By Esther Schiedel – Corvallis, Oregon, USA
As a La Leche League Leader and as a parenting educator I know the value of parents being able to share their experiences with other parents and to hear about the experiences of others.
At the start of every La Leche League meeting, Leaders set some ground rules. These include information about how and what to share. The first rule might be that the meeting is a safe and respectful place. A safe place to ask questions. This might include the reassurance that there are no dumb questions and also that Leaders are available for questions privately. While some meetings may focus on a specific topic, questions not related to that topic are always welcome. Often participants come with specific questions such as: ‘How do I know if my baby is getting enough milk?’ Or they may come with general questions: ‘What do I need to know in order to breastfeed successfully?’
Leaders emphasize La Leche League philosophy, part of which is that mothers are the experts on themselves and their families. Leaders share approaches that have worked for many mothers and families. They also share information from research. But they don’t tell mothers what they ought to do. Attendees at a meeting are encouraged to share from their own experiences in a way that respects others. This includes recognizing that different situations may require different solutions and that there is more than one right answer to any challenge.
Why the emphasis on sharing?
Breastfeeding and parenting are relationships between unique individuals. While there are some basic do’s and don’ts, figuring out what to do or how to act is not like following the directions for assembling a piece of furniture. For every problem, there are usually lots of different solutions. This is why La Leche League meetings are not “classes” but places of shared learning and mutual support. Hearing a question from another person – whether they seem like you or not – is a completely different experience from being told or having read that you might encounter a particular issue. Hearing different approaches to dealing with a problem, rather than being told you must handle it a certain way, activates your brain into problem-solving mode.
How do you benefit from sharing?
When I share a problem, I have to put it into words – simply doing so gives me a better perspective on the nature of the problem. The more details I include, the more I understand about the problem. When others respond with empathy and clarifying questions, my understanding of the problem improves. Sometimes that is enough to give me the confidence to deal with the problem myself. Hearing from others who have experienced the same or similar problems – when they observe the ground rules (own experience or resource, respect, recognition that what worked for them may not work for me) – helps to normalize my experience, may give me ideas to try, and reassures me that there are solutions or at least that the problem won’t last forever.
I also benefit when I share what I did to deal with a challenge that I have faced. Again, this is not bragging or assuming what I did is the best or only way of handling something. Being able to share something I did that helped me to cope with a challenge increases my self-confidence.
We don’t often look back on our accomplishments as parents – partly because we are so busy dealing with current activities and challenges. Being in a situation where we are reminded of our past and which allows us to share our experiences helps us to recognize how competent we have been.
When we are looking for employment, we create a resume that lists our specific accomplishments as proof of our abilities. Reflecting on our past experiences and sharing how we dealt with difficulties as parents give us proof that we are capable of dealing with the challenges we face – now and in the future.
Another important aspect of sharing about our breastfeeding and parenting experiences is that it emphasizes the importance, complexity, value and joy of this work. Some of the sharing that happens is about happy moments. It is equally important to share the delight and love we experience with our babies. So often society views caring for a baby as a dull, brain-numbing and tedious chore. No one, listening to the lively sharing of a La Leche League meeting, would get that impression.
Finally, being able to share our struggles, our solutions, and our joys with others in a respectful way helps to create a support system that can last for years – helping us through the many challenges and pleasures of parenting.
Esther Schiedel is a long-time La Leche League Leader (40 years). She is co-author of an article published by LLLI in New Beginnings on Breastfeeding and Sexuality and author of Learning to Read Your Baby in Breastfeeding Today, https://llli.org/learning-read-baby/
Esther is also a Certified Family Life Educator (through NCFR National Council on Family Relations) and has done parenting education. She has also written for several blogs about parenting.
Esther is the mother of two daughters and one son; grandmother to three grandsons.