our Group has found that men usually save their questions until the meeting is well underway rather than pose them during round-robin introductions. LLL of Danvers, Massachusetts, asks fathers to introduce their families and tell how the couple met. You might also try beginning discussion with a question sure to elicit varied feelings such as, "How do you feel about nursing in public?"

After the conversation gets going, couples feel more comfortable raising questions they want to explore. Our discussions have included nighttime parenting, nursing in public, weaning, breastfeeding the older baby, finding time as a couple, meeting baby's needs versus "spoiling," and substituting other fathering activities rather than giving bottles.

As a Leader, you may be concerned about the role your own husband plays at Couples Meetings. You may worry whether he will present LLL philosophy as faithfully as you. A frank discussion with your husband about your concerns might help you relax. It might also be good for the Group to see that even a Leader's family must "take what it needs and leave the rest."

You may be surprised at the amount of breastfeeding support and knowledge Leaders' husbands share at Couples Meetings. Your husband might be the best one to answer, "How can I be close to my baby if I can't feed him?" To a man's ears, another man's answer may mean more than a woman's, even if she is the Leader.

Some Leaders' husbands may not attend Couples Meetings at all. Even that may help mothers who come alone feel more at ease. It might encourage others to attend without partners.

Experienced fathers often jump in with support and ideas for the new parents. A brand-new father came to one of our Group's Couples Meetings without his wife and baby born just 24 hours before. His enthusiasm, excitement and eagerness to do what he could to support his wife in breastfeeding their new baby was contagious. The experienced dads that night benefited from hearing this dad's story and questions.

Several couples who met at our meetings now socialize regularly outside the Group. They found like-minded friends who support them as they gather for barbecues, dinner and parties where breastfed babies and their siblings are welcome.

As a Leader, you can get to know families better through Couples Meetings. You gain insight into what a woman's home life is like when you meet her partner. Several times fathers have later approached me with questions, for example, about nursing while pregnant. Because we had an established rapport, they saw LLL as a reliable resource.

"LLL has been such a positive influence for us," pronounced one father after a Couples Meeting. "It has given us the confidence to parent from the heart."

Resources for Couples Meetings:

THE NEW LEADER'S HANDBOOK, P. 66.

THE WOMANLY ART OF BREASTFEEDING, pp. 101, 195-200, 214-15.

"Fathers' Support of Breastfeeding," LEAVEN, Jul/Aug 1993, pp. 59-60.

"Inviting Fathers to Meetings," LEAVEN, Jul/Aug 1993, p. 61

Becoming a Father, William Sears.

"The Breastfeeding Father," LLLI pamphlet No. 130

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