The Work of Mothering

Naomi Stadlen, London, UK

Originally published November 2015, republished with the express permission of the author.

“Mothering” is a word that carries a strong meaning to members of La Leche League. Elsewhere, though, it seems to have become less popular. People expect baby care to be shared and that mothers will get back to their paid work promptly. New mothers are often asked: “So when are you going back to work?” Does this mean that mothering isn’t as special as people used to think? Is the word obsolete?

Does this mean that mothering isn’t as special as people used to think?

People tend to judge by what they can see. So if they notice a mother breastfeeding her baby, it can look as though the baby has the active role while the mother is passively sitting still, allowing nature to do the rest. Yes, breast milk is full of good nutrients and antibodies, people agree, but it shouldn’t need one poor mother to sit at home all day, tied to her breastfeeding baby. She will be wasting her intelligence and education, to say nothing of losing promotion opportunities while others overtake her up the career ladder. Doesn’t it make sense, they conclude, for a mother to express her milk and then the task of feeding the baby can be shared?

There is a good answer to this apparently reasonable question. It can be found in one of the ten concepts summarizing the philosophy of La Leche League. This concept has remained unchanged since it was first adopted in 1972. And no wonder. It doesn’t waste a word: “Mothering through breastfeeding is the most natural and effective way of understanding and satisfying the needs of the baby.” [1] In this single sentence, we are reminded that breastfeeding is not the whole of what a mother is doing. It’s the more visible part. Less visible is the rest of mothering, which includes “understanding … the needs of the baby.” Understanding requires sensitivity and intelligence. It’s a responsible task and gives the mother an active role.

Not all mothers who come to La Leche League meetings will have read this concept. But they will have experienced its ethos from the way Leaders relate to them. Leaders, by their whole manner, will convey their support to mothers who are breastfeeding. Many mothers have to fit breastfeeds into their spare time because they cannot afford to stay at home with their babies for as long as they would have liked. However, the concept supports mothering through breastfeeding in whatever time a mother has.

The concept depends on recognizing that the needs of a baby are important. But values have shifted since 1972. Today’s culture is more adult-centered. The prevailing idea is that mothers will want to attend to their own careers and fit the needs of their babies around them.

Edwina Froehlich, one of the seven mothers who founded La Leche League, was sensitive to this change. A few years before she died, she observed: “… the second wave of feminism has told women that, to find true fulfilment, they must have a career. Full-time mothering is looked down upon as unnecessary and even demeaning. Women are still treated as second-class citizens if they do not have paid employment that takes them outside the home. Full-time mothering is considered ‘boring’ and young mothers are often told, directly and indirectly, that they are ‘wasting their education’ and their professional training unless they go back to work, even when their babies are young.” She made it clear that she was not against women working. “Nevertheless, when I had my babies, I definitely wanted to stay home and take care of them.” [2]

Motherhood is not incompatible with maintaining a career

Hirkani’s Daughters, [3] the book published by La Leche League on breastfeeding and working, contains many inspiring examples of how mothers in many different countries have found ways to combine the two. But this is different from assuming that a woman needs a career of paid work to fulfil herself. If that is her primary goal, then motherhood, which isn’t paid, appears unfulfilling.
In the media, mothers are often described in negative and entirely menial terms. Mothering is rarely mentioned. Mothers, instead of being encouraged to think about how to combine breastfeeding with other work, are persuaded to see their babies as impediments to their careers. The interests of mothers and babies appear to conflict. Many people believe that the needs of one can only be met at the expense of the other. However, there is a different way of seeing the relationship. This is one that La Leche League has always recognized. Here, mother and baby are seen as a couple. The interests of one help the other. Instead of a battle of conflicting needs, the two together can achieve shared satisfaction and harmony.

This was well expressed by Viola Lennon, another of the founders. She went to her first meeting of the mothers who started La Leche League because: “The idea of mothering sounded interesting to me, so I decided I would go to the meeting … and find out what this ‘mothering’ business was all about.” [4] And what did she find? It was decades later when she reflected: “Becoming involved with La Leche League gave me a vision of what a human person is. For me, breastfeeding led to what I call ‘discovery,’ both self-discovery and a greater appreciation of the full humanity of this baby, this child, this little person who has been entrusted to your care.” [5]

“Self-discovery” is important. Many mothers mention it. Mothering is an education in itself. Through our actions, we realize that we are passing on our values, sometimes values we weren’t conscious that we had, to our children. So we start to question these values and reconsider them. We have to think about our babies because we discover, often through breastfeeding, that they have their own independent ideas, even though they can’t verbalize them yet. It is an eye-opener to find that we can have “conversations” with a person who can’t talk. And we learn about group dynamics as we discover the strong feelings that a new baby can arouse in the extended family. All this learning will be useful to a mother when she resumes her paid work. She has a good deal to offer her employers. This ought to be reflected in her pay. Mothers may need to be more articulate about their own new experience and abilities to ensure that they don’t contract themselves back into work more cheaply than is fair.

And what is “this full humanity of the baby” which Viola Lennon discovered? Let’s remember how we breastfed a newborn. We may have been sitting still, but our thoughts would be busy. “I’m not very comfortable. You don’t look comfortable either. Let me just … ah, that’s better and you’re showing me you’re more relaxed. I wish I’d poured myself some water before I sat down. When you’ve finished, we’ll go to the fridge and I’ll get some. You won’t want to be put down so I’ll pour single-handed!” “You” means the baby. Some of us talk to our babies out loud, others silently. We think about the two of us, making some very simple decisions about how to manage the life we share, and trying to balance our interests fairly so that both will be satisfied.

From these simple beginnings, a mother and baby can progress to more complex communications. While breastfeeding, they develop little rituals and games, most of them by chance. It’s a surprise to discover that even a young baby has a sense of humor, especially of the ridiculous, and loves the pleasure of shared laughter. So, long before our babies can talk, they learn from us quite sophisticated forms of dialogue.

Babies need this preparation for the very articulate society they have been born into

We probably don’t tell ourselves: “I must give my child practice in listening skills, in self-expression, in understanding the views of other people, and in not feeling threatened by someone with quite different values.” These essential skills arise casually as we communicate with our babies. It may look like fun and babies often express utter delight when we talk to them. But we will be putting a lot of thought into what we want to convey and this is definitely work. The meaning of the actual words we use must be beyond the understanding of our babies. But, with that amazing pre-verbal sensitivity that babies have, they seem to intuit some of our feelings as we talk. As we mother our babies during the intimate times of breastfeeding, we introduce them to our complex social world.

Some 20 years later, these babies become adults and take part in our complicated work culture where people have to communicate with one another and use their various talents co-operatively to produce useful results. Co-operation isn’t perfect, and we all encounter disputes and conflicts. But overall the work culture is effective. Most of us are able to eat without foraging for food, we wear clothes we did not make, and live in homes we did not build. We pay for these things by exchanging our own talents for money.

But how would any of this degree of civilized exchange be possible if generation after generation of mothers did not provide the groundwork for it? None of this precious co-operation would work if the majority of adults did not know how to exercise enough self-restraint to listen to one another, and if they did not know how to make choices they could justify, or to question the decisions of others, or if they could not negotiate with a person with different views and values. Here is the “full humanity” come to fruition. If too few mothers took time to do the work of mothering, what would be the future for complicated paid work? Paid work depends on ours.

Mothering isn’t obsolete and never will be. It’s vital work from which every one of us benefits. At the moment, mothers don’t get the respect they deserve for mothering through breastfeeding. But we, in La Leche League, may be able to change this. At the moment, “a working mother” refers to a mother who is doing work other than mothering. But we could take every opportunity to make “a working mother” inclusive.

Are you coming for a drink after work?”
“No thanks, I’ve got some more work to do. I’m going home to mother my baby.”


1. Lowman, K. The LLLove Story. Franklin Park, Il: La Leche League International, 1978, page 62.

2. Cahill, M. A. Seven Voices One Dream. Schaumburg, Il: La Leche League International, 2001, page 161.

3. Hicks, J. ed., Hirkani’s Daughters, Women Who Scale Modern Mountains to Combine Breastfeeding and Working. Schaumburg, Il: La Leche League International, 2006.

4. Cahill, M. A. Seven Voices, One Dream. Schaumburg, Il: La Leche League International, 2001, page 141.

5. Cahill, M. A. Seven Voices One Dream. Schaumburg, Il: La Leche League International, 2001, page 130.


Naomi Stadlen
 has three adult children and three grandchildren. She has led the Central London Group of LLLGB since 1990. Since 1991, she has run Mothers Talking, weekly discussion meetings for mothers. She has also written two books, both approved by LLLI: What Mothers Do – especially when it looks like nothing (translated into 8 languages) and How Mothers Love – and how relationships are born (translated into 3 languages). Naomi’s website is