is La Leche League really the bad guy?

This week over on the “Verdicts” blog for Commonweal Magazine there’s a very interesting post written by Mollie Wilson O’Reilly– writer, breastfeeding mother, and my sister– called  “The Womanly Art of Arguing About Breastfeeding.”

In it, Mollie responds to a recent essay in the latest issue of Harper’s Magazine, The tyranny of breast-feeding: New mothers vs. La Leche League, by Elisabeth Badinter. Badinter is the author of the book The Conflict: How Modern Motherhood Undermines the Status of Women, which is heading Stateside this spring after apparently tearing up the European best-seller charts.

Badinter thinks modern mothers have a real problem, and that problem is

liberal motherhood, in thrall to all that is “natural” … tethering women to the home and family to an extent not seen since the 1950s.

And in her excerpt published in Harpers, Badinter goes after a primary target: the La Leche League, for making breastfeeding-in-lockstep the only acceptable modern means of feeding your child, no matter what the cost, for the last 55 years.

Okay. Let’s start from the beginning. Here’s two things everyone in the world should be able to agree on:

  1. if you can breastfeed your baby, you should, because the health benefits for your baby are clear and undeniable.
  2. at the same time, breastfeeding can be hard, and nigh-approaching impossible, without patience and support and more than a dash of luck.

It’s been three and a half years since I’ve had the pleasure, but here’s how my sister Mollie (currently a nursing mother as well as a working mother) puts it:

 

Experts agree it’s best for baby to drink the milk specifically manufactured for that baby, but it’s not so easy to achieve, at least not if you, as a mother, intend to do anything else during those six months… I’m here to tell you that keeping [my son] nourished and happy is wonderful and rewarding and exhausting and hard.

Yes, exactly. And when so many new mothers (like me) get less than no useful information at the hospital, and have no close relatives who breastfed to rely on, but still want to nurse their children, the La Leche League and other breastfeeding support groups become an invaluable resource. According to Badinter as told by O’Reilly, however, that’s when their evil work begins:

Badinter finds a couple good examples of breastfeeding advocacy that cross the line into mania, though she’s very sketchy with her sources. Her quote from “the league” about how parents who don’t breastfeed should be made to feel no less guilty than parents who don’t use a car seat—that’s the kind of thing that makes this whole subject such an argument-starter in parenting circles. But she doesn’t stick to examples of over-the-top breastfeeding militancy. In her telling, everything about La Leche League is sinister. 

And I have to say, I think that’s ridiculous.

Sure, I met some intractable nipple-confusion-is-the-worst-thing-that-could-ever-happen-to-your-tiny-baby kooks in my new-to-nursing life. I have even poked fun at a few for fun and profit. But I made sure to say then, and I’m going to say now, that I also met wonderful women who gave generously of their time to new mothers just because they knew it was important. Because they knew breastfeeding WAS hard, not because they wanted to convince us all that it wasn’t.

If the La Leche League really thought breastfeeding was a walk in the park, they wouldn’t have created a national organization to support it. They’re not out to brainwash anyone that it’s easier than bottle-feeding. I don’t really think they’re out to make anyone feel bad, either. They’re just out to help mothers who are overwhelmed and not sure their baby is getting any nourishment at all and are about to give up– and who, with five minutes’ coaching, MIGHT learn something that will enable them to nurse their baby happily, and have that amazing experience. Because it can be that as well.

What do you think? Do you think La Leche League and other breastfeeding “support” make it harder for new mothers by forcing this difficult ideal upon us all? Do you think they make it better for new mothers every day? Or is it, in your experience, a little bit of both?

{ 12 comments… read them below or add one }

Amy Cooper Rodriguez March 1, 2012 at 8:19 pm

I think Mollie does a great job of responding to the article. She covers both “sides” fairly and objectively. I couldn’t see The Harper’s link, so I’m responding without knowing all the facts. It sounds like, however, that Ms. Badinter is not fair or objective in her article. I think it’s a disservice to everyone to write about something in a biased way unless the author is writing a personal essay. As a mom and a writer, I have never been able to bring myself to write about my horrible experiences with breastfeeding because I know the climate of “attack.” I wonder if maybe this is where Ms. Badinter’s article is coming from. With my daughter, I was on bed rest for three months. She was born four weeks early but was healthy. During delivery, the doctors didn’t didn’t get all of the placenta, however, and so I had to have two more surgeries over two months. I was in and out of the hospital and almost septic. Through this entire time, I pumped and dumped because of antibiotics and then pumped again, so my daughter could have breast milk. After four months, I was a shell of my former self. I knew I had to take care of myself (i.e. sleep and share feeding responsibility) to recover. I went to LLL to return my pump, and the woman there treated me with absolute dismay, then disappointment, and then (I felt like) horror when I explained that I just couldn’t do it anymore. At that point, I didn’t need tips or support for breast feeding; I needed support in my decision to care for myself as well. Not only did I not get that, I got scolded for “giving up.” I left in tears, and it was one of the lowest points of those difficult months. I know she was only one woman, but I do think there are many women out there preaching that we must breast feed and soldier on, no matter what the cost to us moms. All that being said, I do not judge LLL as a group, but I do think (like any group), there are people who are too extremist. I’m a proponent of moms supporting one another in all circumstances.

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Anon March 8, 2012 at 1:47 am

I think that’s really the problem with LLL, they really are not supportive of women, they are supportive of breast feeding. I’d be fascinated to truly find any example of a woman who breastfeeding didn’t work out for who LLL didn’t treat badly. There’s enough evidence to demonstrate that this isn’t a case of a few militants…it’s a norm for LLL.

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Deborah March 1, 2012 at 9:54 pm

Thanks for posting the link to Molly’s post, and I couldn’t agree with her (and you) more on this. I agree that it is tough enough being a new mom, without either being made to feel as if “your breasts don’t belong to you” or that by not breastfeeding its akin to not using a child seat.

I was lucky enough to have success breastfeeding my daughter – she never had a drop of formula – but it was by no means simple or easy all the time. There were significant challenges (I was working full time and going to law school part time), but with great support from the nurses at my hospital and some of the great internet boards at the time, I was able to get through the rough patches (my post for tips for nursing/working moms is at http://momwhoworks.wordpress.com/2009/06/26/nursing-mother-working-mother/). THAT’s what is missing in all of this – providing SUPPORT to new moms, no matter which route they choose to take.

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Sheila Baum March 2, 2012 at 1:49 am

I have seen a bit of both. Some pro breastfeeders are so zealous they fail to understand the non breastfeeders like myself are like most moms — doing the best we can with what we have. Some of this is done to belittle others and some is unintentional. Hard to tell when you are an insecure first timer.
In the end it’s like when you are pregnant and that one ass you come across in public says “boy, you are getting big!” some people have the sense to know some words can be hurtful and some just don’t have a clue!

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Katy @ Experiencedbadmom March 2, 2012 at 9:06 pm

Hmm. I have mixed feelings about La Leche League. I had terrible, unique problems trying to bf my firstborn, and I clearly remember taking him to a LLL meeting when he was 2-3 weeks old, desperate for help, only to have to sit through an hour-long meeting  (topic: weaning your toddler–Hello irony!) BEFORE they then tried to help new moms (me). I personally found WAY more help and support by my awesome pediatrician. 

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The Tired Mother March 2, 2012 at 9:30 pm

I think one thing women need to keep in mind is that when they are first time moms they are insecure, young, and overtired, so people who are intending to help come across as overzealous.  It’s not until you are secure in who you are that you can seriously not care about any soapbox that someone else is standing on.  As a society, we are not set up to support the new mother.  So it is a shame that some people’s experience with the one venue that should be supporting them turns into something that just leaves them cold.

Personally, my experience with La Leche was invaluable.  I was having difficulty nursing my first born, and I never would have kept at it if it wasn’t for them.  The leader I contacted offered to come to my house if I thought I was going to quit before their next meeting.  Since she had three kids, I just couldn’t see inconveniencing her.  But when I finally went to the meeting, it was like a light went off.  I was also fortunate to make my first Mom Friends through that group, and they kept me going and cheered me on when it all seemed to be too much.  I never would have breastfed the rest of my kids, if that experience had gone south.  

When we moved, I did have some experience with the Breast Nazi when I tried to join a new group, but by then, I was successfully nursing my second, so  I was secure enough to leave the group without any qualms.  But if I had been a first time mother, I would have been devastated.  But I will still recommend the group to any first time mother, and offer any help I can to assist.  I do believe it is that important, but I also believe that everyone has to do what is right for them.

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the mommy psychologist March 3, 2012 at 4:53 am

I have to admit that I am bit conflicted about the La Leche League. I can speak from first hand experience as I have attended some of their meetings when my son was an infant. I was a bit taken aback at how militant they seemed to be in regard to breastfeeding. And I saw more than one woman end up in tears when she confessed she supplemented at times. I completely understand the benefits of breastfeeding. I’m not really sure anyone can make a real valid argument against it. However, there are women who choose not to and I don’t think that they should be villianized for doing so.  Also, there are times when breastfeeding is simple not feasible. I know that when I had my own son I had become convinced that formula was poison. When my husband suggested it given how colicky my son was during his first few months, I looked at him as if he had just suggested I throw my son off a building.  In my mind, he had. Yet, I think the reason my son may have screamed so extensively during those first few months is because he was starving. Perhaps if I would have supplemented, he would have been more satisfied and much happier. It is a complicated issue because as everyone has said, women do need breastfeeding support and the La Leche League is a great place to get it. Perhaps they just need to tone it down a bit.

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Tracy March 7, 2012 at 10:41 pm

I am not a superfan of LLL.  I breastfed my daughter for over a year and when I called to ask for help with engorgement while trying to wean they were very vocal in trying to convince me to keep nursing (i made it a YEAR people) and suggested I make breast milk popsicles with the extra milk!

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Heather Harrison March 8, 2012 at 7:34 am

Whoa…breastmilk popsicles! I have never heard of that one!

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Yuliya March 14, 2012 at 3:27 am

The thing is LLL is NOT an organization to support women or mothers, their mission is to ” to help mothers worldwide to breastfeed” at which I think they do an excellent job. Because it is an organization run by volunteers I bet the types of LLL leaders and meetings vary greatly. I have heard lots of horror stories about militant breastfeeding types who shame or guilt and I have heard wonderful stories of support about LLL leaders (all volunteers and busy mothers themselves) going above and beyond to help a mother reach her goal of breastfeeding. 

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Yuliya March 14, 2012 at 3:37 am

Just read Mollies article and it’s great! (wanted to say so here because I’m too lazy to jump through the hoops necessary to comment over there)

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Rmcshane April 4, 2012 at 1:19 am

Lucky enough to breastfeed my 1st child 13 months & 2mon into my 2nd. Attended my 1st meeting today. Don’t even know about their breastfeeding but I left knowing that if I didn’t have a home birth, cloth diaper, breastfeed through toddlerhood & follow a dairy free diet, & be a stay at home mom I wasn’t good enough for them. Never even discussed any breastfeeding topics.
I am a huge advocate of breastfeeding but realize it’s hard & not everyone will & they are still good mom’s.
I definitely left without telling them I weaned my older child before 2 I LOVE dairy, Work part time at a hospital where I had my children, & only cloth diaper parttime.
Thank you but I’ll stick to the wonderfully supportive lactation consultants at my hospital.

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