Photo source: United States Breastfeeding Committee
Anna Burbidge, Market Harborough, Great Britain
Anna highlights a number of challenging scenarios that may arise at Series Meetings with suggestions of how to handle them.
Many of us start attending La Leche League meetings as mothers needing support, and we experience the warmth and acceptance in an LLL Group. Later, during the application period we notice how the Leaders foster this accepting atmosphere and how they handle any difficult situations. Leading a meeting can sometimes seem like a juggling act; listening and responding to what is being said, observing how the participants are reacting and acknowledging different personalities within the Group.
Acknowledging different personalities
When a mother dominates the discussion we can try to bring someone else into the conversation, or employ a round robin style meeting where attendees are each asked to say a few sentences on a topic, before moving round the circle. Cards can be handed out with questions or statements for each mother to read. Alternatively, if a mother is feeling too overwhelmed, stressed or shy to join the conversation we can notice if her body language suggests she wants to say something and create opportunities for joining in. See “Reading Body Language at an LLL Meeting” for more information.
If a mother constantly interrupts, we can gently ask her to make her point after the original speaker has finished. Some Leaders have a “talking stick” and only the person holding the stick (or other handy item) can speak, although this can feel a bit regimented for some meetings. If a mother keeps bringing the conversation back to her own situation, the Leader can acknowledge the mother’s concern, offer to talk with her after the meeting, and calmly restate the focus of the meeting. See “Expert Mothers” for more on this.
Side conversations can make it difficult for attendees to listen. Gentle ways to discourage these might include making a joke about all the conversations going on in the room. More directly we might say we are finding it hard to hear all the discussions and invite one mother to continue with her question. If someone arrives late and causes a disruption we can welcome them and then say “we are just talking about…” and resume the discussion.
A Leader understands that each mother has her own experience to share so we can acknowledge a negative experience or non evidence-based suggestion while steering the discussion towards more helpful information. When a mother responds to every suggestion by saying it wouldn’t work for her, we can make sure she feels heard and perhaps say that something which may not feel right one week can fall into place the next. Hopefully someone else will share their experiences with this.
Many Leaders like to start the meeting by explaining that LLL Groups are discussion groups for all to share their experiences. Not everything discussed will feel right for every mother and so please take what feels like it might work for you and leave the rest. It can help to repeat this during the meeting to acknowledge an individual mother’s comment while making it clear there are other options.
Sometimes however, situations arise which take us by surprise and need quick thinking to respond to. These are sometimes called “heart sink moments”; moments when you suddenly feel worried, anxious or discouraged.
Some Leaders love holding meetings in the home, either their own or one belonging to a Group member. While others prefer to get together in a meeting room of some kind. Both can present challenges.
Unexpected illness can be hard to deal with. In the days before instant communication, there were several times when I had to leave a notice on the door of one house, advising that the meeting had been moved to another location due to illness. Thankfully that is one problem that is easier to deal with now in terms of instant communication via emails, mobile phones and social media.
One Leader was running a busy meeting when the host mother decided to go to bed with a headache and then one of the visiting toddlers started emptying the kitchen cupboards! When the Leader got back from dealing with this crisis, the participants were having a lively discussion about the best kind of knock-out drops (over-the-counter medication to induce sleep) for non-sleepy toddlers. The Leader managed to quickly steer the discussion back on track and everyone seemed to enjoy the meeting.
Sometimes it can be the Leader herself who feels unexpectedly unwell. At one meeting at a co-Leader’s house, she had to apologise and leave the room, returning only to say she was going to bed. The rest of us carried on with the discussion and then quietly left as promptly as possible!
One of my more distressing experiences was when a mother had an epileptic seizure. We were fortunate that one of the other mothers was a nurse and calmly dealt with the situation. It was lovely to see how everyone wanted to help and reassure the mother when she recovered.
Mothers sometimes make themselves more at home than we had intended. They may ask for specific drinks or snacks from the host’s own refrigerator or cupboard to placate their toddler, or assume, as I once discovered at my home, that the host’s own nappies and baby supplies left in her bathroom are available for the visitors. At one meeting a mother arrived after a supermarket shop and proceeded to put her shopping in the host’s refrigerator.
In these situations it can be helpful to point out boundaries at the start of the meeting and/or by email in advance as part of the meeting notice. Explaining that the host is a volunteer and participants are responsible for their own children’s snacks and supplies and that the meeting has an endpoint can be helpful and avoid misunderstanding. It is a courtesy to the host to finish on time.
Meeting at a public venue can also have its own challenges. Several Leaders have arrived at their meeting to find the venue has forgotten to send someone to open it for them or the room has been double-booked. One Leader used her initiative and relocated to the local café where the mothers enjoyed coffee and cake with their chat. You can read more about meeting locations here Location, Location, Location.
Some of our most difficult “heart sink moments” may arise when mothers who feel passionately about breastfeeding or related issues forget that others may be dealing with a very different situation.
Sometimes mothers suddenly launch into a tirade about formula being poison without thinking that the Group includes mothers who are combi-feeding (giving both human milk and commercial formula) or who have needed to give formula. This can be a really difficult situation which needs a Leader to somehow acknowledge the passionate mother while validating the choices of others. Perhaps something like “It’s wonderful that you have such a lovely breastfeeding relationship. If things don’t go quite so well it can help to think of formula as a medicine or a way to keep a breastfeeding relationship going.” Hopefully, we can then turn to someone who is happy to share their combi-feeding experience.
At one of my long-ago meetings a mother launched into a passionate speech about the need for women to stay at home with their children, stating she didn’t understand why people had children if they wanted to go back to paid work. Several Group members enthusiastically agreed. A new attendee to the Group said quietly, “Well actually I’ve gone back to work.” There was an embarrassed silence and then I said, “Well I think that shows how different we can be but still find the support that suits us in LLL” which seemed to please everyone!
Taking issue with LLL information
Leaders sometimes find mothers challenge the information LLL gives in a forceful way. One such mother stated that LLL’s guidance on breastfeeding and alcohol was rubbish, leading to a very tense feeling in the Group. The Leader said that LLL was there to give evidence-based information so parents could make their own decisions based on that. The mother said she would happily discuss it further individually after the meeting and moved on to a new topic.
Quoting LLL information is helpful when participants come out with inaccurate information or quote various myths. One Leader was concerned when a mother suggested using vinegar on the nipple to wean a toddler, and was very relieved when she shrugged her shoulders and said it didn’t work and wasn’t worth the hassle, and how in the end the toddler weaned months later of his own accord.
One of my most challenging moments was when I’d lent a pregnant mother The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding. At our next meeting when I asked if there was anything anyone wanted to talk about she said yes—she had read The Womanly Art and there were a few things she didn’t agree with! She proceeded to pull out a piece of paper with a numbered list. I took a deep breath as she started going down her points and I turned each one into a discussion within the Group. It turned into a great meeting and at the end she was really happy about it. This mother became a great support to the Group and breastfed for two years. In future months she said she felt terrible about the way she had produced a list of criticisms and appreciated so much the way I had responded. I said it had been a great chance for me to learn how a difficult situation can be made positive.
Moments when it could have gone so wrong but didn’t!
Mothers sometimes raise the subject of sex, and that can be a bit of a heart sink moment as you judge the reaction in the room. However, Leaders often find mothers welcome the chance to talk openly and the discussion can embrace the way having a baby might alter things. It can lead to a jovial meeting as women feel safe in talking about something they may not have felt able to discuss elsewhere.
One Leader felt she had lost control of the meeting when one mother wanted to talk about a close relative’s food fads. Every attempt she made to divert the conversation failed. In the end the Leader broke the circle up into two groups so that those who wanted to discuss the eating habits of someone they did not know could carry on, and the others moved on to other topics. After a while the Leader went and put the kettle on and reformed everyone into one group!
One Leader was leading her first meeting and was trying to support a quiet, gentle mother who asked about handling criticism from friends. The Leader opened the question up to the Group and one outspoken mother replied in extremely colourful language “I would just tell them all to clear off!” After a moment of silence the Leader said, with great presence of mind “Not everyone may feel as confident with such a direct response. Any other ideas?”
Finding the positives
Leaders often find that difficult moments can be turned into positives. Some found it was the turning point where a Group bonded and participants became regular attendees. Some found potential Applicants after a difficult meeting. Running a meeting is a balancing act. We strive to help everyone feel listened to, while maintaining a positive tone.
Acknowledging a mother’s feelings and understanding the reasons behind them can help us decide if we need to deal with a difficult issue right away or talk to a mother later. We sometimes need to respond creatively and with humour and to seem to take it all in our stride, even if we are struggling. A meeting may seem chaotic but can still be a supportive and warm place to be.
Some of the best unexpected situations are good ones, such as when attendees go silent to allow a mother space to say what she needs to share. Or when the mothers rally round to support someone who is distressed. When a mother comes to a meeting and announces she is pregnant after a long battle with infertility, or when a mother who has been struggling with breastfeeding for a long time suddenly announces it has fallen into place—those are the unexpected moments which put all the others into perspective.
Dealing with Difficult Meetings
With thanks to Deborah Robertson, LLL Great Britain for sharing her “Handling Heart Sink Moments at Series Meetings” originally adapted from Human Relations Enrichment (HRE) Group Dynamics. (Editor’s Note: HRE is the former name of Communication Skills.)
Anna Burbidge went to her first LLL meeting in 1975 as a young mother expecting her second baby, not realising that one evening would change her life. She went on to have six children and now has four wonderful grandchildren. She has remained active in LLL for 45 years, both locally and nationally and has learnt so much over the years. She remains passionate about supporting parents who want to breastfeed.