The Importance of Being Accepted
From: LEAVEN, Vol. 28 No. 3, May-June 1993, pp. 44-45
Providing a warm, welcoming atmosphere at meetings is something most Leaders don't have to think twice about. We became Leaders because we remembered how good we felt after our first La Leche League meeting and wanted to help others in the same way. There are times, however, when we may feel uncomfortable with the choices a mother makes. If her decisions are in direct conflict with LLL philosophy, we may wonder why she has come to LLL at all.
For example, I'm sure we've all been shocked by the woman who attended meetings faithfully during pregnancy only to give up breastfeeding before going home from the hospital. "Well," we say, "that was a waste of time. She didn't learn anything during all those months of meetings." How about the mother who calls you week after week with questions, only to do the exact opposite of what you suggest? Nothing you say seems to sink in. The truth is, these women learn a lot. They learn about friendship and the spirit of helping that makes LLL so special. If we do not present a welcoming atmosphere, they will learn a negative lesson about LLL instead - a lesson about criticism and disapproval. One of the most important things I have discovered since becoming a Leader is the truth in the old saying about walking a mile in someone else's shoes. You can never know what things are like for the mothers attending meetings or calling for help. Perhaps a mother has an unsupportive husband, intense pressure from other family members, or low self-esteem. When I see a baby with a bottle, I try to remember that his mother may have tried to nurse him without proper support or information. The baby may be adopted or may have been weaned for reasons unknown to me. Sometimes a mother may be embarrassed to nurse in public, so she brings a bottle along.
Even though I try to be accepting of others, I certainly never expected to be helping a mother warm a bottle of formula during a meeting! When I realize how far I've come in being able to welcome mothers regardless of their circumstances, I have to credit a former co-Leader who shared her story with us at a meeting four years ago.
When Carol's first child was born twenty years ago, she gave up nursing after a couple of weeks because of sore nipples. A concerned friend brought her along to a La Leche League meeting, hoping Carol would learn enough to prevent the same problem with her next baby. Carol sat through the meeting feeding her baby a bottle of powdered milk mixed with hot water from the tap. Not one mother rolled her eyes or even looked at her oddly. Carol was so shy that if she had detected even a hint of disapproval, she would never have returned. She continued to attend, bottles and all, until the birth of her second child eighteen months later. This time, nursing went smoothly.
Several months after Carol told me about her experience, I attended a meeting in which a mother came with bottles. She sat apart from the Group. When I spoke to her, she began to cry. She said that her baby was fussy and not getting enough to eat. The baby cried through most of the meeting. When she asked to use the kitchen to heat a bottle, I thought, "Just nurse her!" Carol's words came back to me and I realized that this mother was barely holding on. She needed help coping with a high-need baby, not how-to's on breastfeeding. I spent some time talking with her about possible causes of colic and sent her home armed with Dr. Sears' THE FUSSY BABY. I was sure that breastfeeding would not work out for her.
When this mother attended the next month's meeting, I did not recognize her at first. Her face looked relaxed and happy and her baby was chubby and content, nursing frequently during the meeting. There were no bottles in sight. I wish I could say that we had worked a miracle, but we didn't. All we did was make her feel welcome and offer suggestions. Clearly, the most important thing we gave her was respect. The mother went on to purchase a membership and nursed for about four months, which was her goal. She was very happy with her breastfeeding experience.
While we may not agree with a mother's decisions, we think we certainly would not be obvious about our feelings. We forget how easy it is to look across the room at our co-Leader and exchange what we think is a subtle glance. Sometimes it isn't Leaders who make the mother feel uncomfortable, but other mothers at the meeting. These mothers may not have the benefit of Human Relations Enrichment (HRE) or the years reading LLL publications on communicating acceptance. One mother may comment under her breath about another mother's behavior. If a mother notices this, it can make her feel like an outsider. Enrichment meetings are an ideal time to discuss respect. We want everyone to feel welcome, regardless of her ideals. We can let our Group members know that it's possible to state LLL philosophy clearly without imposing guilt on anyone who doesn't agree.
I went to my first meeting with the ideal that La Leche League was a bit odd. But I left thinking that the women I found there were pretty normal after all. When a mother leaves a meeting, she can walk away saying, "Those women are okay. They seemed to really care about me and my baby," Or she can say, "they just don't understand." Which way would you like to be remembered?
Providing an accepting atmosphere is important to building trust and rapport. Many Leaders have learned that appropriate attending behavior, voice, tone, and word choice combine to do these very things.
Attending behavior, the body language that you, as a Leader exhibit, includes strong eye contact, a relaxed posture, and inclination of the body toward the person to whom you are speaking. Open gestures with the hands and arms, as well as a soft, noninvasive touch also speak of warm understanding. And, don't forget your smile!
Studies have shown that voice tone is more important than the words that are spoken! If you don't believe it, say something nice to your co-Leader and use a loud, angry voice. Watch her face. The first message she receives is that of anger. Using a warm, modulated tone will display understanding and build rapport quickly.
Finally, word choice is significant in building trust and understanding. Whether speaking on the phone or at a meeting, focus on thc positives of breastfeeding. Always offer information in a way that leaves the mother free to make a choice. These phrases work well: "You might want to try....", "Have you thought of....", "Would you like some information about....", "What's worked for me is...." or the time honored, "Many mothers have found...." Steer away from words like, "always," "never," "you should," "you must" and "If I were you, I'd....'' Creating an atmosphere of acceptance may require same practice on the part of both the Leader and Group members. The most powerful teacher will be the La Leche League Leader in action, as she models acceptance and respect.