I’ve started thanking everyone at the beginning of La Leche League meetings for making the time to do something important for themselves by coming to talk and listen. Often we prioritise groups that have a more obvious benefit for our babies, like baby massage or playgroups. In the earliest months, or even later on, we can feel like breastfeeding groups are only for when we have a problem that requires support.
LLL is definitely there for that, but by coming to a meeting, whatever’s going on for us or not, we’re saying that we matter and that our experience of breastfeeding is something worth sharing. Never has this been so needed as it is now.
Having a baby can itself be disruptive and isolating even under normal circumstances. Living through the coronavirus pandemic and social distancing has upended many of our plans and left new parents without a lot of the support they would normally expect to be available. However, just as babies are born primed for breastfeeding, we all come into parenthood with instincts that can be triggered, even if it can take time to relax into them. This is a starting point worth actively recognising, though some help may be needed.
That help can be as simple as a listening space where we share information and experiences without giving advice, which is what our LLL group meetings aim to be, even in the online form we are currently using. So often, those with new babies or with toddlers come to meetings feeling bogged down by what seems an insurmountable challenge. Chatting with others who have been through the evening cluster feeds or a sudden increase in night feeds, things lighten as perspective shifts: I’m not alone, others have experienced this too. Perhaps it’s normal. Perhaps there’s something I can try that’s helped someone else.
Leaders often try to open the floor for others to share their experiences rather than running meetings as a question and answer session. We may have access to a great wealth of information, but we are not the experts. Everyone has had a breastfeeding journey that is uniquely theirs. By sharing their stories, each person dips into their own pool of wisdom. They may not even have realised they’ve been developing it until they’re called upon to offer some of that wisdom to other parents.
Bringing this collective wisdom together in one room, whether face to face or virtually, offers a resource like no other. This is why when you speak to a Leader over the phone, or via email, they may invite you to look for an LLL meeting. We know first-hand that this is where the magic happens.
When we get together to talk about breastfeeding, we aren’t just sharing good information and kindling friendships, though that’s so important. By making the time to meet regularly, we create an environment capable of containing the full experience of the people present, encompassing their joy, grief and tears. While I look forward to doing this with other parents in person again, I’m grateful that we can still offer a bit of this through our online meetings.
Those experiences aren’t on pause in the interim. Life continues to be full, despite cancellations and mandated time at home, as anyone with children knows. If anything, many are feeling an intensified need to give their experiences a voice. We may just need to be gentle with ourselves and each other, as we all learn how to use technology to allow us to share well, just as many people are relearning how to talk effectively over the phone.
Gathering also enables us to value collectively the work that we’re doing, looking after babies and small children. We may struggle to see the importance in the small details of what we’re doing for our children, whether it’s working hard to make breastfeeding comfortable or reading that flap book yet again. Yet, we’re often much better at identifying the effort another is putting in when they choose to slow down or persevere. The long days may stretch ahead of us and come to a close without a definite shape, but when we listen to each other, we often find it easy to spot that the other person is doing a job that matters. We can see where they can’t, that it’s understandable that it’s hard, and that there’s so much good in what they’ve done.
In turn, by coming together to talk about breastfeeding and parenting, we may find we learn to relax into life with our babies. Relaxing is what gives us the time, energy and security to discover things about our children and ourselves that we might otherwise miss. It can make being with them easier both in the present and in the long run, as we gradually acquire and apply all that we’re learning.
However, that’s often not our starting point. It’s not uncommon to approach a breastfeeding group, worried about whether we’re doing it “right” and whether everyone else will know what they’re doing while we feel like we don’t. The world of work is often fast-paced and competitive. On maternity leave, we may find it takes time to settle into a slower step, where no one is evaluating what you’re doing. This can be the case even if we were already working from home.
Safe listening spaces can help ease the way here too. LLL meetings prioritise remaining non-judgemental by discouraging giving advice and making it clear that everyone needs to decide what they want to take away for their own families. This isn’t a place where competition thrives. Instead of focusing on the one “right” way, we usually uncover a range of what’s normal and an even wider range of approaches parents take when compassionately engaging with challenges. Perhaps our baby isn’t the only one crying so much. Perhaps some babies don’t eat solids for a long time. Perhaps our toddler isn’t the only one struggling with a new sibling. Maybe we aren’t the only one who feels as we do in the face of all these little, big things. Maybe that online LLL meeting will be the place where you hear or say just the thing someone needs to keep taking it day by day.
By Adele Jarrett-Kerr