I believed in the breast

And then the control freaks at La Leche League buried me in bureaucracy, bare breasts and too much LLLove.

Published March 31, 2000 5:00PM (EST)

I used to love La Leche League. At the local group level, La Leche salvaged my mental health after six months of isolation at home with my baby. When we moved to a new town, a La Leche meeting was a proven place of sanctity where I, huge with baby No. 2, could hook up with like-minded mothers. Their mandate of giving information and encouragement to all mothers who want to breast-feed their babies served me well in those early years. I felt passionate about breast-feeding and deeply obligated to La Leche, as they had lifted my social life out of the dumps and helped me through sore nipples and thrush.

But as all good things come to an end, this did too: They sent a leader to sniff me out for leadership. That's when things turned bad. Very bad.

La Leche leaders are always on the make for leader applicants. Applicants are mothers who have been attending meetings and show La Leche leader qualities -- abilities in breast-feeding and mothering and the ability to relate to others. Usually there's nowhere to go in the organization if you are no longer nursing a child. So when the leaders told me that I was a marvelous La Leche mother, I was terribly flattered and agreed to take on my application for leadership.

The leader accreditation department sent me monthly flowery letters written in longhand, covered with stickers, stuffed with confetti and signed LLLove. I assured them that I believed in the LLL philosophy: Breast milk is the superior infant food; children need loving guidance; good nutrition means eating food in as close to its natural state as possible; breast-feeding is enhanced by the support of the baby's father; alert, active participation is necessary in childbirth; breast milk is the only food until the middle of the first year; and the breast-feeding relationship continues until the baby outgrows the need.

According to the literature, leaders are expected to "serve as a compass, steadfastly pointing to the lodestar of League philosophy." I complied the best I could, although I slipped my family junk food and never ground my own wheat. Alert participation in childbirth? Well, in reality I flunked that one, too. With my first child I was heavily and happily doped up with Demerol and an epidural. Strike two for me.

Imperfect as I was, I didn't let that stop me from La Leche status-seeking. I did feel discomfort with the "father" element in the philosophy: The semantics seemed exclusionary, as in, single mothers and lesbian parents need not apply. I had the sneaking suspicion they'd rather not deal with the awkwardness of a mother arriving solo at a "couples" meeting; the presence of a husband was definitely preferable. The lone single mother in our group stopped attending meetings -- there were rumors that she had felt unwelcome. No big surprise there.

Still I forged ahead, perhaps with a hidden agenda of reforms. There was no hoopla when I finished my application and became a leader. I signed a letter of intent in duplicate and an insurance form that covered me in case I misdirected a mother of a dehydrated baby. I co-led monthly meetings, and was expected to adhere to the strict agenda dictated by "National Office," as other leaders became visibly irritated if I dared stray off topic. I took turns answering the La Leche phone hotline.

Meanwhile, my "gentle guidance" techniques for my children were highly suspect on the days I did league work: I plugged them into videos and yelled at them to keep quiet while I was on the phone. Some glowing La Leche League example I was turning out to be.

When I switched from being a member to a leader, I swapped my mouthpiece for a muzzle. As a member, I could speak freely at meetings, but as a leader, I was instructed to repeat La Leche doctrine and not to share personal experiences. I was forbidden from doing any breast-feeding activist work and barred from formally supporting mothers who were harassed for breast-feeding in public.

The La Leche paperwork was staggering. I spent many hours and many more quarters at a photocopy machine, running off duplicate and triplicate copies of forms with such inane titles as the MARF (Monthly Activity Report Form), a lengthy form filled out monthly and sent to the D.A. (district advisor), who in turn sent one to the AACL (assistant area leader of coordinators), who sent it to N.O. (national office). And so on. And so on.

Add evaluation meetings, leader meetings, meeting planning meetings, conference planning meetings and chapter meetings to all this shuffling of paper and my time spent actually helping new mothers breast-feed their babies was slowly being eroded.

I realized that at the local group level, La Leche League excels in providing a safe haven for mothers who exclusively breast-feed their children. Delve any deeper into the organization and you discover that there is not even a remote possibility that a young, hip mama can nourish and grow as a La Leche leader.

While LLL bandies about the phrase "empowering mothers," many leaders seem to take on the role of breast-feeding gurus. As gurus thumping the LLL bible ("The Breastfeeding Answer Book"), they control all the information and power, doling it out to the mothers they feel are worthy of their time and into breast-feeding for the long haul. God forbid if a mother introduced a supplementary bottle or pacifier. Or (gasp!) considered paid work.

The fierce internal arguments about "mother-baby" separation deeply disturbed me. The experience of having breast-fed for one year is a basic prerequisite for leadership in La Leche League, as is a commitment to a minimum of mother-baby separation.

What about mothers who went back to work before the year was through? Or supplemented with bottles, or just plain weaned their babies before they were a year old? What if a mother's instincts tell her she shouldn't be at home full-time with her child? Does La Leche exclude her from membership or leadership because she's violated this philosophy statement? I'm a stay-at-home mother who practiced many of the "attachment parenting" techniques: extended breast-feeding, sleeping with my baby, etc. But the question that gnaws at my conscience is: What if this isn't right for everybody? What then? Show 'em to the door?

Clearly, La Leche was not the organization I thought it was when I was in my early days and in need of social support. The organization is actually deeply conservative, unbending and unchanging. The often-cited historical image of La Leche as group of ladies at a church picnic rings true today. They have not strayed far from home.

I worry about the future of La Leche League. They do little marketing and promotion save for giving physicians' offices breast-feeding posters that promptly get lost among reams of formula company-sponsored promo materials. La Leche League will not align itself with other organizations (looked down upon as "mixing" causes), nor will they engage in activist work.

I can understand the need to have a clear mandate; however, lack of community alliances means that the organization entertains only the status quo. No poster, no letter written on behalf of La Leche, can be released to the public without going through impossible bureaucratic channels for "official" approval. We all know that "breast is best," but how does that translate into daily life when a mother is asked to leave an antique store for nursing her 5-month-old baby and La Leche won't rally behind her because they "don't do activism"?

La Leche needs to take a long, hard and not so gentle look at itself as an organization if it wants to survive. The bulk of LLL funds come from memberships bought by mothers in local groups. Membership is $35 a year and the group keeps only $7; $28 is sent on to the national office. With memberships waning, groups are dropping like flies. For instance, Vancouver, a city of 540,000, has only one La Leche League group to serve all its breast-feeding mothers.

For the privilege of being a leader, I paid $52 a year in leader fees and was under the threat of being automatically taken off the leader list if I didn't promptly pay my fees. I had to beg my group to help subsidize my fees with their healthy bank account. I overheard one leader tell a mother on the phone, "If you aren't willing to pay the 20 bucks for our book ["The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding"], you obviously aren't committed to breast-feeding." My mind continued to reel.

When I met with the other leaders to announce my "retirement," they feigned surprise despite my obvious worsening La Leche attitude. Their major concern was not about me, nor all the new moms I had helped breast-feed, but what form I needed to fill out in duplicate to send to the national office. I dutifully filled out the LGUF (Leader and Group Update Form -- just for the record) and stood in front of the photocopier to make an extra copy before mailing it off to the powers that be.

I signed it: FareweLLL, Sue Robins.

By Sue Robins

Sue Robins is a freelance writer living in Vancouver.

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